LibrarianShipwreck

"More than machinery, we need humanity."

“Technology in the Present Tense” – Notes from a Weary Luddite

“The future is not a blank page; and neither is it an open book.” – Lewis Mumford

 

1.

Here is a confession from a weary, self-identified Luddite:

For someone who doesn’t particularly like computers, I certainly seem to spend a lot of time sitting in front of a computer.

It’s easy to explain this, to rationalize it. You see, the types of work I do pretty much require that I never get too far away from a computer or Internet connection. There is writing to be done, there are emails to be managed, lecture slides to be finalized, news to be kept up with, research to sift through, online events to be coordinated, grades to be posted, databases to be searched, and so on and so forth and so it goes. Do all of these things truly require me to use a computer? No. But, do many of these things require me to use a computer? Well, yes.

Of course, blaming this all on work requirements would just be deflection. Though I would love to claim that I only use my computer when I need to complete a particular work related task, such a claim would be an obvious lie. Beyond simply being machines for accomplishing professional tasks, computers are regularly used for entertainment, for communication, for shopping, for staying informed, and for wasting time—and goodness knows I spend a disproportionate amount of any given week reading metal blogs, streaming episodes of Star Trek, and doom-scrolling (always with the doom-scrolling). I often tell myself that I should shut the computer down and go for a walk or read a book that isn’t itself about computers, but after I tell myself that I either keep staring at the screen or keep turning the pages of a book about staring at screens.

In my writing, in my research, and in my teaching, I proudly cast myself as a Luddite. I look askance at the claims that computers and the Internet have had predominantly positive effects, am deeply critical of the way computerization remakes the world in its own image, am fairly resistant to the idea that these technologies can be reclaimed and reformed, and tend to be rather open about these opinions. Having been asked by more than one student why I hate computers, I am fully aware of how easily I wind up being a caricature of myself. There is a tendency to treat anyone who criticizes a particular technology while using that technology of hypocrisy, and though I have always chafed at such charges, I cannot deny that I often find myself deeply troubled by just how tightly my life has become bound up with the very technologies I criticize. And yet, the unfortunate irony is that in the present moment it is quite difficult to actively participate in the discussions around technology (to say nothing of just participating in society) without making use of many of these technologies.

And thus, even as someone who doesn’t particularly like computers, I certainly seem to spend a lot of time sitting in front of a computer.

 

2.

Luddite remains a contested term.

The act of calling yourself a Luddite, and being called a Luddite, generally involve very different ideas regarding what that word means. And even amongst those who call themselves Luddites there is a fairly significant amount of variation.

Of course, for the most part, the term Luddite continues to function mainly as something of an insult. It was in 1963 that E.P. Thompson noted that “Luddism lingers in the popular mind as an uncouth, spontaneous affair of illiterate handworkers, blindly resisting machinery,” and this is largely the way Luddism still “lingers in the popular mind” today. Granted, despite the term’s roots in an actual moment in history, the term is generally hurled in contemporary conversations as a way of accusing individuals of being anti-technology, anti-technological progress, and generally backwards. In a society that has come to closely associate technological progress with all other forms of progress, to be called a Luddite is not altogether different from being called a troglodyte. As an accusation it tends to be a way of silencing critics and cutting off discussion around a particular technology by framing the critic as (at best) an out of touch romantic pining for a return to a fantasy of a pastoral greenery, or (at worst) a mindless hater of all technology who wants to smash anything more complex than a hammer into smithereens.

Understandably, those who call themselves Luddites tend to define the term somewhat differently.

Those who seek to reclaim the term Luddite generally attempt to ground the term in a more nuanced, sympathetic, and historically attentive description of the original Luddites. Thus, emphasizing that the Luddites were not “uncouth…illiterate handworkers, blindly resisting machinery” but skilled craftworkers defending their trade against the introduction of machines that would enrich the machine owners while impoverishing those who worked on those machines. As David Noble wrote, “the Luddites were perhaps the last people in the West to perceive technology in the present tense and act upon that perception,” and those who proudly call themselves Luddites praise the original Luddites for having the bravery to “perceive technology in the present tense” and seek therefore “to perceive technology in the” actually present in this very moment “present tense.”

And this is where things get a bit more tricky. After all, what does it really mean “to perceive technology in the present tense and act upon that perception”? For the original Luddites it meant to organize a simultaneously clandestine and mass movement that engaged in tactics including physically smashing machines…but the “present tense” of the early nineteenth century, and the “present tense” of the early twenty-first century look rather different. Many a self-professed Luddite may playfully express the desire to smash a machine here or there, but contemporary Luddism generally comes across more from the smashing out of words on keyboards than from the actual smashing of machines. Of course, this is likely connected to the fact that “to perceive technology in the present tense” involves seeing technologies as part of larger technological systems, and thus recognizing that smashing a particular machine here or there does little to upend the larger system.

