On a busy Sunday, a group of teens gathered on the steps of the Central Library at Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza to begin the weekly gathering of the Luddite Club, a high school group promoting a lifestyle of self-liberation from social media and technology. As the dozen teenagers walked into Prospect Park, they hid their iPhones — or, in the case of the most devout members, their flip phones, some decorated with stickers and nail polish.
They marched up a hill to their usual spot, a mound of dirt far from the crowds of the park. Among them was Odille Zexter-Kaiser, a senior at Edward R. Murrow High School in Midwood, who trudged through leaves in Doc Martens and mismatched wool socks.
“It’s a bit frowned upon when someone doesn’t show up,” Odille said. “We’re here every Sunday, rain or shine, even snow. We don’t keep in touch, so you have to show up.”
After gathering logs to form a circle, club members sat and retreated into a bubble of serenity.
Some drew in sketchbooks. Others painted with a watercolor box. One of them closed his eyes to listen to the wind. Many read intently—the books in their knapsacks included Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Art Spiegelman’s Mouse II, and The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. Club members name outspoken writers like Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Kerouac as heroes, and they have a fondness for Works that condemn technology, like Kurt Vonnegut’s “Player Piano.” Arthur the bespectacled PBS aardvark is their mascot.
“A lot of us have read this book called ‘Into the Wild,'” said Lola Shub, a senior at Essex Street Academy, referring to Jon Krakauer’s 1996 nonfiction book about nomad Chris McCandless, who died as he tried to make a living from farming the Alaskan wilderness. “We all have this theory that we shouldn’t just be limited to buildings and work. And this guy experienced life. True life. Social media and phones are not real life.”
“When I got my clamshell phone, things changed immediately,” Lola continued. “I started using my brain. It made me look at myself as a person. I also tried to write a book. It’s about 12 pages now.”
Club members briefly discussed how the spread of their Luddite gospel works. The club was founded last year by another Murrow High School student, Logan Lane, and is named after Ned Ludd, the folkloric 18th-century English textile worker.
“I just held the first successful Luddite meeting in Beacon,” said Biruk Watling, a senior at Beacon High School in Manhattan, who uses a clamshell phone painted green with a picture of a Fugees-era Lauryn Hill taped to the top.
“I hear there’s talk of spreading at Brooklyn Tech,” said another.
A few members took a moment to extol the benefits of becoming a Luddite.
Jameson Butler, a student in a Black Flag T-shirt carving a piece of wood with a penknife, explained: “I’ve sorted out who I want to be friends with. Now it takes work for me to maintain friendships. A few reached out when I picked up the iPhone and said, “I don’t like texting you anymore because your texts are green.” That said a lot to me.”
Vee De La Cruz, who had a copy of WEB Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, said: “You post something on social media, you don’t get enough likes, it doesn’t make you feel good. This shouldn’t have to happen to anyone. Being at this club reminds me that we are all living on a floating rock and everything is going to be alright.”
A few days before the gathering, after the 3 p.m. release at Murrow High School, a flood of students poured out of the building onto the street. Many of them were staring at their smartphones, but not Logan, the 17-year-old founder of the Luddite Club.
She was down the block from school at a Chock full o’Nuts coffee shop for an interview. She wore a loose corduroy jacket and quilted jeans that she had sewn herself with a Singer sewing machine.
“We’re having trouble recruiting members,” she said, “but we don’t mind. We all connected through this unique thing. There’s something of an outsider about being in the Luddite club.” She added, “But I wasn’t always a Luddite, of course.”
It all started during lockdown, she said, when her use of social media took a worrying turn.
“I was completely consumed,” she said. “I could not a notice post a good picture if you have one. And I had this online personality of ‘I don’t care’, but I actually did. I was definitely still watching everything.”
Eventually, too burned out to scroll past another perfect Instagram selfie, she deleted the app.
“But that wasn’t enough,” she said. “So I put my phone in a box.”
As a teenager, she first experienced life in the city without an iPhone. She borrowed novels from the library and read them alone in the park. She first admired graffiti while riding the subway, and then met a bunch of teenagers who were teaching her how to spray paint at a Queens railroad yard. And she started waking up at 7 a.m. with no alarm and no longer falling asleep at midnight by the glow of her phone. Once, as she later wrote in a text entitled “Luddite Manifesto,” she dreamed of throwing her iPhone into the Gowanus Canal.
