The Technium

Why Technology Can’t Fulfill

[Translations: Japanese]

At the beginning of this summer an Amish guy I met online rode his bicycle out to our home along the foggy Pacifica coast. Online, is of course, the last place you’d ever expect to meet an Amishman. But he contacted me via my blog, and then a few months later he appeared at our door hot, sweaty and out of breath from the long uphill climb to our house under the redwoods. Parked a few feet away was his ingenious Dohan foldup bike, which he rode from the train station. Like most Amish he did not fly, so he had stored his bike on the 3-day cross-country train ride from Pennsylvania. This was not his first trip to this neck of the woods. He had previously ridden his bike along the entire coast of California, and had in fact seen a lot of the world on train and boats.

For the  next week, our Amish visitor couch-surfed in our spare bedroom, and at dinner he regaled us with tales of his life growing up in an horse-and-buggy Old Order Plain Folk community. I’ll call our friend Leon Hoffman, although that is not his real name, because the Amish are averse to bringing attention to themselves (thus their reluctance to being photographed). But Leon is an unusual Amish. While he never went to high school (Amish formal education ceases after 8th grade) he is among the few Plain Folk to go to college, where he is currently an older student in his 30s. He hopes to study medicine, and perhaps become the first Amish doctor.  Many former Amish have gone to college, or become doctors, but none that remain in the Old Order church. Leon is unusual in that he has remained in the church, yet relishes his ability to live in the “outside” world as well.

The Amish practice a remarkable tradition called “rumspringer” wherein their teenagers are allowed to ditch their home-made uniforms — suspenders and hats for boys, long dresses and bonnets for girls — and don baggy pants and short skits to buy a car, listen to music, and party for a few years before they decide to forever give up these modern amenities and join the Old Order church. This intimate, real exposure to the technological universe means that they are fully cognizant of what that world has to offer, and what exactly they are denying themselves. Leon is on a sort of permanent “rumspringer” although he doesn’t party, but works very hard. His father runs a machine shop (a common Amish occupation; not all are farmers), and so Leon is genius with tools. I was in the middle of a bathroom plumbing job on the afternoon when Leon first showed up and he quickly took over the job. I was impressed by his complete mastery of hardware store parts. I’ve heard of Amish auto mechanics who don’t drive cars but can fix any model you give them.

As Leon spoke of what his boyhood was like with only a horse and buggy for transportation, and what he learned in his multi-grade, one room school house, a fervent wistfulness played over his face. He missed the comfort of Old Order life now that he was away from it. We outsiders think of life without electricity, central heat, or cars as hard punishment. But curiously Amish life offers more leisure than contemporary urbanity does. In Leon’s account, they always had time for a game of baseball, reading, visiting neighbors and hobbies. This was a complete surprise to Eric Brende, an MIT student who gave up an engineering degree and instead dropped out to live alongside an Old Order Amish/Mennonite community. Brende, who is not Amish, eliminated as much gear as he could from his home with his wife and tried to live as Plain as possible, a tale he recounts in his book, Better Off.  For over two years Brende gradually adopted what he calls a minimite lifestyle. A minimite uses “the least amount of technology needed to accomplish something.” Like his Old Order Amish/Mennonite neighbors, he employed a minimum of technology: no power tools, or electric appliances. Brende found that the absence of electronic entertainment, the absence of long auto commutes or frequent shopping trips, and the absence of chores simply maintaining existing complex technology, was replaced by more real leisure time. In fact the constraints of cutting wood by hand, hauling manure with horses, doing dishes by lamp light liberated the first genuine leisure time he had ever had.

Amish Winter

Who is not seduced by the allure of this lifestyle?

At the same time, the hard, strenuous manual work was satisfying and rewarding. He not only found more leisure but more fulfillment as well. Wendell Berry is a thinker and farmer who works his farm in an old fashioned way using horses instead of tractors, very similar to the Amish. Like  Brende, Berry finds tremendous satisfaction in the visible arrangement of bodily labor and agricultural results. Berry is a master wordsmith as well, and no one has been able to convey the “gift” which minimalism can deliver as well as he. One particular story from his collection The Gift of Good Land captures the almost ecstatic sense of fulfillment won with minimal technology.

