Column: Technophobes, sceptics, luddites and festishists

There is an inescapable irony in researching Luddites on the Internet. This was not lost on me last week when preparing this article and was compounded by the fact that the search engine located page after page of hits.

There is an inescapable irony in researching Luddites on the Internet. This was not lost on me last week when preparing this article and was compounded by the fact that the search engine located page after page of hits.

I even discovered a Luddite home page (http://www.luddite.com), believe it or not, that won a Microsoft Network "Pick of the Week" award and was voted "Cool Site of the Day" in May 1996. Under the moto Life was better before sliced bread I was asked Do you loathe computers? Does advanced industrial society really annoy you? Looking for a bike lane on the Information Superhighway?" and provided with links to "AOL sucks" and "The abolition of work: workers of the world RELAX"

But I had a reason to be looking for Luddites and this site didn't really meet my needs. I was looking for Kirkpatrick Sale, author of Rebels against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial revolution, Lessons for the Computer Age, head Luddite honcho and a man who loathes technology totally.

But before we get to Sale we should draw a distinction between a true Luddite and a mere sceptic.

There are plenty of sceptics around and we probably all have our sceptical moments, especially when dealing with our IS departments or when, as I did recently, opening our email to find nineteen messages not one of which is worth reading.

One of the most prominent sceptics is Clifford Stoll, author of Silicon Snake Oil : Second Thoughts on the Information Superhighway who, in Computerworld last year (October 2), declared he was "concerned that for all the online wonders, there is damned little content online. Very little of what I see online has any value, other than as juvenile entertainment for adults." And who went on to describe the computer as "a wonderful ostrich hole into which we can stick our heads and our minds." Now Stoll, believe it or not, claims to love both computers and the Internet.

Kirkpatrick Sale is a different beast altogether. He hates computers, the Internet, technology and civilisation.

It never fails to shock when you come across someone who really hates technology. There are plenty that are ignorant and plenty that are indifferent but to find one who rabidly dislikes and resists technology is a bit of an eye opener. It is even more of a shock when you find them making some quite valid points.

When Sale recently (Time, July 1) described the computer as a "labour-saving device that doesn't save labour and a time-saving device that doesn't save time" I found myself, in a typical user's reaction, laughing and nodding. He went on to say that the "windows on a PC look into microsophistry, not out on the trees and clouds and flowers."

Well… ?

In a now infamous Wired interview last year, Sale predicted social friction, war, environmental disaster and the collapse of global currencies by the year 2020. His interviewer, Kevin Kelly, an ardent technophile, promptly made a $1000 bet that he would be wrong. Now that's what I call a win-win situation. (There are even sites on the Internet where you can bet on the outcome of Sale's bet.)

It was pointed out by Kelly that technology could well be the saving of mankind but Sale was not interested. Kellys point is a good one we've come so far down the technology track it is impossible and, for everyone but an extremist, undesirable to try to turn back. And technology is getting cleaner and less environmentally destructive all the time.

While Sale is an extremist, be warned there is one other radical Luddite, now in custody, that makes him look like a bit of a pussy. He was inspired in part by Sale's writing and he is Ted Kaczynski, more commonly known as the alleged Unabomber. (You guessed it, there are sites devoted to him on the Internet as well--the "Unabomber for President" home page http://www. paranoia.com/unapak).

While hunting down Luddites on the Web I also came across a sceptic who tried to convince me that the Internet was a completely useless research tool. This technophobe's arguments were similar to Stoll's--the Web is gummed up with complete trivia and has too many byways and dead ends.

Once again, as my search engine, while on the trail of Kirkpatrick Sale, turned up the fact that Fetish Boutique is having a sale, I found myself smiling and nodding in ironic agreement.

The only question now is when will the stuff arrive?

(O'Neill is a Computerworld sub-editor and can be contacted at a number of Auckland nightspots. He's the one in a rubber thong and studded suspender belt. Or you can email him at rob_oneill@idg.com.)

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