Thursday, May 27, 2010

Neo-Luddism & Virtual Worlds

Outside Platos Cave
Location: In a World and its Shadows

Okay, mine is an odd combination: organic gardening, beekeeping, environmental activism, resisting technology just because it's new, Peak Oil...and virtual worlds. I get asked a lot why my avatar's First Life tab includes the statement that I'm a Neo-Luddite.

It's been a while since I dedicated an entire post to why I use Second Life, a technology so often derided as an escape from "the real."

That I question "the real" is another matter, though it's worth using Edward Castronova's preferred adjective, "synthetic," to elucidate why I feel that American malls, chain-stores, theme-parks, even gentrified inner cities I love are as "synthetic" as anything in Second Life or its ilk.

I've used Second Life and, lately, OpenSim because of their creative potential. Embodied and immersive communication tools like these enable really amazing educational simulations, facilitate meeting in a manner more satisfying to me than video conferences, and they make entertainment interactive. That's a great step up from passive entertainment such as broadcast and cable TV, which I abandoned in 1979. I still watch DVDs, sometimes. When I do so, I watch content on my time and at my pace. That's not what broadcast or cable TV promise. So if I wish--as I'm now doing--to take 10 years to watch every episode of The Sopranos, it's fine. "Deal with it, HBO," as Tony's crew might say.

So What is Neo-Luddism?

For a "Neo" Luddite, as I understand the term, a crucial test for acceptance is whether a technology encourages environmentally and socially benign use.

Thus, to me anyway and despite what Wikipedia says on the topic, Neo-Luddism is not "Back to the Pleistocene!", a motto of parts of the Earth First! movement in the 1980s. I left EF! precisely because of their hard-line stance against technology: leaders like Dave Foreman wanted to be rid of our technological lifestyles, in part so manly men like Dave could go into the wilderness with strong women. A thinker like James Howard Kunstler better fits my middle-aged perspective that technology, even harmful technologies like coal-powered electricity, provide great comfort and convenience. At the same time, these technologies both "bite back" and provide diminishing returns. That means that although Dominion VA Power does not raise fees that often, getting the coal to power my house involves ever riskier gambles with the human and environmental health. The same for oil, which is very much in the news now.

Though I split with the radical fringe of the ecology movement, my Kunstlerian suspicion of every "new and improved" gadget remained. For Amish communities, as Howard Rheingold discovered during a sojourn without his gadgets, the community evaluates it by a standard that an Amish man gave to Rheingold: "We're also concerned about what kind of person you become when you use it."

While I'm not ready to shave my mustache and trade in the F-150 for a buggy, I prefer the reality of the pastoral--a balanced approach to farming and living in the time of Peak Oil--to a gadget-filled, ever-connected life or, for that matter, to dragging a club and maybe my knuckles. And using the Internet is a way, relatively speaking, to reduce resource consumption in a time of increasing constraints.

How Do Neo-Luddites Doubt Virtual Worlds?

What I've just written provides my positive opinion of virtual worlds. At times, however, I grow concerned that virtual worlds fail some of my tests for appropriate technology. First, they rob us of time in the natural world as surely as television, or even books. Yet their interactive nature makes them even more appealing than those media, as surely as a blog like this or other online communication seems more seductive than talking over the back fence with my neighbor.

That seductiveness, figurative and even literal, is what bothers me. As Hamlet Au's informal survey reveals, a simple majority of respondents feel that infidelity is more likely in SL than in other online forms of engagement. Even if we don't shag online with another avatar, how much time do we spend at the expense of our first lives?

Second, enormous stocks of fossil fuels are burned to power the servers that cast the virtual shadows of our world of matter. What is the trade-off for Internet use in terms of how much energy we save with paper-minimal communication and reduced travel?

Where's the cost/benefit analysis?

My Neo-Luddite Response

Academics like me might be tempted to follow not the lead of Dave Foreman, but that of Sven Birkerts, author of the compelling jeremiad The Gutenberg Elegies, to "just refuse it." Birkerts, in fact, refused to use computers of any sort, though I do believe that he now types his work on a word processor and has participated in online debates about his ideas. But Birkerts' conclusion is no more my sort of Neo-Luddite than was Dave Foreman's. Though Birkerts might, for all I know, be an organic gardener and backpacker, he's also the sort of academic curmudgeon whose connection to nature appears more intellectual than visceral.

For all I know.

In fact, though poet and farmer Wendell Berry does not use computers or the Internet, I find more sympathy with his approach than with Birkerts' Ivy-covered-wall or Foreman's club-and-cavewoman brands of Neo-Luddism.

This is why I waited five years for a need to evolve in my life before I purchased an iPod. I have yet to yield to smartphone, iPad, or GPS. What is the need, and what will those technologies do to me?

For now, virtual worlds make sense to me as a way to connect to distant colleagues and build things. At the moment when they take too much of my time from my goal of retiring to be a small farmer and "sideline" beekeeper in a Community Supported Agriculture program, I'll be done.

And as you might guess, I don't play Farmville. I'd rather come to live it.

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