The Ones Who DisappearS

Some of the greatest minds in high tech have given up the basics of internet life. Kevin Kelly, a founder of Wired magazine and the Long Now Foundation, reports that computer programming sage Donald Knuth no longer does e-mail. What happens when Knuth, the author of seminal trilogy The Art of Computer Programming, won't even participate in one of the world's most popular uses for computer programs (i.e., e-mail)? Apparently, he gets more done. Another programming genius, free software revolutionary Richard Stallman, refuses to use the web. He uses text-based browser Lynx and e-mail to retrieve pages he wants to see. Now Kelly is asking what happens to highly technical people like Knuth and Stallman who eschew popular computer technologies.

Kelly writes on his blog:

I am interested in heavily mediated folks who drop out. Not partially, only once in a while, on sabbatical, but drop off the internet completely. Are they happy now? Don Knuth seems happy and productive. How do others manage? Do they become a recluse, like the Unabomber? Do they form communities with the like minded? Or, are internet drops so rare that they are simple statistical outliers?

It makes sense to me that some of the most fervent digital dropouts would be people whose livelihoods (and lives) are so deeply bound up with technology. First of all, eradicating your identity online can be tough, so some technical background will be required. But more importantly, people who spend all their time with computers are going to take their slow technical obsolescence the hardest. Watching your favorite machines become outmoded is demoralizing, as is watching your favorite computer language or operating system wither away.

I think Knuth and Stallman are probably just the bleeding edge of a trend we're going to see more of as highly plugged-in generations of people age. Some will begin to reject the technologies around them, while others will fetishize retro computers. Either way, we're going to see gadgets and computer networks come to have generational values: There will be legacy systems for the elderly, while young people claim new systems as their own.

Neo-Amish Dropouts [via The Technium]