Nicole Fox, Against the Machine
Island Press, 2002
The followers of Ned Ludd took up weapons against the machines that were destroying their lives, but the essence of Luddism is not violence. Far from it. It is a respect for and a confidence in those things that make us human, with a concomitant rejection of the mechanistic approach to being that devalues our humanity. It is a philosophy that respects tradition, intuition, spirituality, the senses, human relationships, the work of the hand, and the disorderly and unpredictable nature of reality, as opposed to a mechanistic or reductionist construct of the world. It questions the domination of science and the elevation of efficiency to a superior value. It rejects materiality.
The Machine, by which I mean all the agencies of order, regularity, and efficiency, whether social or technical....
Lewis Mumford, In the Name of Sanity
Such resistance can generate open hostility for the simple reason that technophiles, or those who for whatever reason have cast their lot unwaveringly with technology, understand that the act of resisting is a quiet but determined rejection of the very principles that undergird Western culture: efficiency, industrialism, sometimes science, and usually capitalism or least commercialism, and most certainly materialism. Registers mock all that.
Those who swore allegiance to Ned Ludd (or King Ludd) earned themselves the name, although precisely who he was remains a mystery. But whatever its origins, between 1811 and 1816, in the five central manufacturing counties of England - a triangle that included parts of Lancashire, Yorshire, Cheshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, and Leicester - organized groups of men, under the Luddite banner, raised whatever weapons they could muster, from muskets and revolvers to hatchets and blacksmith hammers, and in furious reaction to the installation of new technology that was taking their jobs and disrupting their lives, smashed certain types of mechanical looms.
It was an uprising that frightened the establishment of the day. Government and business leaders in the stately halls of London who were drawing up the blueprints for a new industrialism could envision quite another future for the country: one of efficient mass production of cheaper goods, enhanced trade, and greater profit. The wants and needs of working families in the Midlands played only a small role in that vision. These workers were to be, as perhaps they had begun to suspect, merely cogs in the machinery of the industrial revolution. It was a role they chose to resist.
Although many clearly saw the benefits of more efficient production and the appeal of transferring backbreaking work to inanimate gears and wheels, there were others who saw equally clearly that the order of things, and order that was not altogether unpleasant, would be forever changed. The energy and the pace of change allowed about as much tolerance for anyone who stood in the way as the new locomotives that accompanied industrialism would have for a duck on the tracks.
In addition to the new machines, the centralization of work would become a matter of concern as well, clearly adding to the difficulty of the workers’ situation. Call it the mindless application of the rule of efficiency demanded by the new machines, for they required a constant source of power. And so the factories first rose, five and six stories of brick, along the streams in the valleys. Then, when the stream provided the power, they could be grouped in what would become larger centers of production near transportation. Because the new plants and machines were costly, they needed to be run continuously, and the labor had to be found for that perpetual work, lit in the long winter evenings by the flicker of gaslight. But the new machines were easier to operate. Less strength and less skill were required. Each machine could do the work of six or seven men. Women and children could keep many of them going, although under brutal conditions and with lower wages. Family life was being destroyed. Skilled craftsmen were reduced to selling cheap goods on the street or accepting support from wives and children who labored within a pitiless system.
To call something romantic today is, in the prevailing sense of the word, to remove it from serious consideration. Whatever is being so described may be interesting, charming, entertaining, even desirable from the perspective of organized seduction, but it will not be important. It will not be something that will make things run faster or more smoothly, or operate with more efficiency, or turn a larger profit. It is apt to be considered, in at least one part of our minds, as peripheral and of small consequence. Seldom do we stop to think how that perjorative interpretation got there, when humans incline so naturally to all that romantic is.
We are not the people we are supposed to be. We have not fit as cleanly and smoothly as we sometimes like to think into the world of reason and efficiency and practicality. The advertising world knows this: All play at one time or another to these unmentionable needs for romance and fantasy and a yearning for simpler times. And we know this. Our attempts to live bifurcated lives, adjusting ourselves to the demands of the mechanical-technological world, feel uncomfortable precisely because the marriage between human and machine is an awkward union.
