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Language Without Intimacy
Neo-Luddite sympathizers question the importance of computer technology
from the cover story of The Georgia Straight, Sept. 22-29, 1995
By Lawrence Kootnikoff
"They did it to me, they can do it to you," warns Sandra Bullock after her life has been deleted in "The Net." "Are you still getting your news from dead trees?" snears a magazine ad for an on-line news service. "Everyone will have to learn Windows 95," is the not-so-veiled threat in Microsoft's $500-million campaign.
Hollywood (three Net-movies this summer, 20 more in the works), TV and the computer industry are playing on fear of the new technology, helplessness - and even threats.
But the backlash has started already. People are getting sick of the cyber-hype, and asking just how necessary it is to their lives. Is it good for anything other than padding Bill Gates' swollen bank account, or for giving more people an opportunity to discuss Klingon physiology?
Maybe not, say critics. Some - proudly calling themselves "Neo-Luddites" - are calling for a halt to the techno-revolution. At a recent rally in New York City, author and leading Neo-Luddite spokesman Kirkpatrick Sale smashed a computer with a sledge hammer after a short speech criticizing the "technosphere." "It felt wonderful,"he told Wired Magazine later. "The sound it made, the spewing of the undoubtedly poisonous insides..."
The backlash has reached Vancouver too. And it's not confined to extremeists like Sale, who won't even have a phone in his house, or to people who have never used a computer. Elaine Decker, a teacher who is also information officer for the British Columbia Teachers' Federation, does use a computer - she just doesn't see them as the saviours of society. "The struggles I have will not be made easier by the Net," Decker says. "The problems of my life, the successes and failures, are not grounded in data. There's no shortage of information. There may be a shortage of ways to learn to reason."
Prof. Richard Rosenberg, of UBC's computer science department, is an unlikely sympathizer of the neo-Luddites' views and a champion of the original Luddites. "There's a lot of misuse of thet erm," says Rosenburg, who is working on artificial intelligence as well as issues of free speech, privacy, access and commercialism on the Internet.
The Luddites were weavers and tradesmen from the Midlands of England who rose up in 1811 and smashed the new machines that were putting them out of work. And far from being an unruly mob, the Luddites were disciplined, well-organized and chose their targets well. They also had the support of most local residents. But British authorities made short work of the motley group that dared to stand in the way of progress. Many were hanged, and others were exiled to the colonies.
Guy Robertson watches the growing hysteria over the Internet and "Windows 95" with bemusement. "If you can persuade people to hit themselves over the head with a hammer, they'll do it," he says.
Robertson, chair of library science at Langara College in Vancouver, can surf the Net with the best of them. He's been doing it for 20 years. But he prefers a nice, solid, substantial book, doesn't go to many movies, and has never owned a TV set. "I'm the only person I know who has never watched an episode of 'Hill Street Blues,'"he says. "So what? It ain't Pride and Prejudice."
"There's a superficiality about the Net that I find disturbing, that we spend an awful lot of time looking at what's on the Net, but not absorbing very much of it."
Robertson's serenity - along with his fond ness for antique furniture and rare books (including several first editions by Charles Dickens and a signed first edition from Evelyn Waugh) seems out of place nowadays, especially since business discovered the Internet about three years ago. Hardly a day goes by without another breathless story on, say, a new on-line chat group for people who like beans.
But Robertson doesn't like the "Luddite"label. "Let's just say I'm pro-choice when it comes to technology,"he says. "I'm a critic of technology for technology's sake. I can show you articles from 20 years ago predicting the death of books. Butmore books are being sold now than ever before."
No one denies the potential of the Internet. But so far, "most of it is garbage," says Robertson. And access is pretty much limited to a tiny minority in First World countries - some 50 million users at last count.
Connecting requires expensive hardware, a phone line and connecting with a user number that is often busy. And your local librarian can probably find you more and better organized materials than you can currently find on-line. Well-preserved paper and ink can last for six hundred years and is easily read, while electronic data is notoriously unstable, and requires compatible computers to access.
"If you burn a disc, the information is gone in less than a second, but you can still read the paper label," says Robertson. And when you do connect? "The computer screen limits use. It's not something you can sit down and read comfortably."
And - news flash! It's print-based, just liket hose old-fashioned books it's supposed to replace. That puts it down a notch or two on the MacLuhenesque hierarchy from 40-year-old television technology and 70-year-old radio. So why the mad rush to get connected?
"There's a relevancy hysteria, that you're not relevant unless you're on-line," says Brian Campbell, systems director at Vancouver Public Library. "We confuse speed with quality," says Robertson. "I've read a lot of stupid things on the Net. It encourages you to move more quickly than you should - the 'bad manners' that people are talking about. You don't see the consequences."
"When is a document a legal document? When it's on paper and I sign it with ink, it's a legal document, but if I fax it it's not. When am I responsible for something I say on the Net? Is it libel, or is it slander?" he asks. "These things will be worked out, but I promise you that the standard ways of communicating will survive."
Campbell worries about economic barriers to the information highway. "Only a small percentage of people have a microcomputer,"he says. "Libraries and freenets are trying to provide (cost-free) access, but it's still a problem, and a division between rich and poor. People are saying the Internet is going to replace all other forms of communication. But it's not going to happen."
So what is the Internet good for? "There is a certain amount of business that can be done (on line)," Robertson says. "It can sell a lot of equipment for vendors. It may or may not have educational use."