Last summer we put up our second cutting of alfalfa on an extremely hot, humid afternoon. Our neighbors came in to help, and together we settled into what could pretty fairly be described as suffering. The hayfield lies in a narrow river bottom, a hill on one side and tall trees along the river on the other. There was no breeze at all. The hot, bright, moist air seemed to wrap around us and stick to us while we loaded the wagons.

It was worse in the barn, where the tin roof raised the temperature and held the air even closer and stiller. We worked more quietly than we usually do, not having breath for talk. It was miserable, no doubt about it. And there was not a push button anywhere in reach.

But we stayed there and did the work, were even glad to do it, and experienced no futurological fits. When we were done we told stories and laughed and talked a long time, sitting on a post pile in the shade of a big elm. It was a pleasing day.

Why was it pleasing? Nobody will ever figure that out by a “logical projection.” The matter is too complex and too profound for logic. It was pleasing, for one thing, because we got done. That does not make logic, but it makes sense. For another thing, it was good hay, and we got it up in good shape. For another, we like each other and we work together because we want to.

And so, six months after we shed all that sweat, there comes a bitter cold January evening when I go up to the horse barn to feed. It is nearly nightfall, and snowing hard. The north wind is driving the snow through the cracks in the barn wall. I bed the stalls, put corn in the troughs, climb into the loft and drop the rations of fragrant hay into the mangers. I go to the back door and open it; the horses come in and file along the driveway to their stalls, the snow piled white on their backs. The barn fills with the sounds of their eating. It is time to go home. I have my comfort ahead of me: talk, supper, fire in the stove, something to read. But I know too that all my animals are well fed and comfortable, and my comfort is enlarged in theirs. On such a night you do not feed out of necessity or duty. You never think of the money value of the animals. You feed and care for them out of fellow feeling, because you want to. And when I go out and shut the door, I am satisfied.

Leon spoke of the same equation: fewer distractions, more satisfaction. The ever-ready embrace of his community was palpable. Imagine it: neighbors would pay your medical bill if needed, or build your house in a few weeks without pay, and more importantly allow you to do the same for them. Minimal technology, unburdened by the cultural innovations such as insurance or credit cards, forces a daily reliance on neighbors and friends. Hospital stays are paid by church members, who also visit the sick regularly. Barns destroyed by fire or storm are rebuilt in a barn-raising. Financial, marital, behavioral counseling are done by peers. The community is as self-reliant as it can make itself, and only as self-reliant as it is because it is a community. I began to understand the strong attraction the Amish exerts on its young adults and why, even today, only a very few leave after their rumspringer. Leon observed that of the 300 or so friends his age in his church, only 2 or 3 have abandoned this very technologically constrained life, and the ones who did, joined a lifestyle that is still constrained compared to the average American.

But the cost for this closeness and dependency is limited choice. No education beyond 8th grade. Few career options for guys, none besides homemakers for girls. I asked Leon whether he could imagine all the goodness of the Amish life — all that comforting mutual aid, satisfying hands-on work, reliable community infrastructure –whether it could still issue forth if, say, all kids attended school up to 10th grade? Just for starters. Well, you know, he said, “hormones kick in around the 9th grade and boys, and even some girls, just don’t want to sit at desks and do paperwork. They need to use their hands as well as their heads and they ache to be useful. Kids learn more doing real things at that age.”

Fair enough. I can really identify with that, since I wish I had been “doing real stuff” instead of being holed up in a stuffy high school classroom. On the other hand, reading books in high school opened up my mind to possibilities I had never imagined in grade school, and my world began expanding in those years and has never stopped. The technium amplifies possibilities, and a technological oriented education (which is what contemporary education is) optimizes choices. Amish minimalism, on the other hand, is deliberately aimed to optimize satisfaction, fulfillment and the comforting bonds of family and community. It does that well.

