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

In the mid-2000s, Sale cofounded the Middlebury Institute to promote the idea of secession. If states peeled off from the union, the theory went, Sale’s decentralized vision might get a little closer to reality. He was disappointed that the movement did not gain steam when George W. Bush was reelected. His romance with decentralization even led him to a blinkered view of the Confederacy, which he lauded for its commitment to concentrating power locally. (Sale told The New York Times he would personally prefer to live in the independent state of Hudsonia, a territory that would include New York City and the Hudson River Valley.)

Sale remained convinced that civilization was doomed. Years earlier he had advised his two daughters not to have children; they ignored him. Now he had an adult granddaughter to whom he’d one day likely offer the same advice. “She’ll probably ignore me too,” he told an interviewer this year.

So Kelly should not have been surprised at what Sale had to say in March 2019, on their first contact in decades. Collapse is coming, he said. Then Sale shared the news that he was writing a book about the bet.

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The book is called The Collapse of 2020—and yes, the neo-Luddite’s latest work is available on Kindle. In fact, Sale has made compromises with technology. He recently moved back to Ithaca with his wife to be near family. He does have a computer, as well as a printer, a land line, a stove, two televisions, and four radios. He draws the line at microwaves and smartphones. Despite believing that social media has “a visible deleterious effect,” he has a public Facebook page.

In May 2020, Sale and Kelly settled on the terms of the decision. Their editor, Bill Patrick, would name the winner. Kelly proposed that Patrick wait until the last day of the year to issue his verdict, giving civilization every possible chance to self-destruct. Kelly wrote up a four-page essay to press his case. Sale suggested that Patrick read his book. But Patrick had free rein in making the determination.

When Sale and Kelly made the bet, they had assumed that by 2020 the winner would be obvious. Maybe all it would take was a look around: Is civilization still here, or not? It clearly is still kicking around. But the pandemic, its economic consequences, and the worsening climate crisis have made things interesting. What would Patrick say?

Bill Patrick lives outside of Boston, editing, ghostwriting, and book-doctoring on a freelance basis. He’s long since left his old job at the textbook publisher where he’d gotten to know Kelly and Sale. But when Kelly asked him if he still had the checks from the 25-year-old bet, he knew just where to look. He pulled open a file cabinet in his home office, flipped to a manila folder, and there were the two checks, preserved in a ziplock bag.

Patrick has his own views on technology. “I’m from the ’60s,” he says. “When computers came along, I did not view them as the next wave of liberation.” He appreciates the beauty of engineering but disdains what he feels is the arrogance of technology people. “And now the evils are very apparent,” he says. He is not on Facebook and uses a simple cell phone, not a smartphone.

In assessing the bet, he took a judicial stance, viewing his role more as a critical reader of the two men’s arguments than as an assessor of the world. “I am not an oracle,” he says. “I’m just me.” He decided to stick to the terms Sale had suggested on the fly on March 6, 1995. Even if it wasn’t quite fair to Sale. Patrick had a lot of sympathy for his point of view, but he felt that Sale’s extremism hurt his cause. “I wish Kirk had taken more time to become a better informed critic,” he says, adding that his broad dismissal of technology left him out of touch with reality. More relevant to the bet, though, was the way Sale had rashly agreed to terms that made victory contingent on worst-case scenarios. “Kirk was naive to accept on the spot,” he says.

Sale says that, even in retrospect, he couldn’t have come up with a better answer. “I said ‘collapse’ at dinner parties, but no one ever asked me to be specific,” he says. Moreover, Sales’ Collapse of 2020 book, which came out last January, includes an untimely concession. The very fact that his book exists, he wrote, is the equivalent of tossing his cards face down on the table: If society had in fact collapsed, there would be no books, self-published or not. “So let me just admit that I was wrong,” he wrote. “But … not by much. And not totally.” Yet shortly after the book appeared, global events seemed to tilt in Sale’s favor. The pandemic’s effect on physical and economic health, Donald Trump’s destabilization of democracy, and ever more extreme weather nudged civilization closer to the precipice. Could it be that while we haven’t retreated to caves and hovels, Sale’s predictions have landed in the ballpark of reality?

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