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Luddites Are Us

Americans get the inventions we deserve.

The ironically named smartphone is a perfect example. And let me say at the outset that I am American and entirely addicted to it.  Rather than building on what we already know, it assumes we want to know less.  Once upon a time we used maps because we had to and we asked directions — we were forced to leave our isolationist seclusion long enough to at least get onto the right highway; and afterwards, maybe something about that highway or the nice person we were forced to ask for directions stayed in our memories. Now, we are free to only remember the details of the last HBO show we saw. We travel from place to place by punching in the name of our destination and following the dictates of a disembodied, annoying voice, ignoring everything along the way. If the voice takes us via routes that seem unnecessarily roundabout, we grumble but stick with it. Let our phone ask directions, at least it’s not us.

This satisfies our national tendency to wear our ignorance like a badge of honor, as if instead of being settled by the Puritans, we were settled by the Luddites. We may worry publicly about our children’s achievement scores, but we allow certain state school boards to insist on their own version of our history appearing in textbooks. Truth and our favorite “truthiness” get equal play. The problem with this is, we set up our system of government to be run by average people, not Kings, not dictators, not oligarchs, not Popes. Yet we allow our technology to keep us as selectively informed as the population of some dictatorships.

Once upon a time, Dorothy Parker lampooned the technological failings of the then-fledgling New Yorker by quipping that she hadn’t finished her article because someone else was using the pencil. Now, our technology is so sophisticated, that I, as a freelance writer, can avoid finishing this article by watching the U.S. Open on my writing instrument. I am reminded of Dorothy Parker almost every day by Facebook because I “liked” the page of a person who accumulates her quotations and posts them regularly. This is great except that Dorothy Parker only said so many things and sadly is not saying any new things owing to the fact that she’s dead.

On my Facebook page, however, the illusion that she is still alive is maintained. Her quotations pop up regularly and I smile and try to pretend I haven’t read that one already. Facebook’s goal is to get us to use it to create curated worlds featuring only the things and people we want to see, allowing us to edit out those people and points of view in the other category. Not long ago, it seems to me, there was a fair amount of disagreement on Facebook, but now the sight of an opposing opinion on our pages is as shocking as seeing a cockroach run across our bathroom floor. So Facebook allows us to spray. We unfriend. We unlike. And as Facebook encourages us to substitute newspapers and magazines with articles shared by friends our awareness and tolerance for dissent and difference disappears.

I’m not complaining. I have a great group of friends many of whom are writers themselves, and the stuff they post is varied and great. But what about stuff I don’t know I’m interested in yet? Or about stuff that I think I’m not interested in but am wrong about. Or people whose Facebook friend groups (God forbid) do not include lots of writers? Facebook means never having to go out of my comfort zone.

In the interest of supposedly democratizing access, our technology has effectively killed the music business and is pretty far along in doing the same to journalism. Both may soon recover but for the moment everyone is a pop star and everyone else has a blog.  Meanwhile very few of us are rich. There are many more musicians and writers but now none of us can get paid. And journalism’s ability to effectively do its job – challenging the powerful, speaking truth to power, pick your cliché, I’m sure there’s an app for that — is hamstrung by the fact that none of the new publications sprouting up want to pay their writers.  Don’t get me wrong; I was a 20-year-old writer once. Young people have lots of interesting opinions and energy but most have not yet learned how to report. And reporting is what holds people accountable. Not fulminating and not naked pictures.

It seems wishful, but it would be wonderful if inventions could truly democratize our Democracy. Target poverty, help people vote, improve our infrastructure or even spruce up our national discourse. I imagine a truth machine that would sound an alarm every time some Senator or television commentator tried to whip up his or her base, by playing on its affection for its continued ignorance. Let’s call it the Knee Jerk Defender.