Forward, Into the Past?

Joel BellmanBy Joel Bellman

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Forward, Into the Past?
Of all the unlikely new trends, I would not have expected to see the digital native generation—especially the younger Gen Z end of it—proudly embracing Luddism, that fleeting 19th century anti-technology social movement. For years, it’s been synonymous with a kind of reactionary primitivism based on ignorance and fear of the future, and a brutish, violent, and futile resistance to it. To be branded a “Luddite” marks you as blinkered and helpless, a horse and buggy trotting along a country road as the rest of the world streaks past on the information superhighway. You might think that kids reared in such a knowledge-rich environment, with the wisdom of the world only a few clicks away in the palms of their hands, would most appreciate such miraculous devices. I remember when my high-school physics teacher proudly showed off his new Hewlett-Packard pocket calculator, at the time an unimaginable technological marvel. Hardly more than a glorified slide rule and adding machine, it cost the equivalent of $2800 in today’s dollars. And now, even the cheapest smart phones are more powerful than yesterday’s top-line desktop computers, with formerly undreamed-of capabilities that we now take for granted. Yet familiarity breeds contempt, and it’s invariably the most privileged members of technologically advanced societies who are most eager to spurn their benefits in the name of higher ideals. Curbing use of pesticides, antibiotics, factory farming, and so on in favor of organic, artisanal, family-farmed small-batch products may reduce food production and render those items more expensive, but for those who can afford it, the taste—and more importantly, the moral provenance—is superior. For another, far more destructive example, consider the progressive opposition to conventional Western medicine, including standard public health protocols. It’s not just red-state COVID craziness: Nearly a decade ago, the Hollywood Reporter’s Gary Baum bravely took dead aim at his own publication’s core readership—the affluent Westside entertainment industry elite—with an exposé on its response to a then-raging measles epidemic. The Atlantic magazine touted Baum’s reporting with a stunning headline: “Wealthy L.A. Schools’ Vaccination Rates Are as Low as South Sudan’s,” with the subhead, “Hollywood parents say not vaccinating makes ‘instinctive’ sense. Now their kids have whooping cough.” So maybe it’s not so surprising that the story of Logan Lane has recently captured some outsized media attention, leading with a couple of high-profile New York Times follows on a story that originally ran on a local website back in September. It’s not man-bites dog; it’s teen-bites-TikTok. She’s a Brooklyn high school senior—and daughter of an IT executive—who ditched her smart-phone for an old-school flip-phone and formed a Luddite Club of like-minded kids who meet weekly at the local public library to read and discuss books. Her online footprint suggests she’s a bright and talented student who’s been worrying and even writing about the downside of social media since elementary school. You have to admire any high-schooler with both the intelligence and self-confidence to turn back the tide of click-scroll conformity engulfing her peers, and spend her time instead cultivating a life of the mind, rather than squandering it on endless distractions for the mindless. And there’s a long tradition of outliers finding, or creating, “in crowds” of their own. While her Luddite Club had barely a dozen members when the story broke nationally, it’s clear that it resonated deeply with Gen X and Millennial journalists navigating their own struggles with smart-phone addiction, social media status-seeking, and the FOMO syndrome (Fear of Missing Out.) What troubles me about the story, though—apart from the ubiquitous problem of reporters extrapolating from a few scraps of “anecdata” to conjure a scenario of sweeping social upheaval—is that it implicitly celebrates a self-defeating, virtue-signaling technophobia. Exhibit A would be the Kentucky writer and subsistence farmer Wendell Berry, hero to hippies and deep ecologists, who at the age of 88 still works from a one-room 12’x16’ cabin, lacking electricity or plumbing, and writes with a paper and pencil only during the daylight hours. Among his most widely known works, a 1987 Harper’s magazine essay, “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer” (one reason is that he arguably doesn’t need to; his wife Tanya obligingly retypes all his handwritten manuscripts). “I do not see that computers are bringing us one step nearer to anything that does matter to me,” Berry wrote. “Peace, economic justice, ecological health, political honesty, family and community stability, good works.” One hears echoes of Berry’s world-view in Ted Kaczynski, convicted Unabomber, huddled in his 10’x12’ Montana cabin, obsessively reworking his 1995 manifesto “Industrial Society and Its Future.” Kaczynski wrote, “The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race,” and is responsible for destabilizing society, making life unfulfilling, subjecting human beings to indignities, leading to widespread psychological and physical suffering, and inflicting severe damage on the natural world. And this from a time when smart phones and the World Wide Web were still in their infancy! By strange coincidence, the Unabomber manifesto emerged in between publication of the hardback and paperback editions of Kirkpatrick Sale’s Rebels Against the Future, a positive reappraisal of the original Luddite movement which, in the words of author-environmentalist Bill McKibben, rescued the movement from “the old caricature of head-in-the-sand machine breakers” and recast them as “prophets of what industrialism would mean for most men, women and communities.” More power to Logan Lane and her club mates in their commitment to put down that smart phone and pick up a book, or hang out with flesh-and-blood friends, not just disembodied entities floating in cyberspace. But I’d caution them against a full-on revolt against modernity. Even Ted Kaczynski conceded that technology has greatly increased life expectancy in those advanced countries, no small achievement. And as Sale recounts, “Luddism lost… the industrial future was not abated, the dawn of modernism was not held back… industrialism triumphed everywhere. Indeed, it could be said to have conquered the world…” The river of time flows in only one direction, and it isn’t backwards.
Joel Bellman

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