Just Say No to Gadgets and Gizmos, An Easy Guide to Reclaiming Our Humanity and Simple Ways
By Ken Ringle, Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 29, 2002

Page F01

If you feel that high-tech has turned our holidays into the direst of wolves, snarling with electronic toys, staring like digital cameras and rapacious as a DVD burner, Nicols Fox wants us to know there's a way to transform them into a cuddly puppy.

Next year, just say no to an electronic Christmas, she says, and you can reclaim our collective humanity. She says this in her new book, "Against the Machine," which is subtitled "The Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art and Individual Lives."

Meeting the challenge, she acknowledges, will not be easy. We've been mainlining extraneous technology so long we think we can't open the cat-food can if the electricity's off. We spend 10 minutes microwaving four separate cups of coffee rather than spend four minutes heating the same amount in a pan on the stove. We've got so many friends on speed dial we've forgotten their phone numbers. This is progress?

"Well, it was supposed to be," she says, plucking lint from the folds of her navy blue wool dress. "But we kept being seduced by what technology could do for us and ignoring what was being lost in the process. Progress wasn't supposed to cost us anything we value."

From beeping cell phones at the "Messiah" singalong to hip-hop elevator carols, it's easy to make a list of the cultural lumps of coal that modern life has left in our Christmas stocking. But less immediately obvious, Fox says, are the absences -- the spiritual and aesthetic values we've allowed to slip away almost unnoticed in our collective embrace of machinery from the steam engine to the Palm Pilot.

Fox is not exactly a Luddite, but she's probably an unindicted co-conspirator. She lives on an island near Southwest Harbor, Maine, refuses to have an answering machine or a cell phone and says she brings her black-and-white TV out of the closet only for major events. Her rabbit-ears antenna pulls in only two snowy channels.

She concedes to a computer as a reality of the digital publishing age, but says she prefers to compose her books in longhand so her fingers can't outrun her thoughts.

That may seem a far cry from the followers of the apocryphal Ned Ludd, who smashed mechanical looms in the British Midlands between 1811 and 1816 to protest the seismic changes wrought on weavers and their communities by the Industrial Revolution. But she says the violence of the Luddites was far from a measure of their cause. What they were protesting, she says, was not so much the onset of machine-made cloth as the erosion of their creative birthright as human beings: "Not . . . the loss of jobs, but . . . the loss of a way of life." And though the Luddite movement was quickly and rather brutally put down, its spirit lives on in those of us who despair of ever learning to program our VCRs.

"We tend to see winning and losing in this country in absolute terms," Fox says. "As if when someone fails to triumph in an election or a cultural movement they just disappear. But, of course, they don't disappear. Sometimes they're converted to the winning side, but often they live on unpersuaded, continuing to believe in and contribute their point of view."

What her book documents, to an extent that surprised even her, is how persistent and pervasive the Luddite spirit has remained in Western culture, casting a shadow that stretches from Wordsworth and the Romantic poets through the agrarian literary movement of the Depression-era American South to the back-to-the-land communes of the 1960s.

Sometimes the spirit is expressed in nostalgia for a simpler time, as in Wordsworth's verse. Sometimes it "rages against the machine," as in the poetry of William Blake and the novels of D.H. Lawrence. And sometimes it triggers the establishment of alternative living experiments, as with people sharing the ideas of Emerson and the transcendentalists, or a whole school of aesthetics, as in the late-19th-century Arts and Crafts movement of John Ruskin and William Morris.
But it's always there, Fox says, and it's there because "what it represents is not just a rejection of the mechanical in life, but a reaffirmation of what it means to be human. We have been on this Earth for thousands of years. We've been mechanized for less than 200. Obviously we don't owe our survival as a species to technology. It is the qualities of imagination, and creativity, and our shared humanity that have kept us from extinction. And those are the qualities we hunger for today."

So what are we supposed to do? Throw out the stereo and the Cuisinart, sell the cars and computers, and set up housekeeping in a yurt?
We might end up happier if we did, Fox says, but that's not what she's advocating.

First of all, she says, we shouldn't be surprised at or feel guilty about the seductive power of technology. Its hold on us is not simply the illusion of saved labor or expanded leisure. Its real hold, she says, is the primal one of sorcery and myth.

"Look at the TV channel changer," Fox says. "We push a button and images appear and disappear. What is that but witchcraft? . . . Look at the television itself: It's the tribal storyteller. It's the campfire we sit around to hear the stories. It's even a deity. We speak of religion and wisdom as the appearance of light, and television tells its stories and even sells its products with beams of light. There's something really primal about our attraction to it, and we should acknowledge that."
At the same time, she says, we need to understand how much television and its sibling technologies have separated us from what's real. And then all we really have to do, she says, is "decide to take control of our lives again."

