There's Nothing Wrong with Being a Luddite

Cross-posted from Scientific American

I was recently called a Luddite. It was meant to be an insult, to suggest that I was an anti-technology zealot. I resisted the temptation to defend my pro-tech cred and instead explained the importance of Luddites as a counterbalance to smart-tech utopianism.

Traditional Luddism involves “breaking technology” or refusing “to participate in sociotechnical systems.” Why bother? For some, it’s political resistance to disruptive technological innovation that threatens an existing way of life. For others, it’s an ethical response to the ways in which the technology affects personal or social relationships. In 1977, Langdon Winner went further and defended “epistemological Luddism,” which involved decommissioning, dismantling or withdrawing from a sociotechnical system to learn about it and, more importantly, about how it affects individuals and society. 

The good thing about Luddism is that enables critical reflection and evaluation of the world we have built and are building. At times, we need to break away, to deconstruct the systems within which we find ourselves embedded and to evaluate how the technologies we take for granted influence who we are and can be. This is why some Luddism is important for society.

We all should practice some Luddism in our lives. I am not saying we should destroy the IT systems at work and insist that everyone write memos in cursive on yellow notepads or etch them into stone tablets. That isn’t what Luddism involves anyway. I’m calling for people to exercise their freedom to be off and while doing so, to reflect on and evaluate their relationships to the digital networked technologies they put aside or left behind. 

Digital detox, as some have called it, can be a powerful eye-opener, provided one is open to reflecting on the experience. According to Michael Lachney and Taylor Dotson in their recent paper in Social Epistemologyafter recovering from device withdrawal, detoxers begin to recognize the “substantial patterning influence [digital tech has] on the character of everyday life.” Digital detox can be a powerful means for individuals to reevaluate their relationships with digital tech.

But implicit throughout their discussion is the idea that there is a practically exercisable freedom to be a Luddite. It is worth considering what the structural preconditions for such a freedom might be.

Power and environmental conditions matter. As Lachney and Dotson acknowledge, “Rarely do individuals have any substantive say regarding which technologies come to shape their lives; they act within larger sociotechnical structures not of their own choosing.” People may choose brands and features and celebrate the modern consumerist cornucopia e-commerce delivers, but autonomy often falters when people consider withdrawal.  

Modern society demands constant connection and participation, which makes practicing Luddism increasingly difficult. Foregoing Facebook invites social isolation; leaving messages untended risks frustrating bosses, spouses and, well, everyone else; being disconnected means missing out and being out of sync with fast-moving memes and social discourse. It is, of course, notoriously difficult to evaluate empirically the degree to which social pressures determine tech adoption and use. 

The technological and social often seem inseparable. This is why Evan Selinger and I focus on techno-social engineering of humans in Re-Engineering Humanity. The “always on” world we’re building involves techno-social engineering of both our lived-in and experienced environments and our humanity, simultaneously. Who we are and are capable of being is inextricably intertwined with our built world. Thus, to protect Luddism, we need to engineer environments that sustain our freedom to escape or to be off.

Note that being a Luddite does not mean abandoning digital tech cold turkey. It is easy to tell people to just stop using this or that tech. Delete Facebook. Stop using GPS. Abandon your smartphone. (Or at least leave it in the charging station in the living room at night, please? That’s my household rule.) But for many people, much of the time, these suggestions are not practical given their current lifestyles and a host of economic, cultural and technological dependencies. 

In the wake of the recent Facebook scandals, including the Cambridge Analytica debacle, a movement to delete Facebook accounts has gained some traction. While some folks enjoy the freedom to do so, many simply do not. Perhaps thousands or even a hundred thousand people will delete their Facebook accounts, but the overwhelming majority of active Facebook users will not because they cannot, at least not yet. 

Many depend on Facebook to maintain connections with family and friends, to organize events, to interact with co-workers, and so on. Until alternatives for accomplishing those ends are available and people see and experience how they can get on without the tech they currently depend on, quitting cold turkey just isn’t going to happen. Extreme prescriptions make for good media and may sell books, but deletion isn’t a serious solution

Digital tech companies are marketing their own “solutions”—for example, Apple’s Screen Time in iOS 12, Google’s Digital Wellbeing for Android, and hundreds of productivity apps designed to help us curb smartphone addiction. Their basic mantra that “there’s an app for that” naively assumes and perpetuates the erroneous but comforting belief that our problems are fundamentally computational problems for which more data and better algorithms is the best solution. This digital tech solutionism only reinforces our dependence on supposedly smart tech; we remain always on—whether using the smartphone normally or using the self-management app. 

If you think you need an app to notify you that you’re overusing your smartphone, think again. Don’t give up on your own observational and social capabilities; there are plenty of social cues to pay attention to. And don’t give up on your social ties. Friends, family members, and co-workers likely will understand and hopefully join you. After all, you’ll need their help to deal with the social pressures.

We need digital tech to be part of the solution, for example, by eliminating addictive design practices, shifting business models away from surveillance capitalism, and even engineering friction into some of our human-computer interactions. But outsourcing Luddism to the digital tech industry is oxymoronic.

We need Luddism to thrive, but it depends upon how we engineer our built environment and whether we sustain our freedom to be off. Always-on digital tech puts that freedom in general and Luddism in particular at risk. In short, we need to leave room for Luddites.

Whether and how society can sustain our freedom to be off is one of the foundational, constitutional questions of the 21st century. Ironically, such freedom must be engineered into the techno-social environment. We need reflexive detoxification to begin understanding how technology affects our humanity. We need baselines and evaluation both on and off the various technologies we use. The “always on” nature of supposedly smart sociotechnical systems may deprive us of the opportunity to practice or even entertain the possible value of practicing Luddism.

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