Wednesday, December 28, 2011


I'm a neo-Luddite and anti-technology

"High tech has such a vast environmental and economic impact that society will no longer be able to cope" <i>(Image: Joyce Dopkeen/New York Times/Redux/Eyevine)</i>
"High tech has such a vast environmental and economic impact that society will no longer be able to cope" (Image: Joyce Dopkeen/New York Times/Redux/Eyevine)

Two hundred years ago, a group of desperate textile workers banded together in a doomed attempt to halt the industrial revolution. The Luddite spirit lives on in people like Kirkpatrick Sale. He tells Alison George why we are on a collision course with technology - and why he now uses a computer
Who exactly were the Luddites?
The Luddites were skilled textile workers who resisted the technology that was destroying their way of life in the middle and north of England in the early 19th century. You can't have an industrial revolution without a dramatic overturning of society and that's exactly what they were trying to resist. They weren't mindless machine-breakers.
Did the Luddites actually achieve anything?
No. There were minor victories, but the entire economic, political and military weight of the British government came down on these people with more force than had ever been used before or since on the civilian population. From this we understand that governments are allied with industrialists and always will be - they will do the bidding of the industrialists by force if necessary.
But this didn't stop you mounting an attack on the second industrial revolution, the rise of the silicon chip in the 1980s?
That's true. And it may have been foolish of me to think that in the 1990s I could raise a cry that would get society to think about having some control over their future and to be cautious about technology.
What do you make of the suggestion that the Luddite argument was 200 years too early?
The Luddites didn't think they were too early, if anything they were a tad late, given the already fixed power of the manufacturers. The situation is much worse today, since technology has only grown faster and become more powerful. The high-tech people now are even more fixed in power than the manufacturers were then and their sway over the public is far more sweeping and insidious.
So what does it mean to be a neo-Luddite?
It's about questioning technology's embrace, and trying to get society as a whole to make decisions about whether they want this. In our system, this doesn't happen and probably couldn't happen. Rampant capitalism is not interested in a democratic vote on whether people want to do this or that, it has to create the new and it has to use up the world's resources in order to create new, bigger, better.
But you have to be mindful of technologies because they are not neutral and have serious, long-term effects. The destruction of nature is among those consequences. That's not something the Luddites talked about much, but it was clear to them and society in general what was happening to the water and air of industrial England as a result of this technology. It behoves us again to be aware of nature. That's how I feel as a neo-Luddite.

You have the machine-smashing in common with the original Luddites, don't you?
I used to smash computers with a sledgehammer, the same kind the Luddites used. I did that on stage in New York when I was accepting an award, and for TV stations and BBC radio - they liked the sound.

Stunts aside, why are you so anti-computers?
What computers are largely used for in our world where nobody is paying attention is viewing violent games and pornography. These games are anti-women, anti-gay and racist. Their gratuitous violence is bound to have an effect on how you act in the world.

You and I have been communicating by email… What has changed?
I wanted to move to my country house 100 kilometres north of Manhattan and I didn't want to go in every day to the New York Library for my research. So to write my next book, After Eden, I had to get a computer - there would be no other way to get the research. I found it was a very useful and necessary piece of technology.

How does this fit with your anti-tech stance?
In a letter from King Ludd, it says that "we are opposed to all machinery hurtful to the commonality". The Luddites weren't against all technology - after all, they used fairly complicated weaving and knitting machines. It was certain machinery they felt to be hurtful to the commonality, including steam-run factories, because of their sophistication. You could argue that, if used with care and under limited circumstances, a computer could be a sufficiently useful piece of technology.

You don't think we use computers with care?
No, I don't. That was what I was afraid of when I sent out the alarm in my 1995 book, Rebels Against The Future. There was a headlong rush without consideration of the consequences, individually or societally, and there still hasn't been any thinking. The last person to do any was the Unabomber - and you know what happened to him. Putting any kind of limit on technology hasn't been part of public debate.

Here at New Scientist, we are all excited about what technology can achieve. Are we deluded?
Yes, in one sense. What you and most of society does not think about is that science is only one way of understanding nature and human nature. The poem, dream and communing are equally valid and sometimes improved methods of understanding nature. This is something that science forgets and tries to override.

Would you still call yourself a neo-Luddite?
That's an interesting question. About a year ago, Chellis Glendinning, who wrote the first neo-Luddite manifesto, and Stephanie Mills, an early neo-Luddite, and I discussed where the anti-technology movement stood now and if we had won any victories. We agreed the movement no longer existed. We reached quite a number of people with the idea of being cautious about accepting new technologies, that they had to be keenly aware of the individual and social consequences. Clearly, there was no public policy to put a break on. High technology has won.

Do you take solace in the notion that technology may ultimately self-destruct?
I'm resigned to not being able to change what we have and watching it create its own self-destruction. I can take solace, if need be, in the fact I probably won't live for much more than another 10 years and I may not live to see the actual collapse, although I know I will see signs of it all around me by the time I'm dying.

Didn't you put a date on the collapse of society?
My argument was with Kevin Kelly from Wired magazine. In 1996, he slapped a cheque for $10,000 on my desk and we made a bet about whether western civilisation would collapse by 2020. I argued that high tech has such a vast environmental impact and such a chaotic economic impact, as the latest recession shows, that it will have social and political consequences the system will no longer be able to cope with. As we come nearer, I am tempted to say it might be 2030 or 2035 before the collapse is complete.

The odds are I will live to 85, which I think is a crowning achievement of western society. I would rather live this life than live in a primitive tribe. Wouldn't you agree?
I certainly don't. Obviously if overpopulation and "over-longevity" leads to the kind of collapse I'm talking about then it's a bad thing.

What level of technology would you want to live with?
Ideally, I would want enough technology in my community to house, feed and bathe ourselves efficiently, with the least damage to the Earth. I would not adopt any technology without regard for its environmental consequences - and, despite the usefulness for my book, that would mean not using computers.


Kirkpatrick Sale has been dubbed "the leader of the neo-Luddites". He is an independent scholar and author whose 1995 book about the Luddite uprising, Rebels Against The Future, was a rallying cry for a challenge to digital technology. Sale is also well known as a secessionist, and director of the Middlebury Institute for the study of separatism, secession and self-determination

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