The advance of computer technology has generally been perceived as a positive development. Ardent proponents of technology tell us that sophisticated computer networks will make it easier to communicate, to live more comfortably, and to spend our time more wisely. But others are more skeptical about high-tech civilization: Will there be time for solitude? Will we have any privacy in an increasingly wired world? Will life in cyberspace be beneficial or detrimental to our sanity and happiness?
Kirkpatrick Sale believes humankind should begin reassessing its relationship to technology before it’s too late. For him, technology is a harbinger of social disintegration that will have catastrophic effects on society, the environment, and the economy. In his most recent book, Rebels against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution (Addison-Wesley), Sale examines the legacy of the Luddites, British textile workers who, in 1811 and 1812, responded to the disruptive changes of the Industrial Revolution by attacking and smashing the agents of those changes: the machines. Although English authorities crushed the Luddites after fifteen months of rebellion, Sale believes they offer an example for our age, in which “the technology is even more complex and extensive, and its impact even more pervasive and dislocating, touching greater populations with greater speed and at greater scale.”
Sale is the author of seven books, including The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy (NAL Dutton) and The Green Revolution (Hill and Wang). He is a cofounder of the New York Green Party, a contributing editor at the Nation, and a member of the Neo-Luddites, a loosely knit group of modern-day rebels who aim to protect their families, communities, and livelihoods against the threats of high-tech society.
Sale discussed his views on technology from his Greenwich Village apartment in New York City.
Chepesiuk: The Luddites’ rebellion lasted only fifteen months, and they were not successful in stopping machines from destroying their way of life. So why should we study their example today?
Sale: The Luddites are models for a moral response to the problems of technology. They did not simply react against technology because it was doing them out of their livelihood; they recognized that the advent of technology was hurtful to society, or, as they put it, to “commonality.” Also, we can learn important lessons from their tactics. Specifically, when they directed their violence against machinery, they had the general support of the population, but when they moved toward violence against people they began to lose that popular support.
Chepesiuk: So you see yourself as a modern-day Luddite?
Sale: A Neo-Luddite, yes: a person who sees technology as the principal threat to a sane society and the welfare of the planet. A Neo-Luddite says there must be an assessment and analysis of the effects of technology and, where appropriate, resistance to it.
Chepesiuk: In Rebels against the Future, you refer to the first Industrial Revolution and the second Industrial Revolution. Would you explain the difference, and how they relate to your critique of technology?
Sale: The threat began around five hundred years ago, at the beginning of the scientific revolution. Technology allowed European invaders to conquer huge tracts of the New World, from coast to coast. They founded a society based upon the destruction of nature, proceeding on the assumption that nature was there to be exploited, used, and destroyed for human “progress.” This trend accelerated with the coming of the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century, and continued well into the twentieth century, when we began to see a second revolution, starting with the advent of the computer.
Central to both these revolutions is the basic idea that human decisions get made because of technology, rather than vice versa. This has been called the “technological imperative.” As the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atom bomb, said, “When something is technologically sweet, you go ahead and do it.” What this does, though, is lead us down many scientific and technological paths that have no particular value other than being “sweet” because someone can make a profit. If someone can imagine a profit being made down the road, then they will do it — and drag the rest of us along with them.
Chepesiuk: Could you give an example?
Sale: Take the “information society.” The computer is praised for solving the “problem” of transmitting immense amounts of information from one place to another. But, as it turns out, we’ve never had a problem in this century getting information from one place to another. In fact, by 1970, we were on the verge of having something like one hundred thousand scientific journals.
Another example: A friend of mine went to a car dealership to see about buying a car. The salesman told him that for an extra three hundred dollars he could get cruise control. My friend said, “What’s that?” The dealer said, “Install that device in your car and you won’t have to keep your right foot on the accelerator.” My friend said, “I’ve been using my right foot for forty years and I’ve never had a problem. I can’t foresee a problem in the future.” So this feature exists to solve a nonexistent problem. That is characteristic of the drive toward more and more technology.
Chepesiuk: And that trend is becoming more and more pervasive, whether we like it or not.
Sale: Yes. In fact, people are constantly coming up with so-called technological innovations that there is no use for yet. You can see how worthless many of them are when you realize that games are the first use for them.
Chepesiuk: You touched on the concept of the “information society.” We are truly overwhelmed by the amount of information available to us. But so much of it is junk — totally useless and unrelated to the way we live our lives. What impact is this having on the human psyche and on relationships between people?
Sale: Some have called it “interactive autism.” People who spend their time on the Internet, staring at a screen in a darkened room for hours on end, are effectively autistic, cut off from the real world. What they are learning might relate to the world outside that room, but often it doesn’t. Relating to a Microsoft window inside a computer rather than the world outside your window is bound to have long-term negative effects.
Chepesiuk: Proponents of the Internet would say that there is a unique sense of community in cyberspace. People communicate there who, for various reasons, wouldn’t normally communicate with each other.
