March 26, 2011

On the Amish

In my previous post I posed the question: Why look at Amish communities when studying the social uses of the telephone?  I think it is becoming clear that by comparing their society with ours, we can see that they have been asking the correct (in my opinion) questions of their relationship with technology.  We, on the other hand, have asked the wrong kinds of questions.  Sometimes, we don’t even bother to question the social aspects of technology; we just blithely accept everything with open arms and closed eyes.  Only when the (negative) consequences of our actions strike us, do we throw up our arms and shout indignantly.  But by then it is too late.  What is done cannot be undone. 

The Amish are concerned about the unity, cohesion and harmony of their society, and the questions they ask themselves are very much focused on this objective.  Any technology that does not foster close relations will not be easily accepted by them.  The ‘English’, however, just want technology to help them do things faster, to do more things simultaneously, and if it helps them do it all cheaper than before, even better.  Yes, we want our mobile phones in order to keep in touch with loved ones (but how did we manage before?).  I haven’t heard anyone say, however, that he wants a telephone or other piece of technology in order to maintain social cohesion and a sense of community.
Are we yearning after a pre-lapsarian era?

Some celebs (and plebs, too) make a show of going cold turkey with their techno addictions: disconnecting from the Web, hiding their mobiles, logging off Twitter.  Do they feel a genuine need to detox because of excess use, or is it mere curiosity?  Ironically, they update the rest of us on their progress via blog posts (presumably a friend uploads the text for them).  I sense that these individuals long for a utopia that does not exist.  That which has been invented, cannot be un-invented.  We can’t pretend we don’t know what life is like without Internet and iPhones.  There comes a point when absolutely everyone is connected digitally/electronically and if you are the only one not connected, then you’re going to have a pretty miserable and lonely existence.  This is the reverse situation of a hundred years ago when there really was no point in having a telephone subscription if you didn’t know anyone else with a telephone.

At this point in history, not having a mobile phone is such an unusual event, it is worthy of an article.  The arguments against ownership are convincing, but I still doubt many will follow the author’s lead.  This ‘testing of the waters’ of a non-techno existence can give the individual a taste of the simple life but he would surely balk at going the whole hog and abandoning it all for an Amish lifestyle.  In any event, once the blog posts have been written, these people revert to old habits and carry on as before.  Mankind and his technologies have an extremely close relationship: only death or a power cut can separate them!  Many rural families living in 1920s America had a telephone but no running water in their houses.  During the Depression, not as many telephone connections were cancelled as you might have expected.

Despite the Amish’s wary adoption of telephones, this is one technology that, by its very nature, does erode community feeling.  I would posit that physical proximity is one factor that determines the size and boundaries of any given community.  (Which ancient Greek philosopher said that the city limits were where the leader’s voice could no longer be heard?)  A telephone obviously makes a nonsense of these boundaries and erodes feelings of community with one’s physical neighbours.  Let us not forget as well that the telephone is not mass media like, say, radio or television, which have the potential to unite a community.  It is a point-to-point medium that involves only two individuals (if we discount for the moment conference calls).

Final part to follow in a few days.

March 24, 2011

The Amish and telephones

Why look at Amish communities when studying the social uses of the telephone?

While hunting and gathering material for my thesis, I came across a few articles that questioned the relationship between Amish communities and modern technologies.  At first glance one would say: ‘But the Amish don’t use modern technology (cars, phone, electricity), what’s there to study?  Rather than stop at this facile conclusion, however, it’s revealing to look at the questions the Amish people ask themselves before adopting a new technology and also to understand how they do use technologies, once they decide on their utility to the community.

Observing Amish communities feels like you're watching someone in a living museum.  Only these aren't museum employees but real people with all the usual attendant problems of survival.  You couldn't describe them as living in a time warp, since there are some tenuous links to the outside world. 

Unlike the ‘English’ (as the Amish call the non-Amish), these people are selective in which technologies they want to adopt.  Each device or system is carefully weighed and the consequences of using that technology are taken into account.  For example, by acquiring a mobile phone, an Amish farmer will understand that he can keep in touch with suppliers, customers, etc. without needing to visit them in person, but more significantly, he will also be aware that a telephone in his home will disrupt precious family time.  (Have you ever tried to ignore a ringing telephone at home during a meal, or worse, during an argument?)  It is these kinds of pros and cons that are considered.   

Amish bishops pose the following question when deciding whether or not to adopt a technology: Will this device build a strong community and bring families together, or will it drive them apart?  In the case of the telephone, they definitely view it as an intrusion to domestic cohesion and community spirit, a notion contrary to what the telephone promoters would have us believe.

A case of déjà vu - the Amish are prepared to welcome the telephone for business use in their offices and workshops.  But they will not easily tolerate a telephone in their homes.  A familiar tale from the beginning of the 1900s when the telephone was first promoted as a business tool. There is a clear distinction between home and work and nothing should cause the two domains to overlap.  If you bring a business tool (the telephone) into the home then this will spoil domestic peace and adversely affect family relationships.

