Unplugged

The Neo-Luddites show up to the game a couple quarters late.

By Jim Knipfel

This past weekend, the Washington Post ran a long feature about the “radical” “new” growing movement of what they call “techno skeptics” or “digital dissenters.” most of them, it seems, are hip young people who apparently just recognized their handheld doo-dads were designed to be obsolete the second the new model came out, forcing them to buy a new one, just discovered the Internet was being run by a handful of major corporations who are soaking up all their personal data to sell to other major corporations, and were shocked and dismayed by the Snowden revelations. I mean, can you believe our, like, own government would, like, totally spy on us like that? It really sucks! In short, the promised utopia of the marvelous and magical hi-zoot digital era wasn’t quite evolving as expected.

Well, good for them, I say.

For the record, I have a landline in my apartment. I have never owned a cell phone, smart or otherwise. I don’t have a laptop or any product that is prefixed by a lower-case i. Whenever possible I pay for everything in cash. And I was only very reluctantly forced to get an Internet connection in 2006, as it had become impossible to continue working in my chosen field without one—something which still pisses me off. I don’t even have cable. Apart from the stories that appear online, as much as possible (though it’s becoming increasingly impossible), I try to leave no trail, no record of where I’ve been or what I’ve done. Which, I guess, makes me an immediate enemy of the State.

In 1998 (the same year Google appeared on the scene) I wrote the first draft of a dystopian black comedy called Unplugging Philco, about a man trapped in an all-pervasive corporate-controlled surveillance society who takes some desperate if clumsy measures to live off the grid and under the radar. In 2003, realizing the world I’d described in the book had not only come to pass but was now outdated, I pulled the draft back out and re-wrote it. The book was finally released in 2008, and by the time it was it was outdated again.

In assorted ways and assorted publications, I’ve spent 20 years—inspired in no small part by Thomas Pynchon’s 1984 essay “Is It Okay to Be a Luddite?”—tracking, documenting, and writing about the evergrowing nightmare of our wondrous Interconnective Age. It wasn’t just the obliteration of anything resembling privacy that enraged me, but the devastating social and psychological effects the Internet, the hypnotizing digital toys and social media sites seemed to be having on everyone else on the fucking planet.  As thrilled as I was when Snowden came forward with the revelations about the NSA, by the time he did it was old news to anyone who was paying attention. The whole fucking game, I thought, was laid bare back in 2003 when it was reported Google had rented out office space in their headquarters to the NSA.  But you know, no one gave a good goddamn, too mesmerized as they were with their fancy little handjobs, their Twat accounts, and the endlessly shrill myths about the terrorist threat.

The thing I find most intriguing about this so-called revolutionary new movement of soft Luddites is that none of them seem to be saying anything at all about throwing their smartphones away or unplugging from their Internet accounts. No, they remain as addicted to their toys as every other distracted asshole who runs into you on the street or paces back and forth in front of the subway turnstiles like some miniature golf obstacle. They just want it to be all, like, y’know, nicer?

I also found it interesting that so many of the people who seem to be involved in the supposedly radical movement are musicians. That makes sense to me, as few groups of artists in the file-sharing era have been sucker-punched harder. The only way to get any recognition these days if you’re a musician is to go online, but you put your music online and it’s just going to be downloaded and passed around, which means you’ll have to hang onto that day job at Staples. The internet has destroyed the music industry as effectively as it destroyed the publishing industry, so of course musicians are gonna start having a few dounts, right? Just not enough to actually do anything about it. Because in the end, convenience (and being able to update their FaceBook pages) will always win out.

Published December 31st, 2015


Jim Knipfel is the author of Slackjaw, The Blow-Off, These Children Who Come at You With Knives, and several other books.