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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]

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Billionaire Steve Jobs, an Inspiration to the Occupy Wall Street Campaign?

Note:  This is a post I originally wrote for socialinformaticsblog.com on October 12, 2011.

A week ago we lost a leader in the field of social informatics. Though Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs was not a scholar, he was keenly aware of how important people, their desires and mental frameworks were to the design of computer technologies. In the design process he consistently resisted collaborators who designed with code and machinery in mind instead of actual, human users. Like most social informaticians, he called for design principles to reflect culture and make communication, work and entertainment more efficient, intuitive and beautiful.

His passing happened at an interesting economic and cultural moment as so many people today are out of work (some might even argue that this is due to the success of technology developers like Apple and Steve Jobs) and political tensions have never been higher. A growing number of activists who lament the US government’s apathy toward wealthy corporate entities has emerged also in recent weeks. In just under four weeks, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) campaign has quickly spread all over the country and has observers around the world taking note.

In the OWS protesters’ mission statement, they say, we organize “at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.” Their efforts are to express animosity toward corporate greed and the US government’s apathy toward this greed. Furthermore, they feel the government should be more active in correcting this problem. Namely, they call for the taxing of the richest one percent of the population so that the other ninety-nine percent might face less financial uncertainty.

Protester holds a sign that reads JobsProtester’s Mourn Jobs’ Passing

It occurs to me that the passing of Steve Jobs and the emergence of the OWS campaign intersect in an interesting way. Jobs, worth about 7 billion dollars, was undoubtedly in the one percent of people the protesters are asking the government to tax. In spite of this, many groups of protesters took time away from the protests to mourn his passing. A tweet from Twitter account @OPWallStreet on the night of his death said, “Sad to announce the death of Steve Jobs.”

While some may see this as an inconsistency in the message of the OWS, perhaps noting the genealogy of certain core values of the OWS campaign will help illuminate why OWS protesters, and so many others, feel a sense of grief at Jobs’ passing. Jobs was not just an innovator of technical artifacts. In many ways he also created new ways for communication to occur, new ways for entertainment to happen, new ways to work, to travel, to fall in love, etc.

One can easily trace the ideology and socio-technical structure that the OWS relies upon to share information and establish their movement back to innovators like Steve Jobs.   First, Jobs is a product of the sixties. He was a flower child and hung out with anti-war protesters and activists while he was beginning to develop his desire to work with computers. This influence impacted the design of Apple technologies and made past and present underdogs fall in love with him. In the world of conservative tech companies, Jobs was almost always on the lunatic fringe. He fought for the things his artistic, and humanistic intuition told him were right. OWS protesters see themselves in Jobs’ shoes: They are fighting against the status quo in an effort to put the human back in the center of the system’s design.

Second, Jobs developed technologies that were networked. His masterpieces the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, etc. are windows into the social world. Social informaticians know that these technologies bear a certain internal structure which predetermines a certain kind of use, requires certain skills, etc. The structure of a computer network is at the heart of both the OWS campaign and Jobs’ most influential Apple technologies. As information is exchanged, the OWS campaign is replicated across the country. It’s copied and pasted. A new instance emerges in a new location because people have seen pictures of others, read stories, watch videos and are inspired by others through their iPhones & iPads. The OWS information structure, which is the heart of the movement, is itself an instance of the computer network Steve Jobs envisioned in the design of his most influential Apple technologies.

The protesters aim to upset the government’s apathy. They, like Jobs, suggest that the system should reflect today’s socio-technical culture and empower users by giving them more tools to make life easier and more beautiful.