A Neo-Luddite's Lament
Our tools are turning us into tools
Editor’s Note: Have a question that has eluded all the wise people in your life? Try asking Matt Labash (who has access to both Google and Bing) at email@example.com
Now that 99% of the software code required to run the world in a dystopian, totalitarian manner (see Blade Runner, either movie) has been written, what’s on your tech Christmas list for your family?
Waitin’ On My Man
Christmas? That’s putting the Bud wagon ahead of the Clydesdale just a bit. We’re not even into November yet, and checking my nationaltoday.com list of holidays that actually exist but probably shouldn’t, we still have to get through National Waiting For The Barbarians Day (which isn’t an observance of our midterm elections, but of J.M. Coetzee’s 1980 eponymous novel). Then there’s National Jayden Day, which honors people with the trendy, ubiquitous name which means “thankful” – though I’ll personally be thankful if birthing persons start naming their precious unisex bundles things like “Larry” and “Bob” again. And then there’s National Impotency Awareness Month, which, if I’m being honest, I’ve always had trouble getting it up for.
So I’m not thinking about tech toys for the family. But then, I never do. If you’ve detected some tetchy, neo-Luddite notes in my scribblings over time, it’s because I basically am one. It’s not that I don’t use technology. It’s that I do so resentfully after being left with little choice but to.
Yes, I willingly adopted writing on a computer during college in the early nineties, mainly because I can’t read my own handwriting. I’m often forced to ask grocery store clerks to see if they can make out my shopping lists, since a page of my chicken-scratch looks like I wrote it while getting rear-ended in a multi-car pileup. Likewise, I knew as a fresh graduate that if I really wanted to make a life in journalism, I’d need to keep my typing skills sharp for the data-entry job I’d inevitably apply for after my magazine or newspaper collapsed. And, of course, I actually make a living on the internet now. Not here – selling pictures of my wife’s feet on Onlyfans.
So I’m not some Old Order Mennonite. I’m on to all the latest advances, like electricity and Sony Walkmans and Palm Pilots and such. And yet, the moral compromises I make to stay functional in this world seem to require constant upgrading. As I’ve spelled out here before, until last year, I still happily carried around a dumb phone to help keep my head in the game. “What game?” you ask. The sanity game, as in the one our nation of hollow-eyed smartphone addicts stopped playing a decade-and-a-half ago. Not-so-fun fact: nearly three out of four adults bring their phones to bed with them, more than a third say their sex life has suffered as a result of smartphones in the bedroom, and nearly ten percent actually sleep with their phones under their pillow. And the survey I took this from is now three years old, meaning the problem has almost surely gotten worse, since our technological addiction is a progressive disease. (Rest easy lib readers, that’s “progressive” as in “worsening,” not as in me stating that AOC caused it. Though it is an affliction she clearly suffers from, too, if you’ve ever spied her social-media oversharing.)
Of course, I had to give up my flip phone, Ol’ Bessie, after my carrier forced it into obsolescence, making it impossible to text. I nearly never texted anyway, mind you. I’m not a savage. Texting is a corrupter of language and a disruptor of fluid thought. Why type with two fingers when you could be typing with ten? Email is my métier.
But with all the two-step verification it now takes to get into everything to ward off password pirates, not being able to receive texts made it impossible to access most of my various accounts. (Apparently, the five-step CAPTCHA exercise where, to ensure you’re not a bot, you have to identify, say, how many cars have lapsed license plate stickers in distant, blurry photos, isn’t sufficient enough security.) And so, as with most “progress” these days, what was once elegantly simple has now been made extra-step difficult. And after 15 years of stubborn resistance, I now have to carry a smartphone around like the rest of the bleating herd. As the woman on my flip-phone tech-support line explained to me, “Baby, they don’t want you to carry that no more. You obsolete!”
I felt the bite of forced obsolescence again the other day, when trying to download an Audible book off my laptop to an MP3 player - remember MP3 players? - as one of my few remaining pleasures in our increasingly troubled and desiccated world is walking the dog through the woods with a good book in my ear. After the download refused to take – a problem I hadn’t had before - I jumped on the phone with my friendly English-as-a-second-language tech support helper in Mumbai or wherever, who kindly informed me through what sounded like a mouthful of samosa that this task I’d carried out a hundred times was now impossible without a Windows 11 upgrade.
