Three Luddites Talking …

Part two.

SM:  I got started in the anti-technology movement in the 1970s because I longed for a congenial world.  I thought that others — maybe even a majority — might hold similar ideas of what a congenial world would be; and that the journey to a reasonably pleasant, dignified existence could begin with some forthright criticism of the machines and practices making the world so uncongenial.

I remember when Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television inspired Diana Dillaway, a development director at Mother Jones’s Foundation for National Progress, to propose a conference that would radically question technology.  Diana, Jerry, Lee Swenson, Toby McLeod, Carole Levine, and I became the organizing committee for “Technology: Over the Invisible Line?”  The fact that the event was a conclave—all of us stayed in one dormitory on the Mills College campus, took our meals together, and held our discussions in the dorm’s living room—intensified the camaraderie, the conflict, and the impact.  There were scores of high-pitched dialogues between folks like Harriet Barlow and Murray Bookchin, Oren Lyons and Winona La Duke.

Between that meeting in ‘78 and the Megatechnology conferences of the mid-90s, most of my Luddism took the form of solicited responses arguing against the cyber-technophiliac propositions floated by certain of the Whole Earth Catalog/CoEvolution Quarterly’s editors.  And in a long, losing resistance to employing a computer.  Now I’m a one-woman rhetorical anti-technology movement.  Every so often I go to a public meeting or write an essay to suggest that technological development has been a horrible mistake, taking away far more than it has given.  Lately Peak Oil has been a platform for some of this talk.

CG:  I’m drawn to the deeper thinking of each movement I’m in.  The lesson of Vietnam was not that that war was an unfortunate misstep in U.S. foreign policy;  it was that the U.S. was engaging in wholesale imperialism.  The point of the women’s movement wasn’t that women should get paid the same as men;  it was that the whole society was based on dysfunctional values. So, when I read Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, Jerry’s excavation of what lies behind the development of one modern technology hit the spot.  I was able to use the principles he had revealed toward any other technology, which at the time – 1979 — was nuclear weapons.  In the 1970s and ‘80s I was also suffering from illnesses I had acquired from birth control in the form of synthetic hormones and plastic intrauterine devices.  Already I had explored the philosophies behind natural medicine and had come to understand the societal dissociation that led to the development of an approach so invasive and distrustful as allopathic medicine.  My greatest influence, though, was Lewis Mumford.  I began reading his work in 1968 and have kept at it ever since.

And so, eager to be involved, I tracked down Kirk at the Bioregional Congress in Kerrville, Texas, in 1989.  I’d known Stephanie in the Bay Area in the ‘70s.  My first anti-tech gathering was a 1991 session W.H. “Ping” Ferry put together at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC.  It included Dick Sclove, Ralph Nader, Joel Yudkin, Richard Barnet, Michael Shuman, and others.  Out of that came a book, published by IPS in 1993, Technology for the Common Good.  John Zerzan in Oregon became a friend early on.  The effort was birthed by a growing web of interconnections — anarchistic in nature,  fueled by passion and wild ideas – all of which became formally solidified with the Megamachine meetings of the group that founded the Jacques Ellul Society.

KS:  I had wanted to do a book on the Luddites as far back as the 1970s, so I guess I had a sense then that technology was leading us in the wrong direction — and reading Lewis Mumford only confirmed that.  My Human Scale, in 1980, was read as an anti-technology book by some, and attacked for that, though in fact it was strongly — rather too strongly — in   favor of technologies like solar power and hydraulic windmill systems.  I went to visit Mumford and wrote an article in The Nation about him for his 90th birthday in 1986, so I was primed and prepared when the computer-internet revolution took hold in the mid- 1980s and the Unabomber began to make headlines.  Chellis’s “Neo-Luddite Manifesto” in 1990 was the signal that there was something that could be called a movement, and I got a contract to do the Luddite book.  So it seemed to me that the perils of the computer megatechnologies were beginning to be realized in wider and wider circles.  Realized—and resisted.

