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Kirkpatrick Sale is a leader of the Neo-Luddites. WIRED’s Kevin Kelly wrote the book on neo-biological technology. Food fight, anyone?
Kelly: Other than arson and a lot of vandalism, what did the Luddites accomplish in the long run?
Sale: The Luddites raised what was called at the time “the machinery question,” and they raised it in such a forceful way that it could not ever go away: Whether machinery was simply to be for greater production by the industrialists, regardless of its consequences, or whether the people who were affected by these machines had some say in the matter of how they were to be used. The Luddites also established themselves as the symbol of those who resist the new technologies and demand a voice in how they are to be used.
Kelly: Were they able in any way to alter the course of the Industrial Revolution?
Sale: To some extent they were able to delay the adoption of machines in some of the textile branches. Although there were some regional effects of the Luddites, in general they failed to make any real impact on the rush of technology and industrialism.
Kelly: Do you consider yourself a modern-day Luddite?
Sale: I do, in the sense that we modern-day Luddites are not, or at least not yet, taking up the sledgehammer and the torch and gun to resist the new machinery, but rather taking up the book and the lecture and organizing people to raise these issues. Most of the people who would today call themselves Luddites confine their resistance, so far at any rate, to a kind of intellectual and political resistance.
Kelly: Yet you did smash a computer recently, right?
Sale: I did.
Kelly: I hope it made you feel better.
Sale: It was astonishing how good it made me feel! I cannot explain it to you. I was on the stage of New York City’s Town Hall with an audience of 1,500 people. I was behind a lectern, and in front of the lectern was this computer. And I gave a very short, minute-and-a-half description of what was wrong with the technosphere, how it was destroying the biosphere. And then I walked over and I got this very powerful sledgehammer and smashed the screen with one blow and smashed the keyboard with another blow. It felt wonderful. The sound it made, the spewing of the undoubtedly poisonous insides into the spotlight, the dust that hung in the air … some in the audience applauded. I bowed and returned to my chair.
Kelly: So, what did you accomplish?
Sale: It was a statement. At other forums, I attempt to discuss the importance of understanding new technologies and what they are doing to us. But at that moment, when I had only four minutes to talk, I thought this was a statement better than anything else I could possibly say.
Kelly: Violence is very powerful, isn’t it?
Sale: And remarkably satisfying when it is injurious to property, not people.
Kelly: I find it instructive that most of this Neo-Luddite sentiment is arising not from people who are out of jobs because of computers, but from over-educated academic or author types. I don’t detect much dissatisfaction among the unemployed regarding computers, per se.
Sale: You’re quite right that in these last 20 or 25 years, the immense effects of automation on the labor force have not been met by resistance other than the most trivial kind. What happened was that unions caved in and accepted strategies of the corporations to give workers lifetime pay in return for having their jobs automated. However, that luxury of lifetime pay is now no longer being offered, so we have an estimated 6 million people who have lost their jobs to automation, or to overseas shops, since 1988. These 6 million people have not ventured forth with sledgehammers, but some of them are turning to crime, for sure, and some of them are part of that dissatisfied, white male constituency that voted for the Republicans last fall. So, instead of going to the sledgehammer, they’ve gone to the ballot box, though I don’t think that’s going to achieve what they think it will.
Kelly: But it’s also leading them to study computers and to learn how to get a job with computers. You mentioned 6 million jobs lost to computers, but the number of jobs created by computers and technology is really more sizable. Where, for instance, do you think the hundreds of millions of jobs in America in the last 100 years have come from? They certainly didn’t come from farming or handicrafts. These jobs were made by industry.
Sale: There is no question that jobs are created, so long as an economy can keep growing. But it’s not the technology, or it’s only indirectly and accidentally the technology, that creates them. It’s warfare, empire, government expansion, resources exploitation, ecological exhaustion, consumption, and the manufacture of needs. Today, in the second Industrial Revolution, it’s just as it was back in the first. The technology itself simply does put people out of jobs. And anyway, the idea that the whole end of life is jobs and job creation is just pathological. The question is, What do those jobs achieve and at what expense? A job in itself is not a virtue.
