Homage to a 21st Century Luddite

Social distancing has been a boom for electronic communication. Skype, Zoom, WhatsApp have replaced the face-to-face. Amazon has replaced the local bookstore. Scrolling on a Kindle screen has replaced turning pages. Tuning in to teleteaching has replaced sitting in the classroom. COVID-19 has forced us to use modern communication.

Or has it?

A dear friend, Gene, refuses to go modern. Not that he refuses all modern conveniences. He has a portable telephone, but does not use any form of written messaging and the number of people who have his number is limited.

He is quite proud of his refusal to go modern. In many ways, he is a 21st century Luddite, those 19th century English textile workers who were afraid that new machines would put them out of work. He’s not afraid of losing his job; that era has long passed. Rather, he rejects giving Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon (GAFA) any control over his life. (Recent disturbing revelations about Zoom only reinforce this argument.) So part of his refusal is political.

There is also the element of the grumpy old man who just doesn’t want to learn new-fangled contraptions. At a certain point in life, he says, changing habits is not worth the effort.

What about the positives of electronic communication? For years, elderly grandparents have been able to communicate with their families across great distances. Students who are housebound are now able to engage in educational activities. In fact, electronic communication has exponentially increased information availability. We have more possibilities under our fingertips than ever. Millions of people can now follow the best professors through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS).

The pandemic has accelerated and fundamentally changed how we will communicate in the future. Will electronic social distancing be the future? Now that more and more people are working from home, will expensive offices be needed? Now that videoconferencing has taken over, do we really need face-to-face meetings? Now that Amazon offers a world of knowledge delivered in our mailbox, do we really need to browse in the bookstore? Are librarians better than Amazon’s algorithmic suggestions?

After social distancing – whenever that comes – how will we socially reconnect? Pundits are telling us that the pandemic will change our future. What does that mean? Will we no longer shake hands? (On national television, President Trump declared that he was never a big hand shaker. Nor, we imagine, was he a big bro-hugger; a back slapper, maybe.) Stop cheek kissing to say hello? We just don’t know.

We do know that electronic communication has made enormous inroads into our lives. Platforms such as Zoom and Skype have enabled us to reach out during the prolonged lockdown. There has been no alternative. Stay at home means that we have limited communication. Seeing a friend or loved one on the screen is not optimal, but it’s better than nothing.

What to do with my 21st century Luddite? Telephone calls are certainly in order. After hours of instructions, he was able to connect to Zoom, but only once. Since then, he has refused to try again. Once was more than enough.

He often refers to Shoshana Zuboff’s terrifying description of how we are being manipulated in Surveillance Capitalism. She details how we are losing our privacy through electronic surveillance by powerful companies. And that was before the pandemic. Today, we seem even more willing to give up our freedom in the interest of security. Do we really want someone to monitor our telephones to know who we are next to?

My 21st century Luddite friend should not be ignored. With all the advantages we are discovering about electronic communication, there are costs to the benefits. There are moral hazards. So while most of us electronic communicate during the pandemic, we should also be aware of the negatives. And for that, we should pay homage to a modern Luddite.


Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.