am a neo-Luddite. Like the Luddites of early 19th century England,
I question and resist new technologies that will supposedly make life
better and easier. How much easier can my life get? How much stuff
do I need to live a good life? As a 51-year-old professional engineer,
I have amassed more than enough material goods.
Does questioning technology mean that I’m hypocritical when I rely heavily on my laptop computer? I don’t think so, but it does trouble me.
The original Luddites were textile workers who were accustomed to weaving in their homes. They worked alongside their families at a pace that matched this human-labor-intensive industry. They certainly used technology—spinning wheels, hand looms, horse-drawn carts—but their work was convivial. Such work is exemplified by its reliance on craft and creativity, nurturing human relationships and providing rewards through well-made products. Convivial technologies, like a hammer or a loom, facilitated the work to be done but did not usurp the power and humanity of the users. Textile workers formed a sect called the Luddites in response to the introduction of textile factories mass-producing products. The Luddites set fire to the factories and smashed the giant weaving machines because they recognized that these things threatened their way of life. Though many were sympathetic to their cause, the Luddites eventually vanished after years of persecution including transport to Australia and, near the end, hanging.
This difficult history makes my rejection of cellular phones seem trite by comparison. In fact, I now have one, passed down to me by my 21-year-old daughter that I use for “emergencies.” But I ride my bike or the bus to work, our television is a 25-inch basic model that is more than 10 years old and our family of four has only one car. Then there is the laptop. I can defend it because it is a convivial tool that I control and use to support my day-to-day practice as an engineer. In my work as a professor of engineering design and a partner in a green building consulting company, I find the laptop essential. My real value to students and clients is my accumulated personal knowledge, supported by my skill at using the computer to help solve problems and communicate important lessons. The laptop, like the individual loom, simply facilitates my work. So what’s the problem?
Maybe it’s the knowledge that computer manufacturing has a large environmental impact, from resources used in the manufacture to the rapid obsolescence and generation of waste. Maybe it’s the often inhumane work of low-paid employees in developing countries that construct the computers. Maybe it’s the annoying and prolific emails that I receive, even though roughly 75 percent of them are caught by my filters.
The most troublesome aspect, though, is that it’s hard for me to imagine life without my laptop computer. I take it almost everywhere I go, including to my home at night where I frequently use it to work. I can hardly remember what I did at night before I had it. I’m pretty sure I spent more time interacting with my family and friends, or simply reading a good book.
So there you have it. A technology that clearly has benefits to my professional life has begun to interfere with my personal life, while also having significant negative impact on the environment and other people. Did I anticipate all of this when I bought my first TRS-80 pocket computer in 1984? In this regard, I am troubled by the relative ease with which we readily introduce and adopt new technologies without much apparent personal or societal restraint. Further, we seem to lack coherent, virtuous, societal goals that guide new product development.
Perhaps the concept of sustainability will help us to develop those common goals and aspirations, in business, engineering and politics. As we flesh out the principles of sustainability, I have hope that these principles can guide us to a more humane world where work is meaningful, basic needs are met and the entire world, including nature, is healthy.
Andrew Lau is the associate director for the
Center for Sustainability at Penn State University.