XIV: dead zero - Langdon Winner

XIV: dead zero


Dead Zero is a village in northern New Mexico that means as much to the corporate economy as Grenada meant to geopolitics.  Yet in Chimayó, amid chile fields and weavers’ looms, we reside in the eye of technological globalization.  The expanded freeway -- with its spanking-new casino resorts, golf courses, and gas stations -- has long since arrived.  Then came the telecommunications plot to erect 11 microwave towers, one atop the roof of each of the schools in the district, just feet from the brain cells of the children.  The village pulled together to beat that one -- but a year later T-Mobile threw a tower up during the dark of night in the heart of the village’s historic plaza.  Just then we learned that the open lands to the north of the village, under the long-time care of the Bureau of Land Management,  would soon be a 60,000-acre international “Fun Park” for ATV rampaging.  And now Windstream is bringing fiber optic to pipe WiMAX into every poor adobe home and trailer.
 “Those who are in the grip of this myth imagine that with an increasing budget for scientific R&D” -- Lewis Mumford’s 1962 prophesy was dead-on -- “with a more voluminous productivity, augmented by almost omniscient computers and a wider range of antibiotics and inoculations, with a greater control over our genetic inheritance, with more complex surgical operations and transplants, with an extension of automation to every form of human activity, mankind will achieve –- what?”[i]
Dead Zero is Everywhere.
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Yes, the front has lengthened, almost to infinity.  In 1988 scientists warned that humanity had just ten years before the ecological devastation caused by harmful technologies would be so advanced the planet would not be able to recuperate.[ii]  1997 came and went.  No one, it seems, had the courage to mention that the time frame had elapsed.  In 2006 Al Gore, backed by the research of NASA climatologist James Hansen, said it again: we have ten years before it will be too late.[iii]



One of the last meetings of the Jacques Ellul Society took place in 1994 at Dartington Hall, not far from the heartland where the original Luddites had launched their resistance in England.  Thanks to the Foundation for Deep Ecology, our largest group yet was regaled with an elegant, wood-paneled meeting hall and proper English tea twice a day.  But the conversation was not as delightful as the setting, threaded as it was with our growing understanding of the mechanisms of the global corporate economy and its relationship to the “new technologies” that were taking over. 
Andrew Kimbrell got a bee under his technology-criticism bonnet coming out of that session.  He wanted to publish a magazine, and sure enough Techné, a beautiful rag showcasing analysis, commentary, and poetry, made its fleeting passage across the literary sky – just the one issue -- only to crash just as we as a group were destined to do.  The very last gathering took place in a bed-and-breakfast in Washington, D.C. in 1996.
By the mid-2000’s, who among us could overlook that the brilliance of our collective mind had faded before the apparently morebrilliant light behind the computer screen?  Or that many of us had not even communicated in ten years?  I began to feel antsy about the demise of our anti-tech camaraderie and its political potential.  I also sensed that, even worse, the rubrics of our analysis -- so clearly in lineage with what the Luddites had begun in the early 1800’s -- had drifted like a wisp of cotton candy into a firmament now over-crammed by the electromagnetic emissions of wireless technologies.
I call Stephanie and Kirkpatrick.  Stephanie is living on her ten-acre woodland in northern Michigan, working on an homage to fellow small-is-beautiful activist Robert Swann (published in 2010 as On Gandhi’s Path) -- and she is consumed with the coming collapse of nature and civilization.
Why did the Jacques Ellul Society disband? I ask.  Steph harbors a sense that the group petered out because the funding petered out.  The benefactor of the effort had pulled his support so he could purchase tracts of pristine land in Chile, and therefore have a direct impact on the survival of the planet.  “I think intellectual conclaves are worth doing if only to gather and tone up the widely-scattered intellectuals involved,” she says.  “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.”[iv]
My take is that when the “new technologies” came on, they reconfigured the patterns of connectivity.  Communities that had made their way via land line, letters, and meetings disintegrated.  Folks like us modern-day Luddites 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. 
Kirk has yet another angle.  He had gone on from his media-catching Rebels against the Future to write a history drawing linkages between the development of steam engines and the building of the American empire, and in terms of the marketplace, it had bombed.  His epiphany was to skip over the technology issue that might push geeks and computer advocates away from activism, particularly those from the up-and-coming generations who know nothing but the digital world.  From his home in Cold Spring, New York, and later in South Carolina, he now focuses on the politics of secession from the U.S.A.   
Kirk tells me that the computer chip has “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,” becoming essentially … inescapable.
“How could any critique of technology overcome that?” he continues at a low-level burn.  “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.” [v]
I propose that the inevitable internal dynamics of our specific group might have contributed to its demise as well.  I use the word “inevitable” because empire sets up a class system: some have access to resources 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 disruptive.  And since we hadn’t laid out an ethic of respect, gossiping and back-stabbing happened.
Kirk’s response is quick and fierce.
“I doubt gossiping and back-stabbing brought us down!” he quips. “The truth is … we LOST!!  The other side WON.
He is right, of course.  We lost.  Touted, even among environmentalists and progressive governments, as the new “green” energy, nuclear power is making a come-back – and with it, nuclear weapons.  The U.S. President who ran a campaign on a Peace-in-Iraq platform merely redirects the U.S. military toward Afghanistan, and small countries are hot on the trail to develop nuclear capability.  Meanwhile, genetically-engineered species have infiltrated even the most remote corn fields in the highlands of Oaxaca, where corn is sacred.  Save a few stretches of Third World terrain in the most down-and-out countries, the world’s military-cum-telecommunications-industry has paved the planet with layer upon layer of microwave emissions -- and stands on the verge of placing a Blackberry in the hands of every human being.  Concomitant to that reality, state surveillance has accomplished an in-reach so complete that hardly a conversation by anyone on the planet is not being documented.  Truly, the “new technologies” that sat on the horizon of our 1970’s-‘90’s Luddite-inspired visions are now fully and completely woven into the New World Order.  “Textual mind” has taken over -- and “techno-fascism” has morphed into the accepted norm.



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.


[i] Lewis Mumford, “Prologue to Our Time.”
[ii] James Hansen, Testimony. Washington DC: United StatesSenate Hearing on Global Climate Change,  June 23, 1988
[iii] James Hansen, “Global Warming: Is There Time to Avoid Disastrous Human-made Climate Change?” Lecture at National Academy of Sciences, April 23, 2006; and Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth. Los Angeles: Paramount Classics and Participant Productions, 2006.
[iv] Chellis Glendinning, Stephanie Mills, and Kirkpatrick Sale, “Three Luddites Talking…. On a Computer!” www.counterpunch.org, May 29-31, 2009.
[v] Chellis Glendinning, Stephanie Mills, and Kirkpatrick Sale, “Three Luddites.”

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