A Label I’m Learning to Embrace

No one likes being called names: Ignoramus, Incompetent Boob, Fundamentalist, Fatso. Often the abuse has a scintilla of substance, albeit couched in an ad hominem that distracts from one’s own shortcomings. But the latest label thrown my way really hurt: Luddite. That’s right, someone called me a ‘Luddite’.

How would you feel? I was shocked. Partly because of the scathing tone: “Llluddite!” But mostly because I had no idea what it meant.  My self-image as a walking lexicon was shaken.

Dog-Phone (1)

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So I did some research. First, context. The detractor applied the label when he discovered I have no mobile phone. (Or cell phone for my North American counterparts!) “Who in this day and age doesn’t have a mobile? … You Llluddite!” Ouch. So I’m guessing this was a not-so-subtle technological swipe.

Second, history. Resisting the urge to google this insult, I reached for a copy of Technopoly sitting on my shelf.  Social critic Neil Postman might shed some light. (Pause for page flicking.) Ah, the Luddite Movement began with the actions of a youth named Ludlum.  (An unfortunate start to be sure.) His father asked him to fix a malfunctioning weaving machine, but instead Ludlum destroyed the devilish device. Devilish, because between 1811 and 1816, this contraption had replaced skilled fabric workers, resulting in wage cuts, child labour, unemployment, and widespread discontent. In Postman’s words, “since then the term ‘Luddite’ has come to mean an almost childish and certainly naïve opposition to technology.”[1]

“Could this be me?” I wonder. Am I a Luddite simply because I neither possess nor know how to use a mobile phone?  Granted, I have broken electronic equipment over the years; recently I ran my friend’s iPod through a washing cycle before hanging it out to dry, still secure in his jeans pocket. But I’ve never intentionally destroyed any device.  Maybe not owning a phone was such a countercultural stance that I should be considered a naïve opponent of technology?

Postman continued: “But the historical Luddites were neither childish nor naïve. They were people trying desperately to preserve whatever rights, privileges, laws, and customs had given them justice in the older world-view.”

Perhaps there was some substance to this stinging attack.  Now, I’m not judging others for having a mobile. If I worked as a courier, a cell phone would be indispensable. And I don’t believe I’m a hypocrite to borrow a friend’s phone and tell my wife I’ll be late home. But I do resent how we unthinkingly adopt the latest and greatest without ever asking how it affects all our lives.

In many ways, I liked life better BME (before mobiles existed). BME my yes was a yes and my no was a no.  I was organized enough to turn up when I should; I wouldn’t hold off to see if a better social offer came my way, forcing last minute changes of plan. BME I could hold a sustained conversation without interruption, eye-contact and all, without my best friend glancing under the table to text his girlfriend. And BME you could still track me down in the case of an emergency. I was accessible, but not so convenient that you would divulge trivial details better kept to yourself, or treat me like a tool to accomplish tasks truly your own.

In this age when I’m already a digital fish swimming in radio waves, occasionally I need some shelter. I wonder if there is such a thing as “too contactable”—leave a message for me at the Coffee Club if you must, but don’t make out like the world fell apart because I wasn’t a text away.

Thus endeth my rant. Though I do think there is something more significant at stake than destruction of a weaving machine or avoidance of a mobile. Identity is the issue. In subtle ways, we all begin to reflect the technology we use. To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Or, as Postman extends the truism, “To a man with a camera, everything looks like an image. To a man with a computer, everything looks like data.”[2] And to a person with a mobile, everything looks like a text message. I’m not made in the image of a phone.  But I do believe I’m made in the image of a loving God, who respects people as people, and objects as objects. And never shall the twain meet.

Maybe one day I’ll purchase a mobile, and then “Luddite” will give way to “Sell Out.” But until that day, I’m learning to embrace this label. My only wish is that the way I use technology will magnify rather than mutilate God’s image in me.

David Benson

[1] Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 43.

[2] Postman, Technopoly, 14.


