Books: Nichols Fox – Against The Machine (2002)

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by Mark Saleski

This review was written with a No. 2 pencil. It seemed like the right thing to do. I know this seems like an odd choice, especially for material destined for a website, but after finishing Against The Machine I felt the need to put some ‘old’ technology to use. (Ok, I didn’t resort to a quill pen, so sue me!)

Subtitled “The Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art, and Individual Lives,” Against The Machine surveys the tradition of resistance to unchecked technological advance: resistance that, at times, has come from some very unlikely sources (more on that later).

Beginning with some anecdotes concerning the anxieties and stress created by modern technologies (“1/3 of computer users admit to physically attacking a computer”) Nicols Fox sets up the themes common to much historical and modern-day technology resistance:

• that frustration with technology is directly related to stress
• that technologies are not neutral and …
• that thoughtful, considered use of technology can alleviate some of the problems caused by blind devotion to “the machine”

The sources?

• The Romantics — Yes, Blake,Wordsworth,Byron,Shelley,Keats, and Colleridge all had something to say about how the adoption of various “advances” impacted society, making it “less human.”
• Dickens — The Pickwick Papers being a commentary on the impact machines had on our world
• William Morris – Who’s Arts & Crafts movement stressed the importance of man’s relationship to nature and community
• John Muir — Perhaps the first conservationist (and founder of the Sierra Club)
• Emerson — The link between the Transcendentalists and the Luddites can be thought of as the desire to rid us of the “tyranny of mechanical thought”
• D.H. Lawrence — Lawrence? Has anyone read Lady Chatterley’s Lover for the social commentary? Maybe not, but it’s definitely there, with very descriptive scenes of the ugliness of industry.

Some of the most compelling moments of Against The Machine are the stories of people who have devoted their lives to resisting technology: not so much as acts of defiance but as a choice to live a more simple existence. We read of the (somewhat famous) Nearings, who spent most of their lives in rural Vermont, using technology sparingly. Fox also relates the story of Arthur and Nan Kellam, who lived out their later years in near seclusion on a small coastal Maine island. Their chosen living conditions would shock most of us: no electricity, no running water, no refrigeration. But, as the author points out, the Kellams “didn’t resist technology so much as choose simplicity.”

Also quite interesting was the chapter on Ned Ludd himself. After all of these years of friends teasing me for being a Luddite, it was heartening to discover that the machines were hated not only for the related job loses but also because they threatened a way of life. So, they weren’t kooks after all!

Make no mistake, Against The Machine is not an indictment of all technology. It is an essentially hopeful look at how we’ve dealt with technological advancement. The hope being that maybe we can begin to rethink the paradigm of “more is better,” “newer is better,” and that technologies are neutral.

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Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he originated several of our weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Mark Saleski
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