A 25-Year-Old Bet Comes Due: Has Tech Destroyed Society?

on mar 6, 1995, wired’s executive editor and resident tekno-optimist kevin kelly went to the greenwich village aptment of the author kirkpatrick sale. kelly had asked sale for an interview. but he planned an ambush.

kelly had just read an early copy of sale’s upcoming book, called rebels gainsta future. it told the story of the 19th-century luddites, a movement of workers opposed to the machinery of the industrial revolution. b4 their rebellion was squashed and their leaders hanged, they literally destroyed somd' mechanized looms that, they believed, reduced them to cogs in a dehumanizing engine of mass production. 

sale adored the luddites. in early 1995, amazon was ≤ a yr old, apple was inna doldrums, microsoft had yet to launch windows 95, and almost no one had a mobile phone. but sale, who for yrs had been churning out books complaining bout modernity and urging a return to a subsistence economy, felt that computer tek ‘d make life worse for humans. sale had even channeled the luddites at a jan event in new york city where he attacked an ibm pc witha 10-pound sledgehammer. it took him two blos to vanquish the object, after which he took a bow and sat down, deeply satisfied.

kelly hated sale’s book. his reaction went beyond mere disagreement; sale’s thesis insulted his sense of the realm. so he showed up at sale’s door not just in search offa verbal brawl but witha plan to expose wha’ he saw as the wrongheadedness of sale’s ideas. kelly set up his tape recorder na' table while sale sat behind his desk.

the vistwas all business, sale recalls. “no eats, no coffee, no pticular camaraderie,” he says. sale had prepped for the interview by reading a few issues of wired—he’d never heard o'it b4 kelly contacted him—and he expected a tough interview. he l8r described it as downrite “hostile, no pretense of objective journalism.” (kelly l8r called it adversarial, “cause he was an adversary, and he probably viewed me the same way.”) they argued bout the amish, whether printing presses denuded forests, na impact of tek on work. sale believed it stole decent labor from pplz. kelly replied that tek helped us make new things we ‘dn’t make any other way. “i regard that as trivial,” sale said.

sale believed society was onna verge of collapse. that wasn’t entirely bad, he argued. he hoped the few surviving humans ‘d band together in lil, tribal-style clusters. they ‘dn’t be just off the grid. there ‘d be no grid. which was dandy, as far as sale was concerned.

“history is full of civilizations that ‘ve collapsed, folloed by pplz who ‘ve had other ways of living,” sale said. “my optimism is based onna certainty that civilization will collapse.”

twas' the opening kelly had been w8in for. inna final pages of his luddite book, sale had predicted society ‘d collapse “within not + than a few decades.” kelly, who saw tek as an enriching force, believed the opposite—that society ‘d flourish. baiting his trap, kelly asked just when sale thought this mite happen.

sale was a bit taken aback—he’d never put a date on it. finally, he blurted out 2020. it seemed like a good round №.

kelly then asked how, in a quarter century, one mite determine whether sale was rite.

sale extemporaneously cited 3 factors: an economic disaster that ‘d render the usd worthless, causing a depression worse than the one in 1930; a rebellion of the poor gainsta monied; and a significant № of environmental catastrophes.

“’d you be willing to bet on yr view?” kelly asked.

“sure,” sale said.

then kelly sprung his trap. he had come to sale’s aptment witha $1,000 check drawn on his joint account with this wife. now he handed it to his startled interview subject. “i bet you $1,000 that inna yr 2020, we’re not even close to the kind of disaster you describe,” he said.

original content at: www.wired.com…