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Why It’s so Satisfying to Watch a World Built From the Ground Up

It’s not hard to see the appeal. These videos are marvels of soothing, hypnotic content, lulling the viewer into a kind of ambient trance. Part of this is their total immersion in nature and escape from the modern built environment. Other than Plant’s shorts, there appears to be nothing in the videos that has been manufactured or mass-produced. In what we see of Plant’s world, every man-made thing is made by him and has clear antecedents in some previous thing he made. Commenters like to describe this as a beautiful tautology. As someone wrote beneath the video in which Plant made bricks to build a kiln for firing bricks: “ ‘Yo, I need some bricks’/‘What for?’/‘More bricks’/‘OK.’”

YouTube is a bottomless well of instructional content, brimming with how-tos and “hack” videos, but many follow a formula of wall-to-wall, unidirectional talk. In fact, the entire platform is predicated on a presumed parasocial relationship in which viewers are talked at by people who pretend to see them — content creators who face the camera, greet the audience as though they are friends (perhaps with the gratingly common “Hi, guys!”) and then, often enough, proceed to stall, ramble and digress for as long as they can retain your attention. But Primitive Technology videos are all doing and no talking. There is no chirpy greeting, no acknowledgment of being observed at all. Plant’s technical skills are amazing, but perhaps even more singular, more impressive, is his monastic silence. He does an astonishing job of maintaining the illusion of an unmediated experience, in which he is altogether unaware of being observed as he goes about his work. In Plant’s world, it is possible to bring a task to completion without interruption; it is a realm without meetings, without alarms, without management. You can imagine how this might have felt, especially after the onset of the pandemic, like an escape into a different, more gratifying kind of isolation. And you can imagine how, as the cost of living soars and talk turns to the fragility of global supply chains and modern institutions, the idea of a guy living off the land in a bountiful forest is a comforting fantasy.

When in need of shelter, we will grapple with a rental market long before grabbing an ax.

Because, obviously, this is a fantasy: The videos are deftly edited and uploaded to the internet, a high-tech portal to this low-tech world. They are ostensibly here to provide instruction, but they mostly provide a tech-addled audience with a brief respite from the very techno-capitalism that lets them watch — the very thing that makes Plant’s work possible, viable and lucrative.

More than two and a half centuries after the start of the Industrial Revolution, we no longer look upon the unspoiled world as our natural habit or privilege practical value over symbolic value. If what Plant enacts resembles what was once our “natural state” — the way we lived before technology and social institutions altered every aspect of our existence — it is now something few of us in highly developed nations come into regular contact with or would know how to survive, let alone have enough dominion over the land to fell trees, build structures and bend it to our will.

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