In Praise of 21st Century Luddism

by W.D. Ehrhart

Luddites as depicted in the 1840s.

Believe me, I really do understand that those little handheld electronic pocket-sized gadgets that do everything from making phone calls to taking photos and videos to locating your exact position on the planet are the future, and the future is already here, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

But you cannot make me like it, nor can you make me own one of those machines.  And though I try to be polite when other people pull out their SmartPhones and iPhones, it is often a struggle to refrain from grabbing the device and smashing it under my heel.

Recently, a friend of ours came to visit for the weekend.  He and his wife live several states away, so we don’t see them that often.  The first few hours went just fine.  But after dinner, the husband began to tell us about a trip they were planning later this spring: they were going to rent a cabin on Prince Edward Island and go ocean kayaking.

But he didn’t just tell us about the trip.  He whipped out his little phone thing, and showed me a tiny map of PEI.  Then he showed it to my wife.  Then he showed me a photo of the cabin they’ll be renting.  Then he showed it to my wife.  Then he showed me a photo of his 22-foot ocean-going kayak.  Then he showed it to my wife.  Then he showed me a photo of his 22-foot ocean-going kayak with his wife sitting in it.  Then he showed it to my wife.  Then he showed me a photo of his 22-foot ocean-going kayak with his wife and himself sitting in it.  Then he showed it to my wife.  Then he showed me a photo of the bay they’ll be paddling in at high tide.  Then he showed it to my wife.  Then he showed me a photo of the bay they’ll be paddling in at low tide.  Then he showed it to my wife.

He went on like this for most of the rest of the evening.  And each time he introduced a new photo on his tiny screen, he would hold the screen up to my face until I made some suitable verbal acknowledgment that I had absorbed and appreciated the photo.  “That’s nice.” “That’s beautiful.”  “That looks like fun.”

The next evening, we went out to dinner.  When I mentioned that my wife and I would be visiting the Adirondacks this summer, he gleefully took out his electronic gizmo and called up a map of the Adirondacks and showed us where he’d gone kayaking near where we’d be.

From that moment until we left the restaurant, his little gizmo never left the table except when it was in his hand.  He showed us a photo of his son and his son’s girlfriend.  He showed us a photo of his son and his son’s dog.  He showed us a photo of his other son and his other son’s fiancée.  He showed us a photo of him in the new suit his son had helped him pick out for his son’s forthcoming wedding.  He showed us a photo of the two ties his son had helped him pick out to wear with his new suit.

Ties, for crying in a bucket!  Not even novelty ties like the ones with the neon hula dancer that say, “I love my wife, but oh you kid!”  Just plain—very plain, in fact—ordinary ties.  I’m supposed to get excited about his ties?

Please don’t misunderstand me.  I’ve known this man for four decades.  I like him.  He’s intelligent and thoughtful.  He’s a good guy.  But this new technology seems to have taken over his life, giving him the ability to provide in detail an illustrated account of every facet of his life and the belief that everyone else finds it all as fascinating as he does.

I recently retired from teaching high school.  One big reason I retired was a rising feeling of helplessness in the face of the mindless assault of technology. Even the best students—and they are relatively rare—could not resist the urge to check in on Facebook or text their girlfriends in the midst of a lesson on Ben Franklin.  How does one regulate it?  By having the students face away from the teacher so I can see what’s on their screens?  Talk about cutting off your nose.  And I’ve had students who can send text messages without even taking their phones out of their pockets.  Really.

My solution was simply to ban all electronic devices from my classroom.  But that didn’t sit very well with the administration.  Most of my colleagues, by the end of my tenure, had their entire courses posted online.  And many of my students struggled to read anything longer than a screen page or write anything longer than 144 characters.  “Words” like UR, OMG, and LOL were beginning to show up regularly in formal academic essays.  Really.

Then there was the student lounge just outside my classroom door.  As the years passed, it got worse and worse.  Long before I finally threw in the towel, it was all too depressingly common to see six or eight kids sitting out there, each one staring at the little screen in front of their faces while saying not one word to the kids on either side of them.

And that’s not all.  I regularly attend a Twelve Step program, but even in these meetings there are always a few people who sit there monitoring their screens, reading and sending text messages, even though every meeting begins with the admonition, “Please turn off your electronic devices and refrain from using them.”

The night I was expected to admire several very ordinary ties, there were four young women seated at the table next to us, each one staring at the little screen in her hands, occasionally pushing the screen into the face of another one of the women.  As nearly as I could discern, this passed for conversation.

I am fully aware that doomsayers in every generation, going back to the Roman poet Horace and beyond, have been convinced that the world is going to Hell in a handbasket, and yet we pathetic little humans are still here.  And maybe we’ll manage to survive the self-absorbed anti-social scourge of handheld technology that allows one to spend one’s life in a bubble even when surrounded by other people.

But I still carry a flip-phone, and I never answer it unless it is my wife or my daughter calling.  I use e-mail, but don’t use any other so-called social media.  I read books printed on paper.  And at 73, with most of my life already behind me, I’m glad I won’t be around to see if all this wonderful technology at our fingertips is really as wonderful as most people seem to think it is.

W. D. Ehrhart is an ex-Marine sergeant who holds a PhD in American Studies from the University of Wales at Swansea, and taught for many years at the Haverford School for Boys.

1 thought on “In Praise of 21st Century Luddism”

  1. W. D., I love this essay and feel the same as you about cell phones and their constant use by nearly everyone at nearly every occasion. I own one but only agreed to have the thing when my mom was dying of cancer. Since she died, I never touch the mobile rig. Cell phones seem to intrude on all facets of life, though I must admit, sometimes they have useful reasons for existing. At times, my wife saves the day with hers. Maybe being another Nam vet has something to do with these feelings — I know lots who have stayed clear of the world of hi-technology. Thanks for writing this great piece. And Steve, thanks for publishing it!

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