Confessions of a Closet Luddite

Warning: this might be my most depressing post.  Technology change has sped up recently, and I long to turn back the clock from our "always-on" connection to phones and the Internet.

Disclaimer: All of the ideas expressed in this article are my personal statements and opinions, and do not reflect the opinions/statements of the City of Urbana.

Let me be the first to note the irony (hypocrisy?) of an IT Director who claims to be a Luddite. How can I oppose technology when that same technology pays my salary? My response is "computers are not a passion for me; they’re a tool." (Footnote #1) As the IT Director, my job is to help the City make the most of these tools for a reasonable cost. Actually, one of the most important parts of my job is to prevent the City from drowning in the gushing tide of new technology threats, upgrades, and gizmos.

Ultimately, my experience at work reinforces my personal opposition to technology, which is this: I believe that the pace of technology hit an inflection point with the Internet and cell phone, and that human life will now (and forever) include real-time 24/7 information flow.

There will no longer be moments without an “Always On” connection to everything. Times of peaceful (and yes, often boring) quiet are gone – as are attention spans.  While I can’t definitively say that this change is bad, I feel safe in saying that "Always On" is now a permanent part of our existence... that’s what makes this an inflection point. 

And I think this is a bad thing for humanity, and I wish we could roll back these changes.  Which makes me a Luddite. (Footnote #2)  

Speaking of definitions, for the purpose of this post: my use of “technology” means “real-time technology,” by which I mean the cell phone and the Internet – the two things that enable the constant connection.  As you’ll see below, I’m not against ALL technology.

What’s wrong with being connected all of the time? At least it gives us something to do while we’re standing in line, right? (Footnote #3)  My opinion is that the steady flow of data is simply too much for us to process... and it will only increase. With information about so much of the world coming in at real-time speed, we must work hard just to keep from falling behind. (Just think of your Inbox! Or, in most cases, Inboxes.)

During the span of time I was writing this post, I came across the following in a magazine article about burnout - written by psychoanalyst - that described it like this: (Footnote #4)

Electronic communication and social media have come to dominate our daily lives, in a transformation that is unprecedented and whose consequences we can therefore only guess at. My consulting room hums daily with the tense expectation induced by unanswered texts and ignored status updates. Our relationships seem to require a perpetual drip-feed of electronic reassurances, and our very sense of self is defined increasingly by an unending wait for the verdicts of an innumerable and invisible crowd of virtual judges.

And, while we wait for reactions to the messages we send out, we are bombarded by alerts on our phones and tablets, dogged by apps that measure and share our personal data, and subjected to an inundation of demands to like, retweet, upload, subscribe or buy. The burnt-out case of today belongs to a culture without an off switch.

Now I can’t tell you with a straight face (straight typeface?) that I eschew all technology in my personal life. But I avoid it to the greatest extent possible, because I deal with it all day long. I feel like my back, hands, and eyes need a break from sitting, typing, and staring at a screen. But yes, at home I use technology often to manage my home life, stay connected to people… and of course to write this blog.  

If I’m being honest, there are lots of inventions that I really appreciate, and wouldn’t want to live without. So, if I have to pin down an ideal time, it would be 1989. (Footnote #5)  Computers were useful for intensive calculations like payroll checks - and I think we can all appreciate technology such as antibiotics, refrigeration, and hot showers. (Footnote #6)

So yes, I’m saying that those of us 30 and older witnessed the vertex of the quality of life parabola: the moment just before the Internet unleashed its fire-hose of communication upon us. (Sorry for the heavy use of math terms, but they do help visualize points)
I would like to be self-aware here and note that I’m midway through my 40s. People of my age usually have a sense that time is speeding up - and every generation complains about Kids These Days. Despite that, I’d argue that this is far more than incremental change.  It’s similar to (and possibly even more disruptive than) the introduction of the telegraph and telephone 150 years ago. With those inventions, communication that could previously travel no faster than hand-carried letters suddenly became instantaneous. Now we have a similar speed increase for information research, with the added twist that information pursues us whether we like it or not!

