The Case for Tech Luddites


By Tony Kontzer

Wonderful profile in Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle about a technology legend many IT folks have probably never heard of. If you've ever tried out Second Life or any of the growing number of Avatar-based virtual worlds, you owe a tip of the cap to Jaron Lanier. The multi-talented Berkeley computer scientist, author and musical composer was one of the pioneers of virtual reality--the Chronicle piece suggests he even coined the phrase--back in the 1980s. He foresaw the emergence of an Internet that would allow people to display their individuality and find new ways to make a living.

Alas, in Lanier's eyes, things have gone very wrong. The Internet has instead evolved into a hysterical mob scene where creativity is not rewarded, it's merely shared. The article's author, Justin Berton, quotes Lanier from his book, You Are Not a Gadget: "When my friends and I built the first virtual reality machines, the whole point was to make this world more creative, expressive, empathetic, and interesting. It was not to escape it." (Strangely, the article was nowhere to be found on the Chronicle's site Sunday, but you can check out the L.A. Times' concurrent treatment of the subject matter here.)

Lanier's perspectives, Berton notes, are causing some in the tech world to label him a Luddite. I bring this up because the matter of those who question technology's effect on society has been a hot topic of late. Just check out the latest post in a war of words between New York Times Blogger Nick Bilton and New Yorker contributor George Packer over the role of Twitter. Such debates remind me that it's worth taking pause to consider how sites like Twitter and Second Life, Facebook and YouTube, or Google and Wikipedia, are changing not only how people are interacting with technology and each other, but with the world around them. Or, more to the point, how they're not interacting with the world around them.

What I'm getting at is this: "Luddite" is not a bad word. It may not be the label technologists typically are looking for, but it's a critical role. As society adopts technologies such as virtual reality and social networking and makes them its own, we need to be sure we have as clear an understanding of those technologies' potential impact as we can. If we don't at least try to cast that skeptical eye on the things we're forging ahead on, we'll have no one to blame when we wake up one day in a world in which the thoughts of the individual no longer are heard, and in which our self-worth is defined solely by the size of our audience.


3 Comments for "The Case for Tech Luddites"

  • Carlos August 26, 2013 8:14 pm

    Very nice post!! There is a commercial on TV for ON-Star. It shows a car being stelon, and On-Star working with the police to recover it. After giving the location to the police, the cruiser spots the stelon vehicle, and On-Star sends a command to it to stop it from running. The car coasts to the side of the road, the thieves jump out, and the police give chase. This commercial scares the hell out me. So, basically, I only have the illusion of having control of my vehicle. At any time, some one from ON-Star, or some doped up computer hacker, could shut my car down and strand me in the middle of no-where? And people actually want this? I'd rather have my car stelon!!!I like my privacy. I want my private life kept private. Excellent post!!!

  • Dave February 15, 2010 5:49 pm

    Have a look at the movies Surrogate (2009) and The Matrix (1999) for exploration through entertainment of both physical and virtual world complexities.

  • don belles February 15, 2010 1:34 pm

    Historically the Luddites were anti-technology not merely throwbacks to some earlier form of technology, for instance mainframes versus PCs. They actually rejected technological progress. Thus referring to a techno as a Luddites is a significant blow. More importantly however, is the use of the term Luddite as you have. It clearly shows how even those who suggest caution can become part of the problem they warn against. In your article Luddite has lost it's snap and condemnatory imagery. Yes we need caution, but we do not need people wanting to go back in technology so they start dis-assembling existing technology. Rather we need people to step back from amazement and wonder and examine what is happening behind the scenes. They will find the Brave New World of Cisco's cities and Googles internet shaping what will occur and what the lowest common denominator to human acceptance will be in the future. Some of it is literally breathtaking while other parts are horrific in implication. The lowest common denominator is not compassion or caring, it is perversion, greed, and self-promotion. Maybe there is a need for Luddites to bless technology and so we coin a new name: "technodites" and they become the standard for acceptance of new technology. Perhaps this way there will be a modicum of caution. The current scenario reminds me of the history surrounding the splitting of the atom. Many scientists and engineers were horrified at the implication of this new form of energy because of the possible application to harming people (read as bomb). Still the worst nightmares came true, but whether it was for a good cause or not is still being debated. And this is the same situation we have seen and are seeing in the present technology arena. Let's hear it for the technodites.

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