SM:  The early ‘70s was a revolutionary-seeming time.  Anybody who got harrowed by debating what was radical enough, as I did in defending ecology against charges that it was a bourgeois shuck, was driven to a deeper analysis.  It wasn’t preposterous to call technology per se into question. I think that much of why Luddism appeals to me is a matter of sense and sensibility.  It argues for a return to a world that is not run on entirely utilitarian and instrumental motives, a world where individuals can be what they are and not have to adapt so completely to the megamachine.  This is another way of saying that mass technology and capitalism are Moloch’s glove and hand.

It’s also a reflection of how much of the world was yet to be subordinated by technology, even as recently as 30 years ago.  No gene-splicing, no nanotech, no continent-sized gyre of plastic in mid-Pacific.  Even though climate change was up and running, its amplification and intensification  — thanks in part to the increasingly hearty appetite for electricity; thanks in part to the mass-media enhanced capacity for obfuscation—does make that bygone hope of restoring a livable, human-scaled life way seem innocent.  It was perhaps naïve.  But I couldn’t think otherwise.

CG:  The thinking behind the movement was rooted in history and historic in its own right.  Like feminism, it connected disparate phenomena.  It was breath-taking!

KS:  And if there was going to be any reflection upon or slowing of the rush into a machine-controlled world, it would have to come from the few people who saw the dangers ahead.  I remember when Doug Tomkins got 50 of us together in San Francisco in 1995.  Everyone was so smart and committed, and it began to seem that we might be able to attract enough people that we would begin to get a foot on the brake pedal.

SM:  Those were fun and challenging times, eh? — although I’m not sure that it ever was a movement in the conventional sense.  If nothing else it was a relief from isolation and self-diagnosed paranoia to be with a great many sensitive, intelligent, engaged people who were willing to look at the proposition that technology per se is problematic; and that that might someday impose what Andy McLaughlin termed “the requirement of agency,” namely that we might have to propose actions.

It seems long ago and far away that there was the luxury to explore such great big questions–and to take them and ourselves seriously.  Even though there were as many ideas about original causes as there were compatriots, the unifying sentiment seemed to be that we should not just passively accept the aggrandizement of the megamachine but condemn it.

On the other hand, to be an avowed technology critic was and is to be a “crank” — and to have to put up with being marginalized while watching the whole beautiful biosphere and all its peoples being reduced to slag.  Nevertheless being anti-technology definitely puts one on the side of more-than-human-life, peasantry, and traditional subsistence peoples, all of whom have demonstrated more staying power than the mechanists.

CG:  It was not so much a movement – but a gathering and a focus.  And yes, it was far bigger than just us intellectuals.  As you say, it was made of indigenous people who favored the old ways –- and also of simple-living advocates like the folks at Plain magazine,  of monkey-wrenchers and Earth First!ers, as well as of all the activists fighting specific technologies like nuclear and power lines.

A high point for me was the play we put on in New York in ‘95 to kick off the “Technology and Its Discontents” conference — what was it?

KS:  Interview with a Luddite!

CG:  I was the confused writer,  stymied by the fact that she now had to submit her work by computer.  Stephanie was Dr. Erdkopf, the psychiatrist I went to see about my conundrum.  And when she proposed I sleep on it,  Kirk was the 19th-century Luddite who appeared in my dream to regale me with the original struggle against the technologies that became the industrial revolution.  Then he asked me what difference his comrades had made for history,  and I had the unenviable job of finding words he could understand to describe all the technologies that had since been deployed.  In the end the Luddite from the past traveled with me into the present back to Dr. Erdkopf’s office.   And upon seeing her computer,  he takes a hammer – and smashes it!

The place was packed.  People came in from all over New England, and the Village Voice did a cartoon to commemorate the conference.  When Kirk’s Rebels Against the Future came out, New York magazine did a major feature on it,  and every time the Unabomber made news,  we all got interviewed by the media and got to keynote at conferences.  It was a heady time!

KS:  Chellis has it right: there were some great and heady moments, some excellent conferences, some inspiring speeches, a lot of important friendships.  But it wasn’t really a movement and we all knew, as Stephanie suggests, that not only were we in a distinct minority but a minority regarded by many as not quite sane.

