The Luddites are back, and this time they're taking on computers Nonviolent group seeks to 'unplug' society from modern technology


BARNESVILLE, Ohio -- Nearly two centuries ago, the Luddites of England smashed machines and burned factories in their rebellion against the Industrial Revolution, and then were relegated to history books as dunderheads and barbarians.

Now the Luddites are back, although in a much milder form. About 350 self-proclaimed Luddites have gathered in an old Quaker meetinghouse in Barnesville, warning that the ballyhooed information highway is the road to ruin and that isolation and alienation are increasing in a culture where people do not sit face to face, but instead interface.

"Many people today are questioning how they live," said Scott Savage, an organizer of the conference and the publisher of Plain Magazine.

"We're warehousing our children in day care," said Mr. Savage, a Quaker who usually depends for transportation on a horse and buggy. "We're warehousing our elderly. And some people are sitting on the freeway, day after day, in a 190-horsepower steel coffin, wondering: 'Am I alone? Or does anybody else think this is crazy?' "

The original Luddites were actually rebelling against the loss of jobs and wages that the Industrial Revolution was creating, though their name has come to symbolize opposition to technology.

Today's Luddites differ from their forebears in other important ways as well. For one, they oppose violence. For another, most of them came to Barnesville by plane or car.

The Unabomber case has focused more attention on antipathy toward the advances of technology. In fact, the Unabomber's published manifesto included references to Luddism.

While nobody at the conference agreed with the actions of the bomber, several people said his fears were rational.

"A number of points in the manifesto were appropriate ones, but his approach was extreme," said Phil Kudla, 41, a Manhattan banker who said he was trying to "unplug" from technology. "These are scary times. How much are computers going to take over our lives? We're moving toward this uniformity of commerce, this homogenization of culture. And a lot of us want to slow things down, touch the earth again."

Art Gish, an organic farmer who lives in an Ohio commune and writes about Christianity and left-wing movements, said the new Luddites' mission was to create "a counterculture that provides an alternative to virtual reality."

Computers, he said, have fooled people into believing that they do not need other people. "We belong to each other," he said. "One of the great tragedies of the Unabomber was that he had no sense of family or community. He was alone."

Mr. Savage, who wore the beard, black vest and white shirt of a Plain Quaker, said the group was not a political movement, but rather a "revolution of hearts."

He spoke against an "in-your-face social activism that has not worked" and warned the overwhelmingly liberal crowd against becoming judgmental and criticizing others for not being "pure" in their withdrawal from technology.

"The left tends to eat its own," he said. "Let's not play that game."

For Mr. Kudla, the process of unplugging has meant starting organic farming on a plot of land near Cold Spring, N.Y. But like most of the participants in the conference, he said it would be difficult to survive without keeping a corporate job.

"It's unfortunate to say," he said, "but sometimes you've got to work inside the system to get unplugged from the system."

Stephanie Mills, a writer, said that people did not necessarily need to overcome their "technology addiction" by going cold turkey, but instead could gradually "ease some of those bad habits out of the house."

Cliff Stoll, a writer and computer expert, stressed that he was not a Luddite. Nonetheless, he has been critical of what he called "Internet hucksters" who insist that becoming computer literate is essential to the education of children.

He said the notion that people without computer skills will be unemployable in the future was preposterous. "Jobs, as they always have, will go to people who can get along with others," he said. "Now, how do you avoid developing those social skills? By standing at a keyboard and staring off into cyberspace for hours."

Pub Date: 4/15/96

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