Experiments

Seven criteria for the adoption of new technology

Credit: Cindy Seigle:  flickr.com/photos/cindy47452/

Technology stresses me right out. Not so much the high-tech stuff, but the very notion of stuff itself; this phenomenon of technology that churns out better freezer bags, nicer church pulpits and an endless (literally) array of other stuff. Technology is all about evermore stuff. I’m stressed by this seemingly unstoppable momentum. And by my inability to resist.

As the world rushes toward an overcrowded but new and improved grave full of “articulated task lamps” with “industrial style charm,” wines with “velvety” appeal, and cordless window shades that are “safe® for children and pets” (that’s just one section of today’s paper), I find my supposedly simple-living self caught on the same slow slide toward more. The bike I ride now is better than the one I had a year ago. Before long I’ll need a new computer, and it will be better than the one I have now. The force of inevitability takes over.

What is one to do? How exactly, and realistically, can a person resist, or cope, or somehow do something other than just get swept along? My impulse is to rant.

But invective doesn’t help much with the practical decisions we all face regularly. More helpful I propose, would be a systematic means to assess the pros and cons of particular technologies. This is precisely what is missing from our culture of more. Our belief in progress is unquestioning, dogmatic. To question is to be “backward” (a term that could as easily be a compliment if we were at peace with the past). But question we must, so I set out to establish criteria for the acquisition of new technology.

I gave my search a practical context. My wife and I need to decide whether to get a car. Neither of us has ever owned one (though we’ve done some intensive borrowing). We live in the middle of a small city, and thus can manage well without. But we feel called and compelled to move to the rurals, where carlessness is much trickier. I dread the decision.

I decided to consult three sources: Wendell Berry, who is a Kentucky farmer and thinker; Donald Kraybill, who is a Pennsylvania sociologist with 30 years experience studying the Amish; and David Kline, an Ohio farmer, writer and Amish bishop.

The plain folk

I chose Kline because I wanted to better understand how Amish groups decide which technologies to adopt. Contrary to the stigma, the Amish are not stuck in time, but are ever adaptingto the broader society.

Often, observers of the Amish ridicule the seeming inconsistencies in their approach to technology. For instance, Kline spoke with me from a phone “shanty,” or homemade booth, located about 300 metres from his house and shared with neighbours. These shanties are permitted, but phones in homes are not. Similarly incongruous, you can’t own a
car but you can ride in your non-Amish neighbour’s car in certain circumstances. Restrictions on technology vary widely among the 40 Amish sub-groups, but they all draw lines that some observers consider duplicitous.

To me, these lines do not demonstrate hypocrisy but an intentional process of selecting technology based on certain criteria. “These people are not Luddites,” says Kraybill, “they
are selectively making decisions and adapting.” To dismiss this adaptation system is to imply that the mainstream approach of embracing every new gadget without reservation
somehow exhibits superior ethical integrity.

Journey backward

I have long admired the Amish, usually from a distance, for their seemingly unmatched ability to control the forces of progress. So I was eager to speak with Kline.

He talks freely about the varying and evolving restrictions on electricity, cars, tractors and cell phones among different Amish groups. He tells me of his own “journey backward,” from a more lenient group to a more conservative one. And he tells me about two young men in his area who recently gave up their cars when they were baptized into the church. Kline, it turns out, did the same thing 45 years ago.

Young people are given freedom to experiment with worldly ways, and about 85 to 90 percent return to Amish life. “I have no yearning for it,” Kline says now of car ownership.
His tone is light, gracious and convincing. He explains the advantages horses have over cars. They limit the size of farms, in contrast to the unlimited expansion of the
agribusiness model. They limit the distances people can travel, thus contributing to cohesion of family and community.

“The car would pull the local community apart,” Kraybill explains in his book The Riddle of Amish Culture. “The car was perfect for a complicated, individuated and mobile society,”
but the Amish are a “stable, simple, local people.”

The Amish, he writes, “intuitively grasp [technology’s] long-term social impact,” and impacts on family and community are of particular concern. “If it’s bad for the family, you don’t have it,” Kline says. He gives the example of phones in homes, which he says would interrupt and deteriorate family life. I can’t argue – when the phone rings while I’m reading to my 3-year-old son, he intuitively grasps the social impact of technology.

But still, I tolerate the interruptions rather than submit to the sort of limitations the Amish accept. Submission and limitation are particularly unpopular notions in our culture, but when Kline speaks positively about them, I find it a refreshing alternative to the limitlessness and individuality of my society. And when he says of his low-tech, limited life: “I don’t feel deprived at all, I feel free,” the sparkle in his voice leaves little doubt.

With this, I begin drafting criteria about family, living in smaller circles and limitation.

A good technology

I glean further criteria from the writings of Wendell Berry (who Kline credits with keeping him on the Amish path when, as a young man, modern agriculture tempted him). In Berry’s essay, “A Good Scythe,” he compares a well-designed, well-crafted Marugg hand scythe to a gas-powered weed eater he had purchased. He compares, among other factors, weight, cost, safety, ease of use, and noise. The hand scythe wins in most categories.

But what interests me most is the notion of systematic assessment itself, as well as the pleasure, satisfaction and affection that Berry expresses in writing about the good scythe. He wants his tools to be a joy to use. This appeals to me, so I add it to my criteria.