Kelly: That’s exactly right. Quality of jobs is vital. The Luddite cottagers thought it was inhuman to be put out of work by machines. But what’s really inhuman is to have cloth made by human labor at all. Cloth should be made by machines, because machines make much better cloth than humans. Making cloth is not a good job for humans, unless they want to make a few pieces for art.
Sale: Well, they didn’t think so. Nor do I: nothing is superior to handicrafts.
Kelly: One of the most revealing claims in your book is when you say, “The idea that technology creates jobs is hogwash.” That statement is nonsense itself. Where did your own job come from, if it didn’t come from the printing press?
Sale: To begin with, I don’t have a job. And my work would be the same—writing about the perils of our civilization—no matter what technologies were at hand. But the real point about technology’s impact over the last, say, 200 years is that it puts people out of jobs when it’s introduced, and that’s why it’s introduced. The point of a new technology is to save on labor costs and all the attendant costs with actual people.
Kelly: No, the point of technology is to make higher-quality and more diverse products than we can make by hand.
Sale: No, quantity, quantity. We have a mass society, a mass market, and mass production. Mass quantity is why we have computers.
Kelly: We have technology not just to make mass things but to make new things we could not make other ways.
Sale: I regard that as trivial.
Kelly: OK, then you tell me. What was the effect of printing technology? Did the invention of printing just allow us to make more books? Or did it allow new and different kinds of books to be written? What did it do? It did both.
Sale: That wasn’t mass society back then, but what it eventually achieved was a vast increase in the number of books produced; and it vastly reduced forests in Europe so as to produce them.
Kelly: I don’t think so. The forests of Europe were not cut down to create books for Europe. Printing allowed several things. It increased literacy. And it allowed more varieties of books to be written—and faster. It allowed better communication.
Sale: Literacy does go hand in hand with industrialism, but at the same time, it destroys orality. No oral traditions and no oral abilities.
Kelly: There’s no doubt that technology obsoletes many things.
Sale: Right. So, let’s not simply say how wonderful is literacy, without saying what the price is for this literacy, without asking what is it that we are now reading with all of this fancy literacy. The truth is that we are reading little of merit.
Kelly: I would say that in oral traditions, there was very little of merit said. There is this tendency to think that the old things, the old times, the oral traditions, the tribal traditions, were somehow more lofty, that people of those times used things more judiciously, that they didn’t gossip, that they didn’t use good things for trash. This is complete nonsense.
Sale: Sure, people gossiped, and sure, people said nasty things. At the same time, these oral traditions were what kept these societies together for eons. If we lose oral tradition and all that goes with it, we lose a due regard for nature and the preservation of nature. The successive empires that have driven civilizations for the last 6,000 years have had, almost uniformly, no regard for nature. That’s why they were as short-lived as they were: in addition to having very little regard for the majority of their own population, they had no regard for the rest of the living world. That is essential to the peril we’re in today.
Kelly: Do you see civilization as a catastrophe?
Kelly: All civilizations?
Sale: Yes. There are some presumed benefits, but civilizations as such are all catastrophic, which is why they all end by destroying themselves and the natural environment around them.
Kelly: You are quick to talk about the downsides of technological civilizations and the upsides of tribal life. But you pay zero attention to the downsides of tribal life or the upsides of civilizations. For instance, the downsides of tribal life are infanticide, tribal warfare, intertribal rape, slavery, sexism. Not to mention a very short life span, perpetual head lice, and diseases that are easily cured by five cents’ worth of medicine now. This is what you get when you have tribal life with no civilization. This is what you want?
