Luddites and Technophobes

I hear those two words often in these difficult times. They’re often confused, and therefore misused. It’s inaccurate to say “I’m a Luddite; computers scare the daylights out of me.” Well, both statements may be true, but they’re not synonymous, and clumping them together like that makes the non-sequitur button go off. Nor is it redundant to say “I’m a technophobe; I wish I could un-invent the computer.”

A Luddite is someone who despises and would happily destroy (or un-invent) technology that takes jobs away from people. The word comes from a movement in Northern England during the early nineteenth century, just as the Industrial Revolution was getting under way. The Luddites were Industrial Counterrevolutionaries who smashed machinery that was replacing human labor in the textile and other industries.

Modern Luddism might refer to the inventors of computer worms and viruses; but as far as I know those malevolent hackers don’t have a social agenda. They’re just vandals, super-sophisticated versions of teenage boys who smash mailboxes with baseball bats. To be a real Luddite, you must have a social agenda, and it has to do with jobs. (Not Jobs.)

Technopobia is fear of, or aversion to, advanced technology. The word “technophobe” generally refers to someone who feels too dumb to master the techniques of personal computer applications. The word sometimes has ageist overtones, implying that the technophobe is a fuddy-duddy stuck in the era of the Model T. However, some technophobes are proud of their reluctance to modernize their thinking, and they mourn for the passing of such pre-computer niceties as handwritten thank-you notes and the lovely printed volumes of the Encyclopædia Britannica. A true technophobe doesn’t buy anything over the Internet, for fear someone will learn his mother’s maiden name and move all his assets to Nigeria.

I happen to have both Luddite and Technophobic tendencies. Yes, I have a computer, and I use Wikipedia and Word and email. But it took me six difficult months to learn what I know about the Word application, and I don’t want to learn one more thing about it. I joined Facebook, but I don’t want to know how to share photos. Forget Garage Band; I wasted two hours getting furious with myself and with that complex, time-wasting toy. So, yes, I am a technophobe compared to my genius children and grandchildren, whose fingers fly over their keyboards, their iPads, their smart phones. Don’t try to sell me a smart phone, because I’m not smart enough to figure out how it works, okay?

Am I a Luddite? Well, I’ve never intentionally done damage to the Information Highway, nor have I ever socked my monitor (though I’ve been tempted). So I’m a nonviolent Luddite, although I know that’s an oxymoron. What’s my beef with digital technology? It’s very much the same complaint the original Luddites had about the machinery that replaced human labor in the Industrial Revolution. Computer technology destroys jobs. Oh, sure, jobs open up in the field of digital technology, but there are nowhere near as many jobs gained in that field as the jobs lost or rendered obsolete in other parts of our economy, jobs that used to keep the middle class solvent. Telephone receptionists. Secretaries. Number crunchers sitting at desks punching adding machines all day. Travel agents. Librarians. Clerks in record stores, camera stores, and bookstores. Postal employees. And the list continues. Many of these jobs may have been humdrum, but they paid a living wage. Some of these jobs may still exist, but in smaller numbers.

Am I sentimental and nostalgic? Yes. Am I sorry the Information Age came to be? No. Do I use my personal computer? All the time. Can I imagine writing a novel on a typewriter, and then retyping the whole 300-page manuscript over with every revision? (I revise a lot.) No way. Yes, I use email, and sometimes I get impatient when it takes a day to receive a response.

But still. I mourn especially for the independent bookstore. There are only a handful of them left. I worked in eight different indie stores during the 1960s and 1970s, and I miss every one of them.

Sometimes I live in the past. Well, that has come in handy over the past couple of years, while I’ve been writing Hooperman, a novel set in an independent bookstore in the summer of 1972. That was a time before personal computers, before email, before voice mail, before Facebook, before Amazon.com.

It’s ironic that Hooperman is set in Palo Alto, the birthplace of the Information Age. It’s also ironic that I’m using my Mac, my blog, Facebook, and email to promote it. And it will be sold by Amazon, as well as (I hope) independent bookstores.

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5 Responses

  1. Hmmm. Thanks so much for introducing one of my favorite topics, John! I teach a class called “Science, Technology, and Cultural Change” at Golden Gate U (SF) and your post lines up with 1) our text (Volti’s “Society and Technological Change”); 2) a term paper topic; and 3) numerous “lessons” in the 16-week class. Also fascinating, and greatly in line with your post is the new Lanier book, “Who Owns the Future.”

    Long winded as this comment will be, I’ll indulge myself in 2 points:
    1) I believe we all have “technology thresholds” — that point beyond which we become technophobes if not Luddites. Maybe it’s the iphone, maybe genetic engineering, maybe 2 and only 2 “artificial” organs — it’s fascinating to find out what each student’s threshold is.
    2) I wish we had a term for a person who speaks against technology for whatever reason, jobs included, yet cannot live without it.

    It’s a good thing class starts in a couple of weeks, or this comment would be even longer!

    • Thanks for your thoughtful and thought-provoking. To answer your questions:
      1. I agree with your concept of technology thresholds. I know for certain there are mathematics threshold. Some people can’t get past long division. I was blocked at calculus.

      2. Addicts.

  2. Addict, yes. Count me in! I come to it each morning like a Pavlovian dog and it sucks me up. Then spits me out, cursing, near midnight. All but one of my grandchildren gravitate toward the study of literature, the classics, modern languages, old breakdown cars and a distaste for talk of money, The youngest, a high school math & computer genius, flashes his latest “gadget” and says he’s going to make money–lots of it. “Come to me any time for a loan, Nana,” he says–“but you’ll have to pay the interest.”

  3. Back in the 1980s, I tried to persuade my father (who would be 102 this month) to try using a computer for word processing. He balked. I reminded him how much he liked writing, and how much typing it would save him when he wanted to make changes, not to mention justifying the margin, which he did by hand on his manual typewriter.

    “I like typing,” he said. “And I have nothing but time.”

    No way to argue with that.

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