Nonetheless, we were right.  And the warning call we sent out was the right one, and that gave us the courage of our convictions.  There’s a simple rule: when you speak out on the side of the earth — and by extension the indigenous people of the earth and those who heed their teachings — you are doing right; when you speak on the side of that technology that harms the earth, you are doing wrong.  A moral stance may not be successful politics, but it is right.

SM:  The effort petered out, though –- maybe because Doug Tompkins decided that his philanthropy could be more useful in preserving large pristine hunks of Chile, and I can’t fault him for that.  I believe in art for art’s sake, and discourse for its own sake.  I think intellectual conclaves are worth doing if only to gather and tone up the widely-scattered intellectuals involved.  But those are expensive activities.  And we were fortunate to have been participants.  Now we have to maintain that perspective in our several settings, along with doing the homely work of surviving at the margins.

CG:  Well, I don’t think the effort “petered out.”  I’m more in a hasta-la-victoria-siempre mood.  As long as there is oppression, there is resistance;  so long as there is mass technology organizing life for efficiency and aggrandizement, there are people for decent values.  Humans have a deeply embedded knowing when things are wrong.

To me, what happened to our generation of Luddites is that when the “new technologies” took hold, they literally reconfigured the patterns of connectivity.  I’m talking about computers and cell phones and BlackBerries, mega-freeways and shopping malls, the Big Boxes, genetic engineering and websites, hyper-surveillance technologies — and giant transnational corporations took over our arena of expression, the publishing business.  Communities that had made their way via land line and letters and meeting in cafés disintegrated.  I think for a good ten years folks like us were confused, left behind.  Or we were left striving, against the grain, to catch up.  Or we fell into new groupings connected by new means.  Or we simply became isolated in a world of near-total technology encasement.  This new world caused some of our colleagues to forge a politic shaped by different words and concepts –- and, for fear of being dismissed by all the people with their laptops and iPods, to purposefully stop talking about technology’s centrality to control and oppression.

I also believe that the inevitable internal dynamics of our specific group contributed to its fade-out.  I say “inevitable” because empire sets up a class system: some have access more than others; some have more utilitarian knowledge than others;  some, more money.  In the Jacques Ellul Society this dynamic played out as a gap between a clique that made the behind-the-scenes decisions — and the others who came to the gatherings to learn and share.  Too, a few were working the scene to raise funds for their own projects,  which to my mind was inappropriate.  And,  you know what? we didn’t lay out an ethic of respect; gossiping and back-stabbing happened –- and this type of trust-breaking behavior is bound to break up any effort.

KS:  I doubt that gossiping and back-stabbing brought us down!  The movement petered out — and I think that’s the right phrase, for it doesn’t exist as a movement today — for reasons much larger than our funding, our foibles, or our follies.  It ended because it lost.  The other side won.

Think of the transformation of the world in the years since, let us say, 1990.  All the things Chellis mentions, fundamentally based on the computer chip, swept over the social and economic worlds with a tsunamic power within a decade, breezed past Y2K, and penetrated every profession, every setting, every means of communication, every transaction.  It was — and is, and getting more so — inescapable.

How could any critique of technology overcome that?  What sense did it make to go on saying that there will be ugly consequences, that there are terrible downsides?  Even if anyone wanted to believe it — and I think many did, or as the New Yorker said, “there’s a little bit of the Unabomber in all of us” — no one, individually or collectively, had the power to stop the technological onslaught.  It was the way of life chosen by the economic and governmental powers-that-be, with all the money and all the laws, and it could not be stopped.  Look at us….emailing.

SM:  Emailing, indeed!  Although I can say that my life has remained outwardly as simple as I can manage, I’m still dependent on grid and petroleum-fueled cash economy — and emailing.  It’s ironic at best.