There are many more aspects and observations on this topic, too much for one post.  
Further notes will be posted in the coming days ...

March 13, 2011

Jameson on Modernity

Fredric Jameson's four maxims of Modernity (2002) -
  1. We cannot not periodize.
  2. Modernity is not a concept, philosophical or otherwise, but a narrative category.
  3. The narrative of modernity cannot be organized around categories of subjectivity; consciousness and subjectivity are unrepresentable; only situations of modernity can be narrated.
  4. No 'theory' of modernity makes sense today unless it is able to come to terms with the hypothesis of a postmodern break with the modern.
For me, it is significant that Jameson's Preface is subtitled "Regressions of the current age."  He discusses a revival (or return, resuscitation, renewal, or whatever) of the concept of modernity, where postmodernity was a brief interlude, or, as I like to imagine it, a detour down a cul-de-sac which then necessitated an about-turn and a return to the main road.

Jameson, Fredric.  A Singular Modernity.  Essay on the Ontology of the Present.  London: Verso, 2002.

March 8, 2011


This evening Yoko Ono (@yokoono) issued the following tweet:
"Total communication equals peace. And it will eliminate ignorance, apathy and hatred."
Yoko is not the first to express such sentiments.  Although it is a noble desire, it is one that must remain in the realm of utopia.
Since the year dot, people have welcomed each new communications innovation with the same words and wishes - that the ease with which we can communicate with our fellow man will break down barriers, bring the peoples of the world closer together, and foster greater understanding and tolerance. 

They said it when the telegraph went national
They said it when the Atlantic cable was laid
They said it when the telephone came along (and when the Paris-London link was established)
They said it (and are still saying it) about the World Wide Web

So many new technologies and all have failed to bring world peace.  Just about the only thing they have succeeded in doing is making it easier for generals to conduct wars.

March 5, 2011

Telegram messenger boys

Some of us are just old enough to remember the messenger boys who delivered telegrams; in military-style uniforms, perhaps on a bicycle or motorbike.  For most families, the arrival of a telegram nearly always meant bad news i.e. the death of a relative.  

News, good or bad, is a 24/7 affair and that means telegram boys have to be on call round the clock and prepared to deliver telegrams in any district of the town, however insalubrious it may be.

American commentators in the early 1900s were concerned for the welfare of young boys who were employed on night duty delivering telegrams.  “Patrons” would telephone the telegraph office and ask for a boy to be sent over, but it wouldn’t be because they wanted to send a message.  Instead, the patron would send the boy on an errand to fetch things like alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, fast food or medicine.  The patron might be anyone from a hotel, a bar, or drug store.  Prostitutes were frequent callers, requesting that messengers come to do errands or deposit money.  British telegram boys, on the other hand, didn’t have to deal with molls but rather the bogeyman on freezing moors, as I describe in a previous post.   Admittedly I haven’t searched very hard but I have yet to find accounts of British telegram boys falling into similar dens of iniquity as their American counterparts.

The telegraph office did not ask what the patron wanted the boy for, but even if they did, there was no way they could keep a check on the boy, unless they had him followed.  The patron could use the boy for whatever task he pleased and for as long as he liked.  Of course, the messenger boy was paid for his time.  Greg Downey has written extensively on telegram boys in the US.

There was obvious concern for the welfare of these teenagers who were obliged to associate with call girls, visitors to brothels, and other inhabitants of the underworld.  States gradually introduced legislation forbidding the use of underage minors for night time service.

I sense the welfare agencies and the messenger boys were working at cross purposes.  Remember initially that telegram boys worked the first telephone exchanges: they had to be removed because of their rowdy behaviour and insolence towards subscribers.  The telegraph companies were at pains to keep the boys out of public view while they were hanging around for messages to deliver.  The image of a uniformed boy who was supposed to adhere to military discipline did not tie in well with the reality of seeing the same boy playing cards with his fellows with a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth.  I also have the impression that the boys themselves were not in the slightest bit concerned about their contacts with city lowlife.  Here was a chance for them to earn good tips and be paid much more than the petty official amounts for each telegram delivered.  What is more, if you were a choir boy who needed some extra pocket money, then you didn’t sign up as a messenger.  This job needed blasé individuals, unfazed by scenes of decadence.

The telegraph companies wanted their young boys to have a squeaky clean, wholesome image – the boys just wanted to earn more money. 

In Britain a certain amount of nostalgia surrounds telegram deliveries, as is to be expected with an extinct practice.  Retired messenger boys in Leicester and Birmingham have maintained contact with old colleagues and established websites with photographic material and first-hand accounts of their duties, training, and experience.  They are striving to keep old history alive.  But these are old men who used to do a job that no longer exists today.  A sobering thought.

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Digital Telephone Book by Elizabeth Chairopoulou is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.