Faith in technology is one of the central tenets of the modern age. Becausetechnological development is equated with progress, the technological world-view has been adopted by virtually every ideology and political regime the world over. All technology is good; more is better. Those who criticize this orthodoxy are seen as delusional or, worse, as dangerous. Speaking against technology is heresy. Thus, whenever antitechnological ideas and social movements take shape, they are ridiculed by the intelligentsia and often ruthlessly suppressed by governments. Still, the rage against the machine has had a long intellectual and political tradition. Since the Industrial Revolution, these ideas have been articulated and even developed into something of a coherent corpus. Today, despite the increasing spread of technology, they are as alive as ever. Against the Machine traces the origins of these ideas as they developed in the West over the last 200 years among artists, philosophers, and writers.
Nicols Fox is a veteran journalist and author who has written largely about the food industry and food-borne diseases. Her foray into the history of antitechnology was sparked by her own frustrations with technology and an awareness of the growing debate over its detrimental social and psychological consequences. Modern societies are characterized by anger, cynicism, and “stress,” all of which she believes are ultimately attributed to rapid technological change and the integration of technology into almost every facet of human existence. The orthodox belief in the inherent goodness (or, at least, necessity) of technology transcends the ideological spectrum; similarly, antitechnological ideas and movements have been promoted by reactionaries and progressives alike. Fox, however, devotes the bulk of her book to an examination of the ideas of liberal and leftist thinkers—thus clearly revealing her own ideological bias.
Fox begins with a brief chapter on a neo-Luddite couple, Arthur and Nan Kellam, who left the comforts of suburbia to settle on a secluded island off the coast of Maine after World War II, where they lived without electricity and other modern comforts for some 40 years, until they died in old age. Fox intends this example to underscore the fact that the tradition of simple living, while unbeknownst to main-stream America, has not been just for a few antisocial kooks; rather, many people have pursued it for generations. Subsequent chapters discuss the development of the Luddite tradition, and of the broader notion of freedom from industrial and urban society, by Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Morris, and naturalists John Muir and Aldo Leopold. Fox also gives space to an assortment of 20th-century agrarian and environmental thinkers.
While the focus of the neo-Luddites has changed over two centuries, consistent themes unite their thinking. Nineteenth-century criticism focused on the displacement of artisans by machines, the despoliation of the countryside, and the abysmal conditions of rapidly expanding cities. Twentieth-century critics have examined broader trends, such as the development of a technological society and its inordinate power over human beings and the natural world, resulting in a diminution of personal freedom, of moral and aesthetic standards, of countryside and wilderness, of human relations, and of culture and civilization. Fox alludes to the spiritual vacuum that has occurred as a result of the widespread dependence on technology—without ever fully developing this theme and while offering the usual platitudinous remarks about Eastern religions having a more harmonious and less controlling and exploitative view of nature than Christianity does. (Never mind that Asia has some of the worst environmental problems on earth.)
Fox spends even less time examining Christian perspectives on technology. This failure is the central flaw of the book, which leads the reader to believe that Christian thinkers were either silent about or wholly supportive of the inexorable spread of technology over the last two centuries. Moreover, by omitting religious thinkers, Fox also omits most conservative thinkers from consideration. She does spend a few pages discussing the Southern Agrarians, complimenting their valiant intellectual efforts to defend their culture from the ravages of industrialization and even acknowledging that, despite the presence of slavery, agrarian life in the South had something worth preserving. In the end, though, Fox declares that conservatives do not have a monopoly on shared tradition or community.
Another Christian intellectual and social movement that Fox completely bypasses is the English distributist movement of the 1920’s and 30’s. G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Fr. Vincent McNabb, and a host of others went much further in their critiques of industrialization and its effects than any of their secular liberal contemporaries did. Theirs was a coherent political, cultural, and economic program that sought to counter industrialization and the capitalist and socialist ideologies that promoted it, and it was profoundly shaped by Church teaching and tradition. Fox does discuss the work of economist E.F. Schumacher, whose “Small Is Beautiful” formulation is closely linked to that of distributism. Similarly, Christian principles helped to solidify Schumacher’s thinking and made him realize the importance of developing an economy based on the human scale. Yet, the fact that this onetime adherent of Buddhism later became a Catholic and was heavily influenced by the social teachings of the Church is never mentioned.
Fox makes ample reference to the French sociologist Jacques Ellul (1912-96), best known for his seminal work, The Technological Society. Ellul saw the problem of technology as the manifestation of a deeper philosophical problem inherent in the proliferation of “technique,” which he defined as the fixation on means over ends. This process of never-ending analysis and the implementation of techniques to solve social and scientific “problems” through the development of institutions or machines has created unparalleled human power and, with it, unparalleled human anxiety and alienation. Fox neglects to explore these finer theoretical points in any detail; nor does she mention that Ellul was also a Christian theologian—a follower of Karl Barth who believed that the only way out of technological totalitarianism is the pursuit of a strategy of Christian anarchy. This alternative would require Christians to remove themselves from the grip of the machine and to form small communities where they can live disciplined spiritual and material lives based on the example of Christ’s own humble existence.
Many of the author’s omissions can doubtless be attributed to simple ignorance. Unfortunately, hers is an ignorance that is shared by most latter-day Christians, few of whom are exposed to any coherent critique of the encroachment of technology and its real and potential threats to society and spiritual life. (Christians cannot even agree on the immorality of abortion, let alone of such insidious technological “breakthroughs” as cloning.) This naiveté is surprising, given that religion has declined precipitously in virtually every country where technology reigns (the so-called industrial democracies); by contrast, religious skepticism is rare in agrarian societies. One might suggest that the technological society has developed its own brand of faith—a faith no longer bound to the Creator and His Creation but to Man and Production and rooted ultimately in an undying commitment to rationalism, of which technology is the most tangible material consequence.
As Nicols Fox emphasizes in her concluding chapter, the technological juggernaut cannot be halted or ignored. However, if enough people begin to regard the development and use of technology with a measure of healthy skepticism rather than with blind faith or indifference, its impact can at least be controlled. For Christians, the approach to all things technological requires an even more vigilant stand. First, living the simple life that Christ taught is the best way to keep technology at bay at the individual and family levels. Second, in society, Christians must maintain a vigilant watch over the new technological priesthood and its designs for an earthly heaven. Prudence with respect to the development and use of all technologies, from automobiles to genetic engineering, is essential to protect our Faith, our culture, and our sanity.
[Against the Machine: The Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art and Individual Lives, by Nicols Fox (Washington, D.C.: Island Press) 405 pp., $25.00]