While Logan’s parents appreciated her transformation, particularly that she regularly came home for dinner to share stories of her wanderings, they became distressed that they couldn’t check on their daughter on a Friday night. And after she conveniently lost the smartphone she was supposed to be taking with her to Paris for a summer program abroad, they were in despair. Eventually, they insisted that she at least start carrying a clamshell phone.
“I still long for not having a phone at all,” she said. “My parents are so addicted. My mom took to Twitter and I saw her tears up. But I think I also like it because I feel a little superior to them.”
At an all-ages punk show, she met a teenager with a clamshell phone, and they bonded over their worldview. “She was only a freshman and I couldn’t believe how well read she was,” Logan said. “We walked around the park with cider and donuts and shared our Luddite experiences. That was the first meeting of the Luddite Club.” That early compatriot, Jameson Butler, remains a member.
When school resumed classes, Logan began preaching her gospel in Murrow’s fluorescently lit halls. First, she convinced Odille to become Luddite. Then max. Then Klem. She hung homemade posters telling the story of Ned Ludd on hallways and classroom walls.
At a club fair, it was quiet all day at their convocation table, but little by little the group began to grow. Today the club has about 25 members, and the Murrow Branch meets at school every Tuesday. It welcomes students who haven’t given up their iPhones yet, and challenges them to ignore their devices for the hour-long meeting (lest they draw the frowns of the die-hards). At Sunday gatherings in the park, Luddites often set up hammocks to read in when the weather is nice.
As Logan was recounting the club’s origin story over an almond croissant in the café, a new member, Julian, stopped by. Though he hasn’t switched to a flip phone yet, he said he’s already benefiting from the group’s message. He then taunted Logan for a criticism a student had made about the club.
“One kid said it was great,” he said. “I think the club is nice because I get a break from my phone but I get their point. Some of us need technology to be included in society. Some of us need a phone.”
“We’re getting a backlash,” Logan replied. “The argument I’ve heard is that we’re a bunch of rich kids and to expect everyone to drop their phones is privileged.”
After Julian left, Logan admitted that she had wrestled with the matter and that the issue had sparked some heated debates among club members.
“I was really disheartened when I heard the classic thing and almost ready to say goodbye to the club,” she said. “However, I spoke to my advisor and he told me that most revolutions actually start with people from hardworking backgrounds, like Che Guevara. We don’t expect everyone to have a flip phone. The only problem we see is with mental health and screen use.”
Logan had to go home to meet a tutor, so she went to the subway. With her senior year approaching and the pressures of adulthood looming, she’s also pondered what leaving high school might mean for her Luddite way.
“If this is the only time in my life that I can do that, then I’ll make it count,” she said. “But I really hope it won’t end.”
On a leafy street in Cobble Hill, she entered her family’s townhouse, where she was greeted by a goldendoodle named Phoebe, and she hurried upstairs to her room. The decor reflected her interests: there were stacks of books, graffiti walls, and in addition to the sewing machine, a Royal manual typewriter and Sony cassette player.
Downstairs in the living room, her father, Seth Lane, an executive who works in IT, sat by a fireplace and talked about his daughter’s journey.
“I’m proud of them and what the club represents,” he said. “But there’s also the parent, and we don’t know where our child is. You follow your children now. They follow her. It’s a little Orwellian I guess, but we’re the helicopter parent generation. When they got rid of the iPhone, that initially presented a problem for us.”
He’d heard about the Luddite Club’s hand-wringing over privilege.
“Well, getting people to have smartphones is classy, isn’t it?” Mister. Lane said. “I think it’s a great conversation they’re having. There is no right answer.”
A few days later, as the Luddite Club Sunday meeting in Prospect Park drew to a close, some of the teenagers packed away their sketchbooks and dog-eared paperbacks while others put out a tiny fire they had started. It was Clementine Karlin-Pustilnik’s 17th birthday and to celebrate the club wanted to take her to dinner at a Thai restaurant on Fort Hamilton Parkway.
Night fell over the park as the teens walked through the cold and exchanged high school gossip. But when the topic of college admissions came up, a certain tension seemed to settle in the air. Club members shared updates on the schools they had applied to across the country. Odille reported that she was accepted into Purchase at the State University of New York.
“They could definitely start a Luddite club there, I bet,” said Elena Scherer, a Murrow senior.
They took a shortcut and walked down a lonely path that had no park lanterns. Their conversation came alive as they discussed the poetry of Lewis Carroll, the piano compositions of Ravel, and the evils of TikTok. Elena pointed to the night sky.
“Look,” she said. “It’s a growing gibbus. That means it’s getting bigger.”
As they marched through the darkness, the only light that shone on their faces was that of the moon.