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.

  • RobertJ

    You state that our genes have changed, in an interplay with culture and technology. At the same time, modern urban culture and the agrarian culture using the simplest technology available, are portrayed as the extremes.

    Would this hold up to scientific scrutiny? Could we find genetic differences in say a parisian designer descended from generations of traders and urban dwellers and an electrical engineer in Seoul with nothing but rice farmers for ancestors? How will their thoughts and behaviour differ?

    There are certainly reason to believe that the invention of fire and agriculture has changed our genes, especially how we process food. There has also been reasonable theories stating that urbanisation over the last few thousand years changed us genetically in that we had to get more resistant to diseases. But extrapolating this trend from the barnhouse to Manhattan seems off. biological evolution has simply not had time to catch up to what we’ve been doing.

    • @RobertJ: Surprisingly, genetic evolution is happening faster now than ever. See the book “The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution.” The authors also address the issue of whether urban professions have different genes.

  • Zane Selvans

    I think there are people out there trying to figure out how to incorporate some of the good thing that the Amish have going into a life which is unabashedly within our times, and even within dense urban settings. Co-housing is one attempt, and at least within Denmark, I think it’s been pretty successful. It has to struggle a little bit more with our culture in the US, but culture is ultimately a very malleable thing, and I have hope that we’ll eventually figure out how to have both the community and fulfillment that our ancient nature craves, alongside the copious opportunities that the Technium affords us, and I suspect it will happen in cities.

  • Jamie


    This rant is going to sound like I am yelling at you, but I am yelling at the world. I find what you have written here to be nuanced and insightful. On the whole, it rings true with me, but would like to point out that 1) people do not always move to cities by choice and 2) many technologies rely on/support/create destabilizing social and environmental problems.

    1) People move to cities, not only out of choice, but also out of necessity. Agricultural technology allows a smaller number of people to grow more food and to use more of the necessary food growing resources. The case study I read was gasoline powered pump irrigation systems in India. Early adapters benefited from greatly increased crop yields, which in turn drove the price of those crops down and severely lowered the water table. Their neighbors were driven into poverty, off their fields, and into the city. Also, in Guatemala, during the internal conflict/genocide in the 70’s & 80’s, a great many Mayan campesinos were driven into Guatemala City by the violence targeted against rural communities.

    2) We can’t really talk about modern technology without discussing fossil fuels. Most of the US’s electricity comes from coal, most of our transportation runs on oil. Plastics come from oil. Pharmaceuticals come from oil. Most fertilizer, and therefore industrial food production, comes from oil. Fossil fuels are becoming harder to find and global demand is growing exponentially. The fact that Canadian tar sands have become a viable option should scare people – energy out vs. energy in is 2:1 (Irag oil fields are 100:1 I think), and the amount of water required is immense and devastating to native communities downstream. The average food item in the US travels a couple thousands miles. We could build thousands of new nuclear plants for untold billions and ship our food by electric powered train – or we could start growing it closer to home.

    Climate change, ocean acidification, run-off from industrial agriculture, biodiversity loss – these are all looming crises that threaten large scale collapse of ecosystems, and each of them is the result of their being too many people using too much stuff, going too many places, eating too high on the food chain. Furthermore, many of the systems that allow for our modern American choice-laden lifestyles are extremely exploitative – Mountain Top Removal coal mining is destroying Appalachia; the US is the leading global killer of civilians through the collateral damage of our oil wars; oil, mining & hydroelectric companies frequently perpetrate human rights abuses and hire goons & paramilitary forces to kill community leaders that oppose them (Chevron in Ecuador, Goldcorp in Guatemala and El Salvador, Shell in the Niger Delta). Are these indictments against technology? No. If anything they’re indictments against people. Human morality is based in empathy and social accountability, which break down quickly over time and space. (They also break down within the corporate structure, which hyper-specializes to gain efficiency while reducing the number of people who understand all the steps involved in the whole.) We, in the United States especially, are addicted to fossil fuels – we can’t carry on normally without them, and, like any addict, we’re willing to do heinous things to get our fix.