Sale: Tribal life does not have these mythical downsides that you describe. What you are describing are tribal societies that have become pathological because of the invasion of some outside force or other. In the case of the American Indians and of Africa, it’s the Europeans. Tribes have long-established practices to keep themselves harmonious and stable, including the practice of birth control so as not to exceed the carrying capacity of the places where they live. You can call it infanticide if you like; they would understand it as birth control, appropriate to their regard for nature.
Kelly: Yeah. I’m very glad not to be living in a tribal society.
Sale: Don’t dismiss the virtues of that society. I think the sense of sodality and comradeship and inner peace and harmony that we know happens in these traditional societies is not to be lightly dismissed; even you might welcome it.
Kelly: Well, whatever romantic glories it may have, it all comes at a price. You keep forgetting it comes at a price. And the price of tribal life is no pianos, no violins, no paint, no telescope. No Mozart, no van Gogh. If a Beethoven is born, he can only be a genius at finding tubers. That’s the price of that society.
Sale: Well, if your clan thought that the violin was a useful and nonharmful tool, you could choose to invent that.
Kelly: You can’t have a violin without civilization. Look, what you get with a nontechnological tribal society is a very constrained society. OK, the people in a tribe adjust to those constraints and they adapt. But the advantages of civilization are options and diversity. You have increasing opportunities for people to be creative in new ways that you don’t have in those tribal societies.
Sale: The way I like to come at this is with this quotation from Herbert Read: “Only a people serving an apprenticeship to nature can be trusted with machines. Only such people will so contrive and control those machines that their products are an enhancement of biological needs, and not a denial of them.”
Kelly: I agree with the idea of making technology more biological and making it express the organic. The more we make our technology lifelike, the better that technology will be. You’re critiquing industrial technology just as industrial technology is becoming outmoded. The qualities you assign to technology—centralization, order, uniformity, regularity, linearity, passivity—wonderfully describe technology in the 1950s. But the reason you’re wrong about technology is that this kind of technology is being superseded. As we import biological principles into technology, we are generating technology that’s decentralized, that plays on differences, that’s irregular on demand, that’s nonlinear, and that’s very interactive. If we were stuck with having to make technology that was centralized and stupid and brute, we would be looking forward to a dismal future. But we don’t have to make technology that way.
Sale: I don’t buy your statement. It is true that within the larger construct of contemporary computer technology there is room for decentralization, some irregularity, and some of what you suggest, but that’s not what the overarching character of this technology is about. It is designed precisely to create a uniformity of production, consumption, distribution—distribution of money or ideas or so-called information. If within it you can find these nuggets of the contrary, that doesn’t change the overall nature of the industrial mechanism or the industrial civilization behind it.
Kelly: I don’t think you should close your mind to the possibility that these nuggets will become the predominant form of technology. As humans, we crave differences and diversity, as well as uniformity and reliability. And we have a model out there, which you’re familiar with, that does both of these things. Nature has a very regular, dependable aspect to it that we count on. At the same time, it has a surprising and unpredictable nature. Both uniformity of production and diversity of production happen in nature and can happen with technology.
Sale: I cannot get my mind even close to what you’re saying. This is simply an attempt to use science and its technologies to manipulate nature. This is an attempt to make nature technological, so that humans can determine everything about nature.
Kelly: You’re right in the sense that civilization is anthropocentric. All societies say a human life is worth more than a flea’s life. And because of our consciousness, we can and do modify our surroundings, including nature, to our benefit and to make new things.
Sale: Case closed.
Kelly: Right. And so, the question is, When we have the choice, which way will people go? Will they retreat back to this utopian idea of undoing civilization somehow? I really don’t think people will do that.
Sale: Given the culture of our current society, I would agree there is no chance of going back. But there is also no chance for people to even raise the question. I ask not that we devise some kind of utopia and work toward it, but rather that there be some kind of power of the citizenry, regular and often, to raise questions about, to assess, and to determine whether they want the technologies that are there before them.
Kelly: And in the end, people will choose technology and civilization. The Luddites will be left behind.
