December 8, 2014 / Praxis
Karen Swallow Prior meditates on the slow marriage of North and South.
November 27, 2008
I have managed thus far to resist my desires to buy an iPhone through the lucky confluence of several factors:
(1) I cannot afford one.
(2) In light of the economic state of the world in the last four hundred years, my affection grows almost daily for the economic lifestyle of conservative Anabaptists like the Amish and Bruderhof community, who seem to be among the most economically radical and cutting-edge within the church.
(3) I have spent a few years reading and thinking about the writings of Wendell Berry.
If nothing else, the practices of Berry and the Anabaptists should make us suspicious of the iPhone. And the biblical injections to stop coveting, including Jesus’s sorely neglected views on possessions, should give us pause when we are tempted to buy what some have called a “messiah phone,” a phone whose marketing tagline enigmatically proclaims that “Everything will change.” Tongue-in-cheek idolatry is still idolatry; but there are more problems here than commodity-fetishism acting as our new golden calf. Given my persistent attraction to electronic gadgets, I need more than commands; I need ways to view the world, ways to see what is going on in the market, ways to see through what is happening in the enticements of advertisers, and ways to know what, when, and how to resist.
Some of the cultural theory that has been most shocking to my technophilia appears in the work of Mr. Berry. If you have not read his essay “Why I Won’t Buy a Computer,” I suggest you google it on your computer right now (he didn’t post it online, obviously). In this short essay, Berry’s most compelling argument for not buying a computer is that he wishes to avoid being duped. He seeks to center his soul by asking himself what are the problems with the world (or myself) and what are the ways those problems will be solved?1
For many consumers, the iPhone easily answers those questions: The problem with the world is a lack of information and entertainment, and having the internet conveniently located in one’s pocket is the sacrament of the eschatological answer—that is, we have in our hands a taste of the ultimate Answer to our problems! But for Berry the problems with the world are peace, economic justice, ecological health, political honesty, family and community stability, and good work. He feels that, given a view of, say, the last sixty years, computers have done little to solve these problems. If anything, they have made us dumber. As he quips elsewhere, if some people prove incorrigibly wicked or stupid or both, computers will at least speed them up.2
Some of us are starting to admit that labor-saving devices have not saved us time. Berry writes with some sarcasm that “despite world-record advances in automation, robotification, and other ‘labor-saving’ technologies, it is assumed that almost every human being may, at least in the Future, turn out to be useful for something, just like the members of other endangered species.” The connection between “progress” and the vast diminution of endangered species, glaciers, and ecosystems is one of the most provocative and important issues of our world today. Berry writes of computers and ecology that “it is not beside the point that most electrical power comes from strip-mined coal. The history of the exploitation of the Appalachian coal-fields is long, and it is available to readers. I do not see how anyone can read it and plug in any appliance with a clear conscience.”3 In other words, we purchase (for fairly high prices) the lies that we are happier and that we have more time, when the background costs are often the earth and our sanity.
There is an intriguing connection here, on the level of being duped, between advertising and the election. Although I have been uncomfortable making categorical statements like “don’t vote” or “don’t buy,” I am comfortable saying a few things.
First, Christians should be bothered by the loud mobs that form in campaign gatherings, Apple publicity releases, et cetera. The veneration in that bellowing, incessant cheering is of the quality that should be reserved for our savior. Indeed, the only acceptable crowds or gatherings in the New Testament were those that surrounded the memory or vision of Jesus, the slain lamb. The character of these crowds was sobering, and the contrast between these New Testament crowds and contemporary crowds offers a prophetic lament that acts to expose the tendencies of mobs to kill their Lord, hail the Third Reich, or buy into the latest gimmick. Theologians call the problem with mobs “mimetic desire”: People in a crowd can’t help but mimic what others desire—we desire through another’s desire. And so we become slaves to the desires floating around everywhere. And these arbitrary and whimsical urges can conglomerate into a vibrating symphony of group-think and sin.
Second, both the election and iPhone have their declared promises and hopes, of which only a few could possibly be true. For one, we should know better than to see in the head of the executive branch the steering of world history. Sure, many things get done there—and under the Bush administration, near monarchial powers were granted to this branch. But let’s not pretend that governments are any more than what the New Testament calls “the Powers.”4 They have their place, but for Christians that place should not be a central one.
And third, I haven’t yet spoken of what Paul said he was eager to do: Remember the poor. Some say, “Live simply that others may simply live,” and this is more challenging and bothersome to my conscience than I would like to think, especially given the type of economy in which we live. Moreover, the problem of living simply will not be resolved through the production of a Product Red iPhone or any other globally-industrially-mass-produced products. To make a product through the lowest cost of global labor using an elaborate system of fossil fuels only makes the charitable giving to Africa ironic, not coherent.
We don’t just need “new Benedicts” as philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has envisioned;5 we need new Luddites and Amish. Given the way that industrial capitalism has turned out—with us all woefully deskilled in basic life skills and dependent on wage labor—these religious groups seem to represent a mindful alternative. They may have their shortcomings, but the Luddites and Amish certainly deserve credit for their early stance against the development of the military-industrial complex. But my soul is not well structured to share the same affections and habits of these groups: I am a product of my culture. I think that the iPhone is the coolest gadget since the arrow-shaped rock. But I also think that people who do not use electricity are, on balance, saner and have a clearer conscience than I. And in their more temperate use of goods, they are more capable of experiencing the sacredness of life. As Berry notes, you cannot know life is holy if you are content to live from practices that daily destroy life and diminish its possibilities.
