Reading Ron Chepesiuk’s interview with Kirkpatrick Sale [“Man versus Machine,” July 1996], I cheered as I sensed a kindred spirit. I agree that we now face an impending tragedy of global proportions. But my applause ceased as I reached the end of Sale’s essay “At the Altar of Progress” with no clue as to how he proposes to address the problem.
At sixty-one, I have finally been able to organize my disparate skills. The instrument that enabled me to do so is the computer. It is also vital to my financial enterprise: an ecologically benign mail-order business in ornamental horticulture that is at last beginning to feed me. While my annual catalog accounts for ten big softwood trees, my Internet site provides prospective customers the same information with no use of paper at all. On which side of the fence would Sale place me, and with what rationale?
The thinking of the Neo-Luddites has not progressed much past that of their machine-smashing predecessors. Kirkpatrick Sale is still looking to place the blame for societal ills on something external, which is akin to blaming the bottle for alcoholism, guns for creating crime, and food for the existence of eating disorders. As long as we’re busy being against (or for) things like computers, guns, TVs, material wealth, or disease, we can put off the search for the real source of discomfort.
Technology is no threat to human interaction, though we can choose to blame it for our unwillingness to believe in our capacity to love and be loved. Exploitation of resources is caused not by technology, but by people’s thinking — or lack of it. Change our separatist mentality, and we could just as easily use our high-tech tools to share information, redistribute resources, and build a more equitable world community.
I came away from the interview with Kirkpatrick Sale thinking, Here is a man who does not understand what it is to be socially disenfranchised.
I belong to an Internet support group comprising individuals of all ages, races, nationalities, and religious backgrounds. We have in common a deep interest in a little-known process called spontaneous Kundalini awakening, and are all grateful to have found one another. This on-line community is by no means an artificial construct removed from the give-and-take of human contact, as Sale suggests; it is a real community.
One need not be interested in anything so exotic as Kundalini to feel alone in the crowd. For many, the Internet is not so much a substitute for genuine relationship as it is their only means to any sort of relationship. For the seriously ill, homebound, and socially alienated, the Internet is an invitation back into a world that does not otherwise accommodate them. Even among the healthy and sociable, the Internet creates a level playing field that does not exist in other human interaction, where social rank, skin color, gender, age, physical appearance, and so on divide us. This is a tremendously healing experience for those whose self-expression has long been curtailed by subtle and overt discrimination.
Of course, as in all things, there is also a dark side to freedom, already visible in the activities of pornographers, hatemongers, and cybercriminals. The communications revolution exacts its own price, particularly in the loss of privacy and, as Sale lamented, a dearth of commitment and responsibility in friendships. (The latter is not unique to Internet communities, however.) But I also know that “the brighter the light, the darker the shadow” applies to every dimension of life, and no amount of criticism or hand wringing will change this.
My friends (the few I haven’t lost to television or the Internet) have been calling me a Luddite for years. I thought I was the only one until I read the interview with Kirkpatrick Sale. Neo-Luddites unite! Come to my house for home-baked bread — made by hand, not in a computerized oven.
I agree with Kirkpatrick Sale that economic inequality, overpopulation, and depletion of the earth’s natural resources are all serious threats, but to blame them on the silicon chip is short-sighted and simplistic.
If we’re looking to cast blame, maybe we should turn to the forces that maintain the dominance of the silicon chip and other technologies: government, economics, academia, social mores, and cultural values. Technology is a byproduct and a consequence of a complex paradigm. Sale confuses the product with the process that creates it. Blaming technology for every global crisis not only clouds the issues; it can misdirect efforts to rectify these problems.
Neo-Luddites talk about technology as if it were a self-aware being, an alien thing that must be stopped. To truly understand and assess technology, we must abandon the dualistic framework in which this argument is presented: “Man versus Machine.” Human minds make technology. It is intrinsic to our nature, a natural response to the environment and our need to survive in it.
Sale suggests that certain technologies are inherently destructive. But is it the technology that is destructive, or the application of the technology? You can use a hammer to build a shelter, or you can use it as a lethal weapon. The fact that some people use the computer to play games or make a lot of money does not negate its benefits. Sale would have us draw a line between “good” and “bad” technology: computer bad; bicycle good. But who will decide?
