This piece was originally published on Instructure’s Keep Learning blog. When it posted, we received a message from Howard Rheingold (NetSmart) linking us to a post last revised in May 1998. In that piece, he considers many of the same questions we ask here. Most significantly, his questions and ours intersect where we say “To fear a technological future is to deny a technological past and present” and he states “It is possible to think critically about technology without running off to the woods”.
So we offer this article, and Howard’s, as a consideration of what it means to approach technology with mindfulness, skepticism, and also exuberance. Our intention is to let these two articles brush against one another to see what conversations they raise across decades.
I feel a pinch as I approach the screen once more. A twinge, just the littlest bite of remorse. Sometimes, it’s sizeable, the feeling I have that I want the digital to be more, the Internet to be tangible, the vacant gaping spaces between my colleagues and myself to be smaller, more a hands-breadth than the length of a whale. And sometimes it is this, a mosquito in the ear. Either way, I return to the screen wishing for relationships that are bigger than pixels, and words that are indelible.
I rail against technology at dinner parties. I curse it to my friends in Google Hangouts. And they call me a luddite.
The title of this post is inspired by an essay by Thomas Pynchon. He wrote presciently in 1984, “Since 1959, we have come to live among flows of data more vast than anything the world has seen.” According to Pynchon, “Luddites flourished In Britain from about 1811 to 1816. They were bands of men, organized, masked, anonymous, whose object was to destroy machinery used mostly in the textile industry.” The 21st Century has produced a whole new kind of altogether less revolutionary luddite. These are the folks who refuse to go on Facebook, who have tried Twitter but would never use it regularly. They keep pen and paper handy and nod with suspicion at the great green elephant of Evernote. For these people, the Internet has not brought on a new world of connectedness and community, it has reduced us to two dimensions, static portraits of faces meant to be lively with expression. The Internet hurts their eyes. And they secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) scorn it’s denizens, reducing their work to blips.