Thursday, December 11, 2008


I have a friend who likes to call me a Luddite from time to time. That’s usually prompted by my latest round of criticism of the less-than-dependable web course technology that increasingly all college instructors are required to use or of the increasingly solipsistic – even anti-social - use of technology by individuals in public places. It’s not a description that particularly fits someone who uses as much technology as I do in any given day – albeit not without complaining –but it does draw into focus a difference in understanding of technology among human users.

That difference is readily identified in the questions one asks about technology. Most people, who sense a perceived need for the latest greatest technological innovations our consumerist society convinces us we cannot live without, simply ask the question “What is this? What will it do? How much does it cost?” Clearly, there is no small amount of gratification in mastering a new technology. It provides a sense of mastery if not superiority that allows one to look down on the rest of the population whose skills or access to technologies don’t measure up in comparison. Just ask any undergraduate computer science major. And undoubtedly some technologies have the capacity to make our lives easier if not more pleasant. Think answering services that relieve us of the task of talking with the many telemarketers who feel no compunction about invading the privacy of our homes each night. Think Google which provides much of the world’s information – though rarely any understanding of it – at our fingertips.

But technology has a dark side, perhaps unavoidably so given its human creators and users. To fail to recognize that reality is to approach technology uncritically and, I think, superficially. I believe that a realistic approach to any technology, new or old, must include these inquiries: “How does this tool impact human users? Does it serve us or does it reverse that means/end relationship? At what point do human beings become the tools of our tools?”

Neil Postman writes in his work Technopoly, the Surrender of Culture to Technology, that societies that become idolatrously dominated by the work of their own hands often reverse the means/end relationship of human beings to their tools. He notes that in our own society, which he calls a technopoly, technology is seen as inherently good, innovations are seen as absolutely necessary and the inevitable use of such innovations in technology is presumed. To paraphrase The Field of Dreams, if you create it, they must use it. Think end of WWII, Japan trying to negotiate the terms of its surrender and the choice of two non-military civilian sites for the detonation of the new American nuclear innovation.

As a part of my daily meditation and prayer, I am reading daily selections from The Intellectual Devotional, Modern Culture. [i] Today’s reading was about the Luddites. According to the authors, Luddism, which has come to be associated generally - and rather uncritically – with a hatred of technology, takes its name from an 18th CE English textile workers’ movement who accurately saw the new technology as a threat to their livelihoods. While it is not clear whether the Ned Ludd, whose name came to be associated with the movement ever actually existed, what is clear is that when the Luddite Revolts erupted in 1811, it took 2500 troops to put down the revolt. And shortly thereafter, machine breaking became a capital crime in England.

What’s striking in this account is the reality that mechanization did mean the end of many worker’s livelihoods, something that was hardly lost on them. While the machinery clearly served as an end to the profit making of factory owners, that profit ultimately came at the cost of the livelihoods of many workers. That kind of loss of income for minimally educated and narrowly trained workers meant in real terms the loss of their source of housing, feeding and clothing their families, i.e, Maslow’s bottom level on the hierarchy of human needs. The technology of the 19th CE - much like the technological innovation of today - was clearly good for someone. But cui bono? Good for whom? And at whose expense?

It’s telling that the response to the Luddite revolt was the passage of laws making it a capital crime to break machines. Clearly, to those in power, the machines were more valuable than human lives. Killing a human being for damaging or destroying a means of profit suggests a rather perverse moral calculus in which human life is secondary to things. And it would not be long after this nascent rising of organized labor that the force of the law would be brought against labor unions with the formation of police forces in most industrialized cities whose primary job was to prevent labor organizing and disrupting strikes.

When technological innovation and implementation is recognized as creating a power and thus a privilege differential between those who benefit from such implementations and those at whose expense those benefits derive, it is not hard to see why the heathen rage, or, in the present case, why the Luddites responded with vandalism. And it should not be hard to recognize why college instructors like myself criticize the increasing amount of time required to learn the unending parade of “new and improved” technologies designed to serve managerial imperatives (unpacks classrooms, guarantees students can be processed through the university factory in four years, allows students to avoid classroom time so they can work full time jobs to pay increasing tuition and costs).

For myself, I see the onslaught of technologies and the perceived imperatives to have the newest toys as inevitable in a consumerist society where we define ourselves and our value by what we use. I am resigned to the reality that increasingly my time will be spent on tasks that have absolutely nothing to do with education. My response to that reality is to use only those technologies that bear a clearly beneficial relationship to my teaching, to resist the use of technologies where they are not absolutely necessary and to minimize the time spent dealing with them where it is not avoidable. That does not make me a Luddite, at least not in the teasing sense my friend uses it to describe me. It makes me a human being intent upon using human created tools to serve human ends and resistant to becoming a means to non-human ends such as profit or bureaucratic imperatives.

That includes being the scapegoat for technological failures. The Devotional article noted that while it is unclear whether Ned Ludd ever actually existed, the phrase “Ludd must have been here” became a common refrain in English factories whenever a machine was found damaged or malfunctioning. The webcourse technologies I must use daily are undependable, failing during peak usage periods, limited in their applications for teaching of humanities and evidencing frequent “bugs” or restrictions in usage known to their creators alone. The common explanation for such problems is “user error.” It should not be surprising that the same people who were oblivious to and unconcerned for the effects of technology on human users in the first place would prove unwilling to take responsibility for the deleterious effects their technology has on others once implemented.

The Devotional entry ends with the note that while the original Luddite Revolt has faded away, the term Luddite has entered the political lexicon as a way of describing opponents of the relentless onslaught of technology. So let me end this on a political note: To the degree that technologies are imposed upon the public without consultation or consent, requiring their ongoing adaptation to ever changing systems of technology just to carry out their daily life skills, I am a Luddite. To the degree that the presumption of technopoly prevails that every new technology must be used without consideration of its potential effects on human beings, count me in the Luddite camp. To the degree that human beings become the means to the ends of technology, pawns in the struggle for power and privilege, I am a Luddite.

I am not anti-technology. I simply insist that human inventions actually serve – and not enslave - human beings. Much like Immanuel Kant, I insist that human beings always be ends in themselves and never means to non-human ends. That doesn't seem too much to ask.

[i] David Kidder, Noah Oppenheim, The Intellectual Devotional, Modern Culture (NY: Rodale Publishers, 2008)

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.

Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


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