My schizophrenic tendencies were recently confirmed. In the mailbox arrived two magazines on the same day that exemplify the extremes in my interests, and perhaps the polarity facing modern technological society.
One magazine, WIRED, as we are aware, serves as self-appointed bible to the so-called technologically astute "digerati." The other, PLAIN, comes from a group of mostly Amish Neo-Luddites in Ohio whose goals are largely to avoid technology, and whose readers are anything but wired.
I've read WIRED, or tried to, since the first issue (v. 1.01.) As an unquestioning cheerleader for triumph of technology, its superstars, and day-glo billboard for the latest microchip toys and geekware, WIRED for me has become a sort of legend in its own mind.
WIRED: A cover story on WEBTV (a recent Microsoft acquisition) uses eyeballs as measure of the TV-based web medium's value.
Just Like Being Plugged In
With its staccato layouts and tiny type on shimmering fluorescent backdrops, I can only imagine WIRED's editorial staff must wear (magnifying) sunglasses as they prepare and review the monthly page layouts. But do they read it?
Each year at renewal time I ponder whether to keep subscribing. Surely I don't read much of it, it's too difficult. (Oh, you old crank, they say, fix your glasses...) Most text in WIRED I swear is viewed as a graphic design tool and not something to communicate word-based ideas with. I do look at WIRED, as it is some sort of feast to behold, certainly interesting when viewed as visual icon of an age.
My complete set of WIRED grows month-by-month. Maybe when histories of the late 20th century digital age are written (visualized?), value will accrue in antique stores to full sets of WIRED hieroglyphics: modern totems crafted by digerati wielding Apple's Power Macintosh computers and QuarkXPress.
It's not often a magazine points out via back-page colophon what tools were used to create the masterpiece. But this is the digital age, and maybe the medium itself is the message, as WIRED often quotes from Marshall McLuhan, its anointed patron saint.
To be fair, once one gets beyond the multi-hued glitter, WIRED does offer articles of some length about digital culture, economics, and a world dominated by technology. But still, there is lack of balance.
I just wish WIRED weren't such a relentless fan of a technology-driven present and future. After all, nearly two-thirds of the homes in America still don't have a computer. Why is that?
Interesting coverage about this would seem just as valid for WIRED's pages as one more glowing homage to inspired inventor, stylish designer, prescient venture capitalist, genius marketer of the latest multi-processor, water-cooled, 3-D, hand-held, self-propelled, got-to-have-it chip-gadget from Intel-Sun-Microsoft-Oracle-Sony-Motorola-IBM-Cisco-Apple-Hitachi-Whoever™.
But I suppose anything less than total technology optimism by WIRED's editors would adversely affect the number of advertising pages printed each month. And, as we know, making the most money is the real game.
PLAIN: A cover story on "Kids Without Computers," uses flowers as lure to take your eyeballs away from the screen.
Heading Onto the Plains
On the other side of the techno-magazine coin stands PLAIN. Almost shockingly in this era of computerized everything, these people have chosen the goal of eschewing modern technology with a vengeance. Advertisements rarely appear, if at all. I saw one once for horse-drawn plowing.
The magazine's address labels are written by hand (though they do appear to have been run through a Xerox copier.) The latest issue arrived with this moniker on the contents page: "Produced completely computer-free." This followed an earlier issue that proclaimed, "This issue 70 percent computer-free." WIRED isn't the only magazine that declaims production tools used.
PLAIN tries to publish every other month, but Editor Scott Savage admits a more realistic stance is to call it a quarterly, at least for now. The latest issue was hand-set using metal type. Illustrations are hand-cut wood engravings. Print run was 5,000 copies on a sheet-fed flatbed 90-year-old press, recovered at scrap-metal market prices after readers donated to a "Luddite Press" fund overseen by PLAIN's publisher, The Center for Plain Living. Next issue the plan is to run the press by hand- and solar-power.
Calling itself "The Magazine of Life, Land, and the Spirit," PLAIN's editorial mix includes articles written by simple living devotees who have forsaken modern life, by those who wish they could abandon modern life for a more simple life, and by Amish who have never had a modern life to abandon. Essays mostly address the ways authors are living their lives instead of just being critical of the way others live theirs.
Each issue has pages for children, pages about domestic living, pages devoted to the religious life of the Amish. Every issue focuses on a topic, and the current issue's theme deals with time and how it disappears.