And that’s how it is now: the 24/7 age is upon us… and it will never leave. Your lives, your descendants’ lives, and every human from now on will have real-time access to everything we know, and be instantly aware of events from all over the world – and we can never escape that. 

What does it mean for us - the generation that witnessed crossing the line? We have experienced information accelerating to instantaneous speed. How can this not change us? And what can we do about it? 

Sadly, I think the answer is: nothing. We can’t go back; we just need to deal with it. Life is different now. (See, I told you this was going to be depressing!)

Final thoughts

In order to not to stop on that dark note, here are some ideas towards managing our new reality.

  1. Relax. People will adapt, or do a better job of adapting the technology to suit us. We are only in the first few years of this. Over time, we’ll each figure out our own equilibrium. Maybe right now we're using technology a lot because it's a new shiny toy, and in a few years the pendulum will swing back a bit. The ability to have so much knowledge instantly available is a wonderful gift; we just need to figure out how to incorporate it into our lives. 
  2. Schedule periods when you can unplug and disconnect. Find moments when you’d usually go online to kill time, and choose to put down your device and stare out a window. (Your eyes will thank you!) Now look around and notice how many people are staring at their devices, and are missing the beauty of our everyday world.
  3. Take the “first draft of history” with some skepticism. It’s easy to overreact to events when the 24-hour news cycle trumpets as "Breaking News" the fact that "scheduled speakers are soon to speak”. (CNN, I’m looking at you for your 2016 Convention coverage!) There are bad things happening all of the time, but most of these things are outside of your control - and probably won't impact you. The only difference is that now you know all about them. Try to keep information in context. (Footnote #7)
I hope that helps, but I'd still rather turn back the clock. What's the modern equivalent of smashing looms? 


#1 I think a good understanding of computers is like knowing basic car maintenance. While most of us can operate a car, there’s a lot of value in knowing how to change a flat tire. 

#2 Definition from the Grammarist:

In modern usage, Luddite is defined as one who opposes new technology. The term comes from the group of English mechanics and artisans who, in 1811, organized a protest that involved destroying new manufacturing machinery which they perceived as threatening their livelihoods. They named themselves after Ned Ludd—sometimes known as Captain Ludd, King Ludd, or General Ludd—a mythical 18th-century character known for sabotaging knitting machinery. British government crackdowns quashed the movement within a few years of its start, but the term lives on. It’s often pejorative.

While finding a definition of “Luddite,” I learned of “Neo-Luddites,” and I reluctantly* agree that it is more accurate. The definition from Wikipedia:

Neo-Luddism or New Luddism is a philosophy opposing many forms of modern technology.... Neo-Luddism is based on the concern of the technological impact on individuals, their communities and or the environment,

* Regarding my reluctance: my ego wants to point out that I wrote most of this post without being aware of the latter group. Furthermore, please note the broadness of the two key words (“modern” and “technology”). With that kind of range, how can you escape being included?

#3 Until recently, waiting in lines was a necessary part of getting things done. I remember when depositing a check at the bank took 30 minutes, most of which was time in the queue. But that was before ATMs and supermarket self-checkouts, before home-shipping of online purchases, before you could ask your phone any possible question and receive an instant answer (assuming it understands you...)  

#4 Finally, a proper footnote!

Josh Cohen, “Minds turned to ash,” 1843 Magazine, August/September 2016, pp. 85-86. Link to the full article.

#5 So in the movie "The Matrix" (set in 1999), where the Matrix was programmed to be "the peak of your civilization", the Wachowski siblings were about 10 years too late. Maybe 1989 was that the perfect world Agent Smith mentions...

 #6 Take a moment and think about what someone from any century before the 20th would think of even the most basic motel shower.  Without any proof, I would wager that current middle-class Americans are more clean on a daily basis than they any 18th century king was in their entire life.  

#7 Distant news should arrive more slowly, to be digested into the bigger picture. This requires a delay, and I enthusiastically suggest that the solution for this is The Economist (a weekly news magazine). Although, it is so densely packed with information that it's hard to keep up. If only it were biweekly...