My inner experience depends much on my proximity to nature and distance from information technologies.  The closer I am to the internet and its spawn the more crushed I feel. Personal computers put the onus on us to be enterprising publicists and self-promoters. The whole apparatus seems calculated to exalt proficiency in things that I have, all my life, been loath to do.  One of the most sinister and degrading aspects of it is the presumption that if you have the chops there is always a speedier more efficient way to get something done.  And because time is money as never before, speed, efficiency, and productivity trump custom, community, and art for art’s sake.

Encroachment by technologies like heavy equipment is more brutal than ever too.  Earth-moving, chain-sawing, road-widening, trash-hauling, well-drilling, tree-chipping, hasty, ugly construction and gravel mining continue the holocaust.

So, let’s say that the technology criticism business isn’t currently brisk.

KS:  …putting it mildly.

SM:  But articulating a critical perspective on technology is more necessary than ever – yes?  It’s crucial now to stand in the truth.  As Chellis put it so handsomely, it’s our job to hang on to what it means to be human.  And to the lessons purchased at the expense of the biosphere so that whatever society emerges from the ruins may be tempered by humility and memory.

CG:  All our lives are tinged by personal isolation and economic desperation borne of super-computers and high-tech war and global wireless communications.  With these technologies a reach of imperialistic control has been achieved that Alexander the Great or Hitler would have envied.  People around the world are starving.  Everyone is being exposed not only to the pesticides and toxics we already knew about, but now to deadly electromagnetic radiation – and everyone has health complaints.  Migration is at an all-time high. Crime and mental illness are on the rise.  Children kill children.  The fabric of community has been torn to shreds.

SM:  The essence of our anti-technology movement was rooted in justice and compassion.  Part of the criticism we offered was of the inherent elitism of a technocratic society.  Not only does it privilege certain kinds of scientific research and technological development, it exonerates the practitioners from any meaningful concern for the lives and thoughts of other ilks.  Once in a while I visit the techno-universe via Wired and Technology Review magazines. For all their claims of revolutionary consequence, they strike me as hermetic, autistic, and trivial. And all the gadgets and programs and doo-dads and robotics and miniaturizations and radiations strike me as being essentially amoral — and lacking in meaning.  Amplifying, not transformative; aggrandizing, not revolutionary.

Whereas we scruffy non-institutional technology critics continue in the self-appointed service of asserting that our collective life and its material culture should be subject to profound moral scrutiny by the whole community, not just the appointed ethicists, and that the renunciation option must be included in every such debate.  Such would open up the possibility to imagine wildly different ways of being.

CG:  And wildly different ways of thinking.  The Technological Is Political.  Technics Are Never Neutral.  Small Is Beautiful.  The analysis that the Luddites came up with by insight into the eruptions in their midst has never lost its brilliance nor its relevance.  We have merely been this generation’s reiteration of it.

KS:  I couldn’t put it better.

CG:  So what are we doing now?

KS:  I feel my personal life is a good accommodation to the predicament — just enough of the computer to get things written and published and establish the Middlebury Institute as an institution fighting for secession, but plenty of trees and flowers around me always.  And my garden.

SM:   I’m doing what I’ve been doing all along — trying to minimize my complicity in megatechnology and acting as the town skeptic when it comes to techno-fixes.  I’m wanting to return to the themes of wildness — whatever that is in an age of extinctions and ecosystem collapse — to try to get my listeners to break out of the homogeneous trance of mass communications and make common cause with Life.

As Wendell Berry observed, energy-intensive technology displaced community and obviated the occasions for community endeavor.  Well,  now that energy is becoming expensive and muscle power relatively plentiful, the question may be whether that muscle power will be commandeered through slavery or indenture; or will be mobilized in, by, and for communities for their own vital purposes.

CG:  I’ve spent the last decades learning from and fighting for this land-based Chicano culture of northern New Mexico.  I’ve been writing books, articles, lectures, a bilingual opera — hopefully enhancing what perception of life and society I had before with the textures of a community with roots in land and history.  And I’ve joined with activists around the world to fight the microwaving of the planet.

KS.  We push on.

CG:  We push on!

KS:  Schumacher said, maybe you can’t change the wind but you can put up sails so that you can use the wind to move on.  That’s what I do, daily.  Not very big sails, maybe, but they’re up.