The Luddite in Me

by Russ Roberts on December 1, 2005

in Technology

I love technology.  I love my iPod.  I love my digital camera and the pictures it creates on my computer.  I love the Powerbook G4 I’m using to write this post.  I even once loved my Treo 600 though that infatuation is fading as its email program capabilities have unexpectedly deteriorated.  But I still love the idea of being able to get my email whenever and wherever I want.  I love the antibiotic that cured my wife’s pneumonia last winter.  I love blogging.  I love the special features on the DVD.  I love that Dr. Jonas can save this boy’s life (rr).  I love the idea of Skype.  If I could find a decent USB headset and mic that worked as it should on a Mac I’d love Skype itself.  I love podcasting.  If I watched TV, I’d love Tivo.

I understand that the antibiotic and Dr. Jonas’s surgery is more important than the elegance of my iPod.  But I love them all  Okay, I don’t really love any of them, I merely like them a great deal, but sometimes I’m shocked by how much pleasure I get from the gadgets in my life.

Does the gloss of my computer’s titanium casing distract me from things with deeper and more significant meaning?  I know I have an urge to compulsively check my email.  This is not healthy.  Can gadgets and technology take us away from what is real?  Or is the reality of my fingers clicking the keys no more real than the words that are posted in cyberspace? 

Mark Helprin comes down on one side of these questions in his short story, "Jacob Bayer and the Telephone" from his magnificent collection of stories, The Pacific.  Bayer is an itinerant Jewish school teacher in Russia in 1913 who stumbles on a town that worships the telephone.  The telephone has made the town wealthier and healthier than any of the impoverished villages in the region.  Everyone has one of these black devices and the leaders of the town proselytize for more telephones. At a town meeting, Bayer speaks of the real meaning of this seductive gadget:

Can you boil water with a telephone?  Will it warm you like a fire on a cold night?  Can you embrace it like a woman?  If you pick it up, will you feel the sun on your face, hear the birds in the trees, see and feel the wind moving across a lake or whipping and thrashing a wheat field into what I suppose, never having seen it, looks like the sea?  Will the telephone sit in your lap, like a child, or sleep in your arms, like a baby?  Will you love it?  Will it love you?  Will you cry for its beauty, and sob when it passes?  Will have a scent like pine tar or salt air or rose?  Will it speak fearlessly like the prophets, and hold fast as truth takes its sharp turns?  Will it show courage in the face of danger and death?  Will it make a single line of poetry?  Or bake a single loaf of bread?…

This thing that you greet with erotic and worshipful enthusiasm, and the wealth it brings in train, are the golden calf.  You are worshipping what you have made, which is shallow and dead, and have averted your eyes from the world you have been given, which is magnificent and full.

There’s almost no Luddite in me.  But it’s nice to be reminded of the virtues of meatspace.  Does anyone write better than Mark Helprin?

The Jacob Bayer story first appeared in Forbes.  You can read the whole thing here.  Isn’t the internet the greatest?

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Christopher Meisenzahl December 1, 2005 at 12:30 pm

I know what you mean about being a Luddite at times. I'm wearing a mechanical watch and have a fountain pen in my pocket at the moment, no joke. ;-)


anyone December 1, 2005 at 12:57 pm

Ask Russ sometime about HIS search for the perfect fountain pen.

Randy December 1, 2005 at 3:19 pm

I've read Winter's Tale about 5 times now. Still trying to find Lake of the Coheeries. Helprin is indeed an outstanding writer.

Ivan Kirigin December 1, 2005 at 3:34 pm

The best technology allows things that couldn't happen before.

I can easily listen to any kind of music with my iPod while I walk to work. A few hundred years ago, would I need a traveling super-orchestra to achieve the same? Isn't it just a better experience?

Besides, it isn't like we must exclusively have lives devoted to the gadgets if we choose to use them. I went on a trip to watch the leaves change this year.

Nature & meatspace experience is nice. It'll be around for a while. Why not celebrate both?

Besides, the whole golden-calf analogy is annoying. It's a false god to the true god of… what? Bright leaves?

jaimito December 2, 2005 at 2:36 am

Thanks for the new word, meatspace. Now I have meatspace, cyberspace and what do you call where god and other imagined beings exist? Olympus-space? hades/space? shamayimspace? no space?

Paul N December 2, 2005 at 3:13 pm

Be careful posting things like "I know I have an urge to compulsively check my email." – that's a strong incentive for blog readers to email you as often as they feel like it!

Re: Ludditism, I've never had a cell phone, but all the fancy ads make me feel like I'm missing out on something great.

Tresho December 2, 2005 at 6:26 pm

Christopher, did you refer to yourself as a Luddite? A real Luddite would tell time by looking out his window (which should be a true glass-less wind-hole) and write his missives with a quill pen on sheepskin. Certainly no Luddite would ever post a message on the internet. Mechanical time keepers and fountain pens were high-tech in their heydays, after all.

Paul Pennyfeather December 3, 2005 at 12:28 am

Helprin is certainly one of our best writers. I'm especially fond of MEMOIR FROM AN ANTPROOF CASE. Interesting fellow, too. Classically educated (it shows) and a former member of both the US Navy and the Israeli Defense Force (how does one do that?), he now resides on a farm. Beloved by conservative politicians…until he tells them how hopelessly inept and corrupt they are. He's not likely to be offered a cabinet post anytime soon, especially by the Bush administration.

Brant D. Kuehn December 6, 2005 at 11:12 am

I wonder if the village with the telephone had more time to write poetry, enjoy the leaves, visit the sea, and lay in bed "embracing their women" because their telephone-wealth let them spend less time scraping cold, dry Russian soil in a futile attempt to grow enough grain for their families (which would be confiscated by the bosses anyway).

Here's another: Almost all traditional images of heaven involve eternal, omnipresent music. This must have seemed pretty sweet when King Solomon was excited to have David play a harp for him. So now we're on the verge of everyone in the economically-free world being able to afford their own mp3 player and download music that will increasingly be recorded and mixed on personal computers for dirt cheap. Any music you want any time you want? Like heaven?

You can love technology for the love of technology, but you may also love technology for the fact that it makes other things more accessible.

Jack Straw December 8, 2005 at 12:20 pm

I just threw my nokia into the swollen Chattooga. As soon as I post this cyber goodbye, I will tear the artificial silicon entrails from my dell and carry its shell to the top of Blood Mountain, where I will sit on it as a footstool, playing my grandfather's violin, enjoying the kiss of the sun and the wind's embrace.

I am not kidding, and don't call me 'Shirley'.

Jogos para Celular October 22, 2008 at 7:46 pm

Great. Besides, the whole golden-calf analogy is annoying. It's a false god to the true god of… what? Bright leaves? [2]

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