In early 19th-century Britain the story of a semi-mythical hero named Ned Ludd began to spread through the countryside. According to the story, Ludd destroyed two textile machines, which were blamed for taking away the livelihood of English textile makers like him. The power of this story soon brought out residents from throughout the English countryside who were experiencing the horrible side effects of the industrial revolution. These people were Luddites, the men and women who suffered as machines took away their livelihood. During the years of 1811 and 1812 they destroyed factories and machines and even took on the British Army. Eventually the Luddites backed down, no doubt due to the continuous death sentences issued to their members and the thought of continuously fighting against one of the world’s fiercest military powers. But in many ways, Luddite beliefs and practices live on to this day.
Modern day Luddites are now referred to as New or Neo-Luddites. The militarism is mostly gone, but the skepticism towards new technologies remains. And I consider myself in their ranks. Or at least I would like to. Or maybe I’m just a sympathizer. Actually, I would say I am experiencing a slow conversion process.
My conversion process began with philosophers like Baudrillard, Heidegger and Harvey. With their help I’ve begun to see that there are moral implications to the technologies that consume our lives. As a Christian I have begun to see that Jesus has a lot to say about my television itself, regardless of what I might be watching on it. The brilliant writer/thinker Neil Postman describes all of this better than I ever could in his book Technopoly. He borrows the word “ecological” from environmental scientists for his working metaphor.
Imagine, he says, wiping out a species of caterpillar from a certain habitat. You cannot say it is the same habitat, minus caterpillars. It is now an entirely different habitat, since the loss of caterpillars will quickly influence and change the entire ecological system. In the same way, a new technology changes our society in larger ways than we seldom wish to admit. Television did not turn America into America plus television, but changed our entire country! It changed fashions, education, politics, religion, exercise habits, the way we talk and eating habits, to name but a few.
What I am now learning is that I have accepted too much for too long without processing the stuff that surrounds me in my day-to-day life. What does it really mean that my wife and I have two cars? What is it saying about me that I get frustrated because my dial-up computer takes too long to open a website? Why do I need this mp3 player again? Why do I need to watch television at all?
My big conversion experience happened one day at work this past winter (I am a youth pastor). The wind was howling outside and suddenly the Bellingham weather won and the power went out. No lights. No computers. No phones. So we closed down and everybody went home. Now, to be honest, I was happy to go home. But all of this raised a question for me: When did the Church become so dependent on technology that we just go home when the technology stops working? I then remembered Y2K and wondered why the whole Western world was so panicked because all of our computers might stop. What happened to us? And when did it happen? It felt like we were already living in a science fiction book where the computers have taken over, only we still don’t realize that we gave everything up to them willingly.
In a world of global warming and air pollution, children raised on television and microwave dinners, obesity epidemics and mass marketing, online stalking, pornography and gambling, I wonder if maybe we have lost our way. As we continue to plug ourselves in to more gadgets and gizmos, I wonder if we are losing our humanity. As we move faster and faster, I long to just slow down. As more and more products come out to “simplify” our lives, I long for a simplified life where there are just less products. In all the noise of our Western world I forget who I am and what it means to have any sort of life, let alone life to the fullest.
Beyond being a neo-(wannabe)-Luddite, I am an Anabaptist. Specifically, I align my beliefs and attitudes with the Mennonite branch of the Church. The joke with Mennonites, I’ve discovered, is that they believe what the Amish believe but don’t have the guts to follow through with it. The Amish are not in fact against all technology, but they recognize that there are moral implications to our technologies. Just because something will be easier with a new technology, does not mean it will be better for the community or the individual. The Amish make these choices and the rest of the world look on in silent amusement. “They’re so weird and countercultural.” Of course, this is like the church once was …
Maybe it’s time to start asking ourselves which technologies are good for us as a community. I mean this for families, for church communities (and the Church), as well as for society as a whole. This means having less and consuming less. But it also means having more. This neo-(wannabe)-Luddite is coming to believe that if you want to find your life you must lose it. My life has been warped and owned by technology. And now I’m trying to find it again.
Oh, and if you notice the irony that I typed this on my laptop, e-mailed it, and it is now posted online, I’m with you. Like I said, I’m a wannabe. But I’m trying.