Saturday, July 27, 2013

Luddites and Technophobes

I hear those two words often in these difficult times. They’re often confused, and therefore misused. It’s inaccurate to say “I’m a Luddite; computers scare the daylights out of me.” Well, both statements may be true, but they’re not synonymous, and clumping them together like that makes the non-sequitur button go off. Nor is it redundant to say “I’m a technophobe; I wish I could un-invent the computer.”

A Luddite is someone who despises and would happily destroy (or un-invent) technology that takes jobs away from people. The word comes from a movement in Northern England during the early nineteenth century, just as the Industrial Revolution was getting under way. The Luddites were Industrial Counterrevolutionaries who smashed machinery that was replacing human labor in the textile and other industries.

Modern Luddism might refer to the inventors of computer worms and viruses; but as far as I know those malevolent hackers don’t have a social agenda. They’re just vandals, super-sophisticated versions of teenage boys who smash mailboxes with baseball bats. To be a real Luddite, you must have a social agenda, and it has to do with jobs. (Not Jobs.)

Technopobia is fear of, or aversion to, advanced technology. The word “technophobe” generally refers to someone who feels too dumb to master the techniques of personal computer applications. The word sometimes has ageist overtones, implying that the technophobe is a fuddy-duddy stuck in the era of the Model T. However, some technophobes are proud of their reluctance to modernize their thinking, and they mourn for the passing of such pre-computer niceties as handwritten thank-you notes and the lovely printed volumes of the Encyclopædia Britannica. A true technophobe doesn’t buy anything over the Internet, for fear someone will learn his mother’s maiden name and move all his assets to Nigeria.

I happen to have both Luddite and Technophobic tendencies. Yes, I have a computer, and I use Wikipedia and Word and email. But it took me six difficult months to learn what I know about the Word application, and I don’t want to learn one more thing about it. I joined Facebook, but I don’t want to know how to share photos. Forget Garage Band; I wasted two hours getting furious with myself and with that complex, time-wasting toy. So, yes, I am a technophobe compared to my genius children and grandchildren, whose fingers fly over their keyboards, their iPads, their smart phones. Don’t try to sell me a smart phone, because I’m not smart enough to figure out how it works, okay?

Am I a Luddite? Well, I’ve never intentionally done damage to the Information Highway, nor have I ever socked my monitor (though I’ve been tempted). So I’m a nonviolent Luddite, although I know that’s an oxymoron. What’s my beef with digital technology? It’s very much the same complaint the original Luddites had about the machinery that replaced human labor in the Industrial Revolution. Computer technology destroys jobs. Oh, sure, jobs open up in the field of digital technology, but there are nowhere near as many jobs gained in that field as the jobs lost or rendered obsolete in other parts of our economy, jobs that used to keep the middle class solvent. Telephone receptionists. Secretaries. Number crunchers sitting at desks punching adding machines all day. Travel agents. Librarians. Clerks in record stores, camera stores, and bookstores. Postal employees. And the list continues. Many of these jobs may have been humdrum, but they paid a living wage. Some of these jobs may still exist, but in smaller numbers.

Am I sentimental and nostalgic? Yes. Am I sorry the Information Age came to be? No. Do I use my personal computer? All the time. Can I imagine writing a novel on a typewriter, and then retyping the whole 300-page manuscript over with every revision? (I revise a lot.) No way. Yes, I use email, and sometimes I get impatient when it takes a day to receive a response.

But still. I mourn especially for the independent bookstore. There are only a handful of them left. I worked in eight different indie stores during the 1960s and 1970s, and I miss every one of them.

Sometimes I live in the past. Well, that has come in handy over the past couple of years, while I’ve been writing Hooperman, a novel set in an independent bookstore in the summer of 1972. That was a time before personal computers, before email, before voice mail, before Facebook, before

It’s ironic that Hooperman is set in Palo Alto, the birthplace of the Information Age. It’s also ironic that I’m using my Mac, my blog, Facebook, and email to promote it. And it will be sold by Amazon, as well as (I hope) independent bookstores.

Hooperman: A Bookstore Mystery will be published in November. You’ll be hearing from me again about this…if you have a computer!


  1. I'm glad you cleared up Luddites, never took the time to learn what it meant. I am by no means a technophobe, but neither am I proficient with today's technologies. I try to grasp the basics so I don't fall hopelessly behind knowing what people are talking about. Facebook helps with that when the younger, more agile-on-technology take the time to briefly fill me in. If I don't get it after a little work, I let it go.

  2. I have to admit that I have Luddite tendencies whenever my computer doesn't "cooperate." But, like you, John, I don't know what I'd do without it.

  3. As one who grew up with the typewriter, went through numerous versions of computers and now trying to absorb the intricacies of Microsoft Version 8, I truly get what you say, John.

  4. THanks, Cora, Pat, and John. I would say we're on the same page, although the word "page" has a confused meaning in the computer age.

  5. Well, I don't know. In general I embrace technology, open-mouthed, wondering what's next. Music - that's another matter. But my mother complained about Big Band music in the 40's. All noise, she said.

    When they put a computer on my wife's desk, she got up and resigned her job.