If technology becomes a tyrant, she ousts it

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.

Ms. Fox is a self-described "neo-Luddite," a reference to Ned Ludd and the early-1800s English rebellion against the Industrial Revolution. Although she has no interest in smashing machines, as angered factory workers once did, she struggles with the paradox of a world in which technology, developed to aid humans, seems to weigh on them more and more.

She has written a book, "Against the Machine: The Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art, and Individual Lives" (Island Press/Shearwater Books, $25), which explores the history of resistance to relentless mechanization.

In doing so, she examines not only her own ambivalence about technology but the pressures it can create for all of us to stay abreast of the times.

"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."

In her book, Fox says that machines and humans are basically incompatible, and that she wanted to chronicle the tradition of resistance to technology.

Like the original Luddites, these resisters may appear to have lost to the mighty machine. Yet she believes opponents have left a trail of solid thinking that deserves to be considered and appreciated.

That trail runs from the 19-century naturalist, Henry David Thoreau, who used a one-room house at Walden Pond outside Boston to commune with nature, to a present-day empathizer like Bill Coperthwaite, director of the Yurt Foundation in Bucks Harbor, Maine, who chooses not to have a telephone and picks up his mail only once a week.

In examining their path and others like them, Fox takes readers on a journey of reflection not unlike the trail she has followed in her own life.

Looking back, she believes the experience of living in her grandparents' log home as a child and observing the simple life they led helped to shape her perspective.

There, in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, canning and crafting were commonplace. This setting, along with the warmth of a home with wood-plank floors and a marvelous stone fireplace, brought Fox closer to nature.

In fact, in researching "Against the Machine," Fox has come to realize how much simple, natural pleasures weave their way through so many of her seemingly random daily preferences. 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.

For Fox, a personal turning point in her philosophy came in college, when, in an English history class, she first learned of the Luddite Rebellion. Since then, she says, every mention of the word Luddite has made her sit up and listen.

Fox says the essence of Luddism is far from violence. Instead, it is "respect and confidence in those things that make us human. ... It questions the domination of science and the elevation of efficiency to a superior value. It rejects materiality."

Some people, Fox learned, live this philosophy uncompromisingly. She writes about a couple who moved from California to Maine to live alone for 35 years on an island, with no modern conveniences. Just as determinedly, a group called the Benders in England fashion homes of bendable hazel sticks in order to live as lightly as possible on the earth.

Unlike some of the people she discovered in researching her book, Fox doesn't totally reject technology.

"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."

In a sense, Fox wrote her book to show those resistant to today's technology - from "back-to-the-landers"to environmentalists - that they come from a rich tradition. She doesn't expect them to raise their hammers against machines, but simply to express a preference.

"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."

How to exercise these choices sometimes involves walking a fine line. Take doing the laundry, for example.

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.

On the other hand, she considers a washing machine worth holding onto. Why? Because washing takes exertion either way, and modern washers, like the old ringer models, still rely on the same basic process - sloshing stuff around.

Such pragmatism enters Fox's thinking in other ways. She owns what she calls a "generic car," a no-frills VW Jetta with standard transmission.

She's not convinced, though, that cars provide the ultimate in freedom, especially considering what people pay to buy them and keep them on the road. It's a form, she says, of modern technological tyranny.

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 making her choices, Fox takes up some of the points author Wendell Berry makes about buying new tools. He likes a tool that is better, cheaper, and more energy-efficient than the one it replaces. Fox says she also likes to consider whether they are enduring, nontoxic, and recyclable.

But what's most important is that people control how tools are used.

In the case of her television, for example, she tunes in only when there's a compelling reason. She watched war coverage from Iraq until, after several days, she felt she'd had enough. And she never uses her computer for aimless e-mail chatting.

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."

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