The Eye of the Luddite: Ruminations on Anti-Technological Themes in the Rocky Series

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There is a tendency among many in our culture to conflate the idea of “progress” with technological advance. The advent of the iPhone 6 is the next step “forward” in mankind’s (and gyno-kind’s, I suppose) evolution towards becoming an enlightened, intelligent species. The message has been drilled into us for the past 150 years or so by the priestly scientist caste, who have promised us absolution, atonement and the alleviation of all of life’s supposed ills, if only we pledge ourselves and our faith in the seemingly unending and supposedly unerring path of technological advance. War, famine, disease, boredom–as technology advanced, there was to be a corresponding decrease in the suffering and discomfort inherent in daily life.

Obviously, none of this has come to pass. Technology has advanced to the point that it’s almost superfluous to distinguish between it and magic, and yet people are still fucking miserable–perhaps in many more and varied ways than they had been in the past. Certainly some of that technology has been good. Indoor plumbing, heating, refrigeration, internet porn–I would be open to hearing any argument that such inventions have legitimately improved life on this planet. They are all things I’d personally hate to live without, so I’d appreciate it if somebody could convince me that these inventions are just and noble. But there seems to have been a point where technology stopped being useful and started becoming superfluous. Beyond some of the aforementioned technologies, and perhaps a few others, I have a difficult time believing that life on this planet is so much more worthwhile because I can play Candy Crush while I’m taking a dump. (Do people still play Candy Crush, or is this reference a bit too quaint?)

And, furthermore, as technology giveth, so to can it taketh away, and the price we have paid for these advancements has been rather steep. The environment is ruined. The gap between the Haves and the Have Nots continues to increase. War and famine are still rampant and actually much easier to impose on others due to our technological advances. The concept of heroism is on its death knell. Who needs to slay dragons and save princesses (or princes) in real life when you can shoot aliens on your XBox? Who needs to fight in an actual battle and earn honor and glory in hand-to-hand combat with a worthy adversary when you can simply kill dozens of nameless brown people thousands of miles away in a couple of seconds with your keyboard and mouse? Who needs actual adventure and daring exploits when you can brave the elements as you wait two weeks outside of the nearest Apple store for an iWatch?

Personally, I don’t think we’re necessarily better off with better technology. I think technology makes certain aspects of our lives better, and there are certainly different products of technology that I would prefer greatly not to live without—particularly toilet paper and ice cubes (N.B. that in the apocalyptic future, while others are killing and maiming and raiding for oil, I will be doing the same, only for 10 pound bags of ice and rolls of Charmin Extra Soft). I also, obviously, at the very least, enjoy things like the internet and cell phones and television and my car, etc. as I use pretty much all of these things on a daily basis. I’m sitting here now, in front of a computer, obviously, typing this essay. When I’m finished, I will consider posting this on the world wide webs where no one except for my mother will read it. Therefore, if I say I don’t actually feel as if any of the aforementioned technologies has actually improved my life, I must either be lying (to myself and/or to others) or I must be hypocritical (which is the same as lying to myself and/or to others).

But I don’t see this to be the case at all. I do enjoy the aforementioned technologies. And while I do believe they have made some aspects of my life better, I don’t feel as if they have made my life as a whole better. They make completing certain tasks in my life easier. It’s downright astonishing that we can fly across the world in less than a day, or that I can reads articles on my phone while I’m on the shitter, or that I know what to wear tomorrow because technology tells me whether it’s going to snow or not. But is my “quality of life” any better than a member of the, say, Cayuga tribe prior to the introduction of the White Eye to the land? I tend to believe probably not. In fact, I’m probably fucked, because I’ve become so dependent on some of these technologies, and I’ve enmeshed myself to them in several harmful ways.

First enmeshment: I’m so dependent on these technologies that I’m willing to spend my hard-earned cash to pay and maintain them, even though most of them are not really worth the money I spend. Money is much better spent on things other than, say, the cost of satellite TV and all its noxious nonsense.