Among the 15 issues to date have been topics devoted to kids without computers, localization of food production, exiting the information superhighway, abandoning money, reclaiming the ritual of death from specialists, agriculture and community, and health technology. Each issue has religious articles based on Amish perspective. Discussions of religion aside, serious technology-related topics and views remain.
In April of 1996, the Center for Plain Living sponsored "The Second Luddite Convention," three days of discussions on ways to question technology and limit its effect in society. (The term Luddite comes from April 1812 when a General Ned Ludd unsuccessfully led a rebellious band of British textile workers against several mechanized textile factories that had displaced them from their work as weavers.)
Some Luddite convention speakers adamantly rejected computers, TV, movies and the like. Others, like Cliff Stoll, were more philosophical. Stoll, a Berkeley astrophysicist and also essayist for "The Site," a cable TV program bankrolled by NBC and Microsoft about computer culture, discussed whether computers in school had value. (Not necessarily.)
Another speaker, farmer-author Gene Logsdon pointed out, "I would not be here at the Second Luddite Congress if cars did not exist. Of course if cars did not exist, I doubt there would have been any reason for this meeting." The Luddite convention was covered in some depth by The New York Times.
Is There Commons?
It would be interesting if the editors of WIRED and PLAIN ever met. Each group so fervently believes in its own mission. One wonders if they could be open-minded enough to listen to each other, but that might not be possible. After all, the monthly Marshall McLuhan quote in the October 1997 WIRED says, "A moral point of view too often serves as a substitute for understanding technological matters."
Both magazines are so busy preaching to the choir of the converted, they've forgotten there's a vast middle out there looking for some guidance on how to keep from being overwhelmed by technology. People are looking for ways to make technology work for them in measured doses and not just becoming slaves to it.
To paraphrase Luddite convention speaker Stephanie Mills: we need to find ways to make everyday luxuries and conveniences a condiment on the plate of life, and not always just the meat, the main course.
WIRED would benefit to contextualize its pro-technology cheerleading with coverage on human costs of technology. Not everyone, for example, can spend 100 hours a week in front of a computer monitor, nor is it physically and psychologically healthy to do so.
Also WIRED, tell us what became of the many thousands whose jobs disappeared because of computerization. Are their lives better or worse? What really became of the time we're supposed to have saved using computers? Did the fewer of us left just get asked to do more than before for less pay?
Does it really matter if kids use computers in schools? Do they learn anything useful? Or are computers just some sort of device to improve manual dexterity, and a way to keep teachers from having to spend time helping students?
PLAIN's not going to get widely read at 5,000 press runs. Look beyond its religious tracts and PLAIN's ideas on technology compel equally as WIRED's. This perhaps sounds sacrilegious to the Center for Plain Living's goals, but they could use some more technology to increase readership. PLAIN ought to set up a web site.
This one concession could help many people worldwide gain access to their ideas on technology and how to get by with a bit less of it. (PLAIN does plan to produce a book based on the magazine in late1997 or early 1998.)
If PLAIN's goal is only to reconfirm to current readers the rightness of their decisions and desires about living, they should be more candid. After all, the Amish base their idealized lifestyle on having an acreage of productive farm land and working it with mostly manual labor. The idea of someone becoming a horse-drawn farmer, let alone any type of farmer, is rather outlandish these days.
Despite its glib and flippant tendencies, WIRED could try serious coverage on social and cultural impulses that created a magazine like PLAIN, and produce a movement of people as these Neo-Luddites. Obviously this expanding movement has tapped into needs unsatisfied by modern consumer society.
PLAIN's editors should realize what they also propose is rather an elitist way of life, available only to those who can inherit it, or can afford to buy into and want to farm by hand many acres of land. This is beyond the reach, desire, and ability of most who could benefit from PLAIN's thoughtful and cautionary views on rampant technology.
4th Floor, 520 3rd Street
San Francisco, CA 94107-1815
Subscriptions Call 1-800 SO WIRED
$40 for 12 issues
The Center for Plain Living
60805 Pigeon Point
Barnesville, OH 43713
Six issues for $18
Dennis Dimick lives in Arlington, Virginia. This article was written using Microsoft Word on Apple Macintosh computers. His vegetable garden has been organic for more than a decade, and the compost pile in his backyard awaits this autumn's leaf drop from five oak trees. His daughters, Claudia and Sofia, began kindergarten and pre-school this fall.
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