Over the next few days thousands of normal people will be plunging into the depths of updating the core operating system of their Apple mobile phones and tablets. Under the hood this is a highly sophisticated technological operation. But no matter, we are all geeks now, and happily tap away at iOS7 updates and Android settings as we’d they’d been born clutching a smartphone.
When I was at school I knew just one person who owned a computer: my cousin. Owning a computer then seemed a bit like having a mouse for a pet: there seemed to be a lot of time needing to be invested for rather meagre rewards. Typing in pages of code, debugging said code after, waiting for hours while tape recorders screeched… all for ridiculously simple games to appear briefly, before crashing again.
By the time I’d got to university at the beginning of the 90’s I still didn’t know anyone else who owned a computer, and the ‘JANET’ address I was given on arrival seemed about as useful as a bike for a fish. But something had already changed. There was a new breed, and this new breed had a name: the geeks. In a1994 novel, Julie Smith described them thus:
“a bright young man turned inward, poorly socialized, who felt so little kinship with his own planet that he routinely traveled to the ones invented by his favorite authors, who thought of that secret, dreamy place his computer took him to as cyberspace–somewhere exciting, a place more real than his own life, a land he could conquer, not a drab teenager’s room in his parents’ house.
Who would have known? These people who spent more time staring into screens than breathing fresh air have become us, us who feel so little kinship with those immediately around us that we routinely travel to other worlds conjured by our favourite follows, to places more exciting, somehow more real than the drab offices.
Yes, with the screen-time we rack up and the time we spend turned inward, by the working definition of the 90’s, somehow we all now look like geeks.
Matter and anti-matter; ying and yang. The rise of the geek and their victory over all of us required the creation of a new enemy. If geek was no longer going to be a term of abuse and geek-behaviour was to be assimilated, we needed a way of labelling the remaining non-geeks. Geeks had been on the outside and derided for it; now that the outside was in, we had to find a way to deride those who didn’t join us in la vie technologique. They were Luddites.
Luddites are backward. Luddites don’t understand. Luddites don’t know how to setup Gmail on iOS or send their tweets directly to Facebook. Though none of us actually understand what Apple TV is for, Luddites admit to it. Luddites are slow, and in this 4G, iOS7 world they are now those who are
‘turned inward, poorly socialised, feeling little kinship with online worlds that they routinely travel to ones written by their favourite novelists, who think of that secret dreamy place away from computers as realspace, somewhere exciting, more real than the blue-drab teenage room of Facebook.‘
The geeks were right: though we’d caricatured them in grotesque and unfair ways, this emerging technology was fascinating, engaging and enriching. With a few semantic shuffles and a quick bit of redefinition, we became them. But what about the Luddites?
My hunch is this: in this homogeneously geek world, we need Luddites – real Luddites – more than ever. In fact, I’m becoming more of one each day and so should you.
The original Luddites were artists. Crafts people. Skilled artisans and labourers. We see them now as people who don’t ‘get’ technology, but the opposite is true: Luddites are the ones who really got technology, and foresaw what the implications of it were. They foresaw the effect new machines would have on their craft, on their way of life and on their communities. The Luddites saw the terrible hardship suffered in factories in the harsh economic climate of the Napoleonic Wars. They saw the drive to efficiency that saw skilled men replaced by machines operated by cheaper, unskilled labour. They saw all this and fought back, wanting to resist the hegemony of capitalist thinking that saw efficiency as the only value, and long-learned craft as disposable.
Now that we are all geeks, we need Luddites more than ever. Not men and women who happily ‘don’t get’ technology, but those who get it more, and want to offer some resistance. As our children grow up with increased anxiety, obesity, depression and poor attentiveness, it is Luddites who are waking us up to what unregulated screen-time is doing to us all. In new harsh economic times, with expensive wars still being fought, it is Luddites who are needed to call us back from our blinkers of capitalist efficiency to value craft, skill and proper handiwork. As government agencies work to undermine our digital privacy, and huge corporations like Google begin to apply pressure to start omni-sharing our lives with Glass, it is Luddites who call upon us to blow whistles, expose corruption and demand a renegotiation of the social contract.
Technology has always had social and psychological implications and the rise of connected devices has seen the ways that we see ourselves and relate to others changed in enormous ways. Many of these ways are positive – social networks are not of the devil – but many need us to develop disciplines to avoid our relationships being damaged by them.
So, yes, I have become a geek. And now I also want to become a Luddite. And I think you should too.
BTW, for those who made it to the end of the post, I’m considering writing a follow-up to Mutiny and After Magic which deals specifically with technology. If that’s something you’d like to see, let me know. Encouragement is like rocket-fuel to a writer:)
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