Thursday, January 13, 2022

Luddites and SF

The term "Luddite" is typically applied to people who oppose technological advances. That's basically what I've always assumed the word to mean. Well, Cory Doctorow's latest LOCUS column corrects that misconception:

Science Fiction Is a Luddite Literature

Luddites were textile workers belonging to a secret society in England in the early nineteenth century, best known for destroying the newfangled equipment in textile mills. According to Doctorow, however, their primary objective wasn't the destruction of machinery. That was "their tactic, not their goal." Rather, their goal was "to challenge not the technology itself, but rather the social relations that governed its use." Doctorow details some of the local and global changes that resulted from mechanization of the textile industry. Factory owners could have used the new-model looms to improve employment conditions for skilled craftspersons. Instead, employers chose to hire fewer workers at lower wages. The Luddites imagined and agitated in favor of a different path for the industrial revolution. Doctorow gives several examples of how we, today, "are contesting the social relations surrounding our technologies."

New technology always generates social change, often with unanticipated consequences. Robert Heinlein's "The Roads Must Roll" is one story that pioneered the type of science fiction focusing not on aspects such as the technical details of how automated roads work, but on how their existence affects the society that uses them. An obvious real-world example, the automobile, had easily predicted effects on individuals' freedom of movement and the decline of passenger railroads, but few people probably foresaw the impact on courtship customs and sexual mores. With cars, the balance of power in courtship shifted from the girl, who invited the boy to "call on" her in her parents' home, to the boy, who invited the girl on a "date" outside her parents' control. And of course the automobile gave young couples more freedom for sexual experimentation than they had under the old system. Consider the telephone: In his final novel, TO SAIL BEYOND THE SUNSET, Heinlein has the narrator's father, a doctor, predict at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century that telephones in the home would mean the end of house calls. When the only way to get a home doctor visit was to send someone in person to summon him, patients expected house calls only in emergencies. Once they could contact their family physician by picking up the phone, they would call for less and less urgent reasons, and doctors would soon refuse to cooperate. (This decline probably happened more slowly than Heinlein anticipated; I have a dim memory of the doctor's visiting me at home when I had measles around age five, the only time I've personally encountered a doctor's house call.)

Like the mechanical looms in the early stage of the industrial revolution, most if not all new technologies benefit some people while disadvantaging others. The ease of paying bills and performing other transactions online provides great convenience for most while disadvantaging those who can't afford a computer and internet connection or, like my ninety-year-old aunt, simply decline to adopt those "conveniences." Businesses now routinely expect customers to have internet access and hence make transactions more difficult for those who don't. Cell phones have made fast connections everywhere all the time routine, so that people are often expected to be instantly available whether they want to be or not. Moreover, as pay telephones have been used less and less, they've tended to disappear, so when anybody does need one—whether because he or she doesn't have a mobile phone or because the battery has run down or they're in a dead zone with no cell service—a phone booth is almost impossible to find. I actually "met" a person nagging me for contact information on Goodreads who accused me of lying when I said I didn't own a smart phone. (Yes, I have a cell phone for urgent or otherwise time-sensitive communication away from home, but it's a plain old "dumb" flip model.)

According to Doctorow, science fiction is a Luddite genre because both the historical movement and the fiction "concern themselves with the same questions: not merely what the technology does, but who it does it for and who it does it to."

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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