Rage against the machine

Neo-Luddite author Nicols Fox's pious embrace of the simple life makes technological utopianism look good.

Published February 3, 2003 3:34PM (EST)

Calling a product or idea "innovative" has become such a mark of praise, it's easy to forget that for most of the world's history, it was anything but. Until only a couple of hundred years ago, "revolution" meant motion like a spinning top: Things went around and came back to the same place they were before. Everything worth preserving or fighting for was "ancient," while everything "new" tended to mean trouble.

All that began to change in the 18th century, when big upheavals -- a political one in America, and a commercial, industrial one in Britain -- began to shake up just about every aspect of human life around the globe. Sensible people used to know that not all revolutions deliver what they promise, and all revolutions, of every kind, bring unintended consequences. The good they do never comes without a heavy price.

Nicols Fox's new book, "Against the Machine: The Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art, and Individual Lives," is split between two entirely distinct impulses. One is a sensible skepticism regarding the continuing fast pace of technological revolution. The other is a destructive rebellion against progress that's become increasingly influential among those disillusioned with the effects of change.

Fox's book combines personal commentary and narrative with a broad analysis of the resistance to technology that appears in the writings of 19th century Romantics, American transcendentalism, John Ruskin, William Morris and the Arts and Crafts tradition, environmentalism and the back to the land movement. It starts off with an appeal to common sense. If more people thought about the changes in the way we work, play, worship, socialize and eat that have occurred over the last 200 years, we'd see just how shoddy many of them are, she argues.

To take an easy example, compare the leisurely midday Mediterranean siesta to the burger passed through the drive-in window. We call the latter "convenience" -- but whose convenience are we really talking about? Our own, or that of our employers, who get to squeeze more work hours out of us in the interest of ever-increasing productivity?

The principle can be usefully extended to almost any facet of life, and Fox is at her best when she sticks to showing how the official ideology of progress prevents us from even asking whether these changes are worthwhile. The numerical "standard of living" (a measure of how much we can buy with the money we make) so often fails to reflect the true of quality of life, for example. Sometimes it seems as if they're inversely proportional. As our consumption and material wealth increase, so do other quantifiable indexes of our discontent -- the billions spent on drugs, therapies and treatments for stress, anxiety, depression, addiction, as well as on substitute gratifications like pornography. People complain about contemporary life, about working harder but feeling less rewarded, but few of us do anything about it.

Few of us know how to begin. We literally can't afford any serious reflection on the equations of technology with progress and of consumption with happiness. Our national prosperity is based on both. We are the buyer of last resort for all the world's exports, egged on by the extension of dubious consumer credit. When you search for alternatives and find them too costly to be viable -- If you don't have a car, how will you get to work? How will you buy your necessities if they're only sold at chain superstores on the highway? -- the point is really rammed home.

Then there's what this cycle of continuous growth does to the natural world. All of the basic resources that sustain life -- from air to water to soil to fisheries -- are threatened. As with the Social Security system, if business as usual continues, if either technological advance or new models of producing and consuming don't emerge, we're going to use it all up.

And here's where we arrive at the second impulse running through Fox's book -- the revolt against progress that has inspired an effort to reclaim the term "Luddite."

People usually deny being a Luddite just before launching into any criticism of technology. The historical Luddites didn't just resist machines, they smashed them. Literally. The Luddites were a group of highly skilled English weavers who attacked the mechanized looms that were about to replace their craft traditions and turn them into unskilled laborers. Their protest, beginning in 1811, lasted for several years before being snuffed out at the gallows. It didn't stop the rise of the factory system, but it created a potent and lasting legend.

It's easy to see the Luddites' appeal to critics of technology who've grown frustrated with the industrial free market system. The Luddites identified the cause of their troubles, and acted. They attacked machines, not people, and they only resorted to violence when peaceful attempts to preserve their way of life failed.

The acknowledged guiding influence of "Against the Machine" is Kirkpatrick Sale's "Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution: Lessons for the Computer Age," an important tract that helped inspire a highly visible wing of the anti-globalization movement, dubbed "eco-terrorists" by the media. Sale, a self-proclaimed "tribal anarcho-communalist," believes that after civilization's impending and inevitable collapse, self-sufficient tribes will settle in distinct bio-regions marked out by natural groupings of flora and fauna.

Sale's book was released in 1995 when the techno-utopianism of the emerging Internet culture and economy was on the rise, and it gave him a certain celebrity. Generally presented as a curiosity -- Here's a man who actually calls himself a Luddite, and he goes around smashing computers with a sledgehammer! -- Sale proved a savvy media presence with a formidable analysis of machine-age culture. He presented a clear and compelling case and wasn't afraid to draw big conclusions.

Although his criticism of industrial civilization was thoroughgoing and his rejection total, Sale's prescriptions for action were pleasingly broad-based. Protest could range from direct action (the scene in "Fight Club" in which the space monkeys of Project Mayhem hurled a work of corporate art into an upscale coffee bar is a good example of the kind of thing he had in mind) to organic farming, or something as simple as throwing out your own television.

