Technology and Its Discontents:
An Interview with Chellis Glendinning
By Scott London
Chellis Glendinning is a New Mexico-based psychologist and writer and one of today's most outspoken critics of technology. She believes that our dependence on technology is a devil's bargain, one that threatens not just our personal health and the well-being of our families and communities but also the natural world that we inhabit. She has made this case in a series of hard-hitting books that includes My Name is Chellis and I'm in Recovery from Western Civilization, Chiva, and the Pulitzer Prize-nominated When Technology Wounds: The Human Consequences of Progress. I spoke with her in Ojai, California.
Scott London: A few years ago you wrote an article called "Notes Toward a Neo-Luddite Manifesto." It's been called one of the seminal documents of the neo-Luddite movement. What exactly is a Luddite?
Chellis Glendinning: The Luddites were a group of mostly textile workers in the early 1800s, as the Industrial Revolution was on the rise, who saw the new way of life introduced by capitalization — where people took a great deal of money, built factories, and replaced craftspeople with machines that could do the work much faster and more efficiently — as a threat to a way of life that was very satisfying to them. People lived in villages, wove, hunted, gardened, had a few sheep, and saw their neighbors. It was a good life. But within thirty years, the villages were wiped out and turned into places like Manchester and Liverpool with polluted rivers and factories belching poisons into the air. The roster of people on welfare quadrupled. So the Luddites were not just against technology. It was much more complex and far-sighted. They were against a whole new way of life brought about by the Industrial Revolution.
London: And the neo-Luddites have taken up some of those same concerns but within a contemporary context. Do you consider yourself a neo-Luddite?
Glendinning: Oh, yes. I'm a neo-Luddite. We asked the question at our first meeting of some of the potential neo-Luddites in this country, and everybody was a little afraid of the word. Then Wendell Berry got up and said, "I am a Luddite! I am a neo-Luddite, and I'm proud of it." So, yes, I'm a Neo-Luddite and proud!
London: What are the central issues today?
Glendinning: Some of the technologies that were created during the Industrial Revolution were appalling, such as capitalization, investment, social hierarchy, sexism, racism, and ecological destruction. Today we find ourselves at a similar point as the original Luddites. A whole new series of technologies like biotechnology, virtual reality, and super-computerization are appearing now that are leading us away from our nature-based roots.
London: But our lives have become so completely dependent on technologies that it strikes me as hard to talk about their effects in any meaningful sense.
Glendinning: Yes. People tend to personalize technology so they can't get to the systemic analysis. They say, "Oh, I can't give up my personal computer." Or, "I just love radio too much." I had one woman call me up on a radio talk show and say, "But I can't live without my mammogram."
London: If you're doing radio call-in shows, I imagine you're getting some pretty disgruntled listeners.
Glendinning: [Hearty laugh]
London: What do the callers say?
Glendinning: It's predictable. "Well, I want my mammogram." "Don't you think that this makes our life better?" "But what about progress?" "We need these things." Things like that.
London: The second neo-Luddite conference was recently held in Barnesville, Ohio. The media coverage sounded some of the same themes as the callers you mentioned.
Glendinning: Yes, and it went right along with the capture of the Unabomber. So it was a big time for neo-Luddites across the country. A lot of coverage.
London: Is this a fringe movement, or will it grow and expand into the mainstream culture?
Glendinning: I hope it grows. I've seen it change. When When Technology Wounds came out, which was 1990, I found myself invited to be on a lot of radio shows. When I got there, it turned out that what they wanted to do was use me for what we might call "good radio." In other words, they wanted to make fun of me and have me be a controversial figure who could cause people to get upset and excited and call in and be outraged. "Hot radio." Now I find that journalists call me up and have very sophisticated, serious, sober questions, and are interested in a systemic analysis of technology. So, I'm not a weird media object anymore. There's the beginning of a conversation happening. Surprising change is possible. It's not fun to have to argue the same stuff over and over again, but I'm finding that more and more people are interested in exploring this.
London: In your book Waking Up in the Nuclear Age, you wrote that the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant back in 1979 was a defining moment for you.
Glendinning: Yes, it was a moment of waking up. It was a moment when a lot of fear and discomfort that I have lived with my entire life was able to surface. I realized in that moment that I had never known a world that was safe. And I longed for that. I longed to have been born before 1945.
London: As a psychologist, you started conducting workshops with people affected by the crisis.
