When Kirkpatrick Sale was finishing up Rebels Against the Future, he was interviewed by Kevin Kelly for Wired. This interview, however, became more of a debate, between a technophile and someone urging caution and limits with regard to technology – a neo-Luddite.
Kelly begins by wondering whether the Luddites accomplished anything “other than arson and a lot of vandalism.” Perhaps a brief history is in order for some of my more casual readers. Even Kelly doesn’t seem to understand the Luddites, as he claims:
The Luddite cottagers thought it was inhuman to be put out of work by machines. But what’s really inhuman is to have cloth made by human labor at all. Cloth should be made by machines, because machines make much better cloth than humans. Making cloth is not a good job for humans…
British textile workers, prior to the introduction of the factory system and mechanical looms, used sophisticated handlooms that were human-powered. The artisans understood the handloom, at the very least being able to maintain or repair it, and were aware of its total functioning. The power loom relied upon mechanical shuttles with a complex design and method of operation and maintenance. It is a mistake to look at this technical change solely as a deskilling of labor. It did not merely alter the labor value in textile production. Kelly misunderstands the Luddites when he attributes their actions to mere anger at having been put out of work. Most important to understand is that it more acutely divided the labor. The artisans could no longer understand or control their production. They responded by attacking the power looms, burning factories and mills, attacking merchants and mill owners. The name Luddite came from the ‘mythical’ Ned Ludd.
The problem with the power loom is not that machines were displacing workers. The problem of the power loom was that the owner of the mills and factories became the gatekeeper for production of textiles. With increasing technical complexity comes the reduction of access.
Now, back to that interview… Let’s take a look at the technophile’s view of tribal cultures. Kelly argues:
“I would say that in oral traditions, there was very little of merit said. There is this tendency to think that the old things, the old times, the oral traditions, the tribal traditions, were somehow more lofty, that people of those times used things more judiciously, that they didn’t gossip, that they didn’t use good things for trash. This is complete nonsense … The downsides of tribal life are infanticide, tribal warfare, intertribal rape, slavery, sexism. Not to mention a very short life span, perpetual head lice, and diseases that are easily cured by five cents’ worth of medicine now. This is what you get when you have tribal life with no civilization … I’m very glad not to be living in a tribal society … Whatever romantic glories it may have, it all comes at a price. You keep forgetting it comes at a price. And the price of tribal life is no pianos, no violins, no paint, no telescope. No Mozart, no van Gogh. If a Beethoven is born, he can only be a genius at finding tubers. That’s the price of that society … You can’t have a violin without civilization. Look, what you get with a nontechnological tribal society is a very constrained society. OK, the people in a tribe adjust to those constraints and they adapt. But the advantages of civilization are options and diversity. You have increasing opportunities for people to be creative in new ways that you don’t have in those tribal societies.”
While Sale’s ripostes are largely successful, I believe Camus is more succinct: “If the world were clear, art would not exist.” The many benefits of technological society – perhaps the greatest being its art – are frequently intractably linked to its alienation and destruction. And, furthermore, Kelly’s discussion of tribal life is ahistorical and partial at best (i.e. see Marshall Sahlin’s essay “The Original Affluent Society”).
Considering the radical quality of Sale’s critiques, he is surprisingly reserved in his proposals. He asks “not that we devise some kind of utopia and work toward it, but rather that there be some kind of power of the citizenry, regular and often, to raise questions about, to assess, and to determine whether they want the technologies that are there before them.”
This is a modest proposal, yet a necessary one. Langdon Winner wrote in The Whale and The Reactor, that “it seems characteristic of our culture’s involvement with technology that we are seldom inclined to examine, discuss, or judge pending innovations with broad, keen awareness of what those changes mean.” This is the essence of what he calls technological somnambulism – sleepwalking “through the process of reconstituting the conditions of human existence.” At the very least, one might demand that we wake up to the realities of the legacy of civilization and attempt whatever interventions to regain some agency and autonomy.
Kelly thinks this is unnecessary, because the path of civilization is essentially progressive, improving, and perfecting. Sale (a historian) counters this optimism, arguing:
“Your optimism is contrary to all history up to the present, which suggests that given the values and norms of our particular civilization, we will perfect technology to the task of exploitation and destruction of nature. My optimism, such as it is, argues that because we know of previous societies that existed on every continent, and that existed far longer than Western civilization, and that have judged their technologies on other grounds than Western civilization, that it is possible to recover such societies in the future.”
Sale believes that if we do not follow the lessons from our past and undo civilization, that it will collapse under its own weight. And here we come to the close of the interview, and the particular part that made it a bit of cyber-legend. Sale makes a prediction…
Kelly: So you have multinational global currency collapse, social friction and warfare both between the rich and the poor and within nations, and you have continentwide environmental disasters causing death and great migrations of people. All by the year 2020, yes? How certain are you about all this, what you call your optimism?
Sale: Well, I have spent the last 20 years looking into these problems, and I have suggested to my daughters, who are in their 20s, that it would be a mistake to have children.
Kelly: Would you be willing to bet on your view?
Kelly: OK. [Pulls out a check.] Here’s a check for a thousand dollars, made out to Bill Patrick, our mutual book editor. I bet you US$1,000 that in the year 2020, we’re not even close to the kind of disaster you describe – a convergence of three disasters: global currency collapse, significant warfare between rich and poor, and environmental disasters of some significant size. We won’t even be close. I’ll bet on my optimism.
Sale: [Pauses. Then smiles.] OK.
[Sales reaches over to checkbook on his desk and writes out a check. They shake hands.]
Kelly: Oh, boy, this is easy money! But you know, besides the money, I really hope I am right.
Sale: I hope you are right, too.
This later turned up on the FX prediction market, and the latest results show Sale to be winning. But we don’t need a prediction market to tell us that. In the 16 years since, and especially lately — the convergence of the financial crisis, peak oil (and peak everything), the Arab Spring, the wars on terror, and so on — we see that, unfortunately, Sale was right. All signs point to the next 9 years moving even further toward an absolute proof of his prognostications.
But people don’t seem to want to hear this. Despite being available for 15 years of sales, Rebels Against the Future has an Amazon Sales Ranking of #748,062. Kelly’s new book, What Technology Wants, published in 2011, is at #12,593. When you tell people what they want to hear, they’ll pay attention. When you tell them they may want to give up their gadgets and start building communities (and if they don’t there just might be hell to pay) they’ll ignore you. The technophiles are selling a lie, one that reasserts its fundamental untruths with every passing day. When will they eat their hats?