Sale: Those of us who oppose may be easily accommodated by this society, since society has no fear that we’re going to have the effect that we desire to have. But it is possible for individuals to act out, either alone or with colleagues and neighbors, their opposition to certain technologies. This has been done in many instances—from nuclear power to the Dalkon shield. We can as individuals say, This technology is wrong and harmful and we ought to act against it. That technology over there seems at the moment not to be wrong and harmful, so we can either use it or not as we wish. I urge people to take a clear-headed look at what is in front of them, and not to feel guilty if they reject something, and to be able to say, with a rational explanation, This is wrong, I will not myself buy into it, and I would urge others not to buy into it for the following reasons.
Kelly: As you know, there’s a huge difference between rejecting specific technological implementations and rejecting technology as a whole, as you have been doing. The Amish do this well, this selective adoption of technology, without rejecting civilization as a whole.
Sale: The Amish have said there are limits: There are certain things that we like, that seem to enhance our lives, and that do not do danger to our sense of family and community, and therefore we can use them; and there are others, quite clearly, that do harm. This is intelligent decision making. The Luddites were the same. The Luddites all worked with machinery, some with fairly complicated weaving machines in their cottages. They were not against machinery, but against “machinery hurtful to commonality,” as one of their statements put it. They were not by any means against all technologies. In fact, something like the spinning jenny had come along in the 18th century and had been rather readily adopted.
Kelly: I have a different take. The only reason the Luddites are known, and the reason we don’t call antitechnologists “Amishites,” is that Luddites resisted it in a violent way, and that makes very good TV. This guy with the sledgehammer breaking weaving frames late at night makes a memorable image. If the Luddites had just resisted it, Amish-like, and said in a very nonviolent way, Sorry, we’re simply not going to adopt larger weaving frames, I believe they would have had more impact in the long run, but they wouldn’t be famous. But while we are quick to honor the Amish, most admirers forget that the Amish refusal of certain technologies directly stems from an old-fashioned spiritual stance: their sureness of the reality of God and sin. Are you suggesting that people can go back to those old-time values?
Sale: I would absolutely say that morality is an essential part of one’s world view. By moral judgment I mean the capacity to decide that a thing is right when it enhances the integrity, stability, and beauty of nature and is wrong when it does otherwise.
Kelly: You have to remember that the basis of the Amish belief is not the worship of nature. Their moral distinction is the worship of God, and the reason they reject certain technologies is that they see them as worldly, as sinful, as evil. You keep using words like moral viewpoint, taboo, and worship. When it comes right down to it, we’re talking about a spiritual orientation, a religion that holds technology as evil. So tell me, what does your religion say about the morality of computers?
Sale: Quite apart from the environmental and medical evils associated with them being produced and used, there are two moral judgments against computers. One is that computerization enables the large forces of our civilization to operate more swiftly and efficiently in their pernicious goals of making money and producing things. And, however much individuals may feel that there are industrial benefits in their lives from the use of the computer (that is to say, things are easier, swifter), these are industrial virtues that may not be virtues in another morality. And secondly, in the course of using these, these forces are destroying nature with more speed and efficiency than ever before.
Kelly: And how do you, as a Neo-Luddite, resist or refuse computers?
Sale: I don’t have a computer.
Kelly: You don’t think you have a computer.
Sale: I take your point about that. I mean the computer is indeed pervasive. If I have a credit card, as I do, then I am in that sense wired.
Kelly: Do you use the phone and the computer embedded in its lines?
Sale: On those occasions when I am forced to. It is, I have to tell you, a kind of painful accommodation to the world for me to have to do this. I find talking on the phone a physical pain, as well as a mental anguish. But, there it is. And one makes accommodations, unless one wants to try to live alone, in the woods. So anybody who wants to stay engaged in the world will have to make some accommodations. The question, I think, becomes, Which ones do you make? A lot of Neo-Luddites and techno-resisters today, I think, have made bad choices by saying that they can use the tools of the masters in order to free the slaves. And I don’t think this is possible.
