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Resistance Is Feudal

Brian Hayes

Against the Machine: The Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art, and Individual Lives. Nicols Fox. xviii + 405 pp. Island Press/Shearwater Books, 2002. $25.

Midway through Against the Machine, Nicols Fox tells a story about renting a car in California and going off "to see something of the countryside."

On reading this passage, my first thought was: When your only view of the countryside is through the windshield of a rental car, maybe you shouldn't be surprised if all you see is roadside attractions. But beyond this quibble, I find Fox's anecdote unsettling for a deeper reason. She seems to regard any evidence of human influence on the landscape as an intrusion, an invasion, a scarring, a spoiling, a violation. Moreover, she apparently considers this judgment so obvious and self-evident that there is no need to defend it, as if all her readers will immediately assent to it. But is that true? Do we all so thoroughly dislike signs of our own presence?

As it happens, I think I know the very line of "massive pylons" that ruined Fox's enjoyment of California's Central Valley. She was probably looking at a section of the 500-kilovolt transmission line that runs from Table Mountain down to Dixon, southeast of Sacramento. More than once I have stopped my own rental car along the route of that power line—but to admire rather than deplore. I find it a handsome artifact, with the conductors draped in graceful catenary curves and the towers cutting an elegant silhouette against the evening sky. I realize that my taste in scenery may be somewhat outside the mainstream, but I wonder if Fox's desire to wipe away every vestige of human habitation isn't also a fringe position.

Fox's thesis in Against the Machine is that resistance to technology is a thread running through Western culture for the past 200 years, always present though always a dissenting view. Beginning with the Luddites, who smashed machinery in British textile mills in the 1810s, she traces literary, artistic and philosophical expressions of antitechnological thought up to the present. And she describes more-direct efforts to derail technology or to construct low-tech ways of life. Thus the disgruntled weavers of Leeds and Manchester are bound together with the Romantic poets, conservationists and back-to-the-land settlers, all battling a common foe: the machine.

As a start on understanding the long sweep of this history, it's helpful to consider just the two ends of the thread. At the beginning are the original Luddites. In 1811, workers at several hosiery mills in Nottinghamshire began destroying knitting frames in the factories, explaining their actions in a series of letters signed by the mythical figure Ned Ludd. The wave of machine-breaking later spread to the woolen and cotton-goods factories in adjacent counties. The exact nature of the rebellion remains murky. One interpretation, championed by Kirkpatrick Sale and adopted by Fox, holds that the Luddites were fighting for a traditional way of life threatened by industrial-scale manufacturing and mechanization. They were skilled artisans, accustomed to working in their own homes or in small communal shops, and they resented being herded into factories and turned into mere machine-tenders. Their grievance was with the machine itself, and that's why their protest took the form of a direct attack on machinery.

Other historians see the Luddite movement more in the context of labor activism, and they emphasize economic motives. Many workers in the cloth trades had fallen from prosperity to the edge of starvation. Strikes and collective bargaining were outlawed, so that sabotage was one of the workers' few tools for enforcing their demands. According to this view, the Luddites broke knitting frames not so much because they hated machinery but because the machines were the mill owners' most conspicuous and vulnerable asset.

Now snap to the other end of the long thread, to the modern groups and individuals whom Fox identifies as neo-Luddites. She begins her book with a celebration of Nan and Arthur Kellam, who lived for 40 years on a small island off the coast of Maine. Visiting their abandoned house after Arthur Kellam's death, Fox reports: "There is no electricity, no telephone, no signs of more than rudimentary conveniences. . . . The heat came from the wood-fired stove in the corner, old and battered and inefficient; a stove that needed feeding several times a night, a friend of theirs tells me." Later we meet many more advocates and practitioners of the simple life. Perhaps the most radical of Fox's neo-Luddites are the Benders, a group of young people in Britain who have a chosen a nomadic life and own nothing they cannot carry by pack mule or in a hand-pulled cart.

There are surely parallels to be drawn between the original Luddites and the neo-Luddites, and yet I am more taken by the differences between them. Whether the early 19th-century Luddite rebellion is seen as a labor action or as an antitechnology protest, it was clearly focused on the realm of work and livelihood. The machines attacked were capital goods, meant for the production of wealth, and the aim of the protesting workers was to change the terms or circumstances of their employment. The modern echo of that rebellion seems more concerned with the way we live than with the way we make our living. The machines that get on Fox's nerves are mostly household appliances—televisions, refrigerators, microwave ovens, computers, telephones. She pokes fun at "the average laptop-toting, beeper-wearing, cell phone–addicted technotron"—a frivolous rather than a sinister figure, quite different from the mill owner who was the enemy of the Luddites. And then there is Fox's antipathy to "footprints of humans"; she tries to forge a direct link between the Luddites and the Sierra Club, but if the weavers and knitters of the English Midlands considered themselves defenders of wilderness, they left no record of that commitment. Fox also suggests that modern environmentalists who sabotage ski lifts or spike the tires of SUVs might be taken as direct heirs of the Luddites; but again it seems to me that the targets of their wrath are quite different.