In the late 1960s some million self-described hippies stampeded to small farms and make-shift communes to live simply, not too different from the Amish. I was part of that movement. Wendell Berry was one of the clear-thinking gurus we listened to. In tens of thousands of experiments in rural America, we jettisoned the technology of the modern world (because it seemed to crush individualism) and tried to rebuild a new world while digging wells by hand, grinding our own flour, keeping bees, erecting homes from sun-dried clay, and even getting windmills and water generators to occasionally work. Some found religion, too. Our discoveries paralleled what the Amish knew — that this simplicity worked best in community, that the solution wasn’t no-technology but some technology, and what we then called appropriate technology. This day-glo, deliberate, conscious engagement with appropriate technology was deeply satisfying for a while.

But only for a while. The Whole Earth Catalog, which I edited at one point, published the field manual for those millions of simple technology experiments. We ran pages and pages of how to build chicken coops, grow your own veggies, curdle your own cheese, school your children and start a home business in house made from bales of straw. I got to witness close up how the early enthusiasm for restricted technology would inevitably give way to unease and restlessness. Slowly those millions of hippies drifted away from their deliberate low tech world. One-by-one they left their domes for suburban garages and lofts, and much to our collective astonishment, transformed their small-is-beautiful skills into small-is-startup entrepreneurs.  The origins of the Wired generation and the laid-back, long-hair computer culture (think open source) lay in the hippies of the 70s. As Stewart Brand, hippy founder of the Whole Earth Catalog remembers, ” ‘Do your own thing’ easily translated into ‘Start your own business’.”  I’ve lost count of the hundreds of individuals I personally know who left communes to eventually start hi-tech companies in Silicon Valley. It’s almost a cliche by now — barefoot to billionaire, a la Steve Jobs.

The hippies of the previous generation did not remain in their Amish-like mode because as satisfying and attractive as the work in those communities were, the siren of choices was more attractive. The hippies left the farm for the same reason the young have always left: the possibilities leveraged by technology beckon all night and day. In retrospect we might say the hippies left for the same reason Thoreau left his Walden; they came and then left to experience life to its fullest. Volunteer simplicity is a possibility, an option, a choice that one should experience for a least part of one’s life, not the least to help you sort out your technology priorities. But in my observation simplicity’s fullest potential requires that one consider it one phase of many (even if a recurring phase as is meditation or the Sabbath). In the past decade a new generation of minimites has arisen, and they are now urban homesteading — living lightly in cities, supported by adhoc communities of like-minded homesteaders. They are trying to have both, the Amish satisfaction of intense mutual aid and hand labor, and the ever cascading choices of a city.

It is a fine experiment. I too left a place where I built a house from scratch, and kept bees, and lived on a commune, and I left because choices were limited. Instead I came to a place where opportunities increased every day: a megalopolis sprawl. Yet I carry an old habit of minimites: I am constantly seeking the least amount of technology needed to do the most good. I have hope that some version of minimitism is possible in urbanity.

Because of my own personal journey from low-tech to high choice, I remain fascinated and deeply impressed by Leon and Berry, and Brende and the Old Order Plain Folk communities. I am impressed that their tightly bound mutual support can reliably resist the perennial lure of modernity. That’s an amazing testimony because so few other cultures can boast that.

But there is one aspect of the Amish, and the minimites, and the small-is-beautiful hippies at their heyday, that is selfish. The “good” they wish their minimal technology to achieve is primarily the fulfillment of a fixed nature. The human that is satisfied by this agricultural goodness is an unchanging human. For the Amish, one’s fulfillment must swell inside the traditional confine of a farmer, tradesman, or housewife. For minimites and hippies, fulfillment must rise within the confine of the natural unhampered by artificial aids. For example, Wendell Berry will agree that a solid cast iron hand pump is much superior to hauling water in buckets on a yoke. And that domesticated horses (an invention equal to iron) are vastly better than pulling a plow yourself, as many an ancient farmer has done. But for Berry, who uses horses to drive his farm gear, anything beyond the innovation of horse power works against the satisfaction of human nature and natural systems. When tractors were introduced in the 1940s, “the speed of work could be increased, but not the quality.” He writes: “Consider, for example, the International High Gear No. 9 mowing machine. This is a horse-drawn mower that certainly improved on everything that came before it, from the scythe to previous machines in the International line… I own one of these mowers. I have used it in my hayfield at the same time that a neighbor mowed there with a tractor mower; I have gone from my own freshly cut hayfield into others just mowed by tractors; and I can say unhesitatingly that, though the tractors do faster work, they do not do it better. The same is substantially true, I think, of other tools: plows, cultivators, harrows, grain drills, seeders, spreaders, etc… The coming of the tractor made it possible for a farmer to do more work, but not better.”

