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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