Luddites amid COVID-19

Introduction

On November 19, 2020, TEDx Dayton featured speaker Jodie Mader. Mader discussed the connection between the COVID pandemic and “Luddites”, defined as people who dislike new technology, according to History.com.

The COVID pandemic changed how businesses and schools operate. Businesses and schools adopted technology more widely during the pandemic to allow continued safe operation. Namely, platforms such as Zoom provided a means for business and classes to be conducted remotely, thereby reducing the exposure and spread of COVID.

While some people adopted technology easily and quickly, others found the changes to be more challenging. Furthermore, the now-heavy reliance on technology during the pandemic changed the lifestyles of some, namely the Luddites, who otherwise did not rely much on technology prior to the pandemic.

What is a Luddite?

Mader puts the definition of Luddites in eloquent words. 

“In the 1800s,” she began, “during the Industrial Revolution, a group of Weavers with sledgehammers in hand smashed the power looms in the textile factories as they saw them as a threat to their livelihood as artisans.” Luddites fought against automated machines in the name of a fabled general named Ludd, according to the BBC.

But Dr. Emma Griffin disagrees with the modern use of the term “Luddite” as Mader used in TEDx Dayton. The term is often used today to describe those who do not want to adopt modern technology such as buying a cell phone or using social media.

“What concerned the Luddites about technology was that it was going to cut their wages,” Griffin stated. Based on Griffin’s stance, a better example of what a Luddite is would be someone who destroys modern automated technology which replaces, or could replace, the jobs of real people. For example, if a fast-food restaurant installed kiosks where people could place their orders, and an employee (specifically a cashier) vandalized the machines for fear they would take over their job, they might be considered a Luddite.

Impact of modernization

“While there’s been much progress with industrial technology,” Mader started, “I also see how modernization has led to overcrowded cities, rabid consumerism, environmental pollution, and the arrival of the commercial farm.”

One striking example of the impacts of modernization is China. According to Jiahong Sun and Andrew Ryder, authors of The Chinese Experience of Rapid Modernization: Sociocultural Changes, Psychological Consequences?, modernization in China resulted in a shift from a largely rural to a largely urban population, the institution of a One-Child policy (families were only allowed to give birth to one child due to the high Chinese population), and a change in China’s core social values. China has Westernized and transformed into a more individualist society (whereas before, they were largely collectivist). The article also interestingly notes despite an 8% growth in economic value between 1990 and 2010, the average life satisfaction decreased.

Connected, yet disconnected

“Though a Luddite, I still have to live in modern times,” Mader explained. “I’m like an old cast iron skillet living in a fancy pressure cooker world. I got a smartphone. I held on to my flip phone as long as I could until society practically forced me to get a new one. It has way too many apps. I don’t like notifications. I dislike texting. But I still have my landline.”

Modern technology and social media established a means for people around the world to connect almost instantaneously. Yet, technology also disconnects others from the real world. Phones constantly bombard their owners with notifications throughout the day distracting them from life’s pleasures or even sleep.

According to Seul-Kee Kim, So-Yeong Kim, and Hang-Bong Kang, authors of An Analysis of the Effects of Smartphone Push Notifications on Task Performance with regard to Smartphone Overuse Using ERP, smartphone overuse correlates with differences in cognition and concentration abilities. Namely, as people are more exposed to push notifications, their concentration declines. This further emphasizes the connect/disconnect paradigm of cell phones.

COVID

“The pandemic caused us to change how we live, think and act,” Mader explained. “We shut down the world to prevent the increased spread of COVID-19. This dramatic shift became our new normal. These developments meant the increased use of technology. Electronic gadgets like phones and tablets became lifelines for us to connect with family and friends. Instead of just food and water and apparently now toilet paper to survive, we also needed more WiFi bandwidth and headsets. Our entire lives went online. The new world we live in is quite frankly, a Luddites biggest nightmare.”

Geoffrey A. Fowler and Heather Kelly from The Washington Post explain in an article screen time, once viewed as a sin, is now viewed as a survival tool amid COVID. Although the original concerns with extended screen time are still present, technology helps people remain connected especially when in self-quarantine. In fact, Ray Chambers, Chairman of the World Health Organization, encouraged others in a Tweet to play video games as a way to socially distance.

Conclusion

“I’m a Luddite surviving in a pandemic doing what I need to do,” Mader said. “I caved and added a few more apps to my phone, though I resist those notifications. A large coffee chain tried to force me to download an app to order their coffee. Instead, I get my coffee at a different drive-thru at a different business where I speak to a human being. I will see my students in online squares on my laptop. And I’ll be making more PowerPoints than ever in a time of great uncertainty and fear. I’m still a Luddite. I can choose when I want to connect and disconnect from technology. I’m not a machine after all.”

Despite the restrictions of the COVID pandemic, the choice on which technology to use remains within the hands of people. But those who normally did not rely on technology prior to the pandemic are often finding themselves having to learn new technology and software. Despite numerous studies on excessive technology use and video gaming pointing to negative consequences, a common consensus is that for now, that is better than putting ourselves at risk of COVID. Video game and technology addiction does not directly result in death whereas COVID can.

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