The Luddites Are Back

It took Kirkpatrick sale two blows with a sledge-hammer to destroy the IBM PC he brought to his appearance at New York City's Town Hall last January in a "Vision Fest" sponsored by the Utne Reader. Sale, a longtime leftist critic, doesn't like technology in general and computers in particular. On the very first page of his book "Rebels Against the Future" -- a historical account of the 19th-century Luddite war against the Industrial Revolution, with misguided commentary on its relevance to our time -- he apologizes that the book was published with modern technology. This meant that the means of production were "not entirely neutral and untainted." The world would be better, Sale thinks, if computers simply went away.

Sale's book places him in the vanguard of a group of anti-technologists who view the digital revolution with a sense of horror and dread. Though these works do not yet threaten to eclipse the flood of "How to Use the Internet" tomes, it does seem to be a mini-boom of late, replete with titles like "Resisting the Virtual Life" (edited by James Brook and lain Boal), "Silicon Snake Oil" (by Clifford Stoll) and "The Future Does Not Compute" Coy Stephen Talbott). The latter book contains my favorite negative image; Talbott likens the computer screen to a prison window. That little gem comes in a chapter entitled "Can Human Ideals Survive the Internet?" Are you getting the drift?

Sadly, this gang provides a shrill, unproductive counterpoint to the technophiliac hype coming from Silicon Valley and the trade press. There is nothing wrong with criticizing various aspects, or even the general direction, of the computer movement--on the contrary, it is essential to maintain not only our skepticism but a keen sense of what works and what doesn't, as we attempt to integrate the overwhelming flood of innovation into our lives. But these self-proclaimed neo-Luddites start out from a wrongheaded premise: that computers themselves are evil.

This demonization is based on an unwillingness to consider the pluses as well as the minuses of computer technology. Sale, for instance, seems locked to the idea that computers are inevitably linked to hierarchical models of control--he seems unaware that personal computers are a creation of the counterculture, and that many of the digital pioneers he would condemn were specifically concerned with empowering individuals. Neo-Luddites who do understand computers often fail to draw on that perspective when they launch their attacks. For instance, geek apostate Stoll takes a dim view of the Information Highway as it stands today, in the earliest stages of construction. He complains that it's hard to use, and you can't really buy anything. This is like someone at the turn of the century criticizing auto travel. The roads are bumpy! These cars need cranks to start!

By and large, the best critiques of technology seem to becoming from people who accept the inevitability of computerization and are devoted to spreading the technology in a more felicitous manner. If you want the most withering assessments of software interfaces, for instance, just talk to the people whose job it is to design them--only they know the distance we must travel before ease-of-use is anything but a misnomer. Those most intimate with computers believe that if our systems are open and continually evolving, they will wind up as a positive force. There are, of course, no guarantees that things will work out for the best. Are there ever? But I do think that there is some reason for optimism. While it is true that automation can displace workers, computer technology does provide new jobs -- and can, through the Net, amplify the voice of the displaced.

In light of this it is interesting that the neo-Luddites align themselves with a group that had no such reason for optimism. As Sale vividly describes in his book, the original Luddites were a brave aggregation of textile workers in northern England who deserved a better fate than becoming a synonym for those who mindlessly oppose change. Between 1812 and 1814, groups proclaiming allegiance to a legendary King Ludd risked (and in some cases lost) their lives by wielding hammer and hatchet against modern looms that moved cloth production into inhumane factories. But their real enemy was a system that regarded them as chattel. The weavers' circumstances were far removed from the dispossessed in our society: when faced with the loss of their jobs, they had nowhere to go, and their children and their children's children were effectively stripped of a future.

Everybody agrees that the Luddites failed in their Quixotic rebellion. Yet in the long run, we came to accept their com-plaints--it is now legally and morally unacceptable to run sweatshops and engage in oppressive child-labor practices. More important, the fruits of technology are now more widely distributed: even the poor in this country live a considerably better life than the displaced 19th-century textile worker. This places the neo-Luddites in an uncomfortable position. A tenet of their philosophy is an abiding nostalgia for a pre-technical world: one not shared by those who uncomplainingly watch TV, drive cars and get food out of refrigerators. (Sale told a WIRED magazine interviewer that he believed civilization itself was a catastrophe.) It is a telling fact that the neo-Luddites consist not of blue-collar workers, but elite symbol-shufflers who will never themselves be displaced by computers.

That's why, when Kirkpatrick Sale performs the hollow circus act of smashing his own machine, he cheapens the desperate struggle of his subjects. Sale's book successfully argues that the Luddites should be rescued from the linguistic taint of being thought of as know-nothings. Not so with their successors.