Think for a moment about the technologies that were employed in producing the July issue of The Sun. Without them I couldn’t read what Walt McLaughlin has to say about the wilderness experience [“The Wilderness Within”], or see what Gina Meyer saw through her camera lens. Perhaps I am biased about technology because I know it has added value to my life.
Kirkpatrick Sale responds:
I’m surprised people still fall for the technophiles’ propaganda that technology is neutral and can be used for good or ill depending on who controls it. No technology is free of the values and beliefs of the social and economic forces that create it. High technologies — the ones we’re talk ing about here — reflect the values and beliefs of mature industrial capitalism and thus are devoted largely to speed and linear logic, coordination of large numbers of people and things, military power and control, efficiency of production, amassment of material wealth, manipulation of mores and media, and exploitation of nature.
That’s what they will be used for — what they have to be used for — no matter who uses them. Take nuclear power, for example. It cannot be benign, either in military or civilian guise. Saints running a nuclear plant would not make it safe, healthy, nontoxic, decentralizing, or democratic.
High technologies do certain types of things and shape our thinking in certain ways. They enable the corporate and political powers that be to impose the “complex paradigm” Colton speaks of, and to do so with more power, speed, and efficiency — and hence more job displacement, economic inequality, resource depletion, and environmental damage — than ever before. Next to that, whatever apparently beneficial side effects they may have are trivial. Even the creation of an online “community,” such as Collie describes, is trivial. And what does it say about how far down the road to social pathology and hopeless anomie we have come when the “only . . . sort of relationship” some of us can devise arises from sitting alone in a room typing messages to strangers? Surely there are better solutions to “social disenfranchisement.” Surely it would make more sense to work on the causes of “subtle and overt discrimination” than to apply the band-aid of new technology.
I can’t think of one really serious problem of our age that will be alleviated by the application of high technology, and it is important not to delude ourselves into believing otherwise. The solutions we need — love, community, self-sufficiency, song, dance, poetry, wisdom — are not available by way of the microchip.
In “Bleeding Dharma” [May 1996], Stephen T. Butterfield did not write fiction. The abyss of depression is bottomless. It is not the blues or feeling down; it is a great numbness, a loneliness void of meaning. Somehow many of us survive it and rejoin the carnival of life. But our tour of hell serves as a badge of courage for the dharma road. We have glimpsed the grand mystery in which all egos die, and yet a mighty something (or perhaps a mighty nothing) endures.
In addition to learning of Butterfield’s death in the July issue [“Glorious Failure,” Sy Safransky], I discovered that he was a friend of a friend and lived not far away among these hills and streams of Vermont. I now find myself missing someone I never met.
Jeff Tietz’s essay on Mark O’Brien [“Mark O’Brien’s Days,” April 1996] was creepily clinical in its detail, but Tietz missed several aspects of the Mark I know and love. Where were his voracious mind, his sly wit, his humbling generosity of spirit? These qualities are his essence. They are more important — and more challenging — to document than what he has for lunch or the shape of his nose.
John Detro died on June 26 in Carmel, California. He was sixty. A poet and a respected jazz reporter for the Carmel Pine Cone, John was well loved by almost everyone he touched, either in person or through his work. He was a devout Catholic, and his theology was evident in his books of poetry, including St. Joseph’s Blues (St. Andrews Press). His poem “Bag of Wind” appeared in the October 1995 issue of The Sun.
John and I weren’t particularly close friends. We shared an apartment for nine months before he died because rents are so high in this part of California. We were both writers, and I’d thought that would make us compatible. Not so. But it isn’t easy living with someone under the best of circumstances.
John smoked himself to death. At one point, he was given two to five years to live if he stopped smoking. He didn’t. It hurts to see someone as talented as John throw his life away. I suppose, as a recovering alcoholic, he thought smoking was an acceptable alternative to drinking. Ironic, considering that smoking kills far more people every year than any other drug. This fact has been tolerated thanks to the huge amounts of tax revenue tobacco sales bring to all levels of government, along with the graft politicians accept from tobacco companies. We need more passionate discourse on this problem, which won’t go away, no matter how much the tobacco companies wish that it would.