When the last Luddites walk away…

Nottingham, England, 1811

They move about in bands at night, masked and sworn to secrecy, smashing up the new machinery which is taking over the textile industry.

Their leader is a mysterious man named Ned Ludd of Sherwood Forest, who has been likened to the legendary Robin Hood as a friend of the poor and the discontented.

The hardships caused by England´s long war with France have been greatly increased by the new technology, which is displacing the old handicraft methods of producing stockings and lace.

The high levels of productivity achieved by the new knitting frames have reduced the demand for labour, so even those craftsmen who keep their jobs suffer wage cuts.

The Luddites are well-organised and have public opinion on their side.

They have been reported in action as far north as Yorkshire and Lancashire.  (Chronicle of the World)

1985

They said Ned Ludd was an idiot boy,
That all he could do was wreck and destroy,
He turned to his workmates and said: “Death to Machines
They tread on our future and they stamp on our dreams.”

Robert Calvert, “Ned Ludd”, Freq

Plymouth, England, 27 January 2016

“A child-sized robot, L2TOR, (“El Tutor”) is taking over from teachers to help children learn foreign languages.

The robot, programmed by British academics and designed to look friendly, has been piloted in UK schools and is being rolled out in Europe.

El Tutor can react to children´s moods and personalities and pick up on non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions.

Experts found that children learnt more easily from a robot than from a computer because a robot activates the social part of children´s brains.

The robots were initially used to teach maths and history but will now become language teachers to help Turkish children moving to the Netherlands and Germany.

El Tutor is a programme funded by the European Union to develop artifically intelligent teachers for preschool children.

(The Times, 27 January 2016)

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 22 June 2016

To my delight and surprise I have had a three-day break from teaching as all my students are away on vacation this week.

Two days spent walking the Camino de Santiago – the Appenzeller Way section in Switzerland – has made me think yet again about what walking means to me and just how anti-technological this makes me.

As is often the case with movie buffs and rabid reading fans such as myself, I am reminded of two events in TV and movies that seem to fit my sentiments this evening:

2 February 1967 or Stardate 2947.3

Star Trek TOS logo.svg

“During an ion storm the Enterprise takes a severe buffeting and Records Officer Ben Finney (Richard Webb) enters the starship´s ion pod to take important readings.

When the storm makes it necessary to jettison the pod, Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) follows normal procedures and warns Finney to evacuate.

The pod is jettisoned with Finney apparently inside.

At Starbase 12 Commodore L. T. Stone (Percy Rodrigues) institutes a court martial against Kirk after discovering that Enterprise computer records show that the Captain did not give Finney an adequate chance to escape from the pod.

Lieutenant Areel Shaw (Joan Marshall), the prosecuting attorney and an old girlfriend of Kirk´s, retains the brilliant but eccentric lawyer Samuel T. Cogley (Elisha Cook Jr.) to defend the Captain.

Although all the evidence is against Kirk, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) refuses to believe that his Captain did not go by the rules.

The Vulcan decides that the Enterprise computer´s evidence is wrong.

Spock plays chess with the computer, winning several games and thereby discovers the machine´s programming has been altered.

Finney is actually alive and hiding abroad the Enterprise.

Due to an old grudge, Finney had hoped to fake his own death to discredit Captain Kirk.” (Allan Asherman, The Star Trek Compendium)

This episode impressed me for two reasons:

First, the chess playing with the computer – Spock expected to be beaten by the computer.

I will never forget the rage and consternation and angst many people felt when the computer Deep Blue outplayed world chess champion Gary Kasparov on 11 May 1997.

(Above: Deep Blue)

“For millenia, mastery of chess had indicated the highest, most refined intelligence – and now a computer could play better than the very best human…

…The attribution of intelligence to machines…obscures more than it illuminates.

When people are told that a computer is intelligent, they become prone to changing themselves in order to make the computer appear to work better, instead of demanding that the computer be changed to become more useful.

People already tend to defer to computers, blaming themselves when a digital gadget or online service is hard to use.”

(Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget)

Secondly I was impressed with Cogley´s defence of Kirk against the Enterprise computers:

Cogley: Don´t you like books?

Kirk: I like them fine, but a computer takes less space.

Cogley: A computer.  I´ve got one of these in my office.  Contains all the precedents.  The synthesis of all the great legal decisions written throughout time….I never use it.

Kirk:  Why not?

Cogley: I´ve got my own system.  Books, young man.  Thousands of them.  If time wasn´t so important, I´d show you something.  My library.  Thousands of books.