And finally, in an age dedicated to reason, there was a turning away on the part of leading philosophers and thinkers, from the spiritual and the imaginative aspects of human life - modes of thinking that were inconvenient for the new economics. Efficiency was cold-blooded. Romantics were hot-blooded, inward-turning in protest, seeking to make a point about the appropriateness of human observation and interpretation; of wild, unconstrained thought that went where it went, unrestrained by artificially imposed boundaries of rationalism.
This tactic remains as useful as ever. To object to some technological innovation today is equally likely to invite name-calling. “Luddite” first, and then “Romantic,” became and are used still as terms of derision, applied to anyone who values aspects of human life that don’t translate easily into efficiency or who rejects, resists, challenges, or even questions the stampede of modernism.
Economic theory struggled to keep pace with the rapid rate of change. In 1776 Adam Smith had written Wealth of Nations, in which he had laid out a blueprint for economic advancement. His theory held that prosperity, which he defined as the accumulation of wealth, was most likely to be achieved by individuals pursuing their own interest without the interference of government. The role of the state, other than arbitrating when those interests conflicted, was simple to stay out of the way. This pursuit of individual well-being would, by increasing the nation’s wealth, ultimately benefit the entire community. This is the “rising tide lifts all boats” theory (which would be echoed by Reaganomics in the 1980’s). It was not yet the nineteenth-century doctrine of laissez faire but laid a credible foundation for it.
Inherent in Smith’s theory was the notion that greater efficiency translates into greater profit. One way to produce this efficiency was to create division of labor in the manufacturing process. An individual need not be responsible for making one product from start to finish but only for one part of the process, which he or she would repeat again and again, undoubtedly becoming more skilled and faster at that single task. This was not an entirely new idea, but now it became linked to a particular theory. The result would be greater production for less expenditure of time (wages) and energy. Efficiency would be the key to economic success.
Those who stood to benefit from the changing economic order could dismiss Carlyle as someone who wanted to stop progress or who failed to see the ultimate benefit of cheaper consumer goods, or simply as a crank. But what Carlyle saw clearly was that employing the machine so extensively had begun to make people feel inadequate, if not useless. Carefully cultivated skills and pride in craftsmanship became worthless as commodities, pointless luxuries in a marketplace where the machine standard was “good enough” because it was cheap. Working life - which, whatever its attendant hardships, had been varied and interesting as people participated in the making of goods from raw material to finished product—was now a parade of endless sameness, of boring repetition that dulled and stunted the human mind.
The machine has accomplished many things, he admitted. That was obvious to anyone. People are better “fed, clothed, lodged.” More things are available. But the abundance of things was only a small part of the transformation that was under way as the industrial age picked up steam. People had begun to think and act differently, and he identified the impact of the machine at the heart of the shift. Machines are not human. There is a rigidity, a uniformity, a predictability, a ruthlessness, a thoughtlessness, a complete absence of emotion in their operation. Any yet, they get things done. How clear it was becoming to many that people could accomplish more if only they could be more like machines and less like them selves. It was a simple but stunning idea. It opened a world of related ideas. Humans should adapt—and would be the better for it—assumed those infatuated with the notion of perfectibility.
Carlyle saw the fallacy of the argument at once. Just as machines were not humans, it was equally true that humans were not machines. People did not operate effectively in the same ways as machines; their talents lay elsewhere. And yet, step by incautious step, society was being recorded as if they were machines. The attempts to effect this transformation—beyond the factory, the prison, or the school, where individuals had little or no control over their lives—were generally failures. People were difficult to order outside controlled situations. Yet with the efficient mechanical model before them, those in whose interests it was to see it applied to humans would keep on trying—then and now.
When the metaphor becomes reality, Carlyle understood, when the standards of industrial efficiency replicate themselves throughout society, clothed in other garb, until our institutions and even our thoughts are mechanized, expect trouble.
“There is no Wealth but Life.”
34. Ruskin, John, Selections and Essays , ed. Frederick
Williams Roe (New York: Scribner’s, 1918), 302
45. Ibid., 228
The reality for the pioneer was that he wasn’t confronting nature as much as he was evading the complications of the society left behind without really creating a new one. The experience was not as refreshing as it was numbing, and without the culture to relate to, it tended to extremes.