By including all sorts of technological resistance under his broad umbrella, Sale managed to lay claim to two entirely distinct forms of dissent. There is his appeal to common sense: Look at your life and ask yourself if material progress is the same thing as a good life. And then there is his solution: Dismember civilization, sooner rather than later, because it is an affront to the Earth. In an age when the media offers few alternatives to a crack-brained belief in progress as good in itself, extremism presents itself as the only viable solution.

Here's where Fox's book starts to run into real confusion. The problem with the supposedly "hidden" Luddite tradition is that it can be neatly divided into a sensible skepticism about progress that is really, after all, the mainstream of our liberal arts tradition, and environmental extremism. Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats loved nature and hated the machine -- but they weren't rebels against the future. They were complex artists whose enthusiasm for the French Revolution was tempered by their awareness of the unintended consequences of all revolutions. This balancing act is the very essence of a liberal arts culture that aimed to preserve what was good from the past without slighting our aspirations for the future, using each to inform the other.

Alas, this culture is being picked apart -- by Internet age techno-utopianism on one hand, and Earth-worshipping pseudo-religion on the other. By yoking it together willy-nilly with environmental extremism, Fox compromises the essence of liberal humanism. Even the bitter pessimism of Henry Adams is not the same as the contempt for mass humanity that surfaced in Martin Heidegger or Robinson Jeffers, one of the founding spirits of the deep ecology movement. While the Romantics wanted to preserve humankind's spirit against the machine, Jeffers wanted the earth to exact a terrible vengeance on mankind. In 1940, Jeffers wrote poems in praise of the coming war, which he hoped would sweep away the blight of humanity.

Although he is careful to gloss it over, Sale's vision of bio-regionalism -- and all forms of deep ecology -- necessarily assumes a massive reduction of the human population. Billions will have to die to achieve his ideal society. But Sale's appeal lies less in his dark prophecies than in the comforts that he offers, the fact that his bleak calm justifies political passivity. To Sale, there is nothing more self-defeating or foolish than the notion of "sustainable development." If civilization is doomed, then there is no sense in trying to save it, and we needn't fear the coming disasters. In our end is our beginning.

Fox strikes me as a well-intentioned person (if somewhat inclined to self-absorption and piety) whose sound criticism of our industrial and technical society slips too easily into the extremism of Sale and his ilk. "Against the Machine" credulously buys into Sale's apocalyptic vision of the future and wallows in the quietism that vision encourages. You can see this in the banality of Fox's solutions to the crisis of machine civilization.

For Fox, Luddism amounts to hanging her washing instead of using a machine, keeping a small television in her closet "for emergencies" ("Joe Millionaire"?), using a hand coffee grinder "from Germany" and generally (one suspects) being a highly selective pain in the ass. ("I'm forced to use a computer," she writes, "and I dislike every moment of it.") Fox advocates each and every one of us deciding our comfort level with technology in our own lives, since purity is impossible. She insists this will make a difference, although nothing else in her book supports this.

This "lifestyle Luddism" resembles the thinking of the "simplicity movement," which espouses a philosophy that talks a lot about spirit and magic, but inevitably ends up in a lot of expensive handmade kitsch. (Real Simple, the glossy consumer magazine, seems like a fat target dreamed up by a satirist -- but there it is at a Borders near you.) Fox's mystical yearnings are apparent in her portrait of Bill Coperthwaite, who lives in a yurt, a round house used by Mongolians, in Maine. She effuses about a grove of trees: "We are shown a grove of trees near where Dan and Iris plan to build a house one day. He calls it magical, and the word has a certain resonance." (Let me guess -- a "magical" resonance, right?) Later, she rhapsodizes about his living space, with its "simple elegance," "Door handles are beautifully polished pieces of wood. Everything speaks of a certain patience: the ability to wait for the right piece of wood, the perfect object, the strength to spurn the unnecessary, the inferior, the ugly. Selectivity is the key to life."

The curious thing about this supposed rejection of materialism is how much overwhelming power it accords to material things. Fox has adopted Sale's critique and turned it into a rationale for an alternative consumerism. Instead of doing the hard work of building political consensus to support public transportation, green spaces, alternative energy and similar projects, we can all spend our days in the yurt, polishing doorknobs. Fox's brand of Luddism will have no effect at all on the survival prospects of the Earth, but it may swell the pockets of the advertisers in Real Simple magazine. It amounts to a form of self-absorbed therapy that substitutes self-righteousness and renunciation for booze, Prozac or television -- and I'm not sure which is worse.

Sale may be right in his pessimism. There is plenty of hard evidence to support his case. Then again, the techno-utopians who believe that creating an artificial nature through bioengineering, nanotechnology and cyberspace is our only salvation may be right.

But I'd like to propose that maybe those poets who constitute the mainstream of the liberal arts tradition and who are sorely misrepresented in Fox's book had it just about right. The techno-utopians and the Luddites both share a belief that the future is already determined and out of our hands. This is the great fallacy that liberal humanism in its best moments has always stood against. Hard and intractable problems require careful scrutiny, severe criticism and worldly engagement. As Robert Frost once wrote, the only way around is through.

By Wesley Yang

Wesley Yang lives just outside of New York.

MORE FROM Wesley Yang

Related Topics ------------------------------------------