For Berry technology peaked in 1940, about the moment when all these farm implements were as good as they got. In his eyes, and the Amish too, the elaborate circular solution of a small mixed family farm, where the farmer produces plant feed for the animals who produced manure, power and food to grow more plants, is the perfect pattern for the health and satisfaction of a human being, human society and environment. Yet, it is pure foolishness, if not the height of conceit and hubris, to believe that in the long course of human history, and by that I mean the next ten thousand years in addition to the past ten thousand years, the peak of human invention and satisfaction should be 1940. It is no coincidence that this date also happens to be the time when Wendell Berry was a young boy growing up on a farm with horses. 1940 cannot be the end of technological perfection for human fulfillment simply because human nature is not at its end.

We have domesticated our humanity as much as we have domesticated our horses. Our human nature is a malleable crop that we planted 50,000 years ago, and continue to garden even today. The field of our nature has never been static. We know that genetically our bodies are changing faster now than at any time in the past million years. Our minds are being rewired by our culture. With no exaggeration, and no metaphor, we are not the same people who first started to plow 10,000 years ago.  The snug interlocking system of horse and buggy, wood fire cooking, compost gardening, and minimal industry may be perfectly fit for a human nature — of an ancient agrarian epoch. I call this devotion to a traditional being “selfish” because it ignores the way in which our nature — our wants, desires, fears, primeval instincts, and loftiest aspirations — are being recast by ourselves, by our inventions, and it excludes the needs of our new natures.

There are many traditionalists who deny this shift, and who hold our nature is unchanging; from the perspective of an individual, or even a generation, it looks that way. But for anyone raised by a modern culture crammed with ubiquitous writing, communication technology, science, pervasive entertainment, travel, surplus food, abundant nutrition, and new possibilities every day, we are different beings than our ancestors. We think different. That should be no surprise because our personas are dictated beyond our genetics. More than our hunter-gatherer ancestors we are shaped by the accumulating wisdom, practices, traditions, and culture of our all those who’ve lived before us and live with us. At the same time our genes are racing. And we are speeding the acceleration of those genes by several means, from medical interventions to gene therapy, and then racing our culture with computers and wires as well. In fact every trend of the technium — especially its increasing evolvability — point to more rapid change of human nature in the future. Curiously many of the same traditionalists who deny we are changing, insist that we had better not.

Not everyone is born to be a farmer. Not every human is ideally matched to the rhythms of horse and corn and seasons, and the eternal close inspection of village conformity. Where in the Amish scheme of things is the support for a mathematical genius, or a native doctor, or a person who might spend all day composing new music? Mr. Berry himself supplements his farming satisfactions with those of essay writing (using paper and pencil). A large technological system of book printing, distribution, desk-bound editors, and bookshop sellers reward his efforts. He would have engaged that part of himself much less if no one outside his family was reading him.

What the Amish can’t deliver are possibilities. Technology summons possibilities. The arc of change in the technium moves toward increasing choices, options, and possibilities. Chief among those expanding possibilities are new ways to be human. If we expand our memory with an always-on auxiliary Google-in-a-phone attachment from when we are young, then we have a new organ. But we don’t know how to satisfy those new parts of us. The honest truth is that as the technium explodes with new self-made options, we find it harder to find fulfillment. How can we be fulfilled when we don’t know what is being filled? And how do we know how large we are — our innate potential — until we try to overfill it?