"A lot of people are realizing that there's a lot of junk on the Internet," says Campbell. "When people get a life they will have it as just one kind of information tool in their arsenal."
In the meantime, the Microsoft juggernaut rolls on. Last month's half-billion dollar release of Windows 95 was the biggest product launch since the 1985 unveiling of the new Coke.
In the end Windows 95 will probably be just as important to the history of humanity (though Coke has wider distribution and better name recognition). But it is part of the same unnerving trend of media to treat strictly business and consumer news as page-one fare.
Great credit can go to Bill Gates' deep pockets. Microsoft managed to turn the release of what would otherwise be known as Windows 4.0 - one year late and a decade behind many features offered on the main competing operating system on Apple's computers - into a social and cultural phenomenon.
But any cultural phenomenon generates its own backlash, and those slick TV ads had many viewers reaching for the remote in nanoseconds. "I thought the launch of Windows 95 was the obscenity of my lifetime," says Decker of the BCTF.
"The main reason for the backlash is the feeling that we're being manipulated," Robertson says.
"Jet-black ink on good quality paper is an experience in itself," he says. "We underestimate the power of traditional type. You go to the Library of Congress in Washington, go up to the Great Hall where they display the Guttenburg Bible. Take a look at it, it's monumental! There's nothing quite like it. It's not primitive printing at all, even though it's one of the earliest books ever printed, printed in 1455. It's magnificent! This is something that is not to bebelittled."
But meanwhile, the uncritical media onslaught continues to move those little red-white-and-blue boxes off store shelves, and sell the more powerful computers and memory upgrades needed to run the program. The pitch seems to be working. Computer stores in Vancouver and across North America report brisk business. "For us it was a big event," says Future Shop marketing director Jossein Cheharzad. "We believe we sold from 20,000 to 25,000 copies (of Windows 95) across Canada in the first week."
The wall-to-wall media coverage certainly accounts for a large part of the consumer rush to get on-line and shell out millions of dollars for Windows 95 and related hardware and software upgrades.
But Robertson remains hopeful. "What if everybody doesn't learn Windows 95?" he asks. "What people would discover very quickly is that their knowledge becomes obsolete very quickly, and they're on this loop where they always have to catch up with a product. And where we see a lot of interesting development is where the product has to catch up with the people. People like myself say 'no, we're not interested. I don't have Windows 95, I don't need it. Sorry."
The campaign's main target so far is 16-30 year-old males, Campbell says. Business seems to be in no hurry to aide Microsoft's plans for world domination. "The big users are not going to get into (Windows 95) until the problems, the bugs, are worked out," says Campbell. "It's going to need a lot more memory than they said, and there's a lot of skepticism" among the business community.
Robertson bridles at the intimidation in Microsoft's campaign, telling people they must learn Windows 95. "What happens if I don't?" he asks. "People still use 286s (processors) for word processing, and there's no shame in that. (Microsoft) is going after the home market, and fine and dandy, but I don't know how successful they're going to be if Windows 95 does not encourage human contact."
But it's part of a social phenomenon that goes beyond computer use and users. The only parallel with the current outpouring of Hollywood movies and TV series (X-Files, No Where Man, etc.) with technology and computers as villains is the spate of Cold-War era alien "B"movies in the 1950s. In those days the enemies were Communists in Moscow and their agents supposedly hidden amongst us. Now, it's computers, a fear of lost jobs, lost privacy, and being left behind by the relentless march of technology.
"The themes they're picking up on are anxiety with technology," Campbell says. "Not only are you going to lose your job and be replaced, but then they're going to spy on you."
Forty years ago Hollywood was backing the official anti-communist line. But now, film makers are zeroing in on public fear of changes that have the full support of governments and the corporate powers-that-be.
The experts have been telling us that this wide-spread social change will usher in a brave, new world of progress, productivity and higher profits. Instead the public response is fear. Why?
Distrust of authority did not originate or end in the valleys of Nottinghamshire in 1811. Ordinary folks have long believed that governments and the powerful have too much say in their lives, and now technology is giving them tools to meddle even more efficiently. Also, people know they're not sharing in the promised benefits of the current economic transformation. "For a long time people could count on the fact that their children would be better off than they were," says Rosenberg. That's no longer the case.
Just consider unemployment rates in Canada. The average was 2.7 percent in the 1940s, 4.2 percent in the 1950s, 5.1 percent in the 1960s, 6.7 percent in the 1970s, and 9.3 percent in the 1980s. Halfway through this decade the rate is 11 percent, with economic indicators pointing to another recession and another round of job-slashing and "adjustments." In other words, if more of that is ahead along the information highway, we may want to take the next off-ramp.
"If every kid had access to the Net," asks Decker, "would we raise a generation that was more compassionate, more caring, more concerned about the environment?"
The current craze will pass, says Robertson, though it may take a while. "I think what we may see in the early part of the next century is a demand for more social contact," he says. "I don't think that the Net necessarily can dispel loneliness. I think human contact will remain essential."
"What would you prefer, a letter from a loved one, or a phone call? After you finish the phone call, that's it. You don't carry it around with you. But you can read the letter a month from now. The perfume is fading, but the prose is not."
"I went to a boarding school, and every letter I received was treasured. It had some kind of permanence, which the Net certainly doesn't, a telephone call certainly doesn't."
"That kind of intimacy is something we desire, and always will."
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