I also re-read Berry’s 1987 essay, “Why I am not Going to Buy a Computer.” Or at least I try. A few paragraphs in, I become bogged down in feelings of inadequacy. The guy uses a pencil and prefers to write during the day, when electric light is not needed, because, he says: “I would hate to think that my work as a writer could not be done without a direct
dependence on strip-mined coal.” That’s an intimidating degree of integrity. My laptop and my energy provider are not ethically justifiable, but I remain addicted.

Feeling the stress of the decisions and compromises forced upon us by technological progress, I skip to the end of the essay where he lists “standards for technological innovation.”
I add the one about the quality of work done by an item to my own list and decide it’s time to try applying my criteria to my family’s pending car decision.

A Good Car?

1. How would the technology affect dynamics of family and community? Having a car in the country would allow us to connect with friends and non-immediate family who live beyond
biking range. It would decrease the likelihood of connecting with people geographically nearest to us, including one another. It would contribute to a more scattered existence (I don’t deal well with scatteredness). It would require money, and thus we would spend more time working and less with family.

2. Would it help me live in smaller, more stable circles? This one is easier: No.

3. Is there a way to limit it, or would it push us down the slippery slope to even more? Sharing a vehicle with another household would be one limit – we couldn’t just grab the
keys and go. Using veggie oil for fuel would be another limiting (read: inconveniencing) factor. On the other hand, it would require further purchases: fuel, tools, tires, repairs, possibly fuzzy dice (depending on local culture), lubricants, insurance and surely more. Yikes.

4. Drawing on Berry: would it do “work that is clearly and demonstrably better” than the thing it replaces? That’s tricky. There’s a reason Kline says the car is “probably the most
loved thing in the world” – it has some huge advantages over human- or animal-powered transportation. Does that make the work it does “better”? Is it a qualitatively better way to move over the earth? Measuring betterness is more complicated here than in Berry’s scythe example.

5. Who would want us to get it, and who would not? (I come up with this criterion myself.) My parents would probably be glad for visits from the grandkids, as would the grandkids.
Friends in the city would enjoy seeing us. People to whom we would potentially sell and deliver garden produce would appreciate us having a car (or van or truck). Rex W. Tillerson would be in favour. He’s the CEO of Exxon. The local mechanic, tire shop and car wash would also benefit. Those not in favour, theoretically, would include people negatively affected by oil extraction, people concerned with climate change and possibly our children, at least down the road, when climate change visits consequences upon them.

6. Would it bring joy and satisfaction to life? Would we like it? I would surely enjoy benefits of an automobile, but I find no pleasure in driving per se. It brings me none of the good energy I get from biking or walking. A car would cause me guilt, concern about theft, worries about breakdowns and stress about ongoing costs.

7. Does it represent what I believe in? No.

Oh shit. The car clearly fails the test, but I just don’t know if we can do the rural thing without wheels. I should have married into the Amish.

Roadkill

The criteria help me see consequences and values more clearly. But I also fear the force of technological inevitability will run those values over, like roadkill on hot asphalt. Car
culture is a hard force to overcome, especially on your own. “You would probably need an automobile,” Kline tells me, “because you don’t have the community we have.” Surrounded by resourceful Amish neighbours and businesses, he can get almost everything he needs, including socialization, within a horse-friendly radius. That’s one of the lessons
of the Amish, Kraybill tells me, “you can’t do it alone.”

So our family’s options are not great: 1) Remain carless urbanites and just sit on our rural calling. 2) Attempt a carless rural life of relative isolation, considerable inconvenience, economic fragility, but transportational integrity. 3) Become morally compromised, but conveniently motorized ruralites. I don’t know what we will do.

Horse-drawn

I knew from the beginning that criteria alone are of little use unless I can find it in myself to die to my worldly desires, as the Amish would say, when an item fails the test. I think
of it in terms of being drawn by values more compelling than convenience, mobility and efficiency. A critical reaction to technology is not enough; one must be drawn to something
that truly seems better than what progress offers. The Amish genius – by which I do not mean to imply perfection– is not a sophisticated critique of technology but an adherence to long-lived convictions about separation from the influences of the world, finding meaning in family and community, humility, simplicity, loving others and reliance on God. Kline’s voice does not become animated when talking about the dangers of technology, which he does gently and briefly, but when he talks about the humility of his neighbours from the most conservative Amish sub-group, or the young guys opting for something better than car ownership.

What’s at play here, according to The Amish Way: Patient Faith in a Perilous World, are different “assumptions about contentment and the meaning of life.” In this new book,
Kraybill and his co-authors write about how the Amish define “the good life” differently. I like what I see of their idea of a “good life” but I feel trapped in a different world. This
I find stressful.

Kline doesn’t share my tech-induced anxiety. Though he lives at acute odds with the high-tech society right around him, he says the prospect of technological encroachment
does not cause him worry. The Amish, it seems, are best viewed not as a people holed up in a cultural bunker desperately fending off the beast of progress, but as a rich community deliberately navigating tricky times from a point of identity and strength.

None of this provides me with a quick fix to my car dilemma. Perhaps that’s part of the point – the Amish don’t believe in quick fixes. Kraybill and his co-authors write about the “uncommon patience” of the Amish. “When they are faced with problems, their first instinct is to wait and pray rather than seek a quick fix.”

I add another possibility to my list of options regarding car ownership: get a car, move to the country (but close to basic services), experiment with other tech limits, soothe my conscience with grace and open sky, try to live into deeper values, pray for neo-Amish-like neighbours, and devise a 10-year plan for de-motorization. Who knows, maybe by year
five I would be ready to pull out those criteria and see how horse and buggy ownership measures up.

Will Braun is the former editor of Geez. He can be reached at wbraun@inbox.com.

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