    I think the interesting question is not whether simplicity or complexity is better, whether city mouse or country mouse had it right, or whether we should be heading back to the land or into the future.

    We know that we can be happy with relatively little, if we have good community. We know that we’re cooking our climate & asphyxiating our oceans. We know that we need an unprecedented degree of global empathy and cooperation to tackle these issues. We know that power, too far removed from the people, tends to exploit. We know that people must and will feed their creative and connective needs. A bright green future will select for technologies that help us share information and experiences across great distances, while allowing us to secure our basic needs in environmentally and socially benign ways. These solutions will be more decentralized and community based than what we globally rich folks have grown accustomed to, but we’ll recognize them from our Amish neighbors, the less affluent 90% of the world and ourselves two or three generations ago.

    • @Jamie: You’ve crammed many points and issues into one comment; far too many for me to reply to, especially without repeating some of the points I’ve made in other postings. I think you have identified many of the problems that technology brings, but my hunch, based on the history of civilization, is that we’ll devise new technologies to remedy those problems (and create new problems, too).

  • John Johnson

    Wonderful essay and discussion.

    I agree that the Amish do not exist independently from industrial production and military protection… but why should total independence be a prerequisite to this way of life?

    I can envision a society that consists of a small cadre of high-tech workers and soldiers working for a dozen years or so before they “retire” and join the “minimist” class, rather than a “middle” class. These young “retirees” would still be working, but for themselves or in highly localized economies. Their efforts would pursue Wendell Berry’s “Quality” rather than quantity.

    Utopians like Huxley and Skinner have covered this concept before in fiction.

  • Sue Thomas

    I’m interested in the ‘No education beyond 8th grade’ discussion. First of all, what they really mean I presume is ‘no formal education’ – it would be impossible to sustain a tool/craft based culture without teaching, whether formal or informal. (I wonder whether they have apprenticeship schemes?)

    Secondly, that comment displays a very linear approach. Whilst I do have some sympathy for the argument that hormones take over in adolescence and it can be counterproductive to try to refocus kids towards learning when all they can think about is dating, that doesn’t mean to say that formal education is then over. Why not enable people to return to education when their curiousity, intellect or need provoke them to do so, whether at 18, 38 or 88? One benefit of today’s world is that opportunities for formal education are available in many subjects and for many ages and abilities.

    Lastly, I can’t help but express annoyance at the inherent technology apartheid practiced by such cultures. Why is it acceptable to use a knitting needle but not a knitting machine? A pencil but not a computer? A wheel but not an internal combustion engine? All of those things are technologies. Their argument is neither logical nor sensible and that is why, at the end of the day and no matter how prettily romantic their picture postcard lifestyle might be, I find it difficult to respect their point of view.

  • mary ford

    A minimum amount of technology – just enough – keeps us efficient and productive but, more importantly, keeps us human.

    Great story.

  • Tom Guarriello

    Beautiful, almost poetic, reflection, Kevin. The notion of “fellow feeling” what the Germans call gemeinschaftsgefuhl, is what Alfred Adler had in mind when he spoke of “social interest.” This is the moral connection we have with our broader, species wide, fellows. Viewing technology as a part of that broader connection is a key to understanding its transcendence. I can’t thank you enough for sharing your brilliant writings online.

  • Fred Hapgood

    As Jon Haidt (among others) has pointed out we differ in our moral sensitivities. According to Haidt, liberals are moved by harm and unfairness; conservatives, by those two plus loyalty to your in-group, respect for authority, and purity. Haidt ends the list there, but there are probably more than just those five. You and I are moved by a felt need to explore the entire solution space of being human. The idea of most humans doing the same thing over the entire lifespan of the species is about as appealing as the idea of my playing shuffleboard on a cruise ship for ten thousand years. Appealing doesn’t quite capture the feeling; totally immoral comes closer.

  • Clem Weidenbenner

    For the most part I like where you’re going. But I think you may be overstating your case in places. For instance:

    “But I believe the Amish and minimites have not, and can not, really discover who they are.”