We expand technology to find out who we are. The Amish find incredible contentment in their enactment of a fixed human nature. This deep human contentment is real, visceral, renewable, and so attractive that Amish numbers are doubling every generation. But I believe the Amish and minimites have not, and can not, really discover who they are. They trade discovery for contentment. In their deliberate constraint of technology they optimize an alluring combination of leisure, comfort, and certainty over the optimization of uncertain possibilities – which is what the technium optimizes.

The narrow minimite definition of humanity and the occupations one can attain, not only constrain themselves, but others. If you are a  web designer today, it is only because many tens of thousands of other people have been expanding the realm of possibilities. They have gone beyond farms and home shops to invent a complex ecology of electronic devices that require new expertise and new ways of thinking. If you are an accountant, untold numbers of creative people in the past devised the logic and tools of accounting for you. If you do science, your instruments and field of study have been created by others. If you are a photographer, or an extreme sports athlete, or a baker, or an auto mechanic, or a nurse — then your potential has been given an opportunity by the work of others. You are being expanded as others expand themselves.

I know the Amish, and Wendell Berry and Eric Brende, and the minimites well enough to know that they believe we don’t need exploding technology to expand ourselves, at least in the proper directions. They are, after all, minimalists. They see most of the promises of freedoms from increased technology as illusionary. In their eyes, technology generates fake choices, meaningless options, or real choices that are really entrapments.  This is an argument worth exploring because there is some truth in it. The technium is an autonomous system that tends to favor choices by humans that expand its own reach, which can feel like a type of entrapment. And many choices we make don’t matter.

But the evidence that the technium expands real choices is voluminous. Throughout history there is a one-way march from the farm to the bustling choices of the city. That steady migration is going on today at a shocking rate; More than two million people per day decide they prefer the options that modern technology life offers, so they flee the constrained choices in a picturesque and comforting village somewhere. They can’t all be bewitched. It would be a powerful spell to fool 50% of the people living on this planet.

Those million urban migrants per day have enrolled into the technium for the same reason you have (and you have if you are reading this): to increase your choices. To increase your chances of unleashing your full potential. Perhaps someday someone will invent a tool that is made just for your special combination of hidden talents. Or perhaps you will make your own tool. Most importantly, and unlike the Amish and minimites, you may invent a tool which will help unleash the fullest of someone else. Our call is not only to discover our fullest selves in the technium, but to expand the possibilities for others. We have a moral obligation to increase the amount of technology in the world in order to increase the number of possibilities for the most people. Greater technology will selfishly unleash us, but it will also unselfishly unleash others, our children and all to come.

The Amish are a little sensitive about this, but their self reliant lifestyle as it is currently practiced is heavily dependent on the greater technium that surrounds their enclaves. They do not mine the metal they build their mowers from. They do not drill or process the kerosene they use. They don’t manufacture the solar panels on their roofs. They don’t grow or weave the cotton in their clothes. They don’t educate or train their own doctors. They also famously do not enroll in armed forces of any kind (but in compensation of that, they are world-class volunteers in the outside world. Few people volunteer more often, or with more expertise and passion than the Amish/Mennonites.) In short they depend up the outside world for they way they currently live. The increasing numbers of minimite urban homesteads are likewise indebted to the ongoing technium. If the Amish had to generate their all their own energy, grow all their clothing fibers, mine all metal, harvest and mill all lumber, it would not be Amish at all. Their communities would hardly be civilized.

Their choice of minimal technology adoption is a choice — but a choice enabled by the technium. Their lifestyle is within the technium, not outside it.

As I encourage new technologies I am working for the Amish, and Leon, and the minimite homesteaders. So is anyone who is inventing, discovering, and expanding possibilities. In our ceaseless collective generation of new technologies, we technology boosters can invent more appropriate tools for minimalism, even though they are not doing that for us. Nonetheless, the Amish and minimites have something important to teach us about selecting what we embrace. I don’t want a lot of devices that add maintenance chores to my life without adding real benefits. I do want to be slow to embrace technology that I can back out of. I don’t want stuff that closes off options to others (like weapons). And I do want the minimum because I’ve learned that I have limited time or attention. 

I think I can put it this way: What we are seeking is the minimum amount of technology that will generate the maximum number of options for all.


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