Second enmeshment: All of this technology runs on either gas or electricity. Most electricity is provided by fossil fuels. And so my dependence on technology is contributing to the destruction of this wonderful planet we live on and I’m dooming my descendants to a life of tortuous, post-apocalyptic chaos. That is, if there is to be any human life at all. Furthermore, and somewhat tangential to this point, most of our modern technological toys run on materials that are gathered by slave children in 3rd world countries. The materials are then sold to manufacturers through what is essentially a black market. Approximately 5 million people have been slaughtered in Congo just so we can watch YouTube videos while we’re supposed to be driving. So not only am I contributing to the death of my environment, I’m literally contributing to the torture, enslavement, and murder of a bunch of human beings in some far off country that I can conveniently pretend not to know about.

Third enmeshment: One of the primary problems of depending on technology in such a manner is that we end up handicapping ourselves in a myriad of miserable ways. For example, my glorious (superfluous?) smartphone is wonderfully convenient in that it stores all of my music on one, small, lightweight, and portable device. Now what happens when I forget that I left my smartphone in the right pocket of my dungarees and I throw said dungarees into the washer at the Laundromat? I’ll tell you what happens because I’ve done it before. I LOSE ALL OF MY FUCKING MUSIC. (Full disclosure: I’ve never actually owned a smartphone–even at the continual protestation of my “peers,” but I do own a cheap MP3 player that I have thrown in the washer at least 5 or 6 times, but using the MP3 as an example seemed dated and obsolete and definitely not cool.)

The other thing that happens is we become retarded. If Mad Max ever does happen, are any of you surviving? Because I’m sure as hell not. I don’t know how to start fires by rubbing two sticks together, I don’t know how to hunt with a spear, I can’t grow shit, I don’t know how to ride and/or “break” a horse, I don’t know how to establish my location in the world by looking at the stars and I don’t know how to find fresh water and I sure as fuck don’t know how to entertain myself without a television or a computer. In short: I’M FUCKED. And my family is fucked too. I can’t even raise a tent. And if there’s anybody reading this, you’re probably fucked because you probably know even less about this shit than I do. At least I live in the middle of fucking nowhere, where I have to deal with the loss of civilization from time to time (lights go out, no running water, etc.), but you probably live in some sprawling fucking urban utopia somewhere where all of the things that keep you from losing the survival of the fittest are within a block or two from your technologically barricaded house.

And for what? We’ve destroyed our future in all and every way in which we can think–all so you can buy a fucking Nook or Kindle or some other pansy-ass shit to save you from having to build a fucking bookshelf and actually having to, you know, turn a page or some shit. What a bunch of fucking morons. There was a time when the only way to listen to music was to do so live, probably with somebody you were close to or cared about. That sounds terrible. There was a time when to see some shitty Hollywood movie you actually had to go to a theatre to do so…with others. It was a communal experience. Blech. The only redeeming quality about the internet is that porn is so goddamned easy to get a hold of. We are DOOMED. We have brought this upon ourselves. We suck. It’s all a sham, and we’ve fallen for it hook, line, and sinker. Because we’re not sheep—we’re not even that goddamned capable. No, we’re fish. We’re a creature that sees something that kind of, sort of, maybe, from a weird angle looks like a worm, and we bite. Because that’s easier than actually coming to terms with the fact that it’s not a worm, it’s a sharp hook attached to a string with some power on the other end just waiting for me to jab the damned thing into my cheek. The worm is an illusion. It’s all an illusion.

By Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources via Flickr (cc by-nd 2.0).
We’re fish.
By Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources via Flickr (cc by-nd 2.0).

What’s interesting to me is that for all of the criticism and talk and words written about such films as The Matrix, Blade Runner, Existenz, 2001, etc., the films which best—or, at least most entertainingly—explore the effects of all this technology on our collective psyche, are the Rocky films. No other films in my opinion, do a better, purer job of showing how technology doesn’t make our lives better. Or, at least, they show how technology doesn’t really make any of us a better boxer. And they do this without preaching or without long-winded expositional monologues about it. Hell, most people watch the movies and don’t ever come away with the idea that the Rocky films have anything halfway eloquent to say about the limitations of technology. But that’s only because it’s not heavy-handed in its message. The message is subtle. It’s probably even done accidentally…but the messages are there nonetheless, if one looks at these movies with the right set of eyes.

