March 6 1995, Kevin Kelly, WIRED’s resident editor and techno-optimist, visits author Kirkpatrick Sale’s Greenwich Village apartment. Kelly had asked Sale for an interview. But he planned an ambush.
Kelly had just read a first copy of Sale’s next book, titled Rebels against the future. It tells the story of the 19th century Luddites, a movement of workers opposed to the machinery of the industrial revolution. Before their rebellion was crushed and their leaders hanged, they literally destroyed some of the mechanized trades which they believed were turning them into cogs in a dehumanizing engine of mass production.
Sale adored the Luddits. In early 1995, Amazon was less than a year old, Apple was in the doldrums, Microsoft had yet to launch Windows 95, and hardly anyone had a cell phone. But Sale, who for years produced books complaining about modernity and urging a return to a subsistence economy, said computer technology would make human life worse. Sale even channeled the Luddits at a January event in New York where he attacked an IBM PC with a 10-pound hammer. It took him two hits to defeat the object, after which he bowed and sat down, deeply satisfied.
Kelly hated Sale’s book. His reaction went beyond simple disagreement; Sale’s thesis insulted his sense of the world. So he showed up at Sale’s door not only looking for a verbal brawl, but with a plan to expose what he saw as the false head of Sale’s ideas. Kelly set up her tape recorder on a table while Sale sat behind her desk.
The visit was purely professional, recalls Sale. “No meal, no coffee, no special camaraderie,” he says. Sale had prepared for the interview by reading a few issues of WIRED – he had never heard of it before Kelly contacted him – and he expected a tough interview. He later described it as downright “hostile, unpretentious to objective journalism.” (Kelly later called this contradictory, “because he was an adversary, and he probably saw me that way.”) They argued over the Amish, whether the printing presses were stripping. forests and the impact of technology on work. Sale thought he was stealing a decent workforce from people. Kelly responded that technology helps us create new things that we couldn’t do otherwise. “I consider this trivial,” Sale said.
Sale believed that the company was on the verge of collapse. It wasn’t all bad, he argued. He hoped that the few surviving humans would regroup into small tribal-style groups. They wouldn’t just be off the grid. There would be no grid. Which was dandy, as far as Sale was concerned.
“History is full of civilizations that collapsed, followed by people who had other ways of life,” Sale said. “my optimism is based on the certainty that civilization will collapse.
It was the opening Kelly was waiting for. In the last pages of his Luddite book, Sale predicted that society would collapse “within a few decades.” Kelly, who saw technology as a rewarding force, believed the opposite – that the company would thrive. Baiting her trap, Kelly just asked when Sale thought this could happen.
Sale was a little taken aback – he had never set a date. Finally, he let slip 2020. It seemed like a good round number.
Kelly then asked how, in a quarter of a century, it could be determined if Sale was right.
Sale extemporaneously cites three factors: an economic catastrophe that would render the dollar worthless, causing a depression worse than that of 1930; a rebellion of the poor against money; and a significant number of environmental disasters.
“Would you be willing to bet on your point of view?” Kelly asked.
“Of course,” Sale said.
Then Kelly threw her trap. He had come to Sale’s apartment with a check for $ 1,000 drawn on his joint account with this wife. Now he handed it over to his surprised interview topic. “I’ll bet you $ 1,000 that in 2020 we’re not even close to the kind of disaster you’re describing,” he said.