Kelly: But you’re doing that, right? You’re using techno stuff, right?
Sale: If I could find a publisher that didn’t use word processing in a computer, I would.
Kelly: What about printing presses?
Sale: These are the kinds of accommodations that I felt I’ve had to make. Given the pervasiveness of the computer, I don’t think that there’s any way to stay engaged and to escape it. But that means that you might decide that you’re not going to own a computer, you’re not going to have a word processor, you’re not going to fly on jet planes, you’re not going to use a car.
Kelly: But you use a car at your country place.
Sale: I will sometimes use a car. I’m not trying to say that there’s a way to purity here. But what I’m trying to say is that one is conscious of one’s choices.
Kelly: But you’re not giving up electricity. Environmentally, using electricity has far more consequences than using a computer. You’re not giving up an automobile, which again, in terms of the number of deaths caused by it, has far more impact on our surroundings than does the manufacturing of a computer. You’re basically giving up only technologies that are convenient for you to give up. You use computers, but not one on your desk.
Sale: I choose not to enter into that technology so intimately as to have a computer confronting me that way. If I can keep the computer distant the way the Amish can keep the telephone distant, I choose to do so.
Kelly: But only because it is a convenient choice.
Sale: I don’t in truth have any choice about a publisher that will produce and market my book without a computer. Look at how pernicious is the use of the computer. For example, if I may quote an outfit that is as celebratory of the technological world as any, Newsweek magazine’s recent issue on technomania says: “The revolution is only just begun. It’s already starting to overwhelm us, outstripping our capacity to cope, antiquating our laws, transforming our mores, reshuffling our economy, reordering our priorities, redefining our workplaces, putting our Constitution to the fire, shifting our concept of reality.” I think that anything that is doing that to us is something that ought to be resisted.
Kelly: I feel otherwise. I’m not at all wedded to the past. I’m not wedded to this idea that somehow or other in the past everything was OK, and that it’s all been downhill since then, that, basically, civilization is a catastrophe that’s getting worse. I think that is the idea to resist, with all possible force.
Sale: And what gives you the confidence that the same technologies that have worked to destroy the Earth are going save the Earth? We still have the same mind-set. Until we change our minds, how are we going to change our technologies?
Kelly: Technology is a language. Technology is a language of artifacts. And when you have a bad thought, when you have a stupid thought, the answer to that is not to be silent. The response to a stupid thought is a wiser thought. Since technology is a language of artifacts, the response to “this technology is stupid” is to make smarter technology, not to withdraw from it.
Sale: But suppose you have nothing in your language that will allow a smarter thought. All you have to choose from are dumb thoughts because your language limits you. In the language of technology, you are not able to use certain words because they don’t exist in that language. It might be possible for you in the language of technology to come up with something faster, but you can’t come up with something smarter, because you don’t have that in your language bank.
Kelly: That’s where I think you are fundamentally wrong. Because you are stuck on an old language of technology, and we are creating a new one. It is possible to make an improved, smarter, wiser, more organic technology that can serve us better.
Sale: Right! That is to say, using up the world’s resources at a faster rate!
Kelly: No. It doesn’t have to. We don’t have to continue to use more matter to make more technology. That’s why instead of violently smashing a computer because it seems dumb now, my response is to make the computer so that it uses less matter, so that it has less impact on nature. And we can do that technologically.
Sale: But then how are we going use the computer?! What do you use that technology for?! Here’s how: it’s going to be used for the dominance and exploitation of nature for our benefit.
Kelly: We dominate nature at first so that we can survive, but beyond survival I believe the focus of technology, culture and civilization is on human creativity, to allow humans to be creative, to allow every human born to have a chance to create, to write a book, to make a film, to make music, to love, to understand the universe. I think that’s what technology is for. I think that’s why we’re here. It’s not to worship nature.
