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Wabi-Sabi Wednesday: Neo-Luddites Against the Machine

2/2/2011 12:00:00 AM

Tags: Wabi-Sabi Wednesday, wabi-sabi, Valentine's Day, technology

On Wabi-Sabi Wednesdays, I feature excerpts from my upcoming book,  Simply Imperfect: Revisiting the Wabi-Sabi House, which will be released in April. I chose today’s excerpt after reading this morning about Offlining’s new Valentine's Day campaign, which urges  people to commit to 10 device-free days (yes, that means no Blackberry)  by February 14, 2012. Think you could do it?   

In the early 1800s, led by a fictional leader known as King Ludd, angry craftsmen attacked English factories and smashed the mechanical looms that they believed were usurping and destroying their way of life. The Luddites, as they became known, were unsuccessful in halting the Industrial Revolution’s sweeping changes, and the movement eventually died out. Luddism emerged again in the 1970s, as computers and technology began to significantly change the way people work, act and think.

Today’s neo-Luddites are often dismissed as technology haters, but their philosophy is more complex. Rather than blindly accepting the Internet and digital communication as a panacea, neo-Luddites examine the ethical, moral and social ramifications of technologies that also bring us 24-hour video surveillance, spy satellites, extended life support and faceless communication. They want society to value humans more than machines. For every high-tech move toward efficiency, neo-Luddites point out, we lose the opportunity to connect directly with other human beings. Interactions with bank tellers and store clerks can be accomplished quickly and anonymously online, and texting has reduced conversations to acronym trading.

Neo-Luddites such as Theodore Roszak believe that blind faith in technology’s promise of ever-greater efficiency creates even greater inefficiencies. (If you’ve been through a hard drive crash or lost your Internet connection for more than 24 hours while on a tight deadline, you know what he’s talking about.) In a New York Times article titled “Shakespeare Never Lost a Manuscript to a Computer Crash,” Roszak wrote, “I’d like my students to ponder the fact that by the time they have located their style sheets and selected their fonts, Shakespeare was probably well into Act One, Scene One.”

John Maeda, founder of MIT Media Lab’s Simplicity Consortium, writes of waiting days to get a refill for his label printer before he realized he could just write on the file folder with a pen, firing up his computer to look up a word on but getting beat to the punch by someone who found it by flipping through a dictionary, and standing nervously in front of an audience when his computer wouldn’t talk with the data projector before he remembered that he’s better at presenting ideas without PowerPoint. “The disabling effect of technology can be humorous in retrospect,” he writes in The Laws of Simplicity. “But sometimes I wonder if being a Blackberry-toting cyborg is all it’s cracked up to be.

offlining heart box 

Offlining's new campaign urges people to commit to 10 device-free days by February 14, 2012. 


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