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Questioning Progress: “Neo-Luddite questions, however, go further back, to why we want this technology in the first place and whether it does what it promises. Neo-Luddites come closer, that is, to confronting the advocates of advancing technology on their own ground. In The Road Ahead, his wide-eyed survey of the information kingdom to come, Bill Gates notes that some people have misgivings and deals with them as technological optimists have always done: he says that ‘progress’ is inevitable and assures us that we have always managed to adapt to it. What is coming, Gates wants us to believe, is at the same time utterly new and utterly familiar. In particular, we are going to get more of our familiar consumerism. This is the major benefit Gates promises. In what he calls ‘friction-free capitalism,’ I will be able to contact anyone in the world who has anything to sell simply by jotting my want ad on my ‘wallet PC.’ Of course, the power to buy anything from anyone must put everyone in the world in competition in the race to use up whatever is available. Gates sees no peril here. ‘All the goods in the world,’ he writes, ‘will be available for you to examine. . . . It will be a shopper’s heaven.’ But the competitive consumer market has mined, burned, eaten, wasted, and poisoned so much of the planet in the last five headlong decades that its very endowment for life is depleted. Gates doesn’t see this or think it relevant. His technology is protected from criticism by the assumptions of classical economics, which refuses to track ‘goods’ back to their sources in nature. The mesmerizing effect of Gates’s vision is so strong, moreover, that even skeptical observers fail to see past it to its planetary effects. Writing in the February 15, 1995, New York Review of Books, James Fallows surveyed Gates’s critics (including Clifford Stoll) without ever raising the obvious question: whether we or the planet can afford to have us heighten our economic appetites. “
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