The Luddite in me
18 March 2014
Last weekend I was playing darts in a pub with a few friends of mine. The game that we engaged in was 501, whereby the objective is, dart by dart, to reduce your score from 501 down to exactly zero, ending in a double or the bullseye. This can be done with nine darts.
In a pub setting, the scorekeeping is usually done with a chalk and blackboard, and can be tricky to do in your head (quick: what’s 387 - 119?). This is especially so under the influence of the refreshments served in a typical pub setting. This time, however, my friend offered a novel and smart solution developed for this exact problem: a smartphone app dedicated for the sole purpose of keeping score in a game of 501. At that point the Neo-Luddite in me woke up.
Luddism was a movement that gained popularity among artisans in England during the Industrial Revolution. Fearing that the cheap bulk goods produced with the newly invented machinery would replace their handcrafted products, the Luddites destroyed manufacturing and agricultural machinery such as spinning frames, mechanical looms, and thrashers. Nowadays Luddism refers to the philosophy of resisting technological progress more generally.
Here's what the Neo-Luddite in me was saying at the dartboard: of course we would be able make the subtractions ourselves and didn’t need the help of the scorekeeping application! What’s more, the glare of the screen would ruin the delicate atmosphere of laughter and chatter that had already built up around the pub at that point of the evening (as if not half of the people there were holding phones in their hand at that moment anyway). If I wasn’t going to practice my math and logical reasoning skills now, they would slowly erode away, atrophy like an unused muscle.
In fact, that evil piece of technology was about to make me dumber! I needed to fight against it!
The thinking that technology is making us less skilled and able than we were just a few decades ago comes up also in many other contexts. Our capability to do math in the head or with a pen and paper is worse than it used to be because now the computer does the math for us. We are a lot less able to remember phone numbers than just a few decades ago because now every number is stored in your contacts list and there isn’t a need to dial them. Our handwriting is probably not as pretty as it used to be before we started producing text mostly through keyboards. We are probably less able to navigate in an unfamiliar city based on street signs, sun position, and asking strangers because now we always have that blue dot available on our smartphone screens that can put us back on the map. Damn you, technology, for making us idiots!
While it may be true that we don’t remember as many phone numbers as we used to, it also pays to appreciate the way in which technology is making us more skilled, able, and smarter.
While our capability to do math in the head might be worse than 20 years ago, our capability to solve mathematic problems is much better because of technology.
While our capability to remember phone numbers might have gone down since the digital contacts list, our capability to make a phone call to a larger number of people is much enhanced because of technology.
While our capability to hunt down a woolly mammoth with our bare hands might have gone down when the stone spear was invented, our capability to feed our family with mammoth meat was greatly improved because of technology.
I’m by no means saying that you shouldn’t learn math because the computer can do it for you or that you shouldn’t learn foreign languages because soon you will have an earbud with live voice translation in it. These skills build up our thinking and also help us to deal with the new technology.
But I am saying that cultural evolution will go on despite the Luddites that live inside many of us. If a technology is going to make us smarter, faster, more productive, or better off in any other way, there is always someone to adopt it. The wheel, fishnet, bow and arrow, printing press, spinning frame, computer, 501 scorekeeping app. All part of the same continuum. And all probably abhorred by the Luddites of their time.