In May of 1962, the television series, The Twilight Zone, hit a milestone when it premiered it’s 100th episode, “I Sing the Body Electric”, or as fans of the series may remember it, the robot grandma episode. In this episode, a recent widower brings his three children to a factory, Facsimile Ltd., to create a robot that is meant to act as their surrogate grandmother. Of the three children, two of them, Tom and Karen, immediately take to the robot, while the third child, Anne, is resistant. At one point in a truly defiant act, she runs out into traffic, but is saved from near death by the grandmother, who emerges unscathed. Confronted by the power and benefit of technology and power of this technology, Anne is won over. In a truly uncharacteristic turn for the series, the episode has a happy ending, with the children going on to live happily ever after with the grandma.
The theme of this episode, that of the transformative power of technology to win those over t o its side was visited twenty five years later by Thomas Pynchon in his essay, “Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?” According to Pynchon, the modern day Luddites, although distinguished from their predecessors by their lack of action, are linked in their opposition to the ‘machine.’ Yet he believed that eventually the modern day Luddite would cease to exist due to the very technology they opposed. He believed that in the future, when faced with the power of technology to advance society, which would be manifest in feats like ending world hunger and curing cancer, the Luddites would be converted to the side of the technocrats.
Looking back at that Twilight Zone episode and Pynchon’s essay now, a few decades after both first appeared, they seem eerily prescient. Although there are no robot grandmas to speak of, and the world has yet to succeed in eradicating world hunger and curing cancer, it was right on another mark: the decline of the Luddite.
True, the Luddite is not completely gone as Pynchon had suspected, but they are few and far in between. Over the years as new technology has emerged people have not carefully considered its pros and cons, but have embraced it wholeheartedly. Our world has become one in which both adolescents and adults have iPhones, and senior citizens have Facebook accounts.
Given this ubiquity of technology in our lives today, I believe that it is necessary to revisit the question that Pynchon posited in the title of his essay, “is it okay to be a Luddite?” While a full exploration of this question is better left to another more focused post, as the relationship between humans and technology is complicated, I pose it as something to consider. In a time, where technology is increasingly viewed as the future, and a panacea for larger problems, the viewpoint of the vanishing Luddite may be useful more then ever.
- This episode was based off of a short story written by Ray Bradbury, who also wrote the screenplay for this episode. The name of the Bradbury story is from a Walt Whitman Poem, “I Sing the Body Electric”. For the text of the poem see: http://www.bartleby.com/142/19.html