The anarcho-primitivist who wants us all to give up technology

by Roc Morin, June 25, 2014

Portrait by bata Nesha, Belgrade, 2013.
Portrait of John Zerzan by bata Nesha. Belgrade, 2013.

"Whenever I think of [inventor of the computer] Alan Turing, I think about the Apple logo," began John Zerzan. "The logo is an apple with a bite out of it. Of course, Turing supposedly smeared cyanide on an apple and bit into it after being persecuted by the government for being gay. A bite from an apple is also associated with our expulsion from the Garden of Eden. I don’t think that’s quite the message they’re trying to convey, but there it is."

I had arranged an interview with arguably the world’s most prominent anti-technology philosopher via email. The interview was to be conducted via Skype. At the appointed time, Zerzan’s voice leapt across the continent—from Eugene, Oregon to New York City in the fraction of a second. He was smiling when his face flashed onto the monitor. I smiled back and looked into his eyes—before catching myself. The irony of Skype, of course, is that in order to actually make eye contact with someone, you have to ignore their eyes and look into the camera instead.

VICE: You advocate for all of civilization to abandon technology and return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. How do you feel about the Skype call that we’re having right now?

John Zerzan: I was on the Art Bell show years ago and he kept saying that to be consistent with my philosophy, I should live in a cave. I said, "Yeah, you’re right, but then this conversation wouldn’t be possible." You have to try to connect with people. You have to be part of the conversation in society or else you’re not serious.

So, is that the only reason that you don’t go live in the wilderness?

Well, I guess so, although I would have to say that, like most people, I’m pretty damned domesticated. I enjoy when I’m out there, but I’m not as equipped as some people.

Have you had periods where you have lived off the grid?

Not really, though I’ve gone to the mountains for a few days at a time.

And when you went there, did you get a sense of what your life in the city is missing?

Sure, you unplug and connect with nature. It’s one thing to write about it, but you need to be out there in it too. We're not going to have a transition [to a hunter-gatherer existence] until we learn how to do without technology and civilization. There are practical things that need to be tackled.

How do you think you would fare during the transition with your skill set?

You know, I’m 70. I lift weights, but as far as actually having primitive skills I’m pretty deficient. If [civilization] crashed overnight we’d all be in trouble. We’re so dependent on technology for everything—even the simplest things.

Though that dependence and interconnectivity would seem to make a collapse more likely, right? There would be a domino effect.

I think so. They say that if one satellite fails then they’ll all start falling. But that doesn’t mean that people wouldn’t go ahead and try and put everything right back up again.

How can you convince people to give up technology?

It won’t happen unless people get tired of more and more mediation. If you’re going to be content to be a zombie staring at your little screen, of course nothing will happen. I’m hopeful that people are going to find that pretty dull.

When did you have your epiphany about all of this?

I didn’t have one epiphany. I began to see that there is an intentionality to technology. It isn’t just some neutral thing. The Industrial Revolution wasn’t just about economics. As Foucault says, it was more about imposing discipline. It started to dawn on me, maybe technology has always been that way. People are not yet thinking too much about it, but Hollywood is thinking about it. Look at Her. Look at Transcendence. These are amazing movies that just put it right on the table. You want more technology? You want to be absolutely dehumanized and humiliated? This is what it looks like.