I just finished a thoughtful article by Matthew Dickerson published in Flourish magazine. From what I can tell from its website, Flourish is a relatively new venture dedicated to creation care and “equipping churches to better love God by reviving human lives and the landscapes on which they depend.”
In this piece he argues that Wendell Berry, Tolkien, and Lewis present Christian arguments against an over-reliance on technology.
Here is his interpretation of the anti-technology message of Tolkien’s The Hobbit:
Tolkien’s attitude toward technology surfaces early on in The Hobbit. Consider how he introduces goblins—which in his later works came to be known as orcs:
Now goblins are cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted. They make no beautiful things, but they make many clever ones. They can tunnel and mine as well as any but the most skilled dwarves, when they take the trouble, though they are usually untidy and dirty. Hammers, axes, swords, daggers, pickaxes, tongs, and also instruments of torture, they make very well, or get other people to make to their design, prisoners and slaves that have to work till they die for want of air and light. It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them.
Some of the adjectives and phrases used to described goblins could, in another context, be accolades. Goblins are clever and skilled. They are inventive and ingenious. They are capable of design. All of this creativity, however, is of a very particular kind. Goblins make machines. They are associated with wheels and engines. They are not interested in beauty, but in efficiency.
Tolkien’s goblins are technological creatures. This characteristic is particularly striking when contrasted with Tolkien’s hobbits, who, we are told in the foreword to The Lord of the Rings, “do not and did not understand or like machines more complicated than a forge-bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom, though they were skillful with tools.”
And this, perhaps, is the first important observation about Tolkien’s attitude toward technology. While hobbits and the culture of the Shire are by no means perfect, theirs is nonetheless portrayed as a healthy society that is worth great effort to protect. By contrast, Tolkien refers to the goblins in terms that are far from morally neutral. They are “cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted.” At least the last two of these are explicit terms of moral evil. Tolkien, then, appears to be associating an attraction to technology with moral evil.
The moral condemnation does not necessarily apply to any use of technology, nor to any creature that uses technology. At least here, the judgment applies to a particular type of technology—or, perhaps more accurately, to a particular use of technology. Tolkien associates the evil of goblin technology with two things: technology as a means of avoiding work, and technology as a means of dominating other wills. The latter is especially important. Goblin technology is used to enslave and to conquer.