Sale: Yes, but it’s mediated, remote, faceless communication, which by its nature has less texture and fewer dimensions to it than face-to-face communication. In addition, it takes people away from face-to-face communication in the meeting hall, the church, the pub — the kind of exchange that offers us real community. They can call it a “virtual community” if they want, but real community-building involves getting together with neighbors who have varied interests and beliefs, and having them work out their differences.
The advantages computer interaction offers are trivial compared to the many deleterious effects computers are having elsewhere. So it really doesn’t matter that e-mail allows us to send letters instantly, or that going on-line can help me do my research more efficiently. Speed and efficiency are the values of technological society, not human society.
Chepesiuk: You paint a very bleak picture of the impact technology has on modern civilization. Aren’t there any benefits?
Sale: Whatever benefits there may be are greatly outweighed by the negatives. And the negative impact of technology can only get worse.
Chepesiuk: I imagine people whose loved ones are alive because of advances in medical technology would disagree with you.
Sale: But from an ecological point of view, these advances have been a disaster. The success of high-tech medicine — keeping more and more people in the industrialized world alive longer and longer — is one reason we are losing species at the rate of three or four an hour. We have had to deplete more and more of the world’s habitat and resources to sustain the world’s population, which is now nearing 6 billion. For example, we are overfishing the oceans. Twenty-five years ago this kind of exploitation would have been unthinkable, but we can do it today because of technology.
Chepesiuk: How free of technology is your life? Do you use a computer when you write?
Sale: No, but I use a typewriter.
Chepesiuk: That’s still a form of technology.
Sale: Yes, as is the bicycle, but I don’t consider either to be high tech. They are carefully engineered, but they don’t have computers in them.
Chepesiuk: Would the world be better off without the typewriter or the bicycle?
Sale: Perhaps. As is the case with much technology, they arose to solve problems that weren’t problems to begin with. We should be asking, “Why do we want to get from point A to point B?” before we build the bike to take us there. We need technology to transport us only because things are built so far apart that walking has become inconvenient. We need it because at some point the powers that be in our society said, “We want to build homes away from businesses, and from each other.”
Chepesiuk: Technology is so pervasive in society. For example, I’m sure computers played a big role in the production of your books.
Sale: One has to make compromises all the time. As soon as I pick up the telephone I’m connected to a computer. I realize books are made by computer now. But I also realize that as long as I want to get my message out, I have to use that technology.
Chepesiuk: So it’s harder to be a Neo-Luddite than a Luddite?
Sale: Oh, sure. The Luddite could see and touch the machine.
Chepesiuk: And he could get a lot of satisfaction out of smashing it to bits.
Sale: I imagine it must have been a lot of fun, too. Luddites would go to the pub, have a few drinks, and split up into bands to go and smash the machines. Then they would return to the pub, sing a few songs, drink a few more beers, and trade stories about what they’d done that night.
Chepesiuk: You have publicly smashed a computer to bits. Why?
Sale: I wanted to make a dramatic point in a few seconds.
Chepesiuk: Do you consider sabotage an acceptable tactic?
Sale: No, I don’t think that’s the way to go, and I don’t believe people who share my point of view think so, either. The Luddites thought that by smashing machines they were making a statement to politicians and industrialists, who would be convinced to make the kind of changes the Luddites wanted. But I don’t know anybody who believes that smashing machines is going to have any effect on the rapid computerization of the world.
Chepesiuk: I’ve read the Unabomber’s manifesto, and he shares much of the Neo-Luddite dissatisfaction with high-tech civilization.
Sale: He clearly understands that our highly technological society has to severely limit individual and communal freedom and autonomy in order to function. He believes that such a society will become so complex that it will ultimately collapse of its own weight, and that it should be helped along in its self-destruction by people who are willing to drop out, resist, make bombs . . . whatever. But his tactic of violence against people is not shared by the Neo-Luddite movement.
Chepesiuk: So what choices are left for those of us who want to rebel against the computer age?
Sale: It’s difficult, but we have to keep pushing for the kind of social-democratic control of our communities that doesn’t exist now. We have to convince people that they need to take power. Can you imagine a community saying, “We don’t want to spend our resources on a CAT scanner; we’d rather create a clinic that will emphasize preventive medicine instead”? That’s the kind of model we should work toward.
But I’m not optimistic about the chance of that scenario taking place. I believe it’s more likely that high-tech civilization will self-destruct.
Chepesiuk: How do you see that coming about?
Sale: I see a commingling of several strains. The first is the kind of social unraveling we’ve already discussed. The second is the economic disparity caused by technology. This will lead to war both within societies and across borders, pitting poor nations against rich ones. On top of this is the damage caused by ecological disasters ranging from the creation of new diseases by deforestation to the loss of the ozone layer. And there are seventy thousand chemicals in the atmosphere, only a tiny portion of which are CFCs, the cause of the ozone-layer loss. What effect will the other sixty-nine thousand or so chemicals have? Global warming, loss of cropland, air pollution, and acid rain will combine to further unravel industrial society.
Of course, I hope that this unraveling doesn’t destroy the human species and other life forms on earth, and that we Neo-Luddites will have gotten our message across by then. If we have, then maybe out of the ashes of the old culture we will be able to create a new, community-based, human-scale civilization.