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The Amish: Making the most of life at the margins

In our field of study, many of us want to know how technologies can be used for the social good. As professional academics (someday), we may wear cloaks of scientific objectivity, but deep down, many of us are motivated by a desire to figure out how communication technologies can be used to improve [all] lives. This trend can be traced back to the countercultural origins of personal computing; to 1960s California, The People’s Computer Company (PCC), the Homebrew Computer Club, The Whole Earth Catalog, The WELL, etc. The mantra was “information wants to be free.”

During that time, it was thought that social structures could be made more egalitarian if access to information via new communication technologies was more open. And many people today might agree that this has been the case. Because of information seeping into places like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria (among other issues, of course), authoritarian regimes have (s)tumbled. We know, however, that the (s)tumbling of dictatorships does not necessarily mean that the people living in their wakes are better off. In many (maybe all) societies, where new technologies proliferate, surveillance exists– giving state and corporate entities often more (or, at least an additional channel of) power than they had before.

The media we receive through state and corporate controlled media channels trains us to behave in profitable and predictable ways and we are monitored to ensure this is working. The egalitarian social structure envisioned by early computer revolutionaries never quite materialized. Although, (at least in relative terms), the technology is there, it has more or less just made the hierarchy invisible (See Sennett).

Going off the grid (I use ‘grid’ to describe today’s global, social, technical and economic structure to which we are all currently plugged in.) entirely is virtually impossible today. For young people, it is the equivalent of social suicide. For adults, it’s professional or financial suicide. It sends up serious red flags to the powerful who watch us. For example, his compound’s lack of an Internet connection is what gave Bin Laden’s hideout away to the U.S. government.

For these reasons we may now be entering a phase where living at the margins of the grid is where the sweet spot is. This is not such an easy thing to do, though because the grid is so difficult for us to perceive. It has both technical and social components which, depending on context and materiality, can be used by an individual or group to empower itself or by others to enslave or bully the same folks.

A diverse collection of people operating at the margins of the socio-technical-economic grid, taking from it only what they want and rejecting what they don’t, are the population of Amish people living in the United States today. The Amish are a conservative religious group dedicated to living a simple, (rather) old-fashioned way of life in the hopes of pleasing God. In their community, deference to God and each other are one and the same. Along with God, community and family are everything.

The relationship the Amish have with new technologies is quite complex and not actually anti-technology, as is commonly thought. Their parsimonious approach to adopting technologies is a designed feature of social life that is meant to maximize community and limit corporate and governmental interference. Economic activity is not about individualism, it is an activity in community building. Amish decisions about technology use privilege a strong family and community that lasts generations. For them, the material allures of modern capitalism, short attention spans and mobility are threats to the way of life they want to live. The Amish make decisions about how to use technologies because they are guided by specific values. And it is specifically these values that make the grid visible to them.

Today, new technologies like cell phones, the Internet, social media and solar/wind power are taking hold in various ways in different Amish communities across the country. Still, cars, electricity from power companies, modern clothing, television and radio are generally off limits. These are not haphazard decisions, they are decisions that the Amish hope will protect their community and their values for the long term. So far by the way, it is working. Their population is currently growing exponentially. Approximately 90% of Amish youth, after being allowed to experiment with the outside world, decide to come back and join the Amish church and adhere to their simple way of life.

The Amish live at the margins of today’s global social, technical, economic power structure. They have built an enclave that is safe from the kinds of surveillance the rest of us are subjected to daily. They are not living in the dark ages, though. They see the grid and use it to survive financially. Their businesses have websites and Facebook pages. Yet they erect walls where they feel their community is vulnerable to outside influence. They don’t drive cars or allow phones in the house because these make it easy for community to dissolve and family time to be interrupted.

Perhaps we can learn from them. If a future anthropologist were to study your use of technologies today as an artifact, what would they determine your values to be? Efficiency? Individualism? [Self promotion?] Compassion? Generosity? Perhaps by consciously deciding how to adopt and use our technologies, starting with the values that are important to us, we would be better at seeing the grid and living our lives (more) freely at the margins of it.