The effort to rehabilitate the memory of the Luddites, and to turn Luddite into some sort of a resistant identity, is not particularly new. There is certainly the history of the Luddites, but there is also the more complex history of the idea of Luddism that has seen the Luddites treated as everything from forebears of the labor movement, to proto-socialists, to proto-environmentalists, to proto-hackers. Even if we focus solely on the efforts to revitalize the idea of Luddism for the computer era, there are real differences in the way that Luddite is defined between Thomas Pynchon’s “Is It O.K. To Be a Luddite?” (1984)  and Chellis Glendinning’s “Notes Toward a Neo-Luddite Manifesto” (1990) and the outpouring of recent work on the Luddites (much of it quite excellent) that we have seen in recent years. While the Neo-Luddite movement of the early 1990s never truly took off, Glendinning’s manifesto still provided something in the way of a statement of core principles, yet amongst those who call themselves Luddites today it can often seem that all they genuinely share is a broadly-framed critique of the current technological status quo and that they use the term Luddite to describe themselves.

By the closing decades of the twentieth century, “to perceive technology in the present tense and act upon that perception” binds one up with a consideration of computers and the Internet—and that is undeniably the same technological “present tense” in which we find ourselves two decades into the twenty-first century. But computers and the Internet represent a problem and a challenge for those who call themselves Luddites today. Whereas the Neo-Luddites of Glendinning’s manifesto placed “computer technologies” on their list of “destructive technologies” to be dismantled, many of today’s Luddites see computer technologies as salvageable even as they call for the dismantling of the corporations that currently control those technologies. Thus, the question of what can (and should) be dismantled, of what can (and should) be salvaged, presents a challenge for those who call themselves Luddites. Is the problem Facebook or is the problem the Internet itself? Is the problem the Google’s specific algorithms or is the problem computers? Is the problem that we need to ensure that this or that system is made “ethical” or is the problem that these systems are inherently unethical no matter how many well-meaning people work on them? Put five self-described Luddites together in a room and they might be able to come together to sing a half-decent rendition of “The Triumph of King Ludd,” but they’ll likely be quite divided on the answers to any of those previous questions.

To call yourself a Luddite today may be to attempt “to perceive technology in the present tense and act upon that perception,” but when they look at “technology in the present tense” Luddites do not all “perceive” it in the same way. And thus, the matter of what it means to “act upon that perception” remains a complicated matter.

 

3.

When we talk about technology it is important to figure out which “we” it is that is being foregrounded. The lifecycle of a technology involves many different people in a range of varied locations who move in and out of the “we” that is generally involved in technology. From those who mine rare-earth minerals, to those at various stages of the supply chains, to workers in factory’s assembling devices, to clerks in stores selling those devices, to actual users, to tech designers in sunny Californian campuses, to refurbishers, to e-waste recyclers, and so on and so forth—the “we” of any given technology is not so simple a thing to define. Granted, when “we” talk about technology the “we” generally being discussed is a rather small and privileged slice of the full technological picture. It is a “we” that tends to focus on those who use the technology in its “finished” form for a couple of years before that device disappears into a box in a closet or into a recycling bin that eventually sees that gadget transported across the globe.

Thus, the concerns that “we” raise about technology are going to tend to be those that “we” feel are particularly concerning to the “we” of which “we” consider ourselves a part. There is absolutely no doubt that matters like privacy and disinformation matter. Let’s say that again, there is absolutely no doubt that mattes like privacy and disinformation matter. Yet, oftentimes those who are able to worry about privacy and disinformation are spared from having to worry about the conditions at coltan mines, worker safety at the factories where gadgets are assembled, or the toxic impacts of e-waste.

Of course, things like mine conditions and e-waste dumps, tend to take the fun out of talking about high-tech gizmos and doodads. It is not just that they provide a distinctly earthy materiality in contrast to the ethereal fantasies of The Cloud, but that they can serve as a reminder that “to perceive technology in the present tense” requires thinking about more than the smartphone in our hands or the computer in front of us.

To truly “perceive technology” it is necessary to ask what it is that is being perceived. Often, it’s a finished product, that came in a fancy box, that we plugged in, and started to use, and that is how it gets perceived. It is harder to look at a particular gadget and see all of the minerals that make it up, hard to see all of the international supply chains that were involved in this device reaching us, hard to see the faces of the workers who put this together, and hard to see what the “present” state is of that laptop you tossed out ten years ago.

Issues around mining, labor, and waste represent some of the most challenging issues to think through regarding current high technology. They are difficult to think through because of their international dimensions, because of how much about them is hard to see, and because (to be honest about it) many of these matters are fairly grim and unsettling. And yet they are integral truths of the “present tense” of technology.

