A Luddite Without a Hammer

“John Henry said to the steam drill ‘how is you?’
He said ‘Pardon me, Mr. Steam Drill, I suppose you didn’t hear me.
I said how are you, huh?’”

The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer


The John Henry statue.

Last year, the National Park Service spent $221,000 putting on a private fireworks show just for me. I’m not kidding. I was really the only person who watched the show.

Let me tell you, the park service might make its money by blackmailing Congress, but it sure put it to good use. Standing in the middle of the National Mall, I watched in amazement as explosions blossomed against a dilapidated, scaffold-clad Washington Monument. It was a sight easily worth every ill-gotten tax dollar.

Yet, though the mall was congested with a teeming mass of human beings, none but I seemed at all interested in the fireworks show. Instead, the people around me were – overwhelmingly – watching pixilated imitations of the display on their smartphones.

At first, the behavior seemed like an amusing trend. As I studied the crowd, though, I began to realize that the madness was near-universal. Everyone and his mother seemed to be brandishing a giant iPad in as obnoxious a manner as possible, shielding their faces like a defending phalanx of IT professionals.

The national mall holds an estimated thirty thousand people. As far as I could tell, virtually all of them except me wished to capture the fireworks display with a camera’s lens rather than their own God-given retinas.

I wanted to tell these people that they could just look up someone else’s recording on YouTube later, if they really wanted, but the fireworks were loud. I felt, as I sometimes do, like I’d stepped into a scene from Idiocracy.

In retrospect, Spike Jonze’s new movie Her is a better cinematic metaphor. The film stars Joaquin Phoenix as a man who falls in love with an artificial intelligence, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. I can’t recall the last time I saw a movie that managed to be at once so disturbing and moving. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should.

I suspect that Spike Jonze has concerns similar to mine. The moment Her begins, we learn that Phoenix’s character works for an internet business called BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, which customers hire to compose and send messages to friends and loved ones on their behalf. Jonze imagines a future where people have outsourced intimate moments to a website. Particularly given the recent release of Facebook’s “A Look Back” video, that doesn’t seem like a stretch.

You're recording the same video as everyone else.

You’re recording the same video as everyone else.

Before I saw Her, I’d resolved to oppose the protagonist’s relationship as being emblematic of what I think is an increasingly anti-social society. At some point, however, I found myself vocally rebuking Phoenix’s character for being tactless with Johansson’s. I realized I wanted their relationship to succeed.

Likewise, I make the Facebook comparison not because I didn’t enjoy the personalized video, but because I did. There might not really be any computer programs that sound like Scarlett Johansson, but Facebook’s “A Look Back,” at least, is proof that I can be fooled, so to speak. I found touching something that was produced by the digital equivalent of an assembly line, collecting and uniformly organizing the data of millions of people.

I imagine that this is why that crowd on the Mall thought it more important to show a fireworks display to their social networks than to watch it themselves; they are in a relationship with the assembly line.

My libertarian friends will have by now have accused me of being an irrational Luddite. “The internet hasn’t destroyed community,” the response typically goes. “It’s created it.”

Granted, the internet affords advantages to a writer that print does not. It offers educational discovery and stimulating conversation not so easily found in a library or a classroom. It allows me to correspond regularly with people I have never met in person. All of these are wonderful opportunities that I gratefully take advantage of.

The original Luddites were disgruntled artisans who smashed labor-saving machinery with hammers.

The original Luddites were disgruntled artisans who smashed labor-saving machinery with hammers.

Yet they are also not substitutes for the flesh-and-blood relationships for which human beings were designed. Insofar as we try to use them as such, we’ll find them an increasingly shallow – and therefore dependence-creating – substitute.

The argument that the internet has not harmed community, but simply moved it online, seems to presume that human interaction occurs between floating, disembodied souls. It does not. Although we’re sometimes tempted to forget it, human beings are organisms. We experience the world using an instrument forged by two hundred thousand years of evolutionary history. We’ve had the internet for thirty of them.

To say that a digital community can be just as fulfilling as a physical one is to deny any biological influence whatsoever on the requirements for human health and happiness.

Pointing out that people were alienated from one another before the technological advent is no answer either. It is an empirical certainty that alienation has steadily increased over the last decades. I don’t think that technology is the only, or even the primary, reason for our Bowling Alone. But I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that Japanese millennials – who have stopped dating and having sex – “spend far more time communicating with their friends via online social networks than seeing them in the flesh.”

Libertarians are, as a rule, wary of anyone who criticizes some technological innovation. This fear is understandable: criticisms of some technology are often followed by calls to ban it.

You can dissuade people from abusing drugs without advocating for their prohibition.

You can dissuade people from abusing drugs without advocating for their prohibition.

In reaction to this trend, many libertarians have developed a conviction that we should not merely politically allow, but morally support, the widespread use of any apparent innovation the market produces. They do not only oppose prohibitions on the market, but are marketists.
The marketist argument is similar to the libertine one: a libertine is persuaded that, in order to meaningfully oppose drug prohibition, libertarians must morally support drug use. Yet the relationship between opposing drug use and supporting drug prohibition is not a necessary one. The connection is incidental and easily broken. Likewise, I don’t see that criticizing my generation’s excessive use of social media need lead to a ban on social media.

Ironically, although many marketists are libertines, a great many are also cultural conservatives. They criticize the social market for having wrongly chosen to devalue sex, for instance, but recognize that this position need not lend itself to government imposition.

Neither, then, does persuading others to prioritize authentic experience and community over technological insulation. In fact, I think the most effective way to do so would be to decentralize political power: a community will not come together to manage its internal affairs if it had no power to do so. If I’m a Luddite, I’m a libertarian one.

Yet I don’t think I am one at all. When Google recently acquired DeepMind, I was far more intrigued than concerned. There are incoming technological advancements that I relish. I simply don’t think libertarians should shut ourselves off from conversations about how to apply these advancements wisely.

This column was originally published in 2014.

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