Kirk: What´s the point?

Cogley: This is where the law is.  Not in that homogenized, pasteurized synthesizer.  Do you want to know the law?  The ancient concepts in their own language?  Learn the intent of the men who wrote them?  Books.

Kirk: You are either a crackpot who has escaped from his keeper or Samuel T. Cogley, attorney at law.

Cogley: Right on both counts.

Later in the courtroom:

Cogley:  Human rights, sir.  Human rights. 

The Bible, the Code of Hammurabi and Justinian, the Magna Carta, the Constitution of the United States….

Gentlemen, these documents speak of rights. 

Rights of the accused to a trial of his peers, to be represented by counsel, the rights of cross-examination, but, most importantly, the right to be confronted by the witnesses against him.

The most devastating witness against my client is not human.

It´s a machine, an information system, the computer log of the Enterprise.

I speak of rights.

A machine has none. 

A man must.

My client has the right to face his accuser.

If you do not grant him that right, you have brought us down to the machine´s level.

Indeed you have elevated that machine above us.

I ask that my motion be granted and more than that, gentlemen…

In the name of a humanity fading in the shadow of the machine…

I demand it!  I demand it!”

I am also reminded of the 1995 film Sabrina starring Harrison Ford, Julia Ormond and Greg Kinnear.

Sabrina movie.jpg

Ford plays Linus Larabee, a busy tycoon who has no room for love in his appointment book, but when a romance between his playboy brother David (Kinnear) and Sabrina (Ormond), the chauffeur´s daughter, threatens one of Linus´ business deals, the CEO clears his schedule for some ruthlessness.  He courts Sabrina, intending to drop her when the deal closes.

The scene that sticks in my mind is when Linus is flying Sabrina to Martha´s Vineyard:

They exit a helicopter and walk towards a private jet:

Linus: (The helicopter) Saves all that time fighting traffic.

Later abroad the jet:

Sabrina: Don´t you ever look out the window?

Linus: When do I have time?

Sabrina: What happened to all that time we saved taking the helicopter?

Linus: I´m storing it up.

Sabrina: No, you´re not.

The multiplication of technologies in the name of efficiency is actually eradicating free time by making it possible to maximise the time and place for production and minimize the unstructured travel time in between.

New timesaving technologies make most workers more productive, not more free, in a world that seems to be acclerating around them.

The rheotric of efficiency around those technologies suggests that what cannot be quantified cannot be valued – that the vast array of pleasures which fall into the category of doing nothing in particular, of woolgathering, cloudgazing, wandering, window shopping, are nothing but voids to be filled by something more definite, more productive, faster paced.

The indeterminacy of a ramble, on which much may be discovered, is being replaced by the determinate shortest distance to be traversed with all possible speed, as well as by the electronic transmissions that make real travel less necessary.

…these things have their uses, … but I fear their false urgency, their call to speed, their insistence that travel is less important than arrival.

I like walking because it is slow, and…the mind, like the feet, works at about 3 mph.

Modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, of thoughtfulness.

Walking is about being outside, in public space.

Public space is being abandoned and eroded, eclipsed by technologies and services that don´t require leaving home….

Cars function best as exclusionary devices, as mobile private space.

Even driven as slowly as possible, cars still don´t allow for the directness of encounter, for the fluidity of contact, that walking does….

Television, telephones, home computers and the Internet along with cars make complete the privatization of everyday life, making it less necessary to go out into the world and thus accommodate retreat from, rather than resistance to, the deterioration of public space and social conditions.” (Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking)

Perhaps my professional days as a teacher of English as a foreign language are numbered.

Perhaps we have gone too far ahead technologically to ever attempt to turn back the hands of time and return to an era before Smartphones, the Internet, the computer, the automobile.

I too like many of my generation have become overly dependent upon machines to regulate and dominate my daily life.

But while birds sing, while winds blow through the fields and forests, while the sun can shine upon my face or the raindrops fall upon my head, I take every opportunity I can to go for a walk outside.

It takes me hours to cover distances that cars and trains can conquer in minutes, but outside in nature, alone on a path, with only my thoughts as companions, I have something that technology has yet to take away from me: freedom.

While others think I waste my time, I taste time as sweet as honey, as aromatic as a rose, as gentle as drizzle, as warm as an afternoon windowsill, as profitable to my spirits as a lottery win to a bank account.

I live my life at my own pace, my heartbeat the only drumbeat I march to, I live in the moment, now is Nature´s present.

I must sign off for now.

I am going for another walk today.

 

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