Book review: “Against the Machine: Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art, and Individual Lives”

July 10, 2011

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For two centuries Americans have willingly and whole-heartedly embraced a modern life that technology has made possible. As a result, we have enjoyed the benefits of speed, efficiency, and access to an exhaustive supply of consumer products.

Meanwhile, we are a stressed out, frustrated, and angry people that has become totally dependent on our technology for our everyday lives. People routinely bang on their computers in a way reminiscent of the first Luddites who hammered at the weaving frames of the smoke-belching factories of Leeds, Manchester, and Sheffield. Nicols Fox in her book, Against the Machine provides an astute and highly fascinating account of how we have come to where we are today and what we sacrificed as a result.

The industrial society that Americans inherited from England, the nineteenth century manufacturing giant of the world, had an irresistible appeal to our young country, as we were busy building an economy and expanding our borders. As a result, technology came to dominate our “thinking, our expectations, and our actions,” says Fox, “in ways that could not have been anticipated and of which we are scarcely aware.”

This odd relationship between human beings and technology was first recognized by English craftsmen in the early 1800s. They objected to the new factories going up in their villages because they feared losing their independence, their community life, and their livelihood. Scorned as backward and anti-progress, the Luddites, who got their name from their made-up folk hero, King Ned Ludd, eventually stopped trying to engage discussion and took out their rage on the weaving frames. A few of them were led away to the gallows for trespassing and vandalizing private property. And so ended the movement.

Curiously, however, Fox notes that the Luddites’ legacy lived on through writers, artists, philosophers, farmers, and iconoclasts who noticed that for all its promises of convenience and efficiency, technology still sidesteps “the complexity and subtlety that is humanness.” Throughout the book she illustrates how technology has shaped the way people live, think, work, and relate to each other today.

The Luddites, Fox emphasizes, didn’t shun machines or technology out of hand. Instead, they “[favored] a thoughtful use of appropriate technologies that [did] not damage the relationships we hold dear,” especially those with the natural world. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, American technology and industrialism become tied to capitalism and consumerism in which “all life was being bought and sold,” according to historian E.P. Thompson.

The books’ most notable chapter is devoted to technology’s influence on agriculture and farm life. Fox notes that the people’s relationship to the land, the seasons, the community, and even the soil was completely changed by those advocates of technology who, curiously, stood to gain from the changes: the corporations, the universities, and the government.

In 1930, a group of writers known as the Southern Agrarians, objected to these changes and articulated what was being lost:

“What are the fundamental requirements of a healthy, balanced, and pleasant society? The answer is that we are complex creatures whose fundamental needs are for community and family; love and companionship; a continuing association with the natural world round us, of which we recognize ourselves a part; undergirded by spirituality; enlivened by an artistic tradition that allows the exercise of creativity and imaginations; enriched by an ongoing and shared cultural heritage. All these are more important than our need for consumer goods and gadgetry.”

After World War II, the door to “technological exuberance” opened ever wider and the small farmer was declared an anachronism “on his way out, surviving only because he hasn’t sense enough to accept the inevitable.”

Fox calls on farmer and writer Wendell Berry who explains that what got lost was the knowledge of the land and soil in exchange for “a totally controlled agricultural environment” and a future of limitless food production. In effect, the farmer abandoned his role as “a husbandman, a nurturer” and became a businessman.

The writing in this book is direct, compelling, insightful, and inspiring. In the last chapter, Fox recognizes contemporaries, including Farming Magazine editor David Kline, for their efforts in seeking simpler lives that control technology rather than the other way around.

Against the Machine is a must-read for people who need a boost for their chosen lifestyle of simplicity, connectivity to family and community, and alignment to nature. Fox provides a bevy of well-researched evidence as well as an examination of where technology has taken us as human beings and as a society. This book will inspire present-day Luddites to continue their struggle for a humane life. King Ludd would have it no other way!

Tags: Technology