Domesticating the landscape demanded a practical, goal-oriented efficiency. There was work to be done and little time for dreaming, utilitarianism triumphed and then translated, as the years wore on, into expediency. The prized attributes were inventiveness and the entrepreneurial spirit. There were few opportunities on the frontier for the leisurely contemplation of nature that Romanticism required, and the innocence of rusticity that Rousseau had imagined in the France of cultivated fields, cleared meadows, and tidy groves confronted the New World realities of simple survival. But in New England, where a European tidiness prevailed, there were opportunities for the leisure that appreciating nature required. It seems an almost perfect moment, when the balance between human and nature, from the European perspective, was as healthy as it is every like to be.
THE TRAIN was far more than a simple interruption, however. The town and the country had been separate places, both metaphorically and actually; the rural life had nothing to do with urban life. The train would eradicate that separation. It would penetrate as nothing else could, entering the sacred landscape with aggressive force, pushing its way into virgin territory that would never again be the same.
At the same time, it could disguise its brutishness with charm. It could drape its inconveniences with the cloak of practicality and efficiency and seduce its way into any community. People knew, in raw terms, what they were giving up and what they were getting; it was a fair and open trade in that regard. But only a few understood the more subtle effects of the exchange. As Thoreau, and Carlyle before him, saw, the presence of the machine would begin to change the way individuals thought and acted.
Yet modernism dominated intellectually. Its triumph—at least architecturally—was aided and abetted by economic forces. The plain, square rooms, devoid of molding and optimally functional (yet no fun at all), were, in fact, cheaper to build. Aesthetics and efficiency had merged. The truth—that almost no one wanted to live in the sterile coolness of a modernist interior—was not to be uttered.
The answer from the industrial capitalist was that human values are unimportant to the goal of the maximum production at the lowest cost. Efficiency was the premier value. It left no room for others. How could other values be considered in the production of goods that had to compete in the marketplace? This was Morris’s challenge __ urgent, because the idea of division of labor was seeping from the factory floor into the rest of society as well and reshaping the way people worked and thought and lived. In this new complex order, no one individual could be expected to comprehend the whole; each had a specific role, narrowly defined. The notion of the “Renaissance man” would seem foolish if not impossible in a world of experts. But the expert was, in a sense, an intellectual cripple, hobbled and tied to his or her field; incapable of participating fully or interacting with experts outside his or her precise area of specialization. This left the ultimate control, whether it was of the process or of the bureaucracy, in the hands of managers who did not need, and were not expected, to know anything except how to manage.
It is worthwhile to stop for a moment and consider the word conservation and what it implies. Muir is said never to have used it. His goal was protection or preservation. It began out of a passion - emotional, subjective, unquantifiable, sensual, a soaring of that unlocatable body part called spirit—for the trees and the wildlife he had discovered on his solitary treks into the wilderness. He reveled in the beauty and the splendor of the places he had seen. And he had come to have a profound respect for every element of the landscape. Why should a creature such as a spider simply be crushed without a second thought? The spider had a life; it didn’t deserve to be killed simply for existing—not even simply because it might pose a danger. Nature was worthy of protection not just because it was useful in providing sustenance, or even simply for its aesthetic value; nor should it be destroyed because it was in the way, or even necessarily because it presented some danger. It had an inherent value. This was not a concept that many individuals, reared on the Judeo-Christian concept of “mankind’s dominion over the earth,” appreciated. Value the spider, and the balance has shifted; on the other side of the scale, it was blasphemy. Muir knew when to accommodate. He learned to put into his arguments not simply the inherent values of protecting nature but the practical aspects. Says Stephen Fox, in his book John Muir and his Legacy: The American Conservation Movement, “What really piqued him was the wanton blasphemy of cutting down a Sequoia grove that predated the Christian era,” but he would phrase his defense of the grove in terms of its usefulness, its ability to converse rainfall and prevent erosion. He understood that moral grounds were insufficient in the culture for which he was writing. The influence of the efficient, profit-oriented, technological, and industrial approach was growing. The benefit of unspoiled nature simply because one loved it was not an idea that could compete with the argument of usefulness. The enemies of conservation demanded something more than sentiment, and the only thing that could successfully challenge the economic arguments they put forth were other economic arguments. Could Yosemite, as it was, provide some useful or practical benefit from the human perspective? This approach would become a standard way to frame preservation arguments. And so the word conservation represents a compromised way of thinking because it suggests “a more prudent, more efficient use by humans,” rather than the “unjustifiable” goal of protection for its own sake. When conservation became the acceptable term, the memory of this shift in meaning was lost, Fox argues.
