What’s wrong with neo-Luddism?

On 17 September Ben Tarnoff published an article arguing that to decarbonise we need to decomputerise:

the climate crisis will require something more radical than just making data greener. That’s why we should put another tactic on the table: making less data. We should reject the assumption that our built environment must become one big computer. We should erect barriers against the spread of “smartness” into all of the spaces of our lives.

Tarnoff invokes the spirit and actions of the Luddites, and there has, not surprisingly, been pushback, with some even accusing him of advocating genocide. This is ludicrous because Tarnoff takes care to emphasise that he is not calling for an end to the use of electronic computers:

Decomputerization doesn’t mean no computers. It means that not all spheres of life should be rendered into data and computed upon…The zero-carbon commonwealth of the future must empower people to decide not just how technologies are built and implemented, but whether they’re built and implemented. Progress is an abstraction that has done a lot of damage over the centuries.

Tarnoff is in good company. Shoshana Zuboff, in Surveillance Capitalism, and Jamie Bartlett, in The People versus Tech, are among other voices well worth attending to. And Richard Seymour’s The Twittering Machine is another excellent recent addition to the literature. Many of its main points are summarised in this Guardian Long Read. Seymour’s analysis is often discomforting. (I recognise aspects of my own addictive behaviour online in his descriptions all too well.) But, he reminds us, we are not necessarily entirely chained:

[Social media platforms] do not force us to stay there, or tell us what to do with the hours spent… Even more so than in the case of drugs, then, the toxicity is something we as users bring to the game.

Seymour ends The Twittering Machine with an invocation of the Luddite spirit:

Cyberspace is dreamspace, a place for exploration and reverie. Reverie is dream, and dream is wish fulfilment; a momentary pleasure wherein a desire is partly satisfied. This is something to be cautiously optimistic about…The theft of the capacity for reverie by the social industry, the way it has used gaming-industry techniques to lead us into a guided trance…is no trivial matter. We might ask whether there are other technologies for reverie in modern life, what the neo-Luddite approach might be to that?

This post is published on 20 September, a day when hundreds of thousands of people are on the streets to demonstrate in favour of rapid action to reduce the risks of dangerous climate change. Many, perhaps most, will have used technology to connect to others in the movement, but today they are out and meeting each other, face to face, celebrating and dreaming and making a different world.

Caspar Henderson is an Associate at Perspectiva

Image of machine breaking via wikipedia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s