8 responses to “A Label I’m Learning to Embrace

  1. Hey Dave,

    I must say that I agree with this sentiment and it’s something that my wife and I have been managing to *slowly* remove from our lives, there is just so much technology available that it’s become so easy to just let your mind be swallowed by television/video games/phones and other manner of activities rather than just talking. I know personally when we moved into our house the arial point was to far away from the tv, so we needed to get a longer cable, when we finally got that cable we realised that the point doesn’t actually connect propertly to the arial on the roof anyway! So we have just done without, much to the surprise of many people who ask me if I have seen this or that latest show!

    Albeit, I do consider myself a bit of a technology bug, but it’s something I’m trying to get out of the habit, growing up the first thing when I get home was TV on. This was a habit hard to break and worth breaking for the immensely greater value given from spending time with my wife instead.

    I must say that it surprises me that you don’t have a mobile phone however… I’m not sure why, it just kinda does.

    • Glad to hear you’re on that journey too. As per Jeremy Kidwell’s post on wonderingfair.com a couple of entries prior to mine (see “How do we respond to the ecological crisis?”), science and technology are gifts of God in a material world to cultivate the planet–our first and ongoing mandate. So there’s nothing particularly ‘holy’ about unplugging from a high tech world.

      That said, Quentin Schultze’s book “Habits of the High Tech Heart” maps out well how we are shaped by the technology we use; thus we must develop virtues for an information age–virtues like discernment, moderation, authenticity, diversity, and the like.

      I’ve been searching for a frame to help me evaluate my use of technology so it will magnify rather than mutilate God’s image in me–and the answers will vary for each person. But I’ve found checking my choices by the fruit of the Spirit quite helpful: is this media form helping me develop patience, or is it fueling my impatience? Am I more or less loving? And so on. Or, following 1 Corinthians 6, 8, and 10, do my choices bring me into slavery or cause a brother or sister to stumble. Though I’m free to do all things, not all things are helpful, and I want all that I do to be for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).

      Again, every high tech medium is both a blessing and a curse–we must ask not just what it ‘does’ but also what it ‘undoes’ in our lives. …

      Does my use of technology, such as the mobile phone, foster …
      humility or pride
      transformation or information
      connection or fragmentation
      serving or self-serving
      freedom or addiction
      cultivation or consumption?

      There are no easy answers, and what answers there are lie on a continuum. In my particular setting, as a pastor in a very large network of people, I’ve decided (for the time being anyway) that Facebook and a mobile phone are more detrimental than beneficial … though this may well change, and I do at times borrow someone’s mobile when the occasion demands. I figure as long as we’re each asking these kinds of questions and bringing our technology use before God, then there is freedom to follow what one thinks is best.

      Thanks for sharing your own deliberations to this end :)

    • Thanks David, glad you enjoyed the article. I’m speaking this weekend at my home church on this topic: “Unplugged: Imaging God in a High Tech World” (www.kbc.org.au … The message should be online within a week). For some visual humour, I’ve borrowed a mate’s iPhone which will ring during the introduction, interrupting the message … The amusing part is I needed him to teach me how to answer it! … Very sad!

  2. Thanks for the post, Dave. One thing that amazes me in regard to cell phone possession is not only that everyone assumes that you have one, but certain businesses or services (like some bank services or internet installations) *require* that you have one. Sometimes it feels like a giant compulsory-cell-phone conspiracy.

    • So true Ben … I felt like that with credit cards while living in Vancouver … Being temporary citizens, we were virtually locked out from getting a card, yet the system required we have one for many purchases. Systems and access is a growing issue, which can range from mildly annoying and inconvenient, to positively discriminatory and dangerous. Like with those with intellectual impairment, or recent immigrants who don’t speak the language, or the elderly … Many are excluded because they can’t keep up, or don’t have the smarts/finances/etc. to do so. Walter Brueggemann’s phrase “consumer militarism” starts to sound less conspiratorial and more of a genuine social justice issue in a globalizing world. Perhaps this is an area for genuine Christ-like advocacy on behalf of the have-nots and tech-nots.

  3. Mobile phones are the new cigarettes.

    They give us something to do with our hands when we are feeling socially awkward but they also give us cancer.

  4. Pingback: Tinderization·

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