What Do We Want, Really?

I was in Amish country last week. Several times a day I heard the clip-clop of horse hooves and the whirring of buggy wheels coming down the street and then receding into the distance–a rather soothing Doppler effect. While there, I was reminded of an anecdote about the Amish relayed by a reader in the comments to a recent post:

I once heard David Kline tell of Protestant tourists sight-seeing in an Amish area. An Amishman is brought on the bus and asked how Amish differ from other Christians. First, he explained similarities: all had DNA, wear clothes (even if in different styles), and like to eat good food.

Then the Amishman asked: “How many of you have a TV?”

Most, if not all, the passengers raised their hands.

“How many of you believe your children would be better off without TV?”

Most, if not all, the passengers raised their hands.

“How many of you, knowing this, will get rid of your TV when you go home?”

No hands were raised.

“That’s the difference between the Amish and others,” the man concluded.

I like the Amish. As I’ve said before, the Amish are remarkably tech-savvy. They understand that technologies have consequences, and they are determined to think very hard about how different technologies will affect the life of their communities. Moreover, they are committed to sacrificing the benefits a new technology might bring if they deem the costs too great to bear. This takes courage and resolve. We may not agree with all of the choices made by Amish communities, but it seems to me that we must admire both their resolution to think about what they are doing and their willingness to make the sacrifices necessary to live according to their principles.

Image via Wikicommons
Image via Wikicommons

The Amish are a kind of sign to us, especially as we come upon the start of a new year and consider, again, how we might better live our lives. Let me clarify what I mean by calling the Amish a sign. It is not that their distinctive way of life points the way to the precise path we must all follow. Rather, it is that they remind us of the costs we must be prepared to incur and the resoluteness we must be prepared to demonstrate if we are to live a principled life.

It is perhaps a symptom of our disorder that we seem to believe that all can be made well merely by our making a few better choices along the way. Rarely do we imagine that what might be involved in the realization of our ideals is something more radical and more costly. It is easier for us to pretend that all that is necessary are a few simple tweaks and minor adjustments to how we already conduct our lives, nothing that will makes us too uncomfortable. If and when it becomes impossible to sustain that fiction, we take comfort in fatalism: nothing can ever change, really, and so it is not worth trying to change anything at all.

What is often the case, however, is that we have not been honest with ourselves about what it is that we truly value. Perhaps an example will help. My wife and I frequently discuss what, for lack of a better way of putting it, I’ll call the ethics of eating. I will not claim to have thought very deeply, yet, about all of the related issues, but I can say that we care about what has been involved in getting food to our table. We care about the labor involved, the treatment of animals, and the use of natural resources. We care, as well, about the quality of the food and about the cultural practices of cooking and eating. I realize, of course, that it is rather fashionable to care about such things, and I can only hope that our caring is not merely a matter of fashion. I do not think it is.

But it is another thing altogether for us to consider how much we really care about these things. Acting on principle in this arena is not without its costs. Do we care enough to bear those costs? Do we care enough to invest the time necessary to understand all the relevant complex considerations? Are we prepared to spend more money? Are we willing to sacrifice convenience? And then it hits me that what we are talking about is not simply making a different consumer choice here and there. If we really care about the things we say we care about, then we are talking about changing the way we live our lives.

In cases like this, and they are many, I’m reminded of a paragraph in sociologist James Hunter’s book about varying approaches to moral education in American schools. “We say we want the renewal of character in our day,” Hunter writes,

“but we do not really know what to ask for. To have a renewal of character is to have a renewal of a creedal order that constrains, limits, binds, obligates, and compels. This price is too high for us to pay. We want character without conviction; we want strong morality but without the emotional burden of guilt or shame; we want virtue but without particular moral justifications that invariably offend; we want good without having to name evil; we want decency without the authority to insist upon it; we want moral community without any limitations to personal freedom. In short, we want what we cannot possibly have on the terms that we want it.”

You may not agree with Hunter about the matter of moral education, but it is his conclusion that I want you to note: we want what we cannot possibly have on the terms that we want it.

This strikes me as being a widely applicable diagnosis of our situation. Across so many different domains of our lives, private and public, this dynamic seems to hold. We say we want something, often something very noble and admirable, but in reality we are not prepared to pay the costs required to obtain the thing we say we want. We are not prepared to be inconvenienced. We are not prepared to reorder our lives. We may genuinely desire that noble, admirable thing, whatever it may be; but we want some other, less noble thing more.

At this point, I should probably acknowledge that many of the problems we face as individuals and as a society are not the sort that would be solved by our own individual thoughtfulness and resolve, no matter how heroic. But very few problems, private or public, will be solved without an honest reckoning of the price to be paid and the work to be done.

So what then? I’m presently resisting the temptation to now turn this short post toward some happy resolution, or at least toward some more positive considerations. Doing so would be disingenuous. Mostly, I simply wanted to draw our attention, mine no less than yours, toward the possibly unpleasant work of counting the costs. As we thought about the new year looming before us and contemplated how we might live it better than the last, I wanted us to entertain the possibility that what will be required of us to do so might be nothing less than a fundamental reordering of our lives. At the very least, I wanted to impress upon myself the importance of finding the space to think at length and the courage to act.

Friday Links: Questioning Technology Edition

My previous post, which raised 41 questions about the ethics of technology, is turning out to be one of the most viewed on this site. That is, admittedly, faint praise, but I’m glad that it is because helping us to think about technology is why I write this blog. The post has also prompted a few valuable recommendations from readers, and I wanted to pass these along to you in case you missed them in the comments.

Matt Thomas reminded me of two earlier lists of questions we should be asking about our technologies. The first of these is Jacques Ellul’s list of 76 Reasonable Questions to Ask of Any Technology (update: see Doug Hill’s comment below about the authorship of this list.) The second is Neil Postman’s more concise list of Six Questions to Ask of New Technologies. Both are worth perusing.

Also, Chad Kohalyk passed along a link to Shannon Vallor’s module, An Introduction to Software Engineering Ethics.

Greg Lloyd provided some helpful links to the (frequently misunderstood) Amish approach to technology, including one to this IEEE article by Jameson Wetmore: “Amish Technology: Reinforcing Values and Building Communities” (PDF). In it, we read, “When deciding whether or not to allow a certain practice or technology, the Amish first ask whether it is compatible with their values?” What a radical idea, the rest of us should try it sometime! While we’re on the topic, I wrote about the Tech-Savvy Amish a couple of years ago.

I can’t remember who linked to it, but I also came across an excellent 1994 article in Ars Electronica that is composed entirely of questions about what we would today call a Smart Home, “How smart does your bed have to be, before you are afraid to go to sleep at night?”

And while we’re talking about lists, here’s a post on Kranzberg’s Six Laws of Technology and a list of 11 things I try to do, often with only marginal success, to achieve a healthy relationship with the Internet.

Enjoy these, and thanks again to those of you provided the links.

The Tech-Savvy Amish

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 dismiss any criticism of technology.

Since humans have always been technological creatures, cyborgs as it is fashionable to say, then we shouldn’t bother with criticism — 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 that they do 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 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.

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.”

Image via Wikicommons