It would be impossible to find human cultures that were not also tool-using cultures. For as long as there have been human beings there has also been technology. This is undeniable – it is also a rather banal observation too often deployed to undermine any critical discussion of specific technologies.
Since humans have always been technological creatures, cyborgs as it is fashionable to say, then we shouldn’t bother with critical reflection—or so the implicit argument goes. Making this sort of claim is a symptom of what I’ve called the Borg Complex: “Resistance is futile, Luddite.” Used in this way, the Luddite label is handy shorthand for “backward, hypocritical, ignorant reactionary.”
Excepting the Unabomber, however, most critics of technology are not interested in abolishing “technology”; nor are they so unsophisticated as to not recognize the necessary entanglement of the human and the technological. They are, however, searching for an elusive harmony or equilibrium between the technological and their vision of the life well lived. This vision will vary from person to person and from community to community, and so the elusive harmony is elusive in part because there is no default configuration that is timelessly and universally applicable.
In earlier times when technological change proceeded at a less frenetic pace, equilibrium might have been achieved and sustained by a particular society for the span of several generations. In such cases, it would not have been incumbent on each individual to work out their relationship to technology for themselves. In fact, they could hardly have conceived of the need to do so. It would have been for them as taken for granted a facet of life as the rising and setting of the sun. There would have been no experience of future shock.
But when the pace of technological change precludes the possibility of arriving at a settled social-technical configuration that may be passed down from one generation to the next, then technology becomes a thing to be thought of and fretted over. It presents itself as a problem to be addressed. We wonder about its consequences and we worry about it effects. And this is as one would expect. It is a symptom of the liquidity of modern life.
Even the Amish, often and mistakenly taken to be Luddites par excellence, are not exempt from this state of perpetual negotiation. In fact, the Amish are paradigmatically modern in that they have made the need to think about technology a defining feature of their culture. That they do so with extreme deliberateness and with so strong a preference for the conservation of their way of life only superficially distinguishes them from the rest of American society. In their consciousness of technology and its consequences, the Amish have more in common with the rest of us than any of us do with members of pre-modern society.
What does distinguish the Amish from the rest of American society is their unwillingness to refuse responsibility for the deployment of technology and their willingness to pay the necessary costs required to realize their vision of human flourishing. Members of their community that we might think of as designated early adopters sample all manner of new technology to judge whether or not it can be adopted without undermining their values or disrupting their communal life. Based on these criteria, the community decides which technology to adopt, under what circumstances, and within which parameters.
The Amish live in the same world that we do and are as aware of new technologies as the rest of us. But while technological momentum has taken root within most of American culture rendering the notion of technological determinism plausible, the Amish have succeeded in creating philosophical momentum. That is, they have institutionalized technological criticism which has substituted for the absence of change as a stabilizing factor. And it seems to me that this makes the Amish just about the most tech-savvy group of people around.
Update: By the way, “Nearly 250,000 Amish live in the U.S. and Canada, and the population is expected to exceed 1 million around 2050.”