Technophobia

A small band of hopefuls battles the giant of progress.

By David Wright

The supermarket may be the ultimate manifestation of modern life. Fruits and vegetables lie in the bins, cosmetically enhanced to make them more appealing and convenient. Technicolor packages beckon at every turn, promising value, long life, and low fat. Even the pale, bland milk in the dairy aisle is New and Improved, laced invisibly with bovine growth hormones. And at the checkout counter, a laser scans your every purchase, privately confessing each intimate transaction to the hidden priests of the marketing department.

In this world where the twin gods of Technology and Capitalism reign supreme, you'd have thought that the seeds were safe. But those hoping to garden their way to a more natural lifestyle have been alarmed to learn that science has recently encroached on that realm as well. These days the business school graduates are conspiring with the genetic engineers to create patented fruit and vegetable seeds that don't reproduce. You get one crop of beautiful, infertile tomatoes. Meaning that next year, you have to go back to the company for more seeds.

"Corporations should not be able to own the gene pool," says Stephen Badger, president of Seeds of Change, a Santa Fe company that proudly sells only the seeds Mother Nature makes. "Biotechnology is being used today to concentrate resources into fewer and fewer hands," Badger says.

Some would call Badger a Luddite, a word typically used to deride someone who believes technology has brought evil into Eden. Luddites distrust the innovations of the modern world. They object to what they see as the hubris of science, the attempt to control and manipulate the natural world to make it serve man more efficiently. Progress, to the Luddites, is an empty promise fueled by vainglory and fraught with danger, because scientists and corporate executives tend to be more concerned by profits than potential consequences.

Many say the Luddites are nuts. But they make a worthwhile point.

Robin Hoods for the Industrial Age

The term Luddite dates back to the early 19th century, the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, when a group of English radicals fought vigorously against the technology of the time. The original Luddites (named for their legendary leader Ned Ludd) were weavers disturbed by the new textile factories that threatened their livelihood.

Based, at first, in Nottinghamshire near Sherwood Forest, they waged a kind of Robin Hood campaign against the industrialists, storming the factories and smashing the great machines of the mills. In France, where the movement later spread, the Luddites' philosophical descendants gave us the word "sabotage" because of the French technique of tossing wooden shoes (or sabots) into the machinery.

Their antics and ideas captured the imagination of early Romantic intellectuals, who shared a strong skepticism of modern life. From William Blake's visions of "dark Satanic mills" to William Wordsworth's poems about the beauty of country life, the Romantics allied themselves against the forces of industrialism. When Parliament threatened the death penalty for anyone caught destroying factory machines, Lord Byron sprang to the defense of the Luddite weavers, denouncing the measure in the House of Lords and writing several poems that mocked a society in which "life should be valued at less than a stocking."

Perhaps the main reason the Luddites captured such attention was because they were fighting more than just technology. They were also a labor movement, protesting the social consequences of the new industrialism -- abject working conditions, lower wages, the loss of job security, and the spector of machines replacing workers.

The Luddites lost, of course. But their ideas continue to haunt the technology debate even today.

"They're a footnote in history. And the footnote says, 'These guys went in and smashed machines. They didn't win, progress won'," says Chellis Glendenning, a New Mexico psychologist and author who coined the term Neo-Luddite in a manifesto published in the Utne Reader in 1990. "But in fact they were much more complex and visionary than that."

A kernel of Luddism survives today in anyone who's resisted the enormous pressure to get an e-mail account. Never bothering to figure out how to program your VCR is another dead giveaway. So is discomfort with answering machines.

But there are a growing number of intellectuals who go even further. They've sought to discern a coherent movement among the many scattered acts of protest against the techno-elite. Many don't call themselves Luddites. But authors like Clifford Stoll (Silicon Snake Oil; Houghton Mifflin), Bill McKibben (The End of Nature; Random House, 1989) and Jeremy Rifkin (The End of Work; Putnam's) express a fundamental suspicion of the computer age.

Others, like Glendenning, embrace the Neo-Luddite label, and extend it to anyone who's ever been harmed by technolog y. She maintainst the movement includes many who don't yet understand the context of their misfortune. But, she predicts, when they see the big picture they'll hop on board. "It's all pre-political or pre-conscious right now," Glendenning says. "There are a lot of people who are leaning this way but haven't thought it through."

Rebels against the future

"The angry white male you keep hearing about is someone who has either been kicked out of a job because of machines or has no job security because of the computer economy we're in," says journalist Kirkpatrick Sale, whose new book Rebels Against the Future (Addison Wesley) is sort of a Neo-Luddite call to arms. "The Luddites are the last closeted minority, and who knows how minor a minority we are," he says.

The list of potential Neo-Luddites includes virtually anyone with a modern grievance, from Love Canal to Chernobyl. There are aging Detroit factory workers who've lost their jobs to new techniques, temp workers in their 20's doomed to a frustrating decade of data entry without any benefits, men who join local militias or become survivalists to protest what they see as an overreaching federal government. The movement includes women wounded by technology such as the Dalcon Shield and silicon implants. There are men ravaged by atomic testing, Agent Orange, and the Gulf War Syndrome. Oddly enough, the movement even lays claim to those who are wary of the global economy, of GATT and NAFTA, which Neo-Luddites say reflects a form of technological imperialism, an urge to colonize the world and convert the heathen into consumers.

Contemporary Luddites are mostly a peaceful lot. Few go in for the destructiveness of their ideological precursors. Personal choice is the most common form of protest. Glendinning does not own a computer, and she tries her best not to depend on technology for her food, her entertainment or her livelihood. Sale composed his new book on his manual typewriter, but acknowledges he's not always successful at avoiding technology. "There simply aren't any bank tellers or elevator operators anymore," he says.

But some neo-Luddites have taken technophobia to a more radical extreme. There are environmental terrorists like the members of Earth First!, who sabotage equipment used by lumberjacks. (As Sale points out in his book, some Earth First! T-Shirts boast the phrase NEDD LUDD LIVES! on the back.) Luddism also explains the so-called Unabomber, a terrorist who's sent mail bombs to scientists and corporate executives and written rambling letters to the New York Times expressing his disgust with technology.

Athough such activities occur only on the fringe, the movement is troubling to mainstream scientists, who see neo-Luddites as dangerously anti-intellectual. "They live in a world of extremes," says Harvard physics and history of science professor Gerald Holton, whose new book Einstein, History and Other Passions (AIP Press) devotes a chapter to the debate over technology. Holton says: "Like their predecessors, they believe one has to make a choice between intuition and rationality. But you need both." Holton notes that pressing social problems such as overpopulation and AIDS make it important to support science. "We have a very fragile planet, and scientists must be ready to intervene," Holton says.

Neo-Luddites agree we're at a critical point, but, rightly or wrongly, they blame technology for getting us there. Though it's hard (and, arguably, irresponsible) to imagine simply beating our computers into plowshares, there is some merit to the neo-Luddite cause. Just because we can do something doesn't mean we should. Only a society that understands its limits, and has a clear sense of values, should tamper with nature -- and even that society shouldn't try to play God.


(c) Copyright David Wright, June 23, 1995. All rights reserved.
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