Glendinning: Yes. I began holding workshops to help people deal with their repressed or denied or simply unacknowledged feelings about living in an uncertain, dangerous, threatening world.
London: In the book you describe how people tapped into feelings they didn't know they had — deep-seated wounds associated with experiences during World War II, for example. For some of them, this was the first time they had spoken openly about their experiences.
Glendinning: Yes. One of the feelings that was predominant among people who had a direct experience with nuclear weapons or nuclear power was a feeling of betrayal — knowing that these things didn't have to happen, that it was humans, not nature or God, who created these things. For instance, there were soldiers who had been ordered to go into Hiroshima or Nagasaki, or ordered to witness a nuclear blast at Yucca Flats or the Bikini Islands. Later, as they got sick and observed that their comrades were also getting sick, they realized that their lives were being taken away from them by something that didn't have to happen. It was an incredible sense of betrayal. So, here they were in the United States and unable to express that, although it was boiling inside of them. So in the workshops and also in the later work I did researching When Technology Wounds, I had the opportunity to hear about this.
London: In When Technology Wounds, you interviewed people who had become sick from exposure to some dangerous technology. Can you give some examples?
Glendinning: I spoke with soldiers made to witness nuclear blasts, electronics plant workers who ended up being exposed to toxic chemicals, Dalcon Shield users, birth control pill users, DES daughters, asbestos workers, people whose ground water had been contaminated by some kind of factory nearby — people like that.
London: Much of the research on the emotional and psychological effects of these technologies had never been done before.
Glendinning: Some studies had been done. There had been a myriad of studies at Three Mile Island. There had been studies of Dalcon Shield users. But no one had put it all together. And in putting it all together, I discovered that in some ways it didn't really matter what the technology was, or even what the illness was. What I found was that no matter what the individual circumstance ,many of the psychological ramifications were the same.
London: Some days ago a lawsuit by citizens who claim they've suffered health disorders as a result of Three Mile Island was dismissed for lack of proof. This had been pending in court a long time. The judge finally dismissed the case for lack of clear evidence.
Glendinning: Yes, this is a very typical situation. They say, "Well, maybe it was your hairspray that caused it," or "it could have been some chemical that caused it." It's both true and also frustrating that the poisons we produce in our civilization are so pervasive that it's hard to pinpoint the causes of illness. Yet, at the turn of the last century, something like 1 in 35 people got cancer; today it's one in three. What happened? Well, we know what happened. We saw it happen. More plastics, more chemicals, more nuclear fallout. All of those things happened.
London: We hear talk today about how the nuclear age has come to an end now that we no longer face the threat of nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. Is it valid to speak of the end of the nuclear age?
Glendinning: Well, there can still be an explosion. That's what we were worried about back then. There can still be an explosion in a number of different ways. It may not be in a war between the Russians and the United States. It could be from another country. It could be from a conflict on a smaller level that has vast ramifications. It could be from a third world country.
But there is also the whole issue of what to do with the waste. There is so much waste around the globe in the air and the ground and in our bodies that it doesn't make sense to say "Well, that's over because the Cold War is over."
London: So this is one of the legacies of the Cold War which we still need to address.
Glendinning: Yes, right. In the early 90s, I worked with uranium miners in the Navajo nation and at Laguna Pueblo, both of these in New Mexico. Laguna Pueblo has the largest open pit uranium mine in the whole world. There it is, this wound, this gaping hole in the earth. The water is contaminated, the air is contaminated. Cancer as far away as Albuquerque has shot up since that mine opened in 1952. Even though the mine is no longer operating and has been "reclaimed" — which means they put some dirt on top of it — the psychological effects will go on for generations.
London: A point you come back to again and again in your work is the idea that we need to think about our relationship to technology in systemic terms.
Glendinning: Yes. It's taken me a lifetime to develop a systemic analysis. It's very hard to explain systemic thinking to people. It means we have to question everything. It's not enough to say that some technologies are good and some are bad.
London: Many people believe that technological advances are synonymous with social and economic progress. The expression we hear a lot is, "You can't turn back the clock."
Glendinning: This idea of "turning back the clock" expresses the basic assumption of mass technological society, which is that going forward is the deal. We always want to be going forward. It's scary to go back. But that assumption needs to be challenged. It doesn't matter what expression we use, whether we talk about going back, going sideways, going up or down. The important thing is to go back to wholeness. It's time for human beings to come into a sustainable world.
This interview was adapted from the public radio series "Insight & Outlook."