 

4.

Another of the challenges to perceiving and acting upon technology “in the present tense” is the ways in which technological discussions tend to focus on the future. The technological now is always less interesting than the technological next. The focus is on what the new model of this gadget will contain, what new leadership will do to a company, what transformative change is about to happen, and so on and so forth and so it goes. Some place this focus in order to describe how the problems of today will quickly be solved, others place this focus in order to warn against the new problems that will be created, but both add a layer of murkiness to discussions of what technology is actually doing in the present. This can make it difficult to maintain your footing.

Accurately predicting the technological future is not easy. It isn’t easy for tech companies, it isn’t easy for investors, it isn’t easy for reporters, it isn’t easy for science fiction writers, it isn’t easy for academics, and it isn’t easy for Luddites either. Granted, in predicting the future these various groups have differing motivations and goals. There is a difference between predicting the future so that you can profit off of it, and predicting the future in an attempt to get the train to switch tracks before it speeds off a cliff. And these various groups will also have very different relationships with understanding and making use of technology’s history—treating it as a tale of progress or destruction, a story of noble geniuses or lucky narcissists, a cache of warnings or blueprints.

Studying the history of technology reveals the many contingencies of that history. The many instances of failure, of the best machine not winning out, of the influence of laws and regulation, of the way technology responded to world events (as opposed to the other way around), of the people actually behind various technologies, of the moments of resistance, and of the many ways that things really could have been different. Though studying the history of technology can allow you to make better informed judgements when looking at the future of technology, it also forces you to recognize how much uncertainty is in the mix. And to be clear, much of that uncertainty, isn’t strictly technological. Case in point: a discussion of technology in our “present tense” would require a consideration of the ways that the pandemic has resulted in a range of technological shifts (not all technological shifts are high-tech)—but if you go back and pour over the technological predictions from five years ago, you won’t find many of the futurists anticipating that a worldwide pandemic would cause all manner of havoc.

The history of technology will teach you to have some humility in your predictions, and this is part of the problem.

In contemporary debates around technology it often feels like the participants are playing by different sets of rules. On one side are those who make the most grandiose of claims couched in smiling certainty regarding the next big things and how they will make everyone richer, safer, healthier, and happier. On the other side are those whose comments and critiques are riddled with caveats and qualifiers about risks and complexity. On the one side are those who frame themselves as the stewards and celebrants of the technological future, on the other side are those who routinely have to emphasize that they really do love technology but they just have some concerns that they need to express. Our technological discourse has been updated to the point that there is often some space for a critical voice; however, this space of critique is increasingly captured by reformed tech company insiders who are carefully working to ensure the critique doesn’t go too far.

The history of technological critique (which is an important, if often overlooked part of the history of technology), features plenty of critics who could be accused of writing in broad generalizations. Many of technology’s prominent twentieth century critics had a tendency to develop overarching concepts like “technique” or “megatechnics” in order to explain their technological world. Especially to the rigorous academic eye, some of these concepts seem to be too simple, or reliant on less than completely accurate views of history. Thus, many contemporary critics (particularly of the academic stripe) have some wariness regarding the thought of these earlier critics, somewhat out of a sense that these older critics had as much of a tendency to speak in absolutes and bold pronouncements as many of technology’s loudest advocates, and somewhat out of a sort of professional discomfort with the way that these earlier critics refused to play by the proper rules of academic argumentation.

There are certainly things to take issue with when engaging with the thought of earlier technological critics, and yet there is something very refreshing in the forthrightness with which they wrote about technology. The ground on which much contemporary discourse around technology takes place is the ground that has been set by technology’s advocates and the technology companies themselves. It’s rather invigorating to read past technological critics who were a bit more willing to come out and simply state that certain technologies are bad. There is so much energy around reforming certain technologies, around redeeming certain technologies, about making certain technologies “ethical,” but there’s something wonderfully provocative about the retort out of the past that some of these things aren’t reformable or redeemable or capable of being made ethical.

To hold up particular technologies as reformable/redeemable/possibly-ethical results in an impressive shift in discussion whereby what seems like an engagement with technology in the “present tense” actually becomes about projecting our hopes onto technology in the “future tense.” After all, to say a technology can be reformed/redeemed/possibly-ethical is to put the focus on what can happen to it in the future—but what does this technology look like in “the present tense”? Arguably, it must not look particularly good if the reaction to it is to hope that it can be reformed/redeemed/possibly-ethical in the future. Perceiving technology in “the present tense” requires a rejection of the hope for how the technology can be changed in “the future tense” and forces a more grounded assessment of these technologies…which is likely part of the reason why people prefer engaging with them in “the future tense.” Of course, the critique can certainly be leveled that changing technology for the better requires imagining how that technology can be changed for the better, but the risk is that too much focus on such imagining distracts us from assessing the technological reality of our “present.” It makes it so that the talk is always about a technology’s potential as opposed to its reality.

