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Fuzzy-headed angst



After reading Hal Crowther's column "Unwired: A millennial manifesto" [Jan. 26], I would suggest that his flirtation with the Luddites' technophobic view is shared by more than just his generation of blue-blooded English majors and "the poor," on whose behalf he so beneficently purports to speak. I've seen plenty of fearfulness in the face of change, even within "the belly of the beast," from which I have emerged, begrimed and smelly, five days a week for the last 15 years. At the turn of the previous century (Y1.9K, by my reckoning), an affliction diagnosed as "neurasthenia" was widespread among those suffering nervous exhaustion over the rapid pace of technological change. It is perhaps the flip side of the human impulse to create and probably as universal.

But it's one thing to raise legitimate concerns about the possible detrimental social effects of a cyberspace explosion, and another to spew invective and insult at everyone who actually makes his living in the digital world. Crowther's piece is a little more than an exercise in snobbery from an Eastern Seaboard private college self-styled "humanist" (whose credentials he regularly presents before stepping up on his soapbox), directed at people of whom he has little knowledge and an enterprise about which he understands next to nothing. I am reminded of the many self-appointed moral guardians who feel qualified to condemn, sight unseen, art and literature which challenge their tightly held, if narrow, beliefs.

Hal Crowther claims to be joining "The Resistance" to the Internet by refusing to have anything to do with it. His reasons for coming to this decision beg a few reflections.

First, he admits to having never once been on the Internet. If he were a movie critic, would he presume to review a film he had not seen? It seems he would, for in his next never-logged-on breath, he warns about the Net's fearsome ability to erode privacy. It doesn't take much to crowd him, does it?

He speaks of an American population "hypnotized" into this "cattle drive" of new technology. Crowther, busy defending his embattled privacy, must have missed seeing these same hypnotized cattle using the Internet to organize their recent march on Seattle.

Crowther tips us off about the Net's limitless possibilities for cybercriminals, mentioning the recent well-publicized credit card scam. If such dire admonitions had always been heeded, they would have destroyed the first printing press the moment it was used to publish a heretical pamphlet.

He also points to the murdered dental technician who was tracked down on the Internet. Crowther must believe that there are many more Hannibal Lecters in this world than we had previously thought, and who, just dying to erode someone's privacy, have until now found themselves hidebound for want of tools to do it with.

Most significantly, Crowther claims to be joining "The Resistance"--but what he really is doing is quitting. Resistance, even passive, implies active struggle. The only thing Crowther is struggling with are the shadows on the wall of his cave-sans-modem.

Ground control to Hal: It's not whether there's too much or not enough technological change. It's who controls it. If you believe that the Internet itself is the enemy, then you face all the inevitable social-Darwinist implications of turning back the clock. Have you read the Unabomber's take on this: Industrial Society and Its Future? The new Romanticists--the Kirkpatrick Sales, the Dave Foremans and their ideological brethren--have much in common, not only with the Unabomber, but with the cyberlibertarian digerati that you loathe so much. (Read Mark Dery's The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium, especially the chapter on the Unabomber, for a brilliant explanation of this.)

Ironically, someone as openly disdainful of Wired as you would do well to read the interview printed there a few years ago (at your fingertips on the despised World Wide Web), in which Sales came across as little more than an educated idiot. His major accomplishment was to make his opponent, Kevin Kelly, look very good. This does no favor to those with their hearts in the right place.

To call such a bunch of reactionaries Neo-Luddites is an insult to the original Luddites, who had real bread-and-butter concerns, as opposed to fuzzy-headed angst. That you identify with them surprises and dismays me greatly.

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