Technology

LOW-TECH CHIC

Thanks to the new Luddite movement, old-fashioned pens and paper may not become obsolete after all

RYAN BIGGE August 1 2005
Technology

LOW-TECH CHIC

Thanks to the new Luddite movement, old-fashioned pens and paper may not become obsolete after all

RYAN BIGGE August 1 2005

LOW-TECH CHIC

Technology

Thanks to the new Luddite movement, old-fashioned pens and paper may not become obsolete after all

RYAN BIGGE

IMAGINE A telecommunications system that allows information to be transferred across vast distances with the click of a button-a highway of thought that benefits scam artists and long-distance romances alike. Introducing... the telegraph. “Modern Internet users are in many ways the heirs of the telegraphic tradition,” explains Tom Standage in his book The Victorian Internet. And that old dash-dot-dash isn’t quite ready for the scrap heap. In

April, the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia, held a contest pitting Gordon Hill, 93 against Brittany Devlin, 13, to see which was faster, Morse code or SMS (the protocol cellphones use to send text messages). Surprisingly, Hill’s telegraphy triumphed. He managed to send a 21-word (107-character) message 18 seconds faster than Brittany, despite her use of such textmessage shorthand as “gf ” for “girlfriend.” New is gee-whiz nifty and shiny, but it isn’t always faster, better or cheaper. This epiphany forms the philosophical impetus of an emerging group of techno-skeptics: call them modern Luddites. Where the original Luddites smashed English cotton mills, modem ones like Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of MIT’s Media Labs, prefer to espouse the merits of appropriate technology. Negroponte is currently developing a US$100, no-frills laptop to be used as a learning aid for children in developing countries. Meanwhile, Ian Capstick, the federal NDP’s 25-year-old press secretary, has taken

inspiration from www.43folders.com and created a homemade hand-held digital assistant—a stack of three-by-five-inch recipe cards conjoined with a black binder clipcalled the Hipster PDA. And Automatic Vaudeville Studios, a Montreal film collective, draws inspiration from classic blackand-white films for their hilarious (and self-financed) movies.

If these names sound unfamiliar, it’s because modern Luddites have learned to speak softly lest they be labelled “laggards”— communication scholar Everett Rogers’s term for the technologically stubborn. In his seminal book, Diffusion of Innovations, Rogers describes five different groups responsible for how new gadgets trickle through society: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and, last and least, laggards. Putting aside the value judgment implicit in such a term, laggard does not always indicate an Amish approach to the 21st century. Modern Luddites, like info

gum Edward Tufte, make a clear distinction between rejecting technology a priori and testdriving innovations with a critical eye. In his infamous screed The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, he explains how there’s nothing particularly innovative about software that “routinely disrupts, dominates and trivializes content. PP presentations too often resemble the school play: very loud, very slow, and very simple.”

Other modern Luddites march backward into the future for purely aesthetic reasons. Pepe Tozzo’s new coffee-table book RetroElectro is a showcase of Bakelite and urethane masterpieces such as the sexy, cobra-shaped Swedish Ericofon (circa 1965) and Canon’s 1970 one-pound calculator, the Pocketronic. While such items earn low marks for efficiency, their fun factor is immeasurable. Sci-fi luminary Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” but voice mail mazes, spam and other digital pests are more likely to evoke the future shock of Radiohead’s dystopian OK Computer.

Despite numerous virtues, being a modern Luddite isn’t always cheap. Any dollar store will sell you a notebook, but the au courant Moleskine-brand journal, purported to be the idea receptacle of choice for Hemingway and Breton, costs 10 times as much. Of course, not being enslaved by technology is a status symbol. Sean Penn was seen toting a Moleskine during his trip to Tehran in early June, but he can afford a living, breathing personal assistant. Even the NDP’s Capstick has a BlackBerry. After all, no one, save perhaps the Rhino Party, would lobby for the reinstatement of pneumatic message tubes. Modern Luddites want it both ways—they’re reluctant to abandon digital conveniences, but suffused with romantic pining for an analog atmosphere. Their cellphones clatter with rotaryphone ring tones; they watch Buster Keaton films on DVD.

Inspired no doubt by Australian telegraph champion Gordon Hill, the enterprising blogger behind laivakoira.typepad.com recently created Morse Texter, an application for Nokia cellphones that allows text messages to be entered via Morse code. While not exactly an... —... (that’s S.O.S.) for SMS, Morse Texter proves that you can learn from history and repeat it, without necessarily dooming yourself. IÜÎI

Sean Penn travelled to Tehran with the au courant Moleskine notebook