We Are All Geeks Now (But We Should Be Luddites)

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:)


9 responses to “We Are All Geeks Now (But We Should Be Luddites)”

  1. I love this post so much, something I’ve been on the edge of thinking for a while but you have concreted it!
    I think I am in that awkward place where I am a geek for myself but a luddite for my children. I know the dangers and efects of technology use and the magnetic addiction of the pixel and warn my children about it. But… I also find it difficult to drag myself away and set a good example to them. See, here I am commenting on a blog post in front of my laptop!
    Thanks KB for voicing this and reminding me of my responsibilities, I must do better!

  2. I think Alex names the dilemma. In order to continue this conversation, we have to install IOS7, bookmark your blog, stay abreast of the various twitter feeds that continue the conversation–don’t forget podcasts, google hangouts and, and, and…several hours later, I’m still geeked out in front of a device.

    What does half Luddite get us? Probably what half Christ follower gets us.

    Of course, If you drop the mic, unplug and walk offstage, I won’t know what you are up to. But, I would at least know, whatever you were doing, it was with the inward passion that surpassed numeric recognition. Or even just one follower. And if we all did that… well…

    To not know how to set up gmail is one thing. To know and then lay it down and walk away seems more Kenotic. That Kenotic could even sound reasonable (as a way of expressing dying to an online version of self) may itself be the problem(solution).

    But I do indeed learn from you.

  3. Lisa Carson

    Interesting topics as usual. Reminds me of something I read yesterday during my Europe 101 self-refresher attempts on history and art:

    “Romans were not great artists. Although the Greeks loved beauty and intellectual stimulation, the Romans were engineers and administrators. Their artistic accomplishments were big and functional, designed for accommodating the masses…”

    “Roman art and architecture are characterized by utility and grandeur. (An ancient Roman in modern America would consider a Los Angeles freeway interchange a great work of art.) The Romans focused on functionality and purpose. Decoration was secondary.”

    “The Colosseum is a fitting symbol of Roman art – Roman practicality with a Greek façade.”

    I find this interesting because it seems to reveal aspects in life that can become difficult to “dance” with – efficiency’s order and then the ability to be properly outside whatever bounds we make, for life’s sake. Even in marriages or team efforts you can see the tensions of that play out. Of even in the bible – as Jesus seems a character attempting to allow for the aspect of love/creation in life, followers tend to live to not dismiss functionality or efficiency, but to work to allow a growth of depth or relationship (as seen in the difficult transitions or dialogue about the place of government and “church” efforts of relationship).

    In that then the effects seem telling if that is not able to occur (relationship and order), as a sense of hyper-order without “heart”. This sense of efficiency of the masses (and violence) seems grounds for affects of relational dysfunction right along side it:

    “Like most ancient Civilizations, Rome had a false economy based on slavery and booty. When Rome stopped expanding, the flow of booty and slaves that had fueled the empire for so long dried up.”

    so much more to say but enough for now. Still working on Mutiny but hope to post ideas later too. Thanks again.

    (Book: Europe 101 History and Art for the Traveler, Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Pages 42-45)

  4. Count me in for a follow up dealing specifically with technology.

    In some ways I feel like you have to be a geek before you can appreciate being a luddite. By that I mean that you have to explore the new technology before you realize what is actually useful and what is just distraction. It is funny because I just read this:


    “My philosophy — to only adopt tools that solve a major pre-existing problem — has served me well.”

    and earlier in the post, “my lack of ability to connect with old classmates or to publicize my social outings were not problems I needed fixed.”

  5. Forgot to say, I’m in for another KB book, any time you release it!

  6. “My philosophy — to only adopt tools that solve a major pre-existing problem — has served me well.”

    I like that – a lot. And thanks Lisa for throwing that historical stuff into the mix – it’s hugely relevant. I’ll look the references up.

    Thanks for the encouragement too… I’m becoming more convinced that it’s something I want to write. Not a long piece, but just to get some ideas down. Perhaps I’ll try to get something done by Christmas.

  7. acetate monkey

    Always up for more from you KB.

  8. Bruce Grindlay

    Having bought the previous 2 books I’d be interested in another.

  9. You’d better write the book before Pete does!