To remark on such differences is not to deny that skepticism about the benefits of technology has a long heritage in Western culture. But I see at least two threads rather than the unified tradition that Fox describes. On the one hand, there is resistance to mechanization or automation in the workplace, based on the fear that factories run by machines would leave behind a vast population of the dispossessed and impoverished. Those few workers who kept their jobs—apart from the technocratic elite—would toil at demeaning, mind-numbing, repetitive tasks on the assembly line. This is a worry that's easy to relate to Luddism in its classical form.

The other strand of technophobia is rooted in aesthetic or moral principles rather than economic ones. Pastoral poetry, for example, has been extolling the pleasures and virtues of rural life, while condemning urban corruption, almost from the first moment in human history when rural and urban could be distinguished. Centuries later, Henry David Thoreau writes in the same spirit: "Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things." Fox's distaste for refrigerators and for the power lines that keep them humming lies squarely in this tradition of consumer-goods Luddism.

Apart from her chapter on the original Luddites, Fox mainly follows the lifestyle thread. Much of the argument of Against the Machine is situated in the realm of art and literature. The figures who connect Ned Ludd with Nan and Arthur Kellam include the Romantic poets, praising the direct experience of nature; Thomas Carlyle and Charles Dickens in their social criticism of factories and ruthless industry; Thoreau, of course, camped out in his cabin by the pond; and William Morris, champion of the imperfect, handmade article. Against the Machine is not just a history of the Luddite and neo-Luddite movements; it is also a work of advocacy and a call to action. Fox clearly believes that most of us would be better off with fewer mechanical contrivances in our lives, and she applauds and admires those who have gone cold turkey on technology. (Her own withdrawal, she says, is far from total: She has put the TV in the closet, and when the clothes dryer broke, she started hanging out the wash.) It's worth asking what happens if we all take her advice.

The other thread of the Luddite tradition—the one that I believe links us most directly with the original rebellion—deserves more attention than Fox gives it. A few decades ago, the dilemma of automation and unemployment was still a frequent topic of newspaper editorials and political debate. Pessimists predicted an economic crisis; technological optimists argued that automation would create more jobs than it eliminated, and better jobs at that—as workers replaced by machines would wind up designing, building and programming those machines. The issue is no longer a hot topic except among specialists, and yet it certainly hasn't gone away. Whole categories of jobs have all but disappeared: elevator operators, Linotypists, telephone operators. Much of the industrial landscape has undergone an extraordinary depopulation. If you visit a petroleum refinery, a steel mill, a coal mine, a power plant, you are likely to find a huge parking lot empty but for a few cars huddled near the employees' entrance. The plant is running, but there's almost no one there. And yet unemployment does not seem to be the major challenge facing modern economies, at least not in Europe and North America. It's also worth noting that the least mechanized jobs now tend to be the least desirable ones: flipping burgers, making beds, picking fruits and vegetables. I suspect that the original Luddites would have been fascinated by this development, and perhaps perplexed by it (as I am), but Fox has little to say on the subject.

The Kellams on their Maine island offer a model that does not generalize well. The problem is not just the limited supply of islands for solitary habitation, or of firewood for fueling those inefficient stoves. The Kellams never pretended to self-sufficiency. According to Fox's perusal of their rubbish, they lived on peanuts and sardines. Thus their way of life works only as a marginal strategy; they can get along without machinery only if the rest of us keep tinning those sardines. This strikes me as a perfectly workable accommodation—unless everyone decides to join them.

Other conflicts over technology and its renunciation get even stickier. If you dislike the noise of lawn-mower engines, you are welcome to cut your own grass with a scythe, but that's no help when all your neighbors fire up the Lawn-Boy every Saturday morning. Likewise with cell phones: Refusing to carry one doesn't protect you from the jingling and shouting all around you. On a larger scale, decisions about technologies such as nuclear power or genetically modified foods have to be made by entire societies.

At a still larger scale, the perspective changes again. While it's all very well for us laptop-toting technotrons to talk of going back to the land and eating heirloom tomatoes, most of the world doesn't yet have the option of renouncing technological frippery. In her survey of technology's costs and benefits, Fox never glances beyond Europe and North America. And yet the rest of the world is where decisions about technology will have the most impact—for better or worse—in decades to come.

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