In order to prove my points, we’re going to have to begin from Rocky IV, which, out of the entire series, is most direct and surefooted about its luddite-ness.

Rocky IV is the quintessential luddite movie. It has to be. Perhaps the greatest training montage in the history of cinema spends around 5 minutes comparing and contrasting the differences between the titular character’s training methods and the antagonist, Ivan Drago’s (Dolph Lundgren). While training, Rocky lives out in what is as close as we can get to calling something “literally the middle of fucking nowhere.” There is very little technology in this environment. With the possible exception of the establishing shot of the scene, there doesn’t appear to be any electricity in Rocky’s training quarters. There certainly isn’t any heat, as pretty much every other shot exhibits Rocky performing some kind of an exercise in front of a fire. And who knows if there’s even any running water? There is some technology to be sure. There are axles and pulleys and wheels, but nothing that I think most people would qualify as “complex” or “advanced” or “modern.” Hell, there probably wasn’t any processed food-product of any kind. No protein shakes, no cold cuts, no Gatorade. Just watching that montage gets me all up in a lather for raw Russian boar intestine and bear jugulars—both of which having been recently slain by a contraction of Rocky’s fast-twitch pectoral muscles.

Drago, on the other hand, is utterly surrounded by electricity and by the type of machinery that is so advanced that the movie is damn near 30 years old and the shit still looks futuristic. Not only that, but he’s shown receiving an injection of steroids, itself a form of technology that, by its very existence, shows disdain for naturalness and, you know, actually doing work (which, in the end, is really what technology is all about—having to not do shit).

And we all know how the movie ends. The fighter who secluded himself from the whole of civilization and all its technologies overcomes the behemoth who represents the so-called progress of technology and supposed power and improvement it brings to our lives. After all, if Dolph Lundgren, while taking advantage of all of the most modern of technologies to become, as I feel the movie suggests, the most well-trained athlete in the history of human existence, still can’t beat Rocky, who trained with the wolves, essentially, well then, technology really isn’t all that it claims to be. In fact, the United States of America, with all of its spy technology and endless silos of nuclear warheads wasn’t actually able to end the Cold War. Instead, it was Rocky Balboa, a single, solitary man who fought battles the pre-technological way— with his fists—who ended the Cold War. It doesn’t get much more luddite than that.

Still, counterarguments can be made that if the film provides such a pro-luddite stance, what is Paulie’s robot doing in the film? Furthermore, it seems somewhat within the realm of reason to believe Stallone himself had some kind of chemical/hormonal help in developing that herculean physique of his. (In fact, labeling his look in the film “herculean” is almost an understatement. While not quite overblown and swole like many juicers, his lack of body fat is basically a caricature of what “in shape” is supposed to look like.)

Nevertheless, I only said the film contained anti-technological themes, not anti-hypocritical ones.

Rocky III also contains an anti-technology motif, although in a much more subtle manner. The movie itself begins with Paulie playing the role of luddite by destroying a machine. That machine is a pinball game with Rocky’s image on it. To me, it seems as if the argument could be made that this is an example of Paulie resisting Rocky’s acceptance of civilization and its technology.
Then, about a quarter through the film there is a scene that shows Rocky taking advantage of such things as stationary bikes, player pianos and 1980s fashion. All the while, Mr. T trains in a dungeon, performing pull-ups on a pair of ropes attached to his ceiling and situps from the edge of a cliff or something. Again, like the training montage in Rocky IV, this sequence seems to imply that the fighter who will go on to become the loser (in this case, Rocky) has been co-opted and corrupted by civilization and its technology. Rocky was a great fighter when he was hungry and not spoiled by such technologies as motorcycles, mansions, sports cars, and hair dye for his suddenly not-bad-looking wife. Mr. T isn’t yet corrupted and co-opted by such things, thus he will go on to win the fight.

In order to regain redemption and what the movie calls “the eye of the tiger,” Rocky must accept training from his former nemesis Apollo Creed. What this means, we find out, is giving up most of the amenities of modern civilization. He must move to the ghetto and live without air conditioning and the other modern comforts that civilization’s technology provides for him. Rocky must now train without stationary bikes and player pianos. Instead, he will train with “rhythm,” something machines and technology don’t really have (sure, they can be programmed to keep or produce a rhythm, but they in and of themselves don’t have it). He will train with bouncy balls and by running on the beach. In short, he must turn his back on civilization as he knows it and most of its technologies in order to win.

