David F. Noble: "The Luddite from York University" *

Historians in the News

Canada has been keeping up with the United States in producing considerable numbers of flaky academic extremists. But it is doubtful that any are as bizarre as David F. Noble.*

Noble teaches at York University in Toronto, Canada’s third-largest school. Originally a graduate from the University of Florida, Noble is today a full, tenured professor of “social and political thought” in the Faculty of Arts at York. Interestingly, he is the ONLY professor in that department. Evidently, after recruiting him Noble was such an embarrassment that York had to build a one-man separate department to house him, removing him from his previous position in its history department. Noble has built a career mainly upon his obsessive opposition to all forms of technology. He is literally a 21st century Luddite and he is quite proud of that fact. (Don’t bother trying to look up his personal web page or his email address because he ideologically opposes such things!)

Noble embodies a strange hybrid of Marxism and crackpot Luddism. He proudly proclaims himself to be a “critical historian,” which is PC Newspeak for “Marxist.” Among other things, he has published Progress Without People: In Defense of Luddism and Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation, both books devoted to the theme that technology is an evil plot by the “capitalist class” to oppress workers. Machines are simply things used to force down the wages of the worker. Noble’s conclusions in these books are that the best defense of workers is to suppress modern technology altogether. Noble dismisses all anti-Luddist people, and if you are reading this on a computer screen then I regret to inform you that YOU are one of those blinded “technophiles” and “technozealots”.

Now if you are anything other than a devout member of an Amish sect, you might find all this a bit confusing. I would bet a month of my own technology-enhanced wages that there is nearly a perfect POSITIVE correlation between the number of machines around and the wage level of workers. That is - the more machines, the higher the wage rates of workers! Similarly, I venture to guess that there is almost a perfect correlation between the number of technological innovations and the level of wages. Moreover, a wonderful thing about technology in one country is that it raises wages even in other societies where few technological innovations are being created (such as when measured by patent registrations).

In Noble’s theories, much of the blame for the curse of technology is assigned to Christianity. According to him Christianity, going back to the Middle Ages, did not have enough good sense to oppose technology. It should have prevented scientists from setting themselves up as demigods of technology. Moreover, Christian thinkers actually had the temerity to suggest that machines and innovations could be used to better mankind and might even be part of God’s master plans. Part of Noble’s “proof” that it was “all Christianity’s fault,” by the way, is his claim that Werner von Braun from NASA was a born-again Christian. Noble’s anti-Christian ideas are expounded at length in one of his other books, The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention. He also blames Christianity for the relative dearth of women in science. And now, in his latest book, he more even-handedly blames both Christianity and Judaism for “globalization,” his current bogeyman.

In another Noble book, Forces of Production, he claims to explain how technology is often instigated, connived, and shaped by the military, corporations, universities, and other “mighty institutions.” Noble claims that “capitalists” are plotting to impose their views coercively upon students via institutions of higher education. How exactly this works is not clear. Noble seems to be unaware of the hegemony of leftists over most North American institutions of higher learning. So if those evil “capitalists” are plotting to brainwash hapless students by means of their “commercializing” higher education, as Noble insists over and over, they are doing a darned lousy job of it!

Back in 1983, Noble co-founded the National Coalition for Universities in the Public Interest, together with Ralph Nader (and Al Meyerhoff), to try "to bring extra-academic pressure to bear upon university administrations who were selling out their colleagues and the public in the pursuit of corporate partnerships." Noble claims his aim has been to “have chronicled and fought against the commercialization and corporatization of higher education.” He also claims he is fighting “commodification” of higher education. We have no idea what “corporatization” and “commodification” are supposed to mean. Like most leftists, the principal methodology of analysis used by Noble is the manufacture of senseless polysyllables.

One would think that most mainstream leftists and liberals would seek to distance themselves from Noble’s anti-technology crackpot views. But for someone who dismisses universities as captives of the evil business class, Noble gets an awful lot of invitations to speak on assorted campuses. Many among the chic chattering classes seem to adore him. When he got canned from MIT, a group of 44 British academics rushed out, publicly defended and endorsed Noble. However, not everyone on the Left appreciates him. Even Noble’s supporters often describe him as polemical in his writings and abrasive in his manner. After Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editor of far-leftist The Nation, commissioned Noble to write a piece for the magazine, she had the uncharacteristic good sense to refuse to run it.

*A bit ironically, there is another David F. Noble, who writes books singing the praises of technology and computer word processing, but the two should not be confused....

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Lorraine Paul - 10/26/2005

My goodness! Is US society so narrow that The Nation is considered 'far-left'?

If so, that is very sad!