Preserving America’s wild land against the utilitarian view and its conjoined twin, economic reality, is the same battle the Luddites fought. What those smashers of technology had wanted to preserve was not so much nature - not then, not yet—but the traditional way of life they preferred; the one that felt more comfortable and more natural, that provided pleasure and satisfaction. They wanted to live and work in livable communities with their families around them. The link to nature was inherent in these traditional lives. These were not values that could be easily defended in terms of efficiency or usefulness or measurable output. Values have always had a hard time competing with commerce and efficiency, but the battle lines were defined with the industrial revolution, and with every year the utilitarian model grew in power and credibility until its predominance was no longer questioned. It had reshaped the argument. And yet it was still technology that was being fought—or rather, as Jacques Ellul calls it, “the technique,” by which is meant far more than a mere machine or science, or even technology itself. It refers, rather, to a way of thinking that goes beyond any of its various components; think of a fog of utilitarianism that can penetrate unseen, undetected, into everything we do, shaping the culture in ways that are seldom considered. Think of the way that efficiency or division of labor or time-motion evaluations or even cost-benefit analysis began to sneak out of the factory and into parts of our lives where they had no business. Think of the way that conservation, with its overtones of utilitarianism, became the accepted term for what Muir wanted to do, when it was, in fact, nothing like what Muir wanted to do.
And yet the farmers and naturalists writing in the first half of the century had spent lifetimes working the soil, and who better to know whether things were actually improving or not? Clearly they felt that many of the older ways were preferable, whatever the labor-saving advantages of the new. The new mechanical techniques were faster and more efficient, but they took a person away from the soil, increased debt, and transformed the farmer into a technologist and a tender of machines. “The tangible manifestations of the belief in progress are mechanization and centralization,” said Ogden, and neither one was inherently attractive. Farming became work, as opposed to a way of life. The farmers looking back with justified nostalgia were pointing out that traditional farming had been about more than efficiency. They remembered the lost past with a yearning for a simpler life, with fewer material goods, no doubt, but filled with family, traditions, good food, and the pleasures of well-deserved leisure. As had the Luddites, they were saying, with pens instead of hammers, that the machine was destroying a culture.
The question of who demonized work is an important one, for as anyone knows, it can give great joy and be immensely satisfying when it is something one genuinely likes doing. Not much mechanized labor today falls into that category, whether it is sitting in front of a computer or tending a machine in a factory. If work is done only for what it achieves or what is earned by doing it, rather than for its intrinsic ability to satisfy and please, it becomes an activity demeaned by association, say the agrarians. If the idea is then lodged in the mind that work is bad and leisure good, and that they are entities that must be kept separate, then what might be a creative and productive activity is handed over to a willing industry. Why have a garden when agribusiness can supply your dinner? Why raise chickens when eggs from the industrialized egg industry are so handy? Why knit a sweater when machine knits are so much cheaper? Why hang your clothes outside when the dryer can do this for you? It is therefore in the interest of industry to encourage the idea of work as undesirable; to isolate it as a commodity from ordinary life so that leisure, or the machines to create leisure, can be sold.
The demonization of labor created a parallel elevation of leisure that in turn created the leisure industry. Industrialized leisure tends to separate individuals from family, community, tradition, and culture and to impose a standardized, sanitized illusion of experience in an ersatz world—dare one mention Disney World or Carnival Cruise? This sort of leisure was not what the agrarians had in mind. The family together, but clustered gazing blankeyed at the pale blue light of television, is not what the agrarians had in mind either.
