Revenge of the Real
A Luddite rant.
Hi, I’m Mike. I’m twenty-nine years old, and I’m a technoholic.
But that’s not surprising.
The huge majority of my generation (younger Millennials) and those that came after us (Generation Z, Generation Alpha) are severely—severely—addicted to technology. This will be the great crisis our cohorts need to overcome. I have no doubt about that.
A few days ago, I wrote about this problem in an email to my friend Rod Dreher. He asked if he could post it on his blog. I said yes, so he did. Maybe some of you have read the email already, but I want to elaborate on a few of the points I made there. Because I do believe this is the biggest hurdle my contemporaries will face in our lifetimes.
First, though, I want to make a distinction. We all know that young people spend too much time on their phones. We know that older folks spend too much time on their phones as well, though at a lower rate. And we assume these two experiences are basically the same—that tech addicts in both cohorts experience addiction the same way. Any difference is a matter of degree, not kind.
That’s not true. There’s a much more important difference, which we haven’t quite reckoned with yet. Put it this way:
Home internet only became common in the late Nineties. Not quite ten years later, Webster’s declared “Crackberry” its Word of the Year for 2006. For those who don’t know or can’t remember, “Crackberry” was the nickname given to the early smartphone BlackBerry, in honor of its highly addictive nature.
We’ve always known that these technologies are habit-forming. We just didn’t take it seriously. Why? Maybe because a BlackBerry in 2006 still wasn’t half as addictive as an iPhone in 2023. More importantly, though, this older cohort—those who adopted smart technology as adults—remember what life was like before the internet.
That means it’s easier for them to use these technologies moderately. For those who do become addicted, they at least have “lived experience” of real life. Also, they got their start with less advanced technologies, which are also less habit-forming.
As for my generation, we have no concept of what life was like before AIM, YouTube, Facebook, Call of Duty, texting, iPods, iPhones, Minecraft, StarCraft, Twitter, Amazon, Snapchat, Netflix, TikTok… The only “reality” we know is Virtual Reality. Even if we were curious about life before (or beyond) the Screen, we’d never dare to take a peek. This tech is becoming far more advanced—and far more addictive—with each passing day.
We’ve been plugged in since we were children. And with each passing year, it gets harder to unplug. And why would we want to unplug, anyway? We have no idea what that feels like. We don’t even know what “unplugged” means.
Before we go on, let me be clear about another thing: I had an idyllic childhood. My Mom and Dad are best parents anyone could ever ask for. They busted their butts to give me a good home and a good education. They spent lots of quality time with me. They drove me to all my wrestling meets and Model U.N. conferences. They let me spend every Saturday with my friends.
We lived in a big house with a big yard on the edge of the woods, so there was plenty of room for us to roam. I got every book I ever wanted. And they did limit the amount of time I was allowed to spend on the computer, in front of the television, etc. They did everything they possibly could, and so much more.
None of what I say here, then, is a reflection on their parenting. It’s about the potency of modern technology. They didn’t understand, and we can’t blame them for that—no more than they can blame their own parents for insulating the house with asbestos. No one really understood how dangerous these technologies are, except the folks who made them. That’s why Bill Gates kept them as far away from his children as possible. I bet the CEO of McDonald’s doesn’t let his kids eat Happy Meals, either.
Anyway. As I said to Rod, “I reminisce about characters from Age of Mythology more than I do my childhood friends. I remember ‘visiting’ planets from the Jedi Knight series more vividly and more fondly than I do our family vacations.” That’s all true, I’m sorry to say. And I could go on.
One year, the local Boy Scout Council had its annual jamboree in the field on the other side of our woods. It wasn’t our property, but it’s where I spent a huge part of my childhood playing. In the summers, I hayed that field for the local farmer. This was my home turf—and there were hundreds of other kids here, playing games and camping out! Yet all I can remember is how badly I wanted to go home and play Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast.
My happiest memory of Halloween growing up is playing Tak and the Power of Juju with my cousin Zack before we went Trick-or-Treating.
I renounced Christianity and became a neopagan because of how enthralled I was by Age of Mythology. I spent my nights on blogs devoted to “Hellenic polytheistic reconstructionism.” I devoured books on Greek mythology. I used the Hymns of Orpheus as my prayer-book. I bought a ceremonial goblet and stole wine from my dad’s cellar; I took the goblet and wine into the woods and made secret offerings to idols of Zeus and Apollo.
Most kids probably don’t share my interest in religion. But the fact that my worldview is so heavily conditioned by technology (the internet, video games, etc.) isn’t at all unusual. If I’d been born a few years later, who knows? Maybe I’d be calling myself transgender or pretending to have Tourette’s. Maybe I would have joined ISIS. There but for the grace of God…
[Fair warning: this section is necessary but a little graphic. You may wish to skip it.]
Really, unless you grew up in the 2000s, you have no sense of the power these technologies have over young people. They don’t pervert our sense of reality: they shape our sense of reality.