And win he does.

In Rocky V, Rocky trains a young, up-and-coming fighter by the name of Tommy Gunn. In many ways the actual tommy gun represented a huge step forward for technology. It is a fast, high-performing, fully automatic firearm. It made the business of killing quite efficient. It was a grand machine. In fact, it is even called a “machine” gun. But in the movie, what does Tommy Gun do? It turns on its maker–the person who made him a dangerous fighter in the first place. Tommy Gun decides he wants to fight Rocky to prove that he is a better and more advanced fighter, and even physically attacks Rocky, an analogy showing that technology in the end cannot be trusted. And, furthermore, how does Rocky finally defeat the younger, quicker, better Tommy Gunn? In a street fight. In a situation that is as anti-civilization, anti-machine as possible. Not even the rules of the boxing ring, or the various technology inherited therein (gloves, ring, ref, rules, ringside doctors, etc.) are present. Just Rocky and his old-school ways of fighting, which Tommy Gunn, because of his dependence on the technologies of the ring, isn’t qualified to handle.

Finally, in Rocky Balboa, the whole plot is put into motion by a machine, by technology. More specifically, by a computer. Rocky and others watch an ESPN presentation (ESPN itself being a form of technology that wouldn’t exist without other forms of technology), whereupon a computer simulation explores how a Rocky in his prime would fare against current champion Mason Dixon. Rocky wins in the simulation, which irritates Mason Dixon and intrigues Rocky. Technology sets this whole thing in motion, because technology is not trustworthy. The computer simulation wasn’t enough to satisfy everyone. They needed to see the real fight between two human beings in order to have any closure to the nonsensical and inconsequential question posed. The boxing match between an old fogie and a current champion is such a bad, stupid, fantastically dangerous idea that only a computer, ESPN, and the media in general (fueled by technological advances, obviously) would make it possible.

Going back to the first two films in the Rocky series, the luddite motif is admittedly not nearly as pronounced. And in fact, I don’t feel as if I am really qualified to comment on Rocky II in this context as it is my least favorite of the series and so I haven’t watched it as much. However, even in the original Rocky, we see hints of this luddite-ness by such things as Rocky punching the raw meat, as opposed to a heavy bag, eating a raw egg instead of one fried or boiled by the technologies that produce heat, and by the the repeated imagery of some residents of Rocky’s neighborhood standing around blazing trashcan fires for heat and singing songs instead of listening to them on radios. This seems to suggest that Rocky hails from a less civilized, less technologically advanced habitat. He’s more primal than Apollo Creed. Technology hasn’t yet tainted Balboa, which is partially why he’s such a pure and noble character. Rocky doesn’t even appear to own a car. His trainer is an old fogie who owns a boxing gym that could generously be described as “vintage” (as opposed to “obsolete”). Furthermore, his opponent is Apollo Creed, a fighter who, in my estimation, represents all that is “new” and “improved” and “advanced” by Rocky’s time. He’s quicker, more athletic, better trained, more entertaining, and more efficient. In short, Apollo Creed is everything technology is supposed to be, and everything Rocky isn’t.

One question that came up for me while writing this piece is that while Rocky always wins, what does he win exactly? We can safely say that the Rocky films attempt to prove that the old ways of doing things, with as minimal technology as possible, is ultimately better. But better for what, exactly?

Well, I believe it goes back to what I mentioned earlier about heroism dying in the face of technological advance. Rocky goes out, slays dragons, saves princesses, and has many tales of adventure and exploits to tell. He’s human. Technology has no stories to tell. At best, it’s a tool for telling stories. Rocky wins because he never completely loses his humanity. He never places his faith wholly into a machine. He has faith in himself and he is noble because of it.

In Rocky III the first montage of the movie cuts between Clubber Lang boxing and training, and Rocky boxing, doing commercials and buying a motorcycle. This brief scene is a symbol for where Rocky’s sense of value has now gone. He has now placed his faith and his fate into a machine. His happiness and his sense of self-worth are now enmeshed with that motorcycle. And he loses viciously because of it.

