The Lingering Luddite Patrol

I read a BBC FutureNow article a while back about what would happen if the internet stopped working for a day. It was, all in all, a relatively well-balanced article. It talked about international kill-switches that various countries have and can use to turn off their citizens’ internet access, about the threat posed by hackers and large solar storms, about the socioeconomic and psychological issues that might arise. The general conclusion was that although it might be a bit distressing and inconvenient, especially for some some situations and professions, a temporary internet outage would do minimal harm and would doubtless be fixed within a few days. There are, apparently, high-level backup plans in place for things like that.

And then, like an idiot, I read the comments. Not the comments on the article itself, because the BBC stopped allowing that thanks to trolls and other idiots, but the comments on the original share on Facebook.

According to a good many people, the internet they were using to read and comment with is a bad and quite unnecessary thing. It would be good if it went away! After a little bit of re-adjustment to doing things the old-fashioned way, a rosy Net-less Utopia would arrive and everyone would end up being happier and healthier and more connected to themselves, their neighbors, and nature. The kids would go play outside instead of sitting in front of a stupid box! People would read books! Neighbors would become friends. All of humanity’s problems would be solved.

Some of the people espousing this idea based their argument on the fact that they didn’t have the internet growing up, and it is therefore no big deal to not have it again. Some talked about how people don’t talk to real people anymore and need to learn social skills – which they won’t do if they can go on the internet. Others were in turns snide and sanctimonious about how being ‘offline’ is good for you and they do it regularly and/or force it on their families, sort of like doing a juice cleanse or going vegan for a week. Only a few commenters noted that the article is mostly about the possible effects of a short-term internet outage on businesses and different socioeconomic groups, generally predicts a more positive outcome than some might expect, and was not in any way anti-internet.

The way a surprising number of the commenters were…in spite of the fact that they were currently ON THE INTERNET. Using social media. Interacting with other people.

Modern Luddites, it seems, do not easily recognize irony. Or have the capacity to reason very well, either. There are, of course, plenty of factors that just don’t get taken into account when people start advocating for the dawn of 1950s Sitcom Utopia. Namely that it only ever existed on TV, but that’s beside the point – it’s very real and utopia-like and potentially achievable to the people who believe in it. Which is why I didn’t argue with any of them, because arguing with a True Believer is just a waste of words. But even if the internet did disappear forever, there are some really good reasons why their fondest wishes wouldn’t be coming true for humanity. Here are a few of them:

  • Kids would play outside: No, they wouldn’t – not unless you went outside with them, and stayed outside with them. Yes, you and I played outside and all over the neighborhood with our friends and never saw a parent until one came home from work, but if you let your kid out in your yard unsupervised now the local helicopter parent is going to report you for neglect. In that parent’s defense, though, with the internet gone all of the pedophiles just became unregistered, so depending on where you live that might also be a cause for concern.
  • People would read books: People already read books. Lots of books! But without ebooks, the number of books available for people to read is going to be cut at least in half overnight. A lot of the niche genres would disappear – publishing houses aren’t going to risk a suddenly very expensive printing and distribution process on a book that isn’t a sure bet with the mainstream.  Ditto for large print editions and audiobooks. Also, libraries now have their catalogs online, not on painstakingly typed or neatly handwritten cards in big file cabinets, and most of them have seen large chunks of their budgets disappear as towns and cities try to find ways to save money – that isn’t because people aren’t reading, it’s because many people in positions of power see no value in the services libraries provide.
  • Making friends with the neighbors: Possibly? But probably not. People work long hours and often weird hours these days, they come home late and tired. Lounging around outside on your porch can be hazardous to your health, what with mosquitoes carrying news-worthy diseases and the city spraying to kill said mosquitoes. Add to that the current extreme polarization of our society on multiple issues, and most people are still going to find it easier and safer to just stay inside. Because pissing off your neighbor is something that’s definitely going to happen if one of them happens to be really, really convinced that everyone who disagrees with them is a servant of Ultimate Evil and should be exorcised from the neighborhood. Online you can just block them. Without the internet, you may have to sell your house and move.
  • Doing things the old-fashioned way: Doable, but heavily resource-intensive. Business would go back to using reams upon reams of paper (trees), not to mention gallons of ink and pounds of adhesives (chemicals), staples and paper clips (metal). More gas (petroleum) would be used getting more people to work, because telecommuting simply wouldn’t work anymore for most jobs – that would kill off the booming freelance and e-trepeneur communities, too. Communication would definitely travel more slowly, so the speed of business would slow from near-instantaneous to however fast your local post office can process those mountains of new mail. Shipping, shopping, manufacturing…they’d all be trying to cross a burned bridge and start over at a point they left behind years ago, which is going to cost a lot of money. There would be more jobs, but a lot of workers are going to have to be retrained. And everything is going to cost more.

You may think this is all common sense, or that it was just that one set of comments – a small eddy of idiocy in the larger river of reason. You wish. A lot of people were talking about the possibility of losing net neutrality these last couple of days on Twitter, and a good chunk of the comments there were almost word for word the bold bullet points above. A few people used their 140 characters to point out that these anti-internet, anti-social media comments were being made on Twitter by frequent users of Twitter, but again, you can’t reason with a True Believer. Progress is dangerous. Technology is bad for us. Leave It To Beaver was real.

Or at the very least, Pleasantville was.





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