    On this matter I would argue that the Amish and minimites can discover who they are – but perhaps are self-limited in their ability to discover who they might become. I think Socrates knew who he was, but can we ever discover who he might have become if his peers had allowed him to live (or if he were to live in a different time when more technology was available)?

    “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.”

    Here I would posit that all the choices we make matter. Some choices may have a more significant impact on the Technium and the expansion of its reach. But akin to the default discussion from a few days ago – if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice. And if your choice somehow constrains the expansion of the Technium (even for a short while) it is a choice that will matter.

    Perhaps the comment I have the most difficulty with is the following:

    “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.”

    I agree there are many who move from an agrarian life to the city for the “bewitching” call of technology and greater choices. But I don’t think this siron song deserves all the credit. Indeed many who make the move are so unprepared for the technological world they enter that they end up in terrible circumstances. This mass migration is as much due to simple displacement of the human labor needed to do agricultural work. Technology is displacing the need for so much human effort. The displaced are not always grateful. In my own family my father would have chosen to stay on the farm if he could have. And in a sense he did return to his roots – buying a small farm that he could work in his spare time… afforded by income from a city job. So the march is not always “one-way” either.

    • @Clem: Great, pertinent points. Thank you.

      “But I believe the Amish and minimites have not, and can not, really discover who they are.” On this matter I would argue that the Amish and minimites can discover who they are – but perhaps are self-limited in their ability to discover who they might become.

      That is probably better put.

      And your point about all choices “mattering” I think is a matter of emphasis. But your last point about the drive to cities being less of a pull and more a push, and not one way, I disagree. I did not go into the details (having done that elsewhere) but the one way is not without exceptions. I mentioned my own hippy return. But mine — and your dads’ — were not significant historically. By one way I meant the the percent of urbanity has historically increased and not decreased.

      I don’t have any studies on what percent of the cause of urbanity is displacement and what is attractive (if you do let me know), but I wonder if both forces illuminate the same thing: more choices in the city — whether you were pushed or pulled there.

  • Nick Carr

    There is a telling shift in tone in this essay when you move from your description of the lives of the Amish, Wendell Berry, and others who strive to maintain some separation between their born selves and the made world to your argument about the benefits of allowing oneself to drift (for most, people there’s no choice involved) ever more deeply into the made world. The early section is full of concrete nouns and verbs and precise descriptions, while the force of the latter section derives from vague abstractions like “amplify possibilities” and “optimize choices.” The shift has something to do, I’d suggest, with Berry’s distinction between sense-making and logic. Anyway, Kevin, I had the sense as the piece unfolded that you were trying to convince yourself of something intellectually that you don’t really feel in your bones.

    • @Nick: I agree that there is a shift in the piece, and that has do to two things. One is a kind of rush to close what feels like already too long post (I mean to keep it simply and direct but they keep ballooning), but the other is also feeling I’m repeating myself at the end of each argument. If I was more disciplined, I would be able to come up with yet more concrete examples for the same point each time. So the weakness are there, but not for the reason you state. In fact, it is other way around. I am unable to state intellectually — in words at least — a feeling I have deep in my bones.

  • Pete Harbeson

    The idea that the Amish culture depends on the larger culture (technium) in which it exists evokes for me the Mosaic of Subcultures pattern in “A Pattern Language” (Alexander, Alexander talks mostly about the subcultures themselves, their members, and under what conditions they thrive, but this essay also suggests looking at it from the point of view of the mosaic itself — the larger mosaic depends on its elements, too. The technium is made richer by the Amish subculture, not to mention others. The mosaic of subcultures pattern is not easily or simply created, but it’s a very good thing where it exists.