Rocky is Nietzsche’s Ubermensch. And we can conclude by noting that Nietzsche never wrote about an Ubermachine, because technology by its very nature is anti-heroic.

Mr. Furious

Mr. Furious

Mr. Furious lives in rural southern Colorado and tries to live as boring, apathetic and lazy a life as possible. He is hoping one day to be invited to do a "Life Class" for "Super Soul Sundays" on the Oprah Winfrey Network. You can read his short fiction, poetry and short essays at www.puerileandpointless.blogspot.com. He wrote a really stupid novel called " Puerile and Pointless with no Hope for Enlightenment" that you can purchase at Amazon and waste your time with. He can be contacted and/or harassed at misterfurious1@yahoo.com.
Mr. Furious
  • Bob Johnson

    Excellent piece.

  • Joe Smith

    Is this an 8th grade book report or something? (Yes, I know it’s a movie.)
    Doesn’t Rocky make it quite obvious that he is a simple man from a meager upbringing who succeeds by keeping it simple and not taking any shortcuts?
    He succeeds without technology because he loses touch with himself and his athletic edge whenever he strays too far from his roots.
    That’s sort of the point of the film, and not the kind of thing that it should take a grown man 3,000 words to describe…38 years after the fact.

    • http://www.thecinematika.com/ The Cinematika

      I think you’re wrong. I think most people walk away from Rocky thinking about masculinity and perseverance. On the surface it’s a total rags to riches story. Ya know, typical Hollywood themes that typical Hollywood movie-goers expect. The technology themes might be “obvious” in Rocky (compared to more “intellectual” films, if you will), but it’s a popcorn movie, so what do you really expect? The author did a good job peeling back some of the layers.

      This essay made me laugh and being a cinema geek, I always love a good film write-up. However, I do think it would’ve been interesting if the author elaborated on some of the formal elements used in Rocky and how they either supported or didn’t support his thesis.

      • Joe Smith

        The Mickey and Paulie characters are there specifically to pull Rocky back to his roots and avoid the distractions of fame and success. Every time Rocky indulges in technology that wealth provides, like the robot he buys Paulie or more high-tech ways of training, they frown on it.
        I’m sorry, but I think you’re wrong. They are clearly in the film to help Rocky stick to the harder, tech-free way of life that led to his success.

        • lastsoldier

          I think the author of the essay is merely pointing out that one can view the Rocky movies from different angles. In the essay he is interpreting the protagonist as a John Henry type character who triumphs over the machine, though it probably wasn’t what the makers of the Rocky films intended.

  • BuzzCoastin

    Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee…
    is a pro-technology novel published in 1889
    where a Connecticut Yankee travels to King Arthur’s time
    and begins to introduced modern technologies
    telegraph, telephone, printing press mass media
    and republican democracy
    only to find in the end
    the Ludites win and he destroys the technologies
    before they can destroy him

  • lastsoldier

    This motif has been used in other well known movies such as Star Wars, A New Hope. Towards the conclusion of the movie when Luke is poised to destroy the Death Star Obi Wan tells Luke to turn off the targeting computer and instead use the force. Another example is when Obi Wan is training him to use the light-saber. In fact the anti-technology theme runs throughout the Star Wars movies. Other examples include Darth Vader as a man who has lost his humanity and of course the Death Star itself. One could also say that Yoda is against technology as evidenced by him embracing the simple life of a recluse.

  • godozo

    I remember watching Rocky IV on television (don’t ask, I also watched First Blood – an excellent film, even if the sequels using the Rambo name ruined it for most) and I remember being struck by the comparison between Draco’s up-to-date training (including the shot of Steroids by his girlfriend at the end) and Rocky’s chaste training ending with the run up a snow-covered mountain.

  • Spasmodius

    There is a similar motif in Predator. Arnie only wins against the alien’s advanced killing technology by slapping on some mud, bellowing, crafting traps made from wood and finally knocking Preds over the head with a big overhead log boobytrap.
    Ah, the good old days.