Note — May 08, 2022

“Technology in the Present Tense” - Notes From a Weary Luddite

Luddites come up regularly here (see the tag) and I thought I’d explain a bit why, instead of just synthesizing the excellent article linked above. For me, the use of Luddism is one way of trying to grapple with the presence, influence, impacts, and futures of ‘technology.’ A way of taking a step back and assessing its potential directions.

For example, deeply considering car v electric car v autonomous car v walking + public transport can, to me, be seen as an act of Luddism. Many will just wonder if electric cars are ready, if brand X’s car is really autonomous, etc. One needs to go further back and even wonder why our cities are designed for cars. My first reflex has often been to be fine with an electric autonomous car, if it’s there in an appropriate way within the urban fabric and for the common good before individual efficiency. However, even that is clearly not far enough, since the reflection also needs to consider the whole chain of production, including where, how, by whom and under which conditions the materials are extracted, or who gets choked by exhaust, tire micro-particles, and disk-break powder.

When reading about Luddites, this is the lesson I take away; to consider deeply whom a new technology is affecting, who controls it, and who benefits from it. It’s similar to my understanding of the Amish or Quakers. Start from needs and values, then decide if it’s appropriate for your village/society.

In the article, Z.M.L. goes into some detail about this whole use of the word, perception of its proponents then and now, neo-luddites, how you can use a laptop all day long and call yourself a Luddite, and quite a bit more. The piece is split into six parts, three (which addresses the use of “we” and who “we” mean when “we” say “we”) and five were especially noteworthy for me, if you need to just skim through.

Issues around mining, labor, and waste represent some of the most challenging issues to think through regarding current high technology. They are difficult to think through because of their international dimensions, because of how much about them is hard to see, and because (to be honest about it) many of these matters are fairly grim and unsettling. And yet they are integral truths of the “present tense” of technology. […]

There is a difference between predicting the future so that you can profit off of it, and predicting the future in an attempt to get the train to switch tracks before it speeds off a cliff. […]

There is so much energy around reforming certain technologies, around redeeming certain technologies, about making certain technologies “ethical,” but there’s something wonderfully provocative about the retort out of the past that some of these things aren’t reformable or redeemable or capable of being made ethical. […]

[I]n many of the ways we “act” here, what we encounter is no longer the exuberance of using some futuristic doodad, but the banality of using platforms we dislike owned by people we loathe, because this is the situation in which we are stuck.

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