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Thursday, 23 February 2017

The True Opposite of a Luddite

Well, I've been flat-out getting two books out the door, mainly Australian Backyard Earth Scientist, which is going to be fun, so there has been little time for other writing. Here's something I put in the rainy-day file.

Although I am no longer all that actively involved in education (I just play at being the visiting scientist at a local school), old habits die hard, and I keep my ear to the ground.

This is just one of the things I have in common with dead wombats (that's a very dead wombat on the right). And, I suppose, dead teachers (and I used to be a member of the Dead Teachers' Society, but that's another story).

Over the years, I have become largely immune to the teacher-Luddites, the absolutely determined rejectors of technology. You can tell from a certain shrillness in their tone that their real problem is that they are terrified of what they see before them.

Well, I can relate to that. I have managed to take on board a number of the more recent inventions of the Web, but when I look at my Web pages, they lack a certain modernity. I could probably sit down and make them more funky, but one science site for kids pulls in half a million a year, so I just leave it alone. They ain't broke, so why fix them?

I download podcasts, but I don't use RSS, and I don't VOIP, mainly because it will take time away from writing, and I'm pretty busy right now. Colour me verging on the Luddite. Mind you, I don't think I'll ever be a real Luddite or even a good facsimile of one. Tradition has it that the Luddites, around 1810, took their name from a chap who may have been Ned Ludd or Ned Ludlam.

Or maybe he didn't exist, but if he did, he came from near Leicester, and apparently he broke two stocking frames in a fit of rage. The Luddites broke machines because they threatened people's work, which was a bit different.

The modern Luddites don't break machines, but when they try to use computers, they break the hearts of techies. "My computer's got a virus," they scream.

Techie: "Why do you say that?"

Luddite: "It won't open my file!"

Techie: "What did you create the file in?"

Luddite (long-sufferingly at this silly question): "Microsoft!".

Assorted deities including Erudite, the goddess of smarty-pantses, willing, I won't ever be like that.

But the big problem with some Luddites is that they ooze into management, perhaps by clerical error, and somebody tells them to mend their ways and mind their manners and get with the flow. All of a sudden, the Luddite becomes a fervent exponent of all things technological. In a way, they remind me of George Orwell's sheep in 'Animal Farm'.

Remember them? The animals, symbols of the proletariat, chanting "Four legs good, two legs bad," and later, other variations of that. The reformed Luddites, the anti-Luddites, have their own chant "Old ways bad, new ways good", and they target, in particular, that evil old technology, The Book. It's simple enough for them to think that they understand the concept. Books bad, machines good, they chant.

Now I always found it amusing that when Marshall McLuhan decided the book was dead, he wrote several books to prove it. The modern anti-Luddites seem, for some reason, to be somewhat illiterate, so they don't write books. They just attack them with a vehemence that would not have been out of place in the Opernplatz (now the Bebelplatz) in Berlin, one May night in 1933, when some truly charming people burnt books.

I need a new name for them, though. These people aren't really anti-Luddites, they are inverted, backward Luddites. If the Luddites are followers of Ned Ludd, then these people must be the followers of Ned Dull. Hereafter, they shall be Dullards.

The Dullards have two main lines of argument:

"We don't need books: you can get everything on the Internet."

"Books go out of date, and then we have to throw them out."

I answered the first of these silly claims in a talk on the ABC, some years back, in a talk you can find at  In essence, I argued that making a book involves a lot more than blogging or emailing does. There is an art and a craft to shaping a book, writing it, editing it and designing it. There is a huge difference between knocking up a web page or five, and creating the sustained narrative that is a book.

Well, I would say that, because I write books, quack the Dullards. I, on the other hand, have a first-hand knowledge of the research, the sweat, the tears, the revisions and the efforts of professional editors and designers that go into my books. I also own quite  few web pages with six-figure counts.

Yes, books can go out of date, or some of them can, especially computer manuals and the like, and the savvy reader checks for the date of publication, which appears on the back of the title page.

Very few web pages have a date on them (all of mine do), and there is no guarantee of quality in a web page. A reputable publisher normally will have done at least a cursory check for quality, so there is some sort of implied guarantee in a book, most of the time*. Look at and then look again more closely. Click on the link "For teachers" if you still don't get it. That's right, the whole site is dodgy, and while this one has been created as a warning, people get taken in.

I know. I invented the town of Cootaburra and put it on the web, and over the years, my tall tale of a non-existent town and its fanciful Giant Dung Beetle has been featured in newsletters, a government report, at least two books and one magazine, as well as a number of educational sites.

Just search on Cootaburra and see for yourself. Just stay clear of the ones at Tripod if they are still there, because they were flagged as attack sites that distribute malware. Yep, that's right, a few web sites can be downright dangerous. Books don't do that (except, perhaps, Marie Curie's lab notebooks at the Sorbonne, which even now are so radioactive that would-be readers have to sign away any right to sue, and those aren't published books).

So the Internet can be downright wrong, it's generally not self-correcting, you can't tell if it's up-to-date and it may even cause active harm, but does this upset the Dullards? Not a bit of it: they are hell-bent on getting rid of books and replacing the allegedly useless books with gleaming new technology. Only in this way can they demonstrate their incisive brilliance, their sterling qualities of leadership.

Given a choice between barbarians at the gate and Dullards at the gate, give me the barbarians, any day. You can reason with barbarians and even civilise them with time. Barbarians rape and pillage, but once they've gone, the pieces are still there, so you can start again.

Occasionally, a Dullard emerges who has slipped through the ranks to Senior Management and becomes a principal who can make educational decisions without being educated. They don't just do away with books, these special Dullards, they do away with librarians and leave readers bereft of guidance, at the mercy of any devious snake-oil seller with a glib yarn about giant dung beetles. I'm still working on a special name for that sub-class of Dullard.

No, not that name. Or that name. Or that. I want something I can use in a family-values blog.


* It was my then publisher who published and was caught out by the Helen Demidenko hoax. I recall this, because I had written a novel that was a transparent hoax at three levels, a literary joke that would have amused but never fooled, pretty much as detectable as Cootaburra. I submitted the ms just as the Demidenko business was coming apart, and got a frosty rejection which I only understood when the scandal all came out. The ms is still in my filing cabinet, and I take it out occasionally and whimper sadly at its unhappy fate.

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