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.

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