It can start in small, even tiny, ways:

Fox is wedded to her morning cup of fresh-ground coffee but gradually realized that the shriek of her electric coffee grinder was setting her teeth on edge and costing her more in stress than the pleasure of the coffee was relieving. She junked the electric grinder for a hand grinder she bought from a mail-order store that caters to the Amish and discovered that her mornings had been transformed out of all proportion to the change.

"I realized the noise of the coffee grinder had been bugging me for years and I didn't even realize it. Now there's a kind of peacefulness about my mornings I wouldn't trade for anything. And I get a curious satisfaction out of grinding the coffee beans by hand."

Not everyone, she realizes, cares that much about coffee grinder noise or even has a grinder. "But all of us have something . . . that we consider a necessary irritant in our life. And it's probably not really necessary. It may even be keeping us from discovering the pleasure in simple things."

When her clothes dryer broke some time ago, she says, she decided to dry her clothes outside on a line the way her mother used to. "I discovered that the trip outside to the clothesline forced me to interact with the day in a new way. I became conscious of the sun and wind and weather differently. I heard the birds. Now I hang clothes outside every day, even in the Maine winter. Believe it or not, it's therapeutic."

Fox realizes that questioning something as fundamental as a clothes dryer will sound weird to most people. She also knows what works for her won't work for everyone. Her kids are grown, and she lives alone. Her sister, she says, has lots of young kids and genuinely needs the time and energy her clothes dryer saves. "But she and her husband have locked their TV in the closet. Now their children read everything in sight."

The key, she says, is figuring out which machines help you live life in a more human way, in harmony with the world around us. And which we've allowed to rob us of that humanity and intrude on that harmony.

William Morris, the 19th-century designer best remembered for the Morris chair, came up with a series of rules for living with machines without becoming a machine oneself.

"He said if you were a potter making a bowl," Fox says, "it made sense to use a tool or a machine to scrape the bottom of the bowl because that was just boring work and drudgery: It had nothing to do with the shape or design of the bowl, which was a product of human imagination and creativity. On the other hand, if you run a machine that stamps out identical bowls one after the other, you've given over your humanity to that technology. And we do that all the time."

Fox grew up in Staunton, Va., and spent a lot of time during the 1950s at her grandparents' rural home in the Shenandoah Valley. There she learned the pleasures of country life that she sought to recapture in Maine after an urban adulthood and a broken marriage.

"My mother and grandmother and I used to wash the dishes together in the kitchen, and we had a lot of really good conversations in the process. They passed along stories and lessons about life. . . . I found ways to ask questions there I might have hesitated to ask in other settings. Washing dishes wasn't just washing dishes. It was a kind of event."

Then along came electric dishwashers. The dishwasher, she says, is "a perfect example of the wrong kind of technology. It leaves you with the non-creative work, the drudgery, which is scraping the plates and loading and unloading them. And it robs you of the only interesting aspect of dishwashing, which is how to get off that piece of cheese that's stuck to the plate. And it removes the opportunity for the kind of shared family task and conversation that dishwashing used to be."

However that may sound, Fox is not trying to romanticize dishwashing. She realizes there are times when there are piles of dishes and too little time and the dishwasher can be a big help. But what she wants us to understand, she says, is "that it's up to us how we use it. If we want to just let it sit there and make dishwashing into a family event occasionally, we can do that. That's our choice. And it might do more for parent-child relationships than turning on the machine and using the time it saves to prop ourselves mutely in front of the television."

We can take steps like that every day, she says: steps to increase the interaction within our families and our communities and between ourselves and our natural environment. We can stop buying our children toys that make noises and rob the children of the pleasure and the imagination of making the noises themselves. We can stop trying to stimulate our children with electronic toys and realize the most stimulating thing we can give them is a story we read or a walk we take with them or an hour we spend with them just listening to what they have to say.

"There's obviously a lot of stress in the way most of us live, and it's getting worse," she says. "People think they can't live without three cars, two jobs and an hour-and-a-half commute in stop-and-go traffic.

We spend most of our waking hours watching television that isn't even real entertainment but just people screaming at us to buy more things. We literally spend more time charging the batteries of our cell phones and computers than we do talking to our children. And guilt about that drives us to spend ourselves into more debt buying the kids things they don't need but we're convinced they must have.

"And yet all we really want is what the Luddites wanted. We want to control our own lives. And we can."