  • Drew Thaler

    While the minimite philosophy is interesting, it’s also possible (and, dare I say, perhaps likely) that *more* people have found perfectly happy and fulfilling lives that incorporate *lots* of technology. But they just don’t go and write long essays about it. ;-)

  • Pete Harbeson

    Oh ok, this is also for bug reports? In that case the word “adverse” in the second paragraph should be “averse”. :-)

  • Clem Weidenbenner

    I do absolutely agree that in a historical perspective the move to urbanity is one-way from a population perspective. That any few individuals might choose to go in the opposite direction does seem a distraction from this overwhelming trend.

    Niether do I have any data on the push vs pull piece of the puzzle, but I suspect the ratio might be changing in favor of the pull side of the argument in more recent times. About a generation or two ago it was very important in the rural U.S. to have a large family to work a farm. With the advent of larger machinery and herbicides for weed control a much smaller labor force was needed. And I suspect most of the resulting urbanization was a push. Urban sprawl facilitated by technology indicates to me that many still have a warm and fuzzy for the country life – a desire to have your cake and eat it too. I’ll take a little look about to see if I can find some data on this relationship.

    As for both forces (pushing and pulling) illuminating the same thing – more choices in the urban setting… I suppose they do indicate this, but I’m thinking that was part of the premise in the first place. When there are no choices left in the rural sphere, any choice in an urban setting (regardless of its attractiveness) is by default “more” choices.

    As an aside I might point out that there is a great deal of effort expended by the USDA in a Rural Development effort whose primary aim is to foster opportunity (read choices) in rural America so that fewer folks end up on the “pushed” side of the equation.

  • Kent Schnake


    You wrote “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.”

    I have been thinking a lot about this subject over the past few years. I keep coming to the conclusion that in a sense the “simple life” is a sham enabled by the fact that other people are willing to dig up ore, run smelters, create weaving machines, produce medicines.

    No metal means stone age. I can’t see stone age as any thing but “nasty, brutish, and short”. We have worked very hard to have the extra options.

    When I choose to watch television, I can choose to watch the “Planet Earth” series, or I can watch continuous coverage of Michael Jackson’s demise.
    I believe it is the sum of such choices that results in either a life fulfilled or a life full of filling.

  • Clem Weidenbenner


    Without an exhaustive look at urbanization throughout history, I do have a couple links (below) I would point to to make one point. In the U.S. example at least one could argue that urban centers began to swell under a need for labor to run industry. But the swelling caused its own difficulties (squalor, disease, etc) which required technological innovation to deal with the problems. My take then in the push vs. pull argument from above is that technology may have caused a begrudged pull (lack of rural opportunity more a pusher) and the resulting ugliness in the urban environment created a need for technological improvements (sanitary sewers, and so forth). The technium was called upon to solve a problem (after the problem arose). Indeed, necessity is the mother of invention. Today urban settings are much more agreable and the case for pulling seems much stronger.

    But I will admit this whole issue is turning into something of a chicken vs. egg debate.

  • Nicholas Carr

    Although many people have moved from the country to the city to expand their choices, the vast majority of the migration is certainly due to economic necessity (born of technological changes that have shifted job opportunities). Most people who live in the cities of the world live in squalor, and it’s hard to imagine that they wouldn’t head for the country if they had a choice in the matter.

    • @Nick and Clem: This issue of whether the masses moving to the city do so out of neccessity or choice looks like one I should address. I actually have some personal experience in living among those on both sides of the journey. The idea that they live a poorer life in the slums is only held by westerners living in wealth, and it is deeply wrong. Stewart Brand addresses this misconception at length in his upcoming book, so I did not want to repeat, but I think I must.

  • Nicholas Carr

    The idea that they live a poorer life in the slums is only held by westerners living in wealth, and it is deeply wrong.

    I’m sure this is true, and it’s a very important point. But it’s a different point from the one I was trying to make, which concerned the reason for the shift of population from country to city. And I would further point out that the urban slums are characterized by rudimentary technology, so whatever contentment characterizes the life of the slum-dweller arises from something other than the advanced technologies of the west. Indeed (and here I’m speculating), the source may be quite similar to the source of Wendell Berry’s contentment.