[For more on this, stay tuned. Your’s truly is currently in the process of writing a dissertation on this very topic. :) #shamelessselfpromotion]

Thoughts on Socio-Technical Structures and Ethics

Last week, I came across an article which reported on the fact that Google regularly receives requests from the US government to remove information from the Internet and complies with their requests most of the time. In particular, they recently asked Google to remove embarrassing videos from YouTube portraying police brutality on the Occupy protesters in Oakland, California.

For a generally optimistic young media studies grad student, this news was incredibly disheartening. Actually, to a person with even a small semblance of morals, this probably should be disheartening. We have been taught to think that in our new new media world, we all have a voice and can express it through tweets, Facebook posts, blog entries, photos and videos. This report suggests that this is all just an illusion.

It also shows how closely the government and corporate media giants work together. It illustrates perfectly the trouble everyday people face when the government and those who create social reality (See Colbert on Wikiality) in today’s world are in cahoots. Though, there is danger in the serious concentration of media ownership and political power in society today, the ubiquity of cameras and new media technologies and the decentered structure of the Internet, allow us to observe these abuses of power like never before.

Events like these, where the objectives of governments and corporations clash with those of freedom seekers and libertarians, offer social analysts an interesting place to focus their observations. Because of the nature of our communication tools today, sociology, I think, becomes easier. We see social structures and individual and institutional motivations more clearly fixed in various configurations of content, people, technologies and actions.

Last Friday I attended a symposium on digital ethics and policy at Loyola University Chicago where exactly this topic was explored by a number of really innovative and insightful scholars and media practitioners. Leading the charge was opening keynote speaker, New York Times best-selling author and game designer, Jane McGonigal. In her presentation, she suggested that games should empower their players. She described her game Evoke which gave its players, who were mostly, young people in South Africa, an opportunity to make positive changes in their (mostly offline) communities as well as build a professional portfolio (resume) for themselves while they’re competing and having fun playing a game. Many of the players started businesses as a result of their involvement in the game. Her talk, along with others I heard there, restored some of my hope in the state of our socio-technical world.

Another really thought-provoking speaker, Julian Dibbell described two general socio-technical structures: one authoritarian (imagine Facebook where a designer like Mark Zuckerberg sends down software and rules of engagement to users from on high) the other federalist (the users each own their own part of the structure and make their own rules). His argument was that the concentration of power in authoritarian structures is problematic because a certain ideology and moral (or lack thereof) considerations are forced onto the users. In an egalitarian system, each user is in control of his or her own portion of the system. This is generally, a very humanist proposal. However, because many people do not have the skills, know-how and/or motivation to maintain their part of the system, in many cases this solution has pitfalls too. Dibbell’s lecture really made me think though and ultimately, it occurred to me that there might be a socio-economic lesson to take from his enthusiasm for the egalitarian, federalist approach. It seems to me that it is very useful to identify these two kinds of structures but that solutions to many complex socio-technial issues require a layering of these two approaches.

Though this is certainly a multi-faceted problem, let’s take the current jobs and economic crisis as an example. The creation of more jobs might occur if government were to help decenter certain areas of industry like energy production (solar, wind, etc.) and farming (local growers & markets). Though, it would take a strong central government to make these decisions and put these ideas into effect, it would I think make better economic and humanitarian sense. This solution is obviously a complicated and a multi-layered one. We can’t think in terms of one kind of structure being better than another. Both may be necessary to achieve the changes our society needs.

What is clear in these examples, is that the individual morals and ethics of powerful individuals are at the heart of making decisions like these. Today more than ever one’s individual ethics and morals are visible for the world to see, though they have always driven such social and institutional decisions. Perhaps, it was naïve of me to be disheartened when I learned that the government censors the Internet. Perhaps it’s even more naïve of me to have hope that those in power aim to improve lives other than their own. But in some sense I do and I hope they will- whether by force due to the ubiquitous and open nature of media today or just because it’s the right thing to do.