Is big really better because it is more efficient? Gene Logsdon, whose books on farming appeal as much to the nonfarmer as to the farmer, as did Louis Bromfield’s before him, points out that big is not so much about efficiency as it is about power. Small, manageable farms can indeed compete, he says, because they are small and if they are not burdened with debt. Current economic policies favor large-scale corporate farming—seem, in fact, to be designed to do away with family farms. Making a go of the small holding does means ignoring present-day methods of cost accounting for what he calls pastoral economics. Simply put, this is a different way of calculating success.
Realistically, the difficulty with resisting the latest machinery, overloaded with unnecessary gadgetry, comes not simply from economic and social pressures to conform and compete but from the lack of an alternative. Amish farmers have an advantage because they have created their own community support system. When a piece of equipment breaks down, there are replacement parts available. The Amish see little use for education beyond age sixteen but find good use for their most intelligent young people, who can apply their talents and keen minds to perfecting tools and equipment that the rest of the society ignores. Thus, though the horse may pull the cultivator or a more complex piece of equipment is the best and most efficient it can be. So “efficiency” is not to be entirely despised in itself but kept in its place. Efficiency can be a helpful factor when not allowed to dictate the show. What is crucial is to create a system in which other values—of community, family, leisure, pleasure—can be factored in.
Diversity in human culture and experience is just as important as diversity in the natural world. Indeed, just as plant and animal life needs no human usefulness to justify its right to exist, neither should these precious lost skills require justification. The loss of culture and tradition and artistry is a loss to all humanity. The handcrafted object retains that all-important imprint of humanness that is vital to remembering who and what we are. Ye efficient production trumped everything else. Handwork is almost exclusively reserved now for the discriminating few within an upper-income minority.
Because it was so closely linked to efficiency, speed because a highly desirable quality as well. Improving the pace of the machine because a preoccupation of capitalism. Change was overstimulated—that is, it began to occur at a faster pace than it would have without the driving energy of capitalism—and the rate of acceleration became artificial and unsettling. Change proceeded at a pace that made adaptation and assimilation difficult if not impossible, thus creating a level of stress that has now become a given of developed societies.
Observers of the new technology noted that people now lived with sources of heat, light, and communication that they could adjust without any awareness of how they worked. These were, in truth, the new urban barbarians, possessed of a fragmented knowledge base but without any real concept of how their world operated. Theirs was, in fact, a more profound ignorance than that of the supposed Dark Ages. One pull of the plug and society—the great bulk of the population—risked being plunged into a deep primitivism where the average individual would be unable to meet his or her most basic physical needs. Chicken nuggets, they would discover, do not grow on trees, and the thermostat on the wall does not generate heat. “Society is composed of persons who cannot design, build, repair, or even operate most of the devices upon which their lives depend,” said Winner.
Hints of the new barbarianism appeared briefly in New Zealand in 1998 when the electricity in Auckland went out and could not be reestablished for weeks. Chaos was the result: lights failed, water didn’t flow, toilets didn’t flush, air conditioning stopped, televisions were blank, elevators didn’t work, electronically controlled doors didn’t open, cash registers and computers were useless. Security devices didn’t work, and shopkeepers were left defending their stores themselves, sleeping in the dark with weapons. And it went on and on. Business couldn’t operate; people couldn’t cook, had no sanitation, couldn’t open the windows in the climate-controlled buildings, couldn’t function. Society broke down, and the downtown became a ghost town plagued by gangs and graffiti until electric power was restored only after many attempts some six weeks later. The system had become so complicated and interdependent that restoring it proved more challenging than anyone could have imagined. It was a warning to the rest of the developed world that was like the whisper of a dream. It went ignored. We have an astonishing and irrational optimism that the systems that support this dependent life will eternally remain in place. Call it faith.
The question of what tools do to community is one that Schumacher had already addressed. What precisely is appropriate or “intermediate” technology? Schumaacher was an economist. What seems to have started his contemplation of technology was the problem of underdeveloped nations and the question of how developed nations could lend a hand. The question of technology was a vital one. Did you transfer something high-tech, train individuals, and hope that the industry would pull the rest of the county up to its standard? Schumacher thought this unlikely. The technology would typically employ few people, and it would be isolated in the culture, not really helpful at all. Far better, he said, to set up intermediate technologies that were perhaps less efficient but employed more people and could be integrated into the existing culture.