VIII: interview with a luddite - Langdon Winner

VIII: interview with a luddite


Every interview any of us Luddites gave – and they had a tendency to come at a gallop when the Unabomber was hitting the news -- would culminate with the question “Do you own a computer?”  I was gratified each time to erupt into a Mona-Lisa smile.  “Noo-oo,” I’d coo in self-righteous pride.  But then, in 2002, the Johnny Appleseed of Cybernetics arrived at my house with his bag of knotted wires and indecipherable gadgets -- and a second-hand, clearly cast-aside-for-something-newer Dell laptop.  And so it came to be – perhaps the third-to-last of the Jacques Ellul bunch (Stephanie succumbed in 2003; Wendell, I’m not sure when, but he did) -- that I crossed one confused, tentative toe into cyberspace.
    The question of what technologies one owns is a curious one. 
I think of my grandmother Clara “Mimere” Daoust’s house as a place of baskets -- willow baskets for garnering carrots from the garden,  grass baskets for passing the bread, stick baskets for carrying sheets and pillowcases.  It was a place of iceboxes, steam heaters, and a chute for dropping dirty clothes from the second floor into a laundry basket in the basement.  Mimere’s first telephone was a black Bakelite contraption shaped something like an hourglass, and she had the same number for six decades: Fairmount 1-0900.  Then, every Christmas Uncle Brud and Uncle Jason would drag the old steam engine model down from the attic and work all afternoon to get it fired up.  They approached the machine, not with arrogance about its quaintness, but with respect.



The house I grew up in also had an icebox, steam heaters, and a chute.  As the post-WWII economy found its future in the sale of consumer goods, we acquired a refrigerator, a Magnavox with rabbit ears, an olive-colored plastic telephone, and a garbage disposal.  Mimere got an electric garage door.  By high school I had a pink Princess phone with my own phone number.
Throughout my adulthood I have prided myself for owning fewer machines than my family had in the 1950’s.  Friend Hallie Iglehart was the first to bring home the new-fangled phone answering device; there it sat, circa 1974, on its own chair in the middle of a room like a home invasion by Hal the Computer.  By 1978, when the device had been reduced in size to less-than-a-bread-box, I too purchased one and spent the better part of an evening honing and re-honing my outgoing message.  Today I live in an adobe hut in the altiplano of Bolivia and drive a 1978 natural-gas-fueled Jeep.  I use a Gateway laptop, another of Johnny Appleseed’s cast-offs, and walk a quarter mile through tall grasses to go online.
It is all very interesting to review one’s personal history of technology.  Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil” comes to mind because the point, if one grasps the greater significance of the Megamachine, is to review not your history -- but its history.  From the get-go technological society has depended on increasingly complex, overarching, pervasive, and dangerous technologies to keep it functioning.  By its very structure mass civilization is itself a machine mirroring the mechanistic qualities of clockwork, standardization, efficiency, centralization, expansion, and militarization – with zero regard for life and living beings.  And we live encased within it.  This is a different story -- not of a bedtime sort featuring rabbit ears and pink phones – but a story of powerlessness.  Of grief, terror, numbing, and rationalization – experiences each of us has known.

With his mail bombs, on-the-lam low-tech cabin in Montana, and insistence on the publication of his anti-industrial treatise in national newspapers, Ted Kaczynski thrust the subject of technology into the zeitgeist big-time in 1995.  Kirkpatrick Sale’s Rebels Against the Future came out the same year, and what amounted to a history book about a crushed rebellion in 19th century England was suddenly garnering more attention than, Unabomber-less, it would have.

Kirk and I decided to put on a play called Interview with a Luddite.  It was to be the Friday-night highlight of a conference, “Technology and Its Discontents,” at New York’s Learning Alliance on Lafayette Street.  The conference would feature ourselves, Bill McKibben, Langdon Winner, Andrew McLaughlin, and Stephanie Mills.  When Steph arrived at Kirk’s basement apartment on 11th Street, we decided she would be in the play too.


Kirkpatrick Sale & Stephanie Mills

Flyers for the event were plastered around the Village, and various newspapers and radio stations were carrying ads for it – and yet, here it was the day before and we had neither script nor set.  Putting our heads together over Earl Grey tea, with occasional forays into the mossy bricked garden out the screen door, we plotted that a modern-day Luddite (me) would go to a psychiatrist (Stephanie) concerning her distress that the publishing industry now required her to submit her writing from a computer.  The doctor would recommend that she sleep on it, and she would flop down on the consulting couch.  And so, from dream state, would enter the original Luddite from 1811, Lancashire, England(Kirk).  First he would regale her with the conditions and history of his times.  Then curiosity would overtake him; he would ask the modern-day Luddite about her times and struggles.  “Did we make an impact?” he would press.  “Did we lay the ground for an easier time for you?”  After she would tell him about the 20th century, she would awaken only to find her 19th-century companion still with her –- and at laying eyes upon his first computer in the office of the psychiatrist, he would take his hammer and, as in days of yore, smash the machine.
I knew Kirkpatrick as a wry, earnest, and somewhat introverted intellectual -- so nothing in my experience prepared me for what I then saw.  We never actually practiced the play.  We spent the morning of the performance setting up the stage at the Learning Alliance and then retreated to our respective apartments in the Village to get dressed.
Looking purposefully au currant in my black rip-stop jumpsuit, I sat waiting for him at the window table of the French Roast at 6th Avenueand 11th.  Given that I was about to appear in a theater performance before a New York audience -- for which there was no script and had been no rehearsal -- I was inappropriately calm.  Maybe it was like the time during an anti-war protest when the Berkeleypolice with their batons, mace cans, and rage were rampaging at my heels -- and my mind unexpectedly switched to an English garden amid daisies, roses, and white trellises, with me leaping in the slowest of slow motion across the trimmed green grass.  Maybe it was like that.  The crowds were crossing 6thlike geese in lockstep rhythm with the WALK signal when, all of a sudden, the gaggle parted and I glimpsed a … a … whaaaa?… a highwayman with clipped beard, commanding black cape, billowing white poplin shirt, and pants tucked into high-laced boots.
Kirk!
We were off to a magical night at the theater.  The play went – dare I say it? -- smashingly well, due in large part to Kirk and Steph’s dramatic prowess.  Afterward Emerson Blake, editor of Orionmagazine, said to me, “Amazing.  You memorized that whole script!”
A few weeks later the Village Voice ran a cartoon making fun of us for being foolhardy in challenging modern technology, and New York magazine published “Die, Computer, Die” cynically trashing Kirkpatrick’s book, Scott Savage’s Plain magazine, Jeremy Rifkin’s anti-genetic engineering efforts –- and featuring a reference reeking of urban superiority to the “mud hut” (read: adobe house) that was at the time my home in New Mexico.
New York, I guess, was still swirling with the headiness of its Streamlined Days.



This blog is a book. Please feel free to read the next chapter now. Go to the Table of Contents under the introduction on the right side of the page and click on the next chapter.

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