Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Amish, Apple, and modern community

On the religion of objects, their morals and connection with community.

PBS offered a beautiful documentary of the Amish, asking how and why they have resisted the modernity the rest of us worship. To me, the most interesting observation is that community is the core purpose of Amish life. Anything that tends to weaken community, like cars, phones, women's rights, and domestic conveniences, is negotiated in a way that either is excluded completely, or kept at arm's length such that it doesn't invade the home. Work per se is valued as good, so doing more of it via traditional technologies isn't such a bad thing. Just look what the "English" do with all their free time!

One can call this conservative. The Amish certainly embody true conservatism. But it is conservatism with a point, recognizing that humans must live in community, and are happiest in community. Thus the quality of that community deserves special care. Which sometimes requires renunciation of those temptations the rest of the culture regards as the birthright of individualism, free enterprise, and the American way. Particularly, the ideology of progress is something the Amish apparently deny categorically, content to sweat and toil in this way-station to a better world.

The diametric opposite attitude comes from Apple, perhaps the leading purveyor of the narrative of progress and modernity, succeeding on our many previous infatuations with railroads, electrification, atomic power, television, et al. Steve Jobs distilled this ethos into an extremly powerful drug, indeed a "reality distortion field". Each new product is the best ever, the most chic, the most free-ing of creative professionals to destroy the reigning paradigms of dead "past" values and designs in favor of a "think different" future.

Both the Amish and Apple take a moral attitude towards objects and the material environment. One asks that its technologies serve its community and is willing to forego labor-saving and consciousness-extending devices in that service. The other claims that all its technologies make everything better, freeing each individual from historical limitations and collective tyranny, while simultaneously uniting us in new "distributed" social networks with increased artistic, cultural, and political powers. The Amish sincerely doubt the latter proposition, or at least the quality of these new "communities".

A recent review of Steve Jobs and Apple focused interestingly on their deep debt to the Bauhaus design school, and evaluated Apple's position as purveyor of a sort of prophetic design sense. It doesn't so much fulfill its customers needs as show them needs they didn't know they had, wrapped up in designs they hardly deserve. It is a somewhat imperious relationship, breathlessly marketed with revolutionary slogans and peans to creativity, mostly redounding to house of Apple rather than its customers.

Compared to its main competitor, Microsoft, which offers militantly un-designed products of utilitarian, even anti-user ethics, yes, Apple morality does successfully inject a modicum of taste and ease into an otherwise daunting concept- that of advanced computer operation and maintenance. But that just begs the question of whether sitting on our couches staring into ever-more refined screens is what we truly, deeply, want to be doing. (However, thank you for reading this blog in electronic form!)

Here, the morality is of perfection in an aesthetic and functional sense, expressing faith that if we get just what we individually want, it will enhance our human-ness, at least until the next model comes out. Is this free-market individualist conception of human fulfillment working properly? Are our politics, for example, enhanced by the new powers of computers and communication? Have our media become deeper and more informative, or rather shallower? Does the endless procession of newer and better objects through our lives make them better, our thoughts deeper? Is it good for the human and indeed larger biological communities we exist within?

I think it is fair to say that people need to be nudged into community consciousness. We have always had hermits, mountain men, and other loners, but primitive conditions generally force people into communities for subsistance in addition to other needs. This is part of what Marx disparaged as the "idiocy of rural life", and is of course what he tried to replace through his vanguard of worker solidarity. It is the bread and butter of religion, which as the rabbi says, is about love and doing, more than it is about belief. It seems that the US is leading the way, via its prosperity and its absolute dedication to personal emancipation through personal choice and free markets, towards de-community-ization: the shallowing-out and hollowing-out of all forms of non-monetary connection. Not only are corporations people, they are also our reigning community, both in the guise of the workplace as well as the media, the social network, the local coffehouse.

It isn't easy to propose a solution that doesn't go back on some of our cherished freedoms, rights, and usages, while restoring a deeper sense of connectedness. If we need large common tasks, the fight against climate change is certainly one, as are the perennial searches for social and economic justice in the US, and around the world. Our civic religion desperately needs refurbishing, with policies like publicly funded campaigns and media, holidays for voting, and mandatory public service. For me, the community of scholarship has always been the deepest form of communion, expressing faith in progress, human potential, and openness. But knowledge alone doesn't make communities, for all its other virtues. Indeed, it can be rather frosty and exclusive.

Millions of people visit the Amish country each year. One can imagine they feel some unease on the treadmill of modernity and see something attractive in a culture that is sure enough of itself to forego that greatest of American myths- that we can successfully make virtues of avarice and covetousness, towards a future that is always better, where the grass is always greener, if you adjust the screen just right.

  • Michael Sandel on the moral and political distortions of market values.
  • Public sector job creation- Obama/Bush comparison.
  • Official honorifics are for office-holders only, please.
  • Absolutely appalling climate denialist series on CBC.
  • Matt Taibbi does his best to drive BofA out of business. All I can say is ... Citi is even worse. "By the end of last year, the government reported, more than half of all the crappy loans that Fannie wanted to return came from a single bad bank – Bank of America."
  • Lessons in extractive economics.
  • Interesting set of graphs on possible post-crisis trajectories.


  1. Amen, Burk. Community is everything. In the West we often suffer from the tyranny of the individual.

    A major part of my word-view/theology/myth/framework/whatever has become the search for what I call the blessed state - the feeling that one is a part of a whole.

  2. Thanks, Steven! This a very personal and complicated subject. There are no easy answers, since every increase in community is also a decrease in autonomy & freedom. Each person will have a different set point, and want different things out of their communal and individual lives. So, just like with morals, we end up in an endless negotation that satisfies no one.

    I wrote all this before seeing the second hour of the Amish documentary, which raised some darker issues.

    Best wishes...