May 21, 2010

Thinking neo-Ludditely

The problem is always the lines. Where to draw them. Any argument against technology always ends up not really being anything other than a game of parsings. Unlike, say, vegetarians, who can use the easy and already-there distinctions between meat and not-meat, animal and non-animal, local or not-local, Luddites have to make up these lines, and they always seem arbitrary. The Luddite ends up arguing for the lines and why they are where they are and what falls on which side, instead of about the argument against technology.

As I asked my students, are buttons technology? Shoes? Houses? Cooked food? Words?

But, then, the thing I never liked about vegetarianism was the lines. It seems like it is or at least can be a way to make it so you won't have to think about food. You don't have to consider or be careful, or thoughtful, but just follow the program and know you're okay. The arbitrariness of any lines in a position against technology is precisely, for me, what makes it interesting. That's what makes it worth while, ethically.1

There's a sort of "neo-Luddite" position I like where you don't actually argue against anything, but you worry. You never reach a point where you're done and you know you did it right, but instead you keep asking questions, coming up with problems, and trying to answer. You try to be thoughtful. You try to be careful and conscientious and mindful. It's open-ended and ongoing and you're never sure that you're right, in any sort of final way, but you take the position it's better to ask and be aware than to just accept.

I love this cartoon illustration of this, which James Strum drew in his series of articles on Slate, Life Without the Web:

The traditionally-dressed Jewish man isn't chucking the little robot up against a wall or into a river, but examining it. He kneels down, uncomfortably, to look closely and ask it questions. I don't know why the man's Jewish -- Strum says something about Jewish identity -- but it reminds me of the anti-Semitic slur that Derrida and other post modernists reclaimed, that Jewish thought is only commentary, all footnotes and questions. Parsings. If you read that onto the picture, and take the robot to represent technology, it's a perfect representation of the project of neo-Ludditism. It's all questions and ethical concern, self-reflexive and skeptical instead of dogmatic, open-ended and ongoing -- a conversation more than a theory.

Maybe the "game of parsings" is the only ethical game to play. Maybe we ought to seek out that situation where the questions are so difficult -- so critically important -- that they have to be asked again and again as long as we're alive, and there is no final answer.

Some of my students, analyzing the arguments in Nicholas Carr's essay, Is Google Making Us Stupid?, tried to argue that Carr doesn't really want to persuade us of an answer to the question, but just wants to get us to ask it. I don't know that that's a good reading of Carr, but that is the position I want to take. There is this beautiful, brilliant liberal arts moment in the essay where he directly addresses the reader and says, "So, yes, you should be skeptical of my skepticism." I really like this moment in the essay -- a neo-Luddite moment -- because, right there, the actual conclusions or eventual end of the conversation is disregarded, just put aside, and the conversation itself is held up as the prize. At least we should talk about it, he says. Whatever the conclusion, this is worthwhile. This makes us better people, the fact that we're thinking about these things.

Which of course means that one can be drawn into the neo-Luddite position without actually accepting any propositions, any thesis or platform or program. Because it's a conversation. It's thinking.

Thinking about technology doesn't mean drawing lines, but examining that which surrounds us and which, otherwise, would have been invisible. This is why I assigned the topic to a class on academic writing. The process of interrogating that which once seemed obvious is the process of thinking, which is the process of writing. This is what liberal arts and education are supposed to do. This is the basis of philosophy. This is reading. It can happen, too, for food and photography, culture and literature and politics, though too often, there, the positions so seem clear and the assumptions seem so obvious that they appear as truths, and it's hard to actually get to the questions about the assumptions. I don't care what position they take, or if they change their minds, or if the simply defend the technology they use, but I want them to see it, invisible all around them. I want them to wake up, and ask the world questions.

1 Peter Blum, the sociology prof. at Hillsdale who taught me continental philosophy and became a friend, makes a more sophisticated form of this argument in, I believe, his hopefully-soon-to-be-published book, For a Church to Come. He argues that it is precisely the arbitrariness of these lines, for Luddites like the Amish, that makes them important.