The Luddvocate: Why Your Convictions Matter in the Digital World

At Educase 2006, Georgia Nugent, the then president of Kenyon College gave a talk on “The Tower of Google.” You used to be able to listen to the entire talk here, but the link on their site stopped working a couple of years ago. It was a thought-provoking presentation, and one of her self-made buzz words stuck with me. She described her background as a classicist, but also explained her hope for the potential of technology in higher education. She called herself a Luddvocate (Here is a quick Wikipedia primer on Luddites if that is a new term for you). I can relate.

I still find  that the most intriguing books about technology were written by the self-proclaimed or often-labeled neo-luddites (Mumford, McLuhan, Ellul, Postman, Kirkpatrick Sale, Larry Cuban, Sven Birkerts…). These neo-luddites craft messages of caution. They plea for counting the cost of our technological escapades. They challenge the notion that technology is savior of the greatest social and human needs, and they highlight the adverse impact of technology in society. I read these texts and find myself shouting more than a few inner Amens to their sermons. These thoughtful texts give a perspective that I believe is valuable and needed in the modern world. Of course, there are some who, like the original Luddites, turn to violence and destruction (e.g. Theodore Kaczynski), and I’m quick and clear about rejecting those methods of dissent.

Luddism is not about being anti-technology in the same way that the Amish are not anti-technology. As I’ve written before, the Amish are not anti-technology as much as they are pro-community. Similarly, Luddism is about counting the cost of technological progress, not assuming that new technology is always a universal gain for humanity. It is recognizing the values-laden and intrinsically political nature of each technology. New technologies lead to new winners and losers. Luddism champions and gives voice to the losers in the race for technological progress.The original Luddites were moved to action by new machines displacing workers in the textile industry. For the sake of increased productivity, machines replaced people, and that affected their ability to feed their families. Luddism is about challenging us to be users of technologies instead of allowing ourselves to be used by them.

Then there is the advocate. While I’m not sure what how Nugent might further extrapolate on what it means to be an adovocate, I confess that I became one because I didn’t think I had much of a choice. Just like the original Luddites lost their fight against the vision of progress brought about by the industrial revolution, I suspect that many neo-Luddites will experience the same. What is a person to do? I distinctly remember struggling with this question throughout the middle of the 1990s, with my first regional presentation being about the negative implicat of technology in education at an educational technology conference in Chicago. I still remember the line of software vendors glaring at me with their arms crossed along the back of the surprisingly standing-room only session. I quoted Neil Postman freely as I warned about the “Faustian bargain” of new technologies. I didn’t, however, call for rejecting these developments. Instead, I took the hopeful position of striving to influence which technologies to amplify and which to muffle. I called it values-driven decision making. Identify your core values and convictions and let them drive your decisions about technology. Once you have clarity about those core convictions, you will be able to decide where, how, when, and about what to advocate. I felt good about my talk until the first question during the question and answer period, a principal wanting a list of the best software to use in his kindergarten classes. So much for values driving the decisions. I learned early on that technology in education had become a value of its own.

I found that many of my concerns about technology were connected to some what I considered to be dehumanizing effects of the industrial revolution. Don’t get wrong. I liked many of the benefit from the industrial revolution. It is just that I had and have hope that emerging democratizing technology might assist us in mitigating about some of the negative aspects of that era.

I had visions of Brave New World, 1984, the Giver and the dozens of dystopian stories of our future. So I chose to advocate for technology that seems to amplify values of democracy, access, and opportunity. It is what inspires me about the possibilities of everything from blended learning to online learning, alternative education to self-directed learning, open education to open badges and micro-credentials, personalized learning to adaptive learning software, project-based learning to social media, personal learning networks to communities of practice. It is why I can geek out about designing high-impact online learning communities while being a passionate supporter of existing and emerging physical third spaces (thank you Ray Oldenburg) that conjure a spirit of community. It is why I lobby for choice and variety in options for formal education. It is why I have degrees in both the humanities and instructional technology. It is why I am a champion for formal higher education why calling for those some institutions to resist the temptation to claim a monopoly on learning and knowledge, as if either were a commodity to be bought and sold. Each of these represent deep-seated personal values and convictions about truth, beauty, goodness, purpose, and what it means to be human. It shapes how I write and speak about the future, both forecasting and striving to create or influence possible futures. Ironically, it is the Luddite in me that drives me to be such an advocate for life and learning in the digital world. The Luddite is the one who cries out that our ideas have consequences, our convictions matter, human access and opportunity are noble causes and that all three should inform the futures that we help create.