Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Luddism Is a Luxury You Can't Afford

Anyone who works in digital humanities encounters self-proclaimed Luddites from time to time. I have to admit that these people used to annoy me a lot, but I've recently discovered that a sweeping dismissal of technology can make a nice jumping-off point for a more nuanced discussion. I now start by asking what kinds of technology people particularly dislike. Often the answer is that they don't like gadgets, especially ones that they can't figure out how to use. I agree that there are plenty of irritating and pointless gizmos in the world.

(Figuring out how to use these things may be their most interesting affordance. In the early 1980s, I once spent about 36 hours cracking the copy protection on a friend's computer game. The puzzle posed by the game turned out to be so inferior to the one posed by its security that I deleted the game immediately.)

I like to follow up by checking the depth of my interlocutor's commitment to Luddism. Are they willing to do without electricity? Anesthetics? Running water? Architecture? Clothing? How about literacy? I have yet to meet someone who knows the word "Luddite" who would actually be willing to give up the ability to read.

It turns out that what's really interesting about latter day Luddism is that it teaches you a lot about the visibility of particular technologies, and by extension, about the place of the human mind in the world. Someone who can sip a double tall non-fat latte while decrying technology isn't really a hypocrite. They just don't see how the drink in their hand is articulated with global flows of material, energy and information. In Being and Time, Heidegger famously distinguished between things being ready-to-hand and present-at-hand. While you're sipping out of a cup it is ready-to-hand. You don't notice it unless something goes wrong. If the seam melts and drops scalding coffee in your lap, the cup and the coffee become present-at-hand. Instead of being part of you, part of the untrammeled experience of drinking, they are now perceived as external, something you have to deal with. When people claim be Luddites, I think that they are really objecting to the experience of a class of things that always seem to be present-at-hand. It's hard not to like the things that have already become ready-to-hand. These invisible and pervasive technologies are exactly the ones that humanists should be thinking about, though, because they have the deepest implications for who and what we are. In Natural-Born Cyborgs, Andy Clark writes that "what is special about human brains, and what best explains the distinctive features of human intelligence, is precisely their ability to enter into deep and complex relationships with nonbiological constructs, props, and aids. This ability, however, does not depend on physical wire-and-implant mergers, so much as on our openness to information-processing mergers." "Tools-R-Us," he says, "and always have been." (5,7)

So enjoy the latte, the iPod, the microfiber clothing. By all means, cycle or take a train instead of driving a car. If you're really concerned about technology, however, remember that it has the most potential to be dangerous when you stop seeing it.

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