A Luddite view of the technical world

August 2007

By Dodge Morgan

Technology is the sweet siren on the rocks wearing a Medusa headdress. The call from a distance is seductive but the closer you get, the uglier she is, and the lopping off of one snake of confusion only produces a plethora of bewilderment. If you do not compute this tangle of metaphors, then I have made my point. Sort of.

I am drawn to technical equipment and then find myself unable to use it because there are many more solutions offered than I can find problems for. And as I chop off one operating feature, I see it replaced with many. I have come to think like a Luddite, which is a bit like thought avoidance. I did not buy a GPS to learn the time of day and battery voltage any more than I bought a blender to learn the difference between chop, mix and liquefy.

I have become convinced that more nonsense occurs in the technical realm than it ever did in the Stone Age – more mistakes, too, since technology just speeds the process of screwing up. I am not even going to add the keen truism that an individual addicted to technical solutions is really up the creek when the machine quits, like cashiers who cannot add and subtract and navigators who cannot dead-reckon.

Maybe this is simply a sign of getting old. I recall sailing the old schooner alone with just three pieces of electronics, a depth-finder and a radio direction finder, both of which I constructed from kits and neither of which worked reliably, and a broadband radio receiver that did work, giving me the time for my lifeboat-style celestial calculations, the old noon fix, because I had no accurate watch. In 1964, I sailed from Hawaii to the South Pacific Society Islands without small-scale charts naming islands or the passages between them. This is about a 2,300-mile passage.

I present my navigation solution for this passage with no small sense of pride. As I approached the island group, or as I judged I approached the island group, my single tool was eyesight backed by extraordinary confidence – sort of like the person who jumped from the top of a 10-story building and advised himself “nothing has happened yet” as he passed by the fifth floor.

I saw an island on the 22nd day and took careful note of the breakers marking reefs. I had no idea which island this was. So I sailed into a visually appropriate cove and anchored, then launched the dinghy, rowed ashore, and asked the first person I met where I was, and when that produced no answer, asked the person where he was, and when that failed asked what is the name of this island. This verbal exchange was complicated by a French-English language barrier that was unimportant at the moment since I had no chart to refer a correct answer to anyway.

I believe the above technique of one finding where one is has a delightfully humane aspect and none of the puzzlement and disorder of multiple-function technological equipment. The modern version of this humane approach for navigating an ocean crossing is “VHF navigation,” where the sailor calls a ship in view to ask his position.

Dodge Morgan views the world and its inhabitants from his home on Snow Island, Maine.