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There’s no shortage of people who want to be the next President of the United States of America. But beyond the big names – the Marco Rubios, Hillary Clintons and Bernie Sanders – there’s a legion of lunatic and joke candidates you probably haven’t heard of.
In 2012, Vermin Supreme ran on the Democrat ticket with a pledge to give every person in America a free pony. In 2008, Jack Sheppard ran for president as a Republican whilst simultaneously running from the law. He was wanted for arson and conducted his campaign from his villa in Rome.
And in 1996, Georgiana Doerschuck ran for president with a pledge to ban all computers from the United States.
Given that you’re quite likely reading this article on a computer, Doerschuck’s campaign was a miserable failure. In the New Hampshire primary, she attracted a mere 140 votes. That’s only 22 more than Billy Joe Clegg, who similarly ran as a Republican in New Hampshire on a platform of replacing the United Nations with a 200-man SWAT team in each country.
I first learned about Doerschuck from a YouTube clip taken from a 1996 PBS documentary called “Why Can’t I Be President”, which looked at the fringe candidates running at the time. At first glance, I thought she looked like a kindly, slightly eccentric older hippy. The clip starts with her running backstrokes in a local municipal pool, before cutting to her vaguely talking about how exercise releases “non-depressant hormone endorphins”. Indeed, a significant chunk of her platform was decidedly environmentalist in nature. Doerschuck wanted to shut down every nuclear power plant in the country and replace them with renewables – hydroelectricity, solar power, and wind turbines.
But her main concern was profoundly luddite in nature. Her first act as President, she said, would be to issue an executive order that bans all computers. Why? She was deeply concerned about the risks posed by electro-magnetic (EM) radiation, which she believed was a cause of cancer.
The effects of computer-borne EM radiation are hotly debated. According to an article published in 2012 in Environmental and Occupational Health, which said that when close to a human body, a laptop produces EM currents that are comfortably within International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) guidelines, but are “not negligible”. Computer power supplies, however, produce EM currents that are 71% to 483% higher than what is suitable for adults. One of the UK’s leading Cancer authorities – Cancer Research UK – however, says there’s “no conclusive link” between electro-magnetic radiation and cancer.
So convinced of the malign effects of computers on the human body, she even promised to be the first person to stop using computers once elected. Despite her opposition to them, she was completely dependent upon them for her publishing business.
Despite investing a significant sum of her own money in her campaign, and even relocating to New Hampshire to be more marketable to the local electorate, she didn’t progress past New Hampshire. She died in Palm Beach, Florida in 2010 at the age of 81.
But Was She Wrong?
It’s really easy to dismiss Georgiana Doerschuck as merely a manifestation of the lunatic fringe of American politics. But that’s the thing – she isn’t. A lot of what she said was very much on-point, and eerily prescient.
In the video interview (which we linked to above) she expresses her distaste and suspicion of the Internet, and makes the case that the Internet could later result in a loss of liberty and invade the privacy of ordinary citizens.
For the most part, that’s happened. Many western intelligence agencies have been accused of running massive – often illegal – surveillance programs. GCHQ has KARMA POLICE and MUTANT BROTH, the NSA has Prism, and Canada’s CSE possesses a sophisticated array of cyber-weaponry.
She also said that the Internet “smacks of serfdom”. That’s hard to argue with, too. Although it’s provided us with countless opportunities, the Internet has enabled the creation of a “gig economy” that’s turned previously-salaried workers into easily discarded “independent contractors”, who enjoy scant protections. For Uber and Lyft drivers, TaskRabbits and Handy cleaners, there’s little job security. Wages aren’t guaranteed, and there’s no entitlement to a weekend or paid vacation.
The entire concept of the value of labor has been fundamentally cheapened to something that can be summoned from a Smartphone and costs $20.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying computers should be banned. That’s obviously insane. But the effects of computers and the Internet on our society haven’t been entirely positive, and it’s important to realize that.
Who Else Hates Computers?
Interestingly, Doerschuck isn’t the only person with aims of getting rid of computers. Throughout history, many governments and organizations have held a healthy suspicion of tech.
Take the tiny Kingdom of Bhutan, for example, which sits snugly between India and China in the undulating Himalayan mountains. As nations go, Bhutan is an aberration.
It doesn’t measure the development of the country in terms of Gross National Product, but rather Gross National Happiness. Most people live a simple, rural lifestyle, and until 2008 the country was run under the absolute control of the Dragon King Jigme Wangchuk. And prior to 1999, television and the Internet were banned for fear of them diluting the nation’s closely held cultural values.
The country’s Internet and Email service were launched by Queen Ashi Wangchuk, and a new ISP was launched, called Druknet. Although due to the rugged and unforgiving terrain of the country, rollout was slow. To this day, only 29% of Bhutanese have access to the Internet, according to the International Telecommunications Union.
And in 2013, the State of Florida accidentally banned all computers and smartphones, thanks to some poorly written legislation designed to prevent users of Internet cafes from accessing gambling websites.
It’s also worth pointing out that opposition to the Internet – and computers in general – has manifested itself in violent acts. In the 1980s, the French Anarchist group CLODO (Committee for Liquidation and Subversion of Computers, or Comité Liquidant ou Détournant les Ordinateurs) firebombed the offices of Sperry UNIVAC, who were at the time a major computer manufacturer. They were motivated by fears that computerized data processing could eventually become a tool used to suppress dissent. In a statement released to the French media, they said, “The computer is the favorite tool of the dominant. It is used to exploit, to put on file, to control, and to repress.”
An Opened Pandora’s Box
Of course, there’s no way computers could ever be banned. Not in 1996. Definitely not in 2015. We’re simply too dependent on them. We live in a networked world where every single industry is, in some way, computerized. This is a Pandora’s Box that has been irreversibly opened.
But can we use computers in a way that doesn’t “smack of tyranny”, and doesn’t “smack of serfdom”? I think so. What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.