Technological prediction is difficult. The history of technology is complicated. None can say for certain whether or not a particular technology can be reformed or rehabilitated or made ethical, but the idea that certain technologies can be reformed or rehabilitated or made ethical maintains an optimistic vision of the technological future.

The question is what in our technological “present tense” really makes such optimism warranted.

 

5.

In the present tense, it increasingly seems like there is something inescapable about technology.

We need to be careful here. The suggestion of “escape” can too easily conjure up romanticized fantasies of fleeing the high-tech world in order to go live in some idyllic hinterland—and even in that pastoral dreamscape there would certainly be no shortage of technologies. No, what is meant in referring to there being something “inescapable” is a deepening sense of being stuck. Even if we want to get away, we cannot really do so.

Periodic pushes to get everyone to “quit” this platform, or “delete” this app—have largely fallen by the wayside. Where once it was easy to state that you don’t really need to be on this platform/app, an honest assessment of the “present tense” requires an acknowledgement that many people truly feel that they do need to be on that platform/app. Some certainly chortled in October of 2021 when Facebook went down for several hours, but those who suddenly found themselves unable to communicate with friends and family (or access necessary information) certainly weren’t laughing. On a somewhat different note, the circus in April of 2022 over whether or not Twitter was about to be sold prompted many to announce their intention to leave the platform, but even more people seemed resigned to staying put as the platform had come to fill a significant niche for which there simply isn’t really an alternative. It is no longer seen as a sign of privilege to be connected (which requires access to a host of different technologies), we increasingly hear that now the true sign of privilege is if one can afford to be disconnected.

The utopian sheen of computers and the Internet has become tarnished. Or, to be more honest, the utopian sheen of particular computer companies and Internet companies has become tarnished, even as many still dream of the shining potential of the underlying technologies. The heady exuberance of the original dot-com bubble has faded from memory, and even those who once partook in hyping the transformative potential of the giants of Web 2.0 are now mildly embarrassed by just how much they once touted figures like Mark Zuckerberg and Elizabeth Holmes. The figures who were once treated as high-tech saviors have lost many of their faithful once their promises of heaven unleashed demonic forces. Yet the faith in high-tech salvation hasn’t truly dissipated, it has just migrated to different figures promising salvation through their technological vision.

Much of the promise around computers and the Internet was premised on the idea that they would deliver “the good life.” What they have actually delivered, at least for many, is a version of “the goods life.” And many people have been satisfied by this, even as many others find themselves stuck in it. From same-day delivery and deep discounts to a bigger screen and a better camera, from next-generation graphics and immersive virtual reality to the utopia of unlimited streaming and the answer to ever question, from the perfectly quantified self and the always recording watchful doorbell to the voice activated assistant and the calendar that remembers for you. There is no point in arguing that we do not have many “goods” available to us, but they do not seem to have managed to deliver the “good.” If anything, many of them seem to have delivered a fair amount of the “bad” alongside all of those “goods.”

And yet, the feeling is one of being stuck. Unable to escape. For there is more and more of a sense that there is nowhere to which one can escape. Certainly, an individual can redouble their efforts to shop locally, they can ensure that they actually buy every album they listen to, they can keep their homes and bodies as free as possible from “luxury surveillance” devices, they can resist the urge to trade in a still functioning gadget for a newer model…and yet doing all of these things is more expensive, more time-consuming, and less convenient than many of the shiny alternatives. This space, of choices related to personal consumption, has become one of the primary areas in which many feel that they have some power “to act” upon “technology in the present tense.” But in many of the ways we “act” here, what we encounter is no longer the exuberance of using some futuristic doodad, but the banality of using platforms we dislike owned by people we loathe, because this is the situation in which we are stuck.

The Luddites were fighting to prevent a certain technological order from coming into being. That was technology in their “present tense.” But in our “present tense” we struggle not against an incipient technological order, but a dominant one.

This is not a rejection of the idea of personal responsibility or accountability, but a reflection of the sense that we cannot “personal responsibility” our way out of the crises that face us today—whether that particular crisis is climate change, or a pandemic, or how to live in computer dominated society.

 

6.

For someone who doesn’t particularly like computers, I certainly seem to spend a lot of time sitting in front of a computer.

But, perhaps one of the first steps in “perceiving technology in the present tense” is owning up to your own relationship with technology.

 

Related Content

Why the Luddites Matter

Theses on Technological Pessimism

Theses on Technological Optimism

They Meant Well (Or, why it matters who gets seen as a technology critic)

A Review of “Dismantlings”

A Review of “Breaking Things at Work”

About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

One comment on ““Technology in the Present Tense” – Notes from a Weary Luddite

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