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Luddism (Morning Commencement Keynote)

  • Date: 12/12/2009
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • Thanks to the Internet, the holiday wish list tradition has gone hi-tech with websites that allow you to share your holiday gift list with family and friends. 

    Similar to a wedding or baby registry, buyers can view on-line what already has been purchased to eliminate double-buying and to cut down on the dreaded post-holiday returns.

    If you have a wish list, I am sure that at least one of the items fits your digital lifestyle - an MP3 player, a new cell phone, a digital camera, a videogame, or the all-in-one Smartphone.  Or maybe you are wishing for the latest in gift-giving: an "E-Reader" - an electronic reading device, which some in the media point out is a brand name likely chosen by engineering, not marketing.

    Imagine having access to hundreds of thousands of books, including most of the New York Times Best Sellers, along with international newspapers, magazines and blogs tailored to your interests, all carried in your pocket.  In fact, it is just a matter of time until students can download all their text books on a single handheld device; or even more remarkable, possess the entire contents of all the world's libraries.

    Last month, the Kindle 2 became the first e-reader available globally.  Immensely excited about this new phase of the book, Steven Marchie, writing in The Wall Street Journal hailed it as a technological milestone as important to the history of text "...as (its) two previous pre-digital manifestations of text": the shift from scrolls to bounded pages and the invention of the printing press.1

    In his article entitled, "The Book that Contains All Books," Mr. Marchie states that "Kindle 2 isn't really about what we may or may not want as readers and writers.  (It is) about what the book wants to be.  And the book wants to be itself and everything.  It wants to be a vast abridgement of the universe that you can hold in your hand.  It wants to be the transbook...a book which can contain all books...It is not just another kind of media; it is the dream of ultimate text."2

    However, Marchie quickly points out that he has no plans of scrapping his 2000-volume library, because he is too attached to his books.  "Just as the ancients respected the scroll more after the development of the book," he writes, "just as the hand-written manuscript became sacred after the invention of print, the printed book is now beginning to glow with its own obsolescence." 3

    While this new technology won't cause all booklovers to shift allegiance to the "Download of the Month Club," it eventually will have a rippling effect throughout the publishing industry, and this technological change most likely will be met with opposition, or as some refer to it: Luddism.

    Surely you remember from your history courses the story of the Luddites.  The Luddites were those 19th Century British craftsmen who organized to destroy new manufacturing equipment, particularly textile machinery.

    They believed that new technology - in this case, power looms and wool-shearing equipment - was being used to diminish employment, and they were willing to do almost anything to protect their jobs, even if it meant, in some cases, their execution or deportation.

    The fallacy in all this is that the Luddites assumed that industry would reduce the workforce to keep production constant.  When in reality, the new technologies added more product availability and increased demand for those products, which created many more textile jobs than they eliminated, and the industry has grown and prospered to this day.

    Throughout history, whenever there is technological change, we find that those with the most invested in the status quo are the last or the least likely to change. So invested are they that some fail to see that there is no further status in the quo.  They are busy placing blame, when in reality, as media mogul Rupert Murdoch has often stated: the real threat is not technology; it is our complacency.4  

    Today, Luddism seldom results in property damage as it did back in the 19th Century, but it still is found wherever new technologies and changes in the workplace threaten long-standing jobs, and in the communications industry it certainly is not limited to the print media.

    Many of you experienced firsthand the problems associated with the broadcast industry's shift from an analog to digital format.  So, imagine what it was like in the late 1940s when that same industry began transitioning from radio to television.  Network radio was king and television was considered an impending but pricey toy, costing about half the price of a new car. 

    Not only were the receivers expensive, so were the broadcasts.  NBC, for example, ran its fledgling network suffering losses of nearly $1-million per week in current dollars.  Today, networks can charge that much, or more, for a 30-second commercial.

    Many radio personalities, including Jack Benny, Bob Hope and Milton Berle were able to make the transition from radio to television.  Others, including well-known vaudeville and radio comedian Fred Allen were not. 

    Columnist Terry Teachout, in his article "The New-Media Crisis of 1949," talks about Allen's resentment and his infamous remarks that people call television a medium "...because nothing is well done,"  and that television permits "people who haven't anything to do, to watch people who (cannot) do anything."5

    He claims that, "...Allen (simply) was gnawing on sour grapes (but) the truth is that network TV was neither intrinsically better nor worse than network radio.  It was simply different - in a way that ordinary Americans preferred....When something came along that they deemed superior, they switched off their radios without a second thought...Nostalgia, like guilt (you see), is a rope that wears thin."6

    Throughout history, there have been those unable or unwilling to come to grips with the challenge of change and have greeted each new era with skepticism.  For example, according to English Professor Dennis Baron, even Socrates "...objected to (the art of) writing, in part, because (he believed) this 'invention' eliminated the need to exercise the memory."7

    Baron also cites the skepticism expressed about use of the telegraph in the 1840s"...to establish instant transcontinental communication.  Henry David Thoreau scoffed, 'Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.'"8

    Three decades later, the telegraph's inventor Samuel Morse, declined to buy the patent rights for the telephone, because "It provided no permanent record of a conversation."  In 1880, Western Union refused the (same) offer...asking "whether any sensible (person) would transact his affairs by such a means of communication." 9

    "When the typewriter came into widespread personal use in the 1930s (and most of you graduating today don't know what that is), The New York Times editorialized against the machine on the grounds that it usurped the art of 'writing with one's own hand.'"10

    Of course, the jury is still out on the long-term social and cognitive impact of the computer revolution, but history suggests that we clearly should be on the side of the technophiles.

    As the communications industry and other beneficiaries of the digital age continue to advance, all of us simply must accept the fact that the world is constantly evolving and that occupations and lifestyles will change right along with it.  Current jobs in our economy will undoubtedly be destroyed at some point in the future, because that is the natural course and evolution in any economy, as new jobs are created to replace older ones.

    And as highly trained graduates, prepared to now go out and conquer the world, you must realize that your education has only begun.  You will have to continue learning and re-tooling yourselves for the changing nature of your work.  Complacency is not an option!

    And so, as you now close this chapter of your life, know that as you continue to expand your knowledge, so also will you expand your worth and your competitive advantage, and that, dear graduates, is my holiday wish for you.



    1. Marchie, Stephen, "The Book That Contains All Books," The Wall Street Journal, October 17, 2009
    2. (Marchie, Ibid)
    3. (Marchie, Ibid)
    4. Schmidt, Eric, "How Google Can Help Newspapers," The Wall Street Journal, December 1, 2009 and BizCommunity.com
    1. Teachout, Terry, "The New-Media Crisis of 1949: Network Radio's Fate Has Some Lessons for Today," The Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2009
    2. (Teachout, Ibid)
    3. Baron, Dennis, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, Oxford University Press, as reported by Gibson, Ellen, "Luddites of the World, Relax," BusinessWeek, October 12, 2009, p. 021
    4. (Baron, Ibid)
    5. (Baron, Ibid)
    6. (Baron, Ibid)
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