If technology becomes a tyrant, she ousts it  By Ross Atkin
Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
From the May 14, 2003
edition -


Nicols Fox, a professional reviewer and essayist, writes on a computer and submits her work to editors by e-mail. She is, after all, a citizen of the 21st century. But stop by Ms. Fox's home in Bass Harbor, Maine, and you may see her clothes drying on the line - even in winter. Drop in at night and you might find her reading by candlelight or oil lamp. Television? Well, she has one with rabbit ears, but a layer of dust covers the top.

"What I find is, too much technology is very unpleasant," she says, speaking from her Rue Cottage Books shop in Southwest Harbor, Maine. "If we're having to think all the time if our mechanical screwdriver or cellphone is charged, where the batteries are for this and where the batteries are for that, it's a very stressful life. If we can just get rid of some of these things, we can get rid of stress."

When she had to deal with peeling paint on her house, she opted for unfinished cedar shingles, just as she chooses organic bread rather than the prepackaged variety.

"The idea is not to give up something just to give it up," Fox explains. "It's to give it up to get something better. I'm not for self-denial for its own sake. I'm for finding a better life, a more enjoyable and pleasant life. The idea is not that one has to be pure and live in a mud hut," she explains. "The idea is one can pick and choose, that one does have choices."

Fox abstains from using a mechanical clothes dryer, since the sun and wind can do the job naturally, and line-drying encourages her to see what the day's like. "There's something about the fact that I have to cope with this reality of weather and my need for clean clothing and figure out a way to do that that makes life more interesting to me," she concludes.

Both Fox's residence and workplace reflect her values. Her bookshop has no cash register, only a cash drawer. The lighting is incandescent, not fluorescent. The counters and display cases, which are worn, are all made of wood. The only plastic is the kind customers flash, and Fox completes the transaction by calling in their credit card numbers. Her home frequently elicits visitor comments such as, "Oh, it's so cozy. It feels so good. It feels so lived in."

It's also simple. Her kitchen contains no microwave oven or any of the usual small appliances. In their place are simpler, manual gadgets like a hand coffee grinder and a heavy, cast-iron griddle for cooking pancakes. What the home lacks in modern decor and conveniences it offers in simple, useful objects, possessions and handicrafts that express what Fox calls a transference of love to those who visit.

In looking at any technology, Fox believes it's important to step back and ask who's in charge: person or machine? If the latter, some rethinking may be necessary. To illustrate, she cites an experience a group of Amish families had trying the telephone. When placed in the kitchen, it led to gossip and wasted time. To make phones more productive, the phones were moved into the fields, where a person could call into town to ask about a wagon part, but did so standing, exposed to the elements. This enforced a certain discipline. Fox says with admiration, "That's really controlling technology."