The neo-Luddites see technology running amok and cry stop before it's too late

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

They hear the clank-and-whir of a garage-door opener and envision the obsolescence of skin-to-skin sex.

They see electronic books and imagine a planet encased in concrete, ruled by a handful of technological tyrants at computer-linked mega-corporations.

It is a vision of societal metamorphosis that has science fiction-fueled cyberpunks raising glasses of synthetic brain booster to toast the future: "Zoom!"

But a growing and increasingly vociferous group of skeptics say that someone should have long ago hollered, "Stop!"

"Take a hard look at what technology has promised for the past 100 years -- peace, universal health, economic equality, leisure, joy," says Jerry Mander, dean of what might be termed the neo-Luddite movement. "Has it lived up to that?"

Most political, economic and historical observers will answer, "You bet" -- at least relative to the way things used to be.

But neo-Luddites respond that society's perspective has been warped by surrounding technologies. They recite a litany of evidence -- ozone holes, toxic pollution, disintegration of Eastern Bloc nuclear reactors -- to suggest that technological dependence may cause humanity to go the way of eight-track tapes.

Now, the skeptics say, another generation of gadgetry and techno-tinkering -- from video-telephones to computerized smart bombs -- has pushed society to a watershed. We had better look hard, they say, before we take this flying leap into the new "mega-technologies" that will fundamentally alter human existence.

"We have a hard time imagining life before television or cars. We do not remember a United States of mainly forests and quiet," says Mr. Mander, author of the newly released book, "In the Absence of the Sacred -- The Failure of Technology and Survival of the Indian Nations."

"As we move into these larger and larger technological forms, we're dealing with the complete takeover of nature . . . and in the end, probably the destruction of humanity as well."

For most people, technology is a given. Like a benevolent but omnipotent god, like that technologically improved beer, it's here and that's that.

But back at the end of the 18th century, the industrial revolution was hardly a foregone conclusion, and the notion of "progress" had yet to be invented, historian David Noble points out.

Then clothing company owners, inspired by a new way to increase profits, introduced machinery to the English weaving industry. The workers saw the contraptions not as an obvious advance toward some bright new future, but rather as a threat to their livelihood and a way of life that revolved around families and close-knit communities.

As a last-ditch defense, they united in 1811 under the banner of the probably mythical Ned Ludd and for five years went from factory to factory smashing shearing frames and power looms.

Industry eventually triumphed; cottage-based crafts moved to factories and the industrial revolution rolled on, radically transforming the world and its collective consciousness. At that moment, Mr. Noble contends, the here and now became merely a point through which the supposedly tedious past disappeared and the wondrous technological future rushed forward, "at best unchallenged and uninterrupted."

Opposition to technology became a societal taboo. To break the taboo became a sign of insanity. The term "Luddite" became an epithet synonymous with "dolt."

"This became [the Luddites'] legacy, and our inheritance," Mr. Noble, a professor at York University in Toronto, writes in a forthcoming book, "Progress Without People." "You can't stand in the way of progress, nor should you -- even if it kills you."

Almost two centuries later, an emerging neo-Luddite cadre argues that technology has so completely enveloped us, it is essentially invisible.

Langdon Winner, author of "The Whale and the Reactor, A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology," says the problems and benefits of technology have become so intertwined with the culture's politics and economics that people have slipped into "technological somnambulism."

When the first car sputtered to life, Mr. Mander points out, no one imagined its potential to change things. But with it came the growth of suburbia, air pollution, noise, solid-waste problems, "the virtual repaving of the entire landscape, at public cost," wars over oil supplies, a shift of economic and political power to the handful of corporations producing cars and the advent of the assembly line.

Dyed-in-the-wool neo-Luddites like Mr. Mander go so far as to blame automotive technology for the resulting "worker alienation, injury, drug abuse and alcoholism."

More worrisome to the neo-Luddites is how society expects that when one technology goes haywire, another can be rigged to repair the mistakes, thus creating another unpredictable spiral.

Take global warming. The problem is an unexpected byproduct of technology, the neo-Ludds say. But solutions that technologists propose to counteract the so-called greenhouse effect may give rise to even worse dilemmas.

Neo-Luddites say returning to a simpler life would solve the problem. Meanwhile, they shiver at new technologies lined up in the wings that may make changes affected by the car seem like small (genetically unimproved) potatoes.

In fact, the notion that human beings, per se, may eventually become obsolete is not just a paranoid fantasy of science fiction-bashing technophobes. Mr. Mander is particularly exorcised by the increasingly popular sort of thinking reflected in a 1988 book called "Mind Children" by Hans Moravec, director of the Mobile Robot Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University.

Mr. Moravec and like-minded techies believe society is within 30 years of artificial intelligence and genetic engineering so advanced that what was once human culture will be outshined by a genetic takeover. "[It] will then be able to evolve independently of human biology and its limitations, passing instead directly from generation to generation of ever more capable intelligent machinery," Mr. Moravec writes.

Even as that future prepares to unfold, other techno-junkies cruise around in computer-generated "cyberspace" at this moment. People don special suits and goggles and explore a boggling array of convincing three-dimensional "virtual realities." Proponents say that before long, the technology will allow people to engage in cross-continental "virtual sex" without touching.

Mr. Mander finds the seeds of the change he says society needs to make in the remaining pockets of Indian populations, where, his book argues, faith in a nature-based way of life and a deep-rooted spirituality have remained.

Society can resist the computerized, nuclear-powered, satellite-linked steamroller of progress "without having to dig for grubs every night or hunt for beavers in the Hudson Valley," he says.

Instead, neo-Luddites hope to educate with a more balanced view of emerging technologies. Because corporate and government forces that benefit most from technology support it with an incessant flood of unequivocally upbeat and positive messages, Mr. Mander contends, the only way to achieve balance is for skeptics to pound the drum of negativity.

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