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Pulling the Plug on Modernity

There's a new crop in America's rural pockets, 'home-comers' who trade high-tech for horse and buggy. One neo-Luddite has launched a magazine to bridge the two worlds.

March 20, 1997|JUDY PASTERNAK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BARNESVILLE, Ohio — For a moment, the scene was an Amish country classic. Against a backdrop of wheat-colored hills, muscular branches laid bare by winter faded into feathery twigs. A standard-bred trotter, pulling an old-fashioned buggy, clopped along the road out of town.

Then, without warning, the horse lurched to the left and halted. "C'mon, Ned," urged the driver, his plea emerging from above a scraggly beard and below a black, broad-brimmed hat.

Even loud lip-smacking noises failed to budge the horse. He stood riveted by the sight of a gray-striped cat lazing in adjacent pastureland. Ned was terrified.

The situation cried out for an experienced hand. But while often mistaken for one of his Anabaptist neighbors, Scott Savage, 37, was hardly to the buggy born. Ned had become his mode of transport just a few months earlier, another step in an ongoing transformation.

Six years ago, Savage was an ordinary guy, a lapsed Presbyterian who worked as a librarian in the Cleveland suburbs. He took credit for putting the local card catalog online.

Now he functions as a sort of emissary from the century's beginning to those of us at century's end. He has all but abandoned the modern technoscape, fleeing pagers, faxes and the Internet. He wrenched himself away from in-flight telephones, talking dashboards and tinny wristwatch alarms. Little by little, he shed TV, cameras, tape recorders. He gave the radio to Goodwill.

"What's a movie, Daddy?" Tasha, the oldest of his three children, wondered recently. She is 6.

Although Savage took on many Amish customs after moving here, he is eager to explain himself to the rest of the world. And unlike the Unabomb terrorist, who tried to spread his anti-technology message through violence, Savage's sole weapon is the word. The dispatches in the provocative magazine he edits make thousands ponder whether machines control humans, rather than the other way around.

Other writers, including Kirkpatrick Sale and Clifford Stoll, sounded similar alarms in recent years about the advent of the digital world. But only Savage has so fully divested himself of the trappings of the day. "He sets an example," Sale said.

Some, heartened, are following; Savage says that in Ohio alone over the last two years, several hundred outsiders have taken up the old ways, Amish in style if seldom in religion. They decided that technology is so pervasive today that it takes drastic change to escape.

Savage is convinced that, unplugged, his family has tapped into a more gratifying existence, retrieving lost values of community and spirit. "Every time we make some sacrifice and do something hard," he said, "we get a major gift."

Lose National Public Radio, rediscover singing. Lose electric bulbs, find twilight and dawn.

His magazine, called Plain, extols the virtues of paring down and gives advice on how to do it. Ballantine plans to publish an anthology from its pages this year.

Over the summer, Savage organized a conference for neo-Luddites (the originals were weavers who smashed power looms in 1812 as England industrialized).

In rare instances, he also has entered the enemy's arena, from the fortress-like compound where the state of Ohio stores computer data to the vegetarian lunchroom at San Francisco's Wired magazine. There, he engaged the acolytes of high tech in debate that left many of them unnerved.

He argues that each person has a range of choices about machines and each choice has social consequences. Should computer skills be taught to kindergartners? Why, really, is an ATM better than a human teller? There may be valid answers, he says, but the questions should be asked.

Unbridled Engineering

A strain of concern about unbridled engineering entered American consciousness in the late 1960s, according to Alan Marcus, an Iowa State University professor who wrote a history of technology. "Small is Beautiful," by E.F. Schumacher, was the movement's seminal text.

These days, "anecdotally, it's getting stronger," said Steve Cisler, Apple Computer's outreach director. In an age of cloned sheep and online pornography, he said, "the pace has picked up so much."

Savage gets more than 50 letters a week, from California, New York and points in between. Many deride him as a crank: "To blame technology for the difficulty humanity finds itself in today is, in my view, a tragic blunder--a blunder that leads to many self-contradictions."

More offer heartfelt gratitude. "For most of my life I have felt very alone in my belief that all this technology is not good for us," one reader wrote.

"You are giving voice to very deep feelings about what is wrong with society and more importantly, offering hope and vision about what can be done," another wrote.

A handful even pulled up stakes and settled here, where the slow rise to Appalachia begins. Although few have gone as far as Savage, they think carefully about what they jettison and what they keep. They tend to dress in dark colors and modest cuts.

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