Let’s keep going with the trans example. It’s not that these kids were happy being straight young men, and then the internet convinced them to call themselves girls. There’s no divide between their pre-internet worldview and their post-internet worldview. The internet is a constant. Their whole understanding of “boy” and “girl,” of gender and sex and sexuality, is determined by the internet.
Obviously, nature plays its part. Most people, once they finish puberty, will find themselves exclusively attracted to the opposite sex. But the human brain is amazingly plastic. It has an unlimited capacity to be deceived—and to deceive itself.
So, yes: these boys are willing to dress like girls, have sex with other boys, take female replacement hormones, even castrate themselves—all for the sake of this trans charade. I know it’s hard to believe. Who would believe it, if the evidence wasn’t all around us?
Then again, think about all the terrible things that drug addicts will do to pay for their stuff. They sell their bodies, and their children’s bodies. They steal from their families and strangers. They kill people. Now, remember: the internet is basically one endless shot of dopamine. These kids are addicts. And, like other addicts, they get desperate.
This is why I’m proud to call myself a Luddite. It’s why I don’t have a cell phone or a Twitter or any of that nonsense. It’s why I use a website blocker called Cold Turkey, to keep me from wasting hours a day on Wikipedia or The New York Times. And it’s why I’m always harping on people to purge these technologies from their lives as much as humanly possible.
I’m a product of this techno-dystopia. I’m a recovering addict. So, I have to purge these toxins from my life as much as possible. And I’m not judging you, dear reader, but my guess is that you’re on the same boat.
Can these technologies be used in moderation? Maybe. I doubt it. But, really, it doesn’t matter, because basically everyone under the age of forty is a technoholic. (So are many people over the age of forty, of course.) And for addicts, abstention is the only moderation. If you’re not constantly trying to minimize the amount of technology in your life, you’re going to backslide. If you’re not swimming against the current, it will carry you backwards. At best, you’ll lose any progress you’ve made. At worst, it will sweep you out to sea.
That’s what gives us Luddites this sense of urgency. From the burgeoning mental-health crisis to the spread of radical ideologies to the decline of American small businesses to the collapse of news media, there aren’t many problems we can’t blame (at least in part) on these technologies.
Online porn is now raising generations of violent men and vulnerable women. The rancorous tone of social-media debates is now prevalent in real-life political discourse. Companies like Amazon and Zoom enabled our governments to shut down most in-person commerce, education, and worship during the COVID pandemic. Fantasy leagues ruined Superbowl parties. And we could go on.
What’s most worrying, though, is this power these technologies have to completely dissociate us from reality. With each passing year, our devices become more advanced. They experience becomes more intense, more immersive, more addictive. And with each passing generation, we plug our children into those devices at younger and younger ages.
In a couple of decades, Western peoples will no longer have any “lived experience” of reality. We’ll spend our whole lives, from cradle to grave, in Virtual Reality.
What will that look like? I have no idea. Maybe all the different companies whose devices condition our digital ecosystems will be consolidated by the government à la Brave New World. Maybe this weakness will leave us vulnerable to attacks from rivals like China. Or maybe we’ll fritter away what’s left of our humanity, keeping ourselves safe with drones and bombs, until we become so impotent that we simply vanish from the earth.
The latter, I think, is more likely. I’d just add one caveat. I do believe that, in time, more and more of us will become disillusioned with this techno-dystopia. I believe that a critical minority of Luddites will break from these digital ecosystems and demand their right to live in the real world. It will be like Huxley’s “savage reservations,” or the Dread Zones from the movie Surrogate (2009).
I expect there will be a lot of overlap between these Luddite groups and the orthodox Christians who are already gathering in intentional “Benedict Option” communities all across the West. My wife was raised in one such community, and we now live in another. In these places, children do not have unfettered access to the internet. Older children are given flip phones. Smartphones are unheard of.
The difference is obvious as soon as you meet these kids. They’re kinder. They’re more polite, less awkward. They’re not as loud or inane. They’re more socially aware. They like reading and playing outside. They invent games for themselves. The boys play happily with the girls, at least until they hit puberty. But by the time they go to college, the men are much better at socializing with women (and vice-versa) than the average teenager.
This, by the way, is normal. This is what kids are supposed to be like. It’s what they were like, for the most part, before 1995. And it’s what I want for my children.
Giving your kids a good Luddite upbringing in 2023 is tough. You need a community around you, so that Luddism is normative as well as normal. Your boy won’t get picked on for not having the latest iPhone if all of his friends use a landline.
That’s why I mention the BenOp. These days, only religious folk value this way of life. They put a high premium on value on living in accordance with nature, in harmony with neighbor, and in communion with God. So, if I had to guess, the Luddite renaissance will also be a Christian renaissance. The two will feed into each other. They’ll flourish together.
Then reality—real reality—will be normal for my sons and daughters. I hope it will for yours, too. No, it won’t be easy. You may have to spend years deprogramming yourself. I’m in that boat. And to be honest, I doubt even I’m halfway done.
Still, life is better this way. My God! It’s better than I ever could have imagined.