So I remain in tension. Sometimes I am only held back from that iPhone by the thin threads of a shallow wallet. To say that I try to be less consumptive would be a stretch and potentially an insult to those who actually do expend a great deal of effort. For those of us Christians who are tempted by the iPhone and its cousins, it might take more than triumphantly proclaiming, “I resist!” Rather, it might require the formation of support groups for those who are addicted to the promise of technology, groups dedicated to holding out against the world’s iPhones for as long as they can.
Holding out for a while may actually be a considerable or at least a moderate strategy for the Christian struggling with technology.6 The Catholic theologian Christine Firer Hinze recently stated that it is not easy to create a clear standard of what luxuries and technological developments are worthy of Christian participation but that Christians should at least be late or slow adopters of such technologies. They should not be magnetized by the hype.7 Indeed, many technologies are not created out of a genuine need but a profit motive. These inventions are followed by advertisers telling us what we need, the very things they happen to have on sale! And these technologies often harry us with promises of how they are solutions to our problems. The Christian should be on level mental footing and should see how these promises are often lies.
Take the telephone as an example: In its early stages of development, marketers told us of the new wonderful world that it heralded. Now, years later, owning a phone is not necessarily a moral question for most Christians. But it could seriously be debated whether the phone has delivered on its promises. Perhaps the problem with new technology is not technology per se but the false hopes behind technology. Although technology might be value-neutral, our hearts very rarely are value-neutral. We can do things for the right and wrong reasons. And if we think that having an iPhone will make us happier, we should stop to think (and maybe even pray!). Consider the developments in the family since the telephone: Because we are promised instant access to people around the world through telephonic mediation, we begin scattering away from our families and hometowns (for numerous economic reasons), and then we wonder why we don’t feel close to one another! I like the internet, but let’s be honest, is Facebook really ameliorating this problem?
We might stop to ask with Berry: Am I happy? For my lapses in happiness, do I need more frequent access to music or 2×3 movies? Am I troubled by my lack of immediate knowledge of world affairs? Am I troubled by my distance from email, and should this distance be closed? Will I be closer to my friends if Facebook is in my pocket? Will the iPhone bridge the distance between the current me and that better me?
I think I have an answer to some of these questions, but not from my own witness. I have spent time with a community of Anabaptists that rarely use the internet. They read their local newspapers and scour the Economist magazines. They are demonstrably more aware of world events than I. And they are also markedly calmer, more productive and skilled, more caring for our society’s children, and more capable of producing practical solutions in their lives to serious questions about the water, food, and energy crises in which we now live.
I wouldn’t be surprised if after a few years I give into a messiah phone, acquitted from my own judgment by Hinze’s “late adopters” criteria. But I might also freak out and move out onto a farm and try to rekindle lost arts like subsistence farming, animal husbandry, and pottery. Given my equivocal stance, I should end with Berry, who is more technological stable than I. He offers some criteria for making technological upgrades:
(1) The new tool should be cheaper than the one it replaces.
(2) It should be at least as small in scale as the one it replaces.
(3) It should do work that is clearly and demonstrably better than the one it replaces.
(4) It should use less energy than the one it replaces.
(5) If possible, it should use some form of solar energy, such as that of the body.
(6) It should be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence, provided that he or she has the necessary tools.
(7) It should be purchasable and repairable as near to home as possible.
(8) It should come from a small, privately owned shop or store that will take it back for maintenance and repair.
(9) It should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.8
And his closing remarks might leave us slightly more sales-resistant to the attractive messianic promises of computers in our pockets:
I do not wish to fool myself. I disbelieve, and therefore strongly resent, the assertion that I or anybody else could write better or more easily with a computer than with a pencil. I do not see why I should not be as scientific about this as the next fellow: when somebody has used a computer to write work that is demonstrably better than Dante’s, and when this better is demonstrably attributable to the use of a computer, then I will speak of computer with a more respectful tone of voice, though I still will not buy one.9
Conflictedly yours (written on a Mac),
2. Berry, Wendell, Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community (New York: Pantheon Books, 1996), xiv.
3. From “Why I Won’t Buy a Computer.”
4. Many theologians comment on the powers, but John Yoder is a favorite of mine (see The Politics of Jesus; Vicit Agnus Noster [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972]).
5. MacIntyre, Alasdair C. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd ed (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 263.
6. Such a model will disappoint those desiring a water-tight, consistent ethic on technology, but since the growth of industrialism, I know of no such ethics. The Amish and various indigenous groups who have resisted globalism’s onslaught stand out to me as the groups hazarding an attempt.
7. Christine Firer Hinze, “A Standard of Living in Accordance with One’s Station and the Demands of Solidarity: Tough Questions for Twenty-first-century Disciples,” Plenary Address at God and Mammon, Villanova University Theological Institute Annual Conference, October 2007.
8. From, “Why I Won’t Buy a Computer.”
9. From “Why I Won’t Buy a Computer.”
Chris Haw is an aspiring potter, carpenter, painter, and theologian. He grew up Catholic, spent many years growing and serving at Willow Creek Community Church outside of Chicago, and studied ecology and theology while living in Belize for a few months. A graduate of Eastern University with degrees in sociology and theology, he is currently working on his graduate degree in theology from Villanova University. Chris and his wife, Cassie, are members of the Camden Houses, a multi-house community in Camden, New Jersey.