'Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?'

"But we now live, we are told, in the Computer Age. What is the outlook for Luddite sensibility? Will mainframes attract the same hostile attention as knitting frames once did? I really doubt it. Writers of all descriptions are stampeding to buy word processors. Machines have already become so user-friendly that even the most unreconstructed of Luddites can be charmed into laying down the old sledgehammer and stroking a few keys instead. Beyond this seems to be a growing consensus that knowledge really is power, that there is a pretty straightforward conversion between money and information, and that somehow, if the logistics can be worked out, miracles may yet be possible. If this is so, Luddites may at last have come to stand on common ground with their Snovian adversaries, the cheerful army of technocrats who were supposed to have the "future in their bones." It may be only a new form of the perennial Luddite ambivalence about machines, or it may be that the deepest Luddite hope of miracle has now come to reside in the computer's ability to get the right data to those whom the data will do the most good. With the proper deployment of budget and computer time, we will cure cancer, save ourselves from nuclear extinction, grow food for everybody, detoxify the results of industrial greed gone berserk -- realize all the wistful pipe dreams of our days."

As my comprehensive exams draw perilously closer I'm finishing up the last few items I haven't gotten to, which today meant I finally read Thomas Pynchon's essay "Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?" from 1984. I thought my fellow HASTACers might enjoy the challenge to our technophilic sensibilities, especially as we continue to wait on that cure for cancer. Hopelessly nostalgic, doomed to Sisyphusean failure, "King Ludd" offers a purely fantastic solution to the threats and challenges posed by new technologies. Even if (as at the end of the finale of a Recent Popular Science Fiction Series whose name I will not mention for fear of spoilers) you could somehow convince the population to spontaneously give up the convenience and comfort of their omnipresent consumer machines, at this point we are simply strapped to them: the worldwide population could likely not be supported outside a context of industrial agriculture and global commerce, and in any event much of the environmental damage we have done to the climate and the oceans would not be repaired even if we somehow suddenly stopped now. (An abrupt end to technological civilization could, ironically, even make some problems worse.)

But the flipside of Ludditism remains likewise fantastical, as with the last-chance geo-engineering that is increasingly foregrounded in mainstream publications as our option of first (and, indeed, only) resort to ecological crisis. (See, for instance, The Atlantic's cover story from July/August -- precisely the sort of scientistic pipe-dreamism Pynchon mocks.) The two fantasies are, in the end, nicely reciprocal; in both cases we imagine a return to a Utopian world before the human and environmental costs of industrial society, the first through a Luddite smashing of the looms and the second through ideologically determined dreams of free energy, technological omnipotence, and informational dematerialization, Utopian technofutures whose perpetually denied realizations are, always, just around the corner.

Lisa Klarr

Reclamation of the Industrial

The problematic of how to "detoxify the results of industrial greed gone berserk" have generated responses that fall neatly along the Luddite/techno-topia spectrum you describe. To take Michigan/Detroit as an example, you have on the one hand groups seeking to make high tech investments in nuclear storage (to be hypothetically placed in the Upper Peninsula) and alternative energy (mostly fuel cells); on the other, you have a grassroots Urban Farming movement aiming to re-zone the vacant one-third of the city into agricultural parcels. As to date, the two hundred plus urban farms in the city are considered subsistence and are not industrially run. It will be interesting to see what kind of hybridity emerges.