But I don’t want a Windows 11 upgrade just to make your stupid app work! And besides, I informed Samosa, while doing a quick on-the-spot Google search, only 19.4 percent of the PC-using public even has Windows 11. But unless I submitted to Audible’s pointless anti-Windows 10 totalitarianism, it would be impossible to download a book to my nearly discontinued Sansa Fuze MP3 player. I’d now be forced to download it to my oversized and unwanted Android phone, irradiating my balls in a 5G bath and lugging around the entire internet in my pocket while walking through the woods. Which sort of defeats the whole point of escape. Weren’t there any other options? “You could carry your laptop through the woods,” said Samosa. I quickly Googled how to say “nobody likes a smartass” in Hindi.
Episodes like these – which occur in my life with regularity – sometimes cause me to lash out in print. A little over a decade ago, I wrote the following, in what amounted to a poison-pen open letter to Apple cofounder Steve Jobs:
I am sick of your never-ending stream of overhyped, overpriced, unnecessary iProducts. Your iPads and iClouds and iToldyouso’s. I’m sick of the way you lowercase your “I’s” for all proper nouns, a transparent act of false modesty, as though the laws of nature and punctuation don’t apply to you. I’m sick of how I can no longer get all the way through lunch without my dining companion succumbing to iPhone interruptus. And I’m sick of the way your iPod has put every record store within a 100-mile radius of me out of business. I can no longer even find one at the mall. But I sure as hell can find an Apple Store, where iDorks stand six deep to get their iProducts iServiced, as they sport your iUniform (mom jeans and New Balance shoes), completely oblivious to the fact that unlike you, they’re not rich enough to get away with dressing that badly.
Jobs died less than a month later. (My timing’s always been a bit iffy.) Some say the pancreatic cancer got him. While others speculate he died of a broken heart after reading my piece. I can’t say for sure. I’m not a medical doctor, just a frustrated Luddite. One who increasingly suspects that Thoreau had it about right when he observed that “men have become the tools of their tools.” Tools which, after some great technological leaps forward, have largely stalled in the genuine innovation department, while still yielding up an endless array of elective contrivances. These are tools that we kid ourselves into thinking allow us to ingest life as quickly as possible, while practically guaranteeing that we don’t truly taste much of it. Our own lives are now often reduced to naked exhibitionism or vicarious voyeurism on Facebook and Instagram. I’m liked, therefore I am.
It all puts me in mind of one of my favorite anti-technology manifestos – no, not the Unabomber’s, sorry Blake Masters. But rather, You Are Not A Gadget, by Jaron Lanier, himself a former Microsoft consultant and one of the fathers of the field of virtual reality, who has had a lot of second thoughts about tech triumphalism and its fevered evangelists. In his 2010 book – one I break out every now and then just to remind myself what sanity smells like - Lanier offered:
Some people say that doubters of the one true path, like myself, are like the shriveled medieval church officials who fought against poor Johannes Gutenberg’s press. We are accused of fearing change, just as the medieval church feared the printing press…..What these critics forget is that printing presses in themselves provide no guarantee of an enlightened outcome. People, not machines, made the Renaissance. The printing that takes place in North Korea today, for instance, is nothing more than propaganda for a personality cult. What is important about printing presses is not the mechanism, but the authors…….If a church or government were doing these things, it would feel authoritarian, but when technologists are the culprits, we seem hip, fresh, and inventive. People will accept ideas presented in technological form that would be abhorrent in any other form. It is utterly strange to hear my many old friends in the world of digital culture claim to be the true sons of the Renaissance without realizing that using computers to reduce individual expression is a primitive, retrograde activity, no matter how sophisticated your tools are.
Slack Tide by Matt Labash is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber. Preferably paid, to make sure you don’t miss a single post and have full access to the archive and comments section.
Bonus Track: Regular consumers of my bonus tracks know that I have a soft spot for Texas singer-songwriters, having included everyone from Townes Van Zandt to Steve Earle to Kris Kristofferson to Lyle Lovett to Nanci Griffith in this slot. So why not throw another mesquite log on the Texas fire? Here’s the late, great Guy Clark (he was still alive when he sang this) doing “Analog Girl.” The song was recently and coincidentally sent to me by subscriber/Politico star Daniel Lippman, who took care to point out that it was sent to him by his favorite high-school English teacher, Geoff Marchant. (Sharing is caring.)