THE BLOG

Stop The Insanity!: A Luddite's Lament

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Both my camera and my bicycle hail from roughly 1979. I still print my own black-and-white pictures in the darkroom. I write postcards. I own a VCR. I also spend a lot of time bemoaning the likely extinction of the printed word. I shudder every time I see someone with a Kindle, as if at a sign of coming doom.

In the current technological climate - in which everybody can be reached anywhere for any reason - I cling tenaciously to what one friend calls "the old model." This means that I check email only when seated in front of a computer, and that I make calls, listen to music, and surf the internet with three separate devices.

To my iPhone-toting friends, I have defended this system, because it allows me at least a teeny bit of freedom from being reachable. (You can always call me on my cell, but your email might just have to wait a few hours before getting through!) But I have to admit that it is actually becoming a disadvantage. Email etiquette has changed because of the iPhone, and these days, if you don't get back to someone right away, it's perceived as rude or negligent.

As I find myself secretly pining for my own iPhone, I have to wonder whether my resistance to new modes of technology is actually based on the superiority of the old modes, or whether it's just in my nature (or is it human nature?) to fend off change.

George Eliot wrote the novel Adam Bede in 1859, but set the story in 1799, and she spends many a page waxing nostalgic on the merits of bygone days. At one point, she gets downright depressed about how overwhelming life has become, declaring that "leisure is gone." She goes on: "Ingenious philosophers tell you, perhaps, that the great work of the steam-engine is to create leisure for mankind. Do not believe them: it only creates a vacuum for eager thought to rush in. Even idleness is eager now - eager for amusement; prone to excursion trains, art museums, periodical literature, and exciting novels; prone even to scientific theorizing and cursory peeps through the microscope."

Oh, George Eliot, if you only knew! What we 21st century Luddites wouldn't give for diversions as innocent as excursion trains, art museums, and exciting novels, not to mention for the days when scientific advance meant only a peep through a microscope!

But perhaps my nostalgia is meaningless, seeing how every generation is equally nostalgic for what it perceives as the "simpler" life of the past. Perhaps our children and grandchildren will long wistfully for the halcyon days of the iPhone, when things were so easy.

But that doesn't mean there's no merit in dragging your feet. When I see people whip out their iPhones while waiting to order drinks at the bar or during pauses in dinner conversation - perfect examples of what Eliot might call "eager idleness" - I sense the collective loss, as a culture, of what the Buddhists refer to as mindfulness. The old technologies may be no better than the new, but it's worth taking a moment every now and then to make sure we still know how to sit still and take in the life going on around us, without the brain-tickling interference of a handheld electronic device.