  • michaël thévenet

    Thank you for sharing your deep thoughts once again, Kevin. Thank you to Claim too, I fully support his comments to which I’ll add only a few words. (My apologies for my clunky english.)

    The Technium, as you chose to name it, is expanding all over the world. Consequently, the Technium should expand the realm of possibilities for all human beings. Is that really happening? Is the whole humanity really benefiting from this Technium? I seriously doubt this is the case.

    You’ve got to get accustomed to technology to have a little chance to get a grip on it. The necessary education to achieve this conforms to the western model inherited from the Enlightenment. This model leaves very little room for alternate point of views, knowledge and wisdom –like oral cultures for example.

    I’m a highly educated french individual who worked twenty years long for high tech medias. I left France for Laos almost five years ago. This landlocked country, one of the poorest in the world, still has 80% of its population living in the countryside farming, fishing, hunting, and borrowing anything necessary from the forest. Most of the children who leave the fields for the city are driven there not by choice but necessity. They are not getting a higher education, nor do they expand their possibilities. Most of them are enslaved in garment factories and other sweatshops where they work 10 to 14 hours a day, 6 days a week to earn a mere 100 $ a month. Young pretty women get a grimer future, being sold to prostitution networks.

    The accelerated westernization of Laos shows how the Technium works: it maximizes a few individual destinies, having a handful barefooted ones becoming billionaires, while most of the people get poorer. Those in position to master the Technium context are the potential winners. All the other ones are condemned to serve the system.

    The lesson I learn through your story is the uncomparable fairness and equity of the Amish community, where each individual is worth the same value as each other. I learn the very same lesson meeting “off Technium” ethnic communities in remote areas of Laos. Places where even money doesn’t exist, yes! that can be in the 21st century.
    The thing I’m looking forward to in your writings is some kind of openness to the whole humanity, about 22 times more people than the American people you cherish. Most of them aren’t heirs of the Greek culture and the Enlightenment, most of them are far away from getting some insight into cyberculture, most of them are struggling to survive, most of them are prevented from getting the necessary litteracy, most of them have no choice but to fill their minds with TV garbage.

    The Technium is about the destinies of all the human beings. Please leave your american centric vision home and embrace all mankind. You’re able to achieve this!!!

  • matt

    I think you answered the question you asked in the title, but never said it explicitly. Something like, “Technology is is always striving. Technology cannot fulfill, because it is never satisfied. In out symbiotic relationship, we too are never truly satisfied with technology. There is always more.”

  • Glenwood Morris

    I would like to see you address the rural/urban divide and the technicum/mininite divide separately.

    Thanks to the internet and shipping services, being a part of the technicum no longer requires a geographic location in an urban setting. People can be web programmers in rural Wyoming, or telecommute from the Appalachian mountains. I feel that many in my generation (I’m 29) have a longing for both the technicum and a closer link with nature. Many of those hippy ideals such as local food are appealing to my cohort. We are not against technology, but are more likely to be against consumerism and possession-driven lifestyles.

    I just think the urban/rural debate has been made much more complicated by the advent of high speed communications and shipping, and this needs to be addressed.

  • gmoke

    Yesterday, I participated in the monthly weatherization barnraising. This time at the Cambridge Community Center. I led a tour of the thirty year old barnraised solar air heater on the building that we are thinking of refurbishing sometime this Fall and another thirty year old solar air heater that was a block and a half away. When I came back, I helped weatherstrip a door. Afterwards there was pizza and salad and a band playing music.

    Today, I went to the farmers’ market I helped found maybe nearly thirty five years ago. I talked with the farmers’ I’ve known year after year and got my first local cherries, some kohlrabi, and tatsoi. In an hour or so, I’ll go to my garden and pick strawberries and currants, a daily chose. Perhaps tonight I’ll write a piece on urban fruit trees inspired by a request from a neighbor to help her harvest mulberries.

