Is It Okay to Be a Luddite?

This post was written collaboratively with Jesse Stommel.

I feel a pinch as I approach the screen once more. A twinge, just the littlest bite of remorse. Sometimes, it’s sizeable, the feeling I have that I want the digital to be more, the Internet to be tangible, the vacant gaping spaces between my colleagues and myself to be smaller, more a hands-breadth than the length of a whale. And sometimes it is this, a mosquito in the ear. Either way, I return to the screen wishing for relationships that are bigger than pixels, and words that are indelible.

I rail against technology at dinner parties. I curse it to my friends in Google Hangouts. And they call me a luddite.

The title of this post is inspired by an essay by Thomas Pynchon. He wrote presciently in 1984,

“Since 1959, we have come to live among flows of data more vast than anything the world has seen.” According to Pynchon, “Luddites flourished In Britain from about 1811 to 1816. They were bands of men, organized, masked, anonymous, whose object was to destroy machinery used mostly in the textile industry.”

The 21st Century has produced a whole new kind of altogether less revolutionary luddite. These are the folks who refuse to go on Facebook, who have tried Twitter but would never use it regularly. They keep pen and paper handy and nod with suspicion at the great green elephant of Evernote. For these people, the Internet has not brought on a new world of connectedness and community, it has reduced us to two dimensions, static portraits of faces meant to be lively with expression. The Internet hurts their eyes. And they secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) scorn it’s denizens, reducing their work to blips.

Nicholas Carr writes in “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” “You should be skeptical of my skepticism. Perhaps those who dismiss critics of the Internet as Luddites or nostalgists will be proved correct, and from our hyperactive, data-stoked minds will spring a golden age of intellectual discovery and universal wisdom.” Words that drip with irony. Says today’s luddite, Google may not be making us stupid, but it is changing our minds (the ones in our heads and the ones we tap with vigilant thumbs) about what brilliance and idiocy are.

There are many who look at the Internet as the downfall of modern education. They decry online learning as necessarily sub-par, stating that the digital can never replace the face-to-face. These are teachers throwing sabots into the machine, hoping with words to stop the gross forward movement altogether, before all we do is reduced to microwaves.

Perhaps, there is some middle-ground, not skepticism or luddism, but what Sean calls digital agnosticism. So often in our discussions of online education and teaching with technology, we jump to a discussion of how or when to use technology without pausing to think about whether or why. While we wouldn’t advocate for a new era of luddism in higher education, we do think it’s important for us to at least ask ourselves these questions.

We use technology. It seduces us and students with its graphic interfaces, haptic touch-screens, and attention-diverting multimodality. But what are the drawbacks and political ramifications of educational technologies? Are there situations where tech shouldn’t be used or where its use should be made as invisible as possible? How does tech reconfigure the learning environment, both literally and figuratively? When a classroom (virtual or otherwise) revolves around tech, what shape does it take? How is this shape different from the configurations of classrooms that don’t revolve around tech?

Can we approach new digital technologies at once with wonder and also dismay — with a reflective curiosity that pushes buttons unabashed but not without first brazenly dissecting them?

And what do we make of analog pedagogies? Is the chalkboard an anachronism, or does it remain (as we believe) one of the most radical and advanced learning technologies? How do we remind ourselves that when we go online, our feet (or some other parts of us) are usually still on-ground?

The student-made viral video “A Vision of Students Today” shows how the boundaries of the classroom have changed in recent years. It ends with a very moving ode to the chalkboard. And this video from Futurama offers a critique (both silly and profound) of how we interact with technology in contemporary society. Both point out how important it is to remain critical — open-eyed both in awe and inspection — in our engagement with machines.

Technology may be homo sapiens’ super power. It is everywhere all the time, whether digital, mechanical, or simply practical. We will do technology always, and so railing against it, or feeling a twinge at the loneliness of the pixel must be tempered. To fear a technological future is to deny a technological past and present. And there is nothing new about sounding the alarm. Luddism has roots in a powerful kind of human agency, but to assume that technology necessarily removes agency is to misunderstand its use. Even the luddites knew when and how to throw sabots.