Sale: I’m not asking you to worship nature. I’m asking for a regard for nature.
Kelly: So why are we here? What are humans here for?
Sale: [Pauses.] To exist.
Kelly: That’s very interesting. So, what would be a measure of a successful human culture?
Sale: That it’s able to exist in harmony with the rest of nature.
Kelly: I totally reject that. It’s not enough.
Sale: Not enough?!
Kelly: Yes. Naked existence is for animals. That’s basically all animals do: they exist in harmony with their surroundings.
Sale: And what’s wrong with that?
Kelly: Plenty. We left that phase eons ago.
Sale: If you think that somehow now we are able to have a different mind-set that will suddenly transform us into being a due-regarding useful creature on the planet, I’d say that it is you who are talking utopian pipe dreams.
Kelly: You’re right. I have a vision of where we’d like to go, and this is more than just being an animal on Earth.
Sale: But, can’t you see that if you come from a culture that is based upon the destruction of nature, your image that technology will prevent us from destroying nature is ill-founded?
Kelly: No, it’s not ill-founded: already we have reduced pollution, when we wanted to.
Sale: Your optimism is contrary to all history up to the present, which suggests that given the values and norms of our particular civilization, we will perfect technology to the task of exploitation and destruction of nature. My optimism, such as it is, argues that because we know of previous societies that existed on every continent, and that existed far longer than Western civilization, and that have judged their technologies on other grounds than Western civilization, that it is possible to recover such societies in the future.
Kelly: Even though we have no evidence of us ever retreating into the past and undoing technologies?
Sale: History is full of civilizations that have collapsed, followed by people who have had other ways of living. My optimism is based on the certainty that this civilization will collapse.
Kelly: You get very specific in the closing pages of your book, where you say that if industrial civilization does not crumble because of the resistance from, say, Neo-Luddites or others, then it will crumble of its own accumulative excesses, specifically “within not more than a few decades.” Now, if somebody two decades hence wanted to decide inarguably if you were right or wrong about that forecast, what would be the evidence of that? How would someone know whether you were right?
Sale: I would say that you can measure it in three ways. The first would be an economic collapse. The dollar would be worthless, the yen would be worthless, the mark would be worthless—the dislocation we saw in the Depression of 1930, magnified many times over. A second would be the distention within various societies of the rich and the poor, in which the poor, who comprise, let’s say, a fifth of society, are no longer content to be bought off with alcohol and television and drugs, and rises up in rebellion. And at the same time, there would be the same kind of distention within nations, in which the poor nations are no longer content to take the crumbs from our table, and rise up in either a military or some other form against the richer societies. And then the third is accumulating environmental problems, such that Australia, for example, becomes unlivable because of the ozone hole there, and Africa, from the Sahara to South Africa, becomes unlivable because of new diseases that have been uncovered through deforestation. At any rate, environmental catastrophes on a significant scale.
Kelly: So you have multinational global currency collapse, social friction and warfare both between the rich and the poor and within nations, and you have continentwide environmental disasters causing death and great migrations of people. All by the year 2020, yes? How certain are you about all this, what you call your optimism?
Sale: Well, I have spent the last 20 years looking into these problems, and I have suggested to my daughters, who are in their 20s, that it would be a mistake to have children.
Kelly: Would you be willing to bet on your view?
Kelly: OK. [Pulls out a check.] Here’s a check for a thousand dollars, made out to Bill Patrick, our mutual book editor. I bet you US$1,000 that in the year 2020, we’re not even close to the kind of disaster you describe—a convergence of three disasters: global currency collapse, significant warfare between rich and poor, and environmental disasters of some significant size. We won’t even be close. I’ll bet on my optimism.
Sale: [Pauses. Then smiles.] OK. [Sales reaches over to checkbook on his desk and writes out a check. They shake hands.]
Kelly: Oh, boy, this is easy money! But you know, besides the money, I really hope I am right.
Sale: I hope you are right, too.