    I think is is less about the technology than about the communal use of them. Ivan Ilich talked about tools for conviviality, literally “living together.” We have tools but we don’t have conviviality, we don’t live together the way the Amish do nor the way a commune does. We can. We can do it with nanotech and super-computers or a caulking gun and urban gleaners. It’s how we organize or don’t organize our lives to make for sociability. We shouldn’t be confusing our machines with our friends and neighbors, mistaking our tools for our loved ones.

  • Clem Weidenbenner

    It seems this post has really gotten some traction. Like Nick, I’m looking forward to your comments on the lives and attitudes of slum dwelling folk. I have occasionally been surprised by some whose condition I felt must be very difficult – and they were actually quite at peace with their situation. But the examples most familiar to me are of folk we typically label as handicapped. I’ve met many clientele (aka ‘consumers’) of a local work program for developmentally disabled folk. Their lives are pretty difficult from my vantage point, but many are quite happy and comfortable with their lot. But that leads off on a tangent.

    I may be assuming too much, but it seems the folks living in Loas that Michaël Thévenet talks about – living outside of a monetary system – and able to remain there could be very satisfied with life. But I also imagine how unnerving it must be to be drug out of such a life with no preparation for the changes one will face. And in too many cases to be preyed upon by fellow human beings… an ugly situation (at least to this “Westerner”).

    I will close with one point I only hinted at earlier, and this deals with some who have been pulled out of a rural background for a more urban setting. And not to a slum, but actually a fairly comfortable life – by any standard I know. But even with all the comfort (and choices)found in the urban setting, a lifelong sense of loss (lack of one significant choice) was always evident when visiting those family and friends able to remain in the rural setting. Dreams should count for something.

  • Bob Frankston

    The idea of technology expanding choices resonates with my essay ( arguing for generative opportunity. This is not a judgment about what outcomes are “better” — just that we need to be cautious about assuming we can simply will the results we want.

  • anthony

    Loved the story. Living a simpler life (Amish) isn’t avoiding technology, its merely being selective on which technology you use. As one person said, the wheel is part of technological growth. Perhaps they do not use electronic technology or fossil fuel technology but they do use it. I don’t recall seeing Amish planting using only a stick to make holes in the ground. Pulling plants from the ground (no metals for cutting) and beating the grain against rocks to thresh it.
    Also for a teen Amish to explore the outside world and then return does not necessarily speak of the contentment of the Amish lifestyle. Imagine you being dropped off in rural China for 2 years and having the choice of return home again. The Amish youth are not prepared for the outside world as I would not be for living in rural china. Of course I would return to what I knew.
    An Amish community is by no means utopia but it does have its advantage over being part of the rat race (also disadvantages) however every Amish community is dependent upon technology.
    I have a sailboat and am working towards retirement on it. Minimal needs, food, alcohol for the stove, occasionally new sails, hand fix most of the boat HOWEVER, its fiberglass, with metal mast, synthetic lines….all brought to me by technology. So while I may be living simplistically I am dependent upon others technology.

    PS why didn’t leon travel by horse or horse/buggy or shun all advances and walk.
    Knives, pots, axes, hammers, lathes, saws, lanterns, stoves, paper, pens, looms, blacksmithing, scissors….toilet paper all part of a changing world and brought to us through technology.

  • anthony

    As stated previous post, I am retiring to a sailboat. I am doing this to distance myself from the part of society that can’t seem to live without the latest technology. I have a cell phone with a total of 51hr use in 2 years. Obviously I have a computer, however I rarely listen to radios or watch TV much.
    GPS on the boat, depth sounder and compass, all for safety….hmm taking advantage of some technology.:-)

    Overall I loved the article and greatly respect those that can live off the grid and find contentment. Can we not miss what we never had or is it…ignorance is bliss.

  • Mark Dow

    “More than two million people per day decide they prefer the options that modern technology life offers …”

    Is that right, or should it be per week? Is this the net migration to urban centers or the net increase in urban population – in which case most are born into the culture of urban centers.

    A year at this rate equates to about 1/10 of humanity which seems implausible, and unsustainable at the least.

  • @Jim DelaHunt: Thanks, I fixed the spelling.