A Little Bit of Luddism

The internet is primarily a source of outrage and pornography. If that is not the most original thought, it is because it is apparent to many.

That is not to say that the internet provides nothing else. Certainly it offers unceasing advertisements for those of insufficient digital sophistication to use an ad blocker, as well as privacy invasions, and even the occasional malware. It may even provide something useful now and then, but these are not the central purpose of the modern internet.

Do I exaggerate? Maybe. But it takes only a moment to remember how productive I was before the internet became widely adopted. Being a little older provides the opportunity to remember a world that those just a little younger did not get to experience. It also provides the opportunity to join the chorus of every generation lamenting the fall of society and claiming that things were better in the old days.

Write me off as such a geezer, if you wish. You may be correct. I am writing my thoughts, but I do not feel it important that anyone accept them as correct. Nonetheless, I will still reminisce and make my comparisons. Perhaps I will even take some action to see if my life now might be improved by what I consider to be acquired wisdom.

Where was I again? Oh yes, productivity. I ought to be infinitely more productive with the vast repository of the world’s knowledge at my fingertips—a veritable tower of babel, if you believe those who assert that it was built as a central library of all human understanding. Between Wikipedia, scientific journals, legal and illegal book downloads, how-to videos on YouTube or how-to texts on websites, and seemingly infinite other sources of information, in principle I can learn how to do virtually anything.

I could, in principle. Yet I did, and much better, before I had all these resources available at all times. The encyclopedia, the library, and the bookstore, clubs and classes, provided what I needed before. Perhaps the greater expenditure of time and energy left me more insistent on finishing a project. Or perhaps the lack of immediately available entertainment, or links to related videos, left me undistracted from the task at hand. But without YouTube tutorials on Python, I managed to learn programming: First BASIC, then C, and even just a little bit of assembly language. Books and trial and error were sufficient teachers, since I found no teachers for this topic at high school. BBSes provided useful text files, but I often ended up turning to books that provided the same information in a more easily understood format. I learned the ins and outs of the PC… after learning the ins and outs of the Apple IIe.

I continued to learn programming after getting connected to the internet, but progress increasingly slowed as the internet became more immersive and faster. I learned new programming languages, I learned new libraries, but I no longer learned new things about programming. It was all “new” ways of doing the same thing, perhaps with a nicer interface, and perhaps networked, but no longer innovative. And it took me longer to learn each new, not-new thing.

I do not think it is merely me getting old, or having learned all there is to learn about programming. Once in a while I do learn something new and profound, and I have moments of great productivity in both coding and learning. This happens on the rare occasions when I close the web browser, pick up a book, and try out what it is trying to teach.

Programming is just the easiest example on which I can reflect. This phenomenon has affected several aspects of my life. Online examples were generally unhelpful when I was studying physics at university. If I had trouble understanding something, the library was where I solved the issue. My best work in law school occurred when I turned away from LexisNexis and opened up restatements, Corpus Juris Secundum, and the case reporters in the library. Even with gardening, YouTube videos are neat, but have not translated into great real-world results like just getting outside and experimenting with shovel, seeds, and a notebook.

This very article is being written on an Apple IIe. Otherwise, it probably would not be written: With a wide internet and infinite entertainment at one’s fingertips, who has time to write? Ironically, that Apple IIe is actually connected to the internet, but naturally such access is quite limited, and the non-multitasking machine will not browse the web while the AppleWorks word processor is open.

I could be that crazy old guy who is remembering the past a little rosier than it actually was. I don’t think so—I remember it as slightly more productive, not perfect—but it is possible. But my luddite self is testing the hypothesis right now. I am not crazy enough to entirely forego the internet. For better or worse, modern life depends on the internet. I could not do my job without it, and I would lose out on many great conveniences. I did say that it may provide something useful now and then, after all. So I am merely cutting out a significant chunk of leisure internet. When I would spend a couple of hours watching YouTube, or browsing news (or polemics) or social media, I am picking up a book, or using an old computer like this Apple IIe to write or do some old-style programming, or going outside for a walk.

It will be interesting to see what, if anything, I can get done that I was not doing before. Will I write about the results? Maybe. I can’t say. As I mentioned, I do not feel it important that you believe me, anyway.

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