10 December 2005

Cellphones, communications and communities.

Some years ago I started a masters degree in computing. One of the first essays I had to write was on the impact of a technology on a society. Having recently read a Wired Magazine article that talked about the Amish and their relationship with the telephone I choose that as my subject.

The Amish are a fundamentalist Christian community which fled persecution in 17th century Europe, ending up mostly in the Eastern US. They have more or less preserved their old lifestyle that involves keeping themselves apart from non-believers. The Amish live a life of strict rules and a rather sombre simplicity. Anyone who doesn’t follow the rules, even family members risk being shunned. Children have more freedom until they are baptised and join the community of adults.

The Amish are often seen as technophobic farmers who still ride around in horse drawn buggies. Far from being reactionary Luddites however, the Amish are frequently early adopters of technology. In the early 20th century they were amongst the first communities to get the telephone. The Amish do not simply adopt technology, they go through a well defined procedure with a trial period and evaluation of the impact of the technology on their society. They ask, for instance: “will this bring us into unwanted contact with unbelievers?” Mains electricity fails this test and so the Amish do not use it, although this does not preclude the use of electricity per se. The Amish value manual work and any technology that might put a person out of work is rejected out of hand. Another important criterion is the integrity of their community, and so they ask: “will this help bring us together, or will it take people away from the community”.

This last criterion was important in the Amish response to the telephone. It was recognised that the telephone could provide links between communities, and between distant family members. There was a clear danger, however, that the telephone would cause people to look beyond the family and local community. So they came to a compromise position: telephones were OK, but not inside a family home where it might interrupt family life; and it would be preferable if several households shared a telephone. Jump forward 100 years and not much has changed. More Amish now work in carpentry creating simple but solid furniture which they mostly sell to outsiders. These shops tend to have telephones, which are strictly for business. One or two actually have a computer, but an outsider must be employed to operate it. Howard Reingold, the Wired reporter, writes that he observed a young Amish woman talking on a cellphone.

In Western society we have been thoroughly infected with the telephone, and the cellphone is now almost endemic. Some people have two. Now we can be contacted, or interrupted, anytime and anywhere. Provided there is coverage of course. The mobile started out as a Yuppie accessory that was derided by right-thinking people. Nowadays many people still deride cellphones, lament the intrusiveness of them, and resist owning or using them.

I’m interested in the success of the cellphone. These things don’t happen by accident. My understanding of the phenomena combines two sources: Jane Goodall’s book In the Shadow of Man which contains her observations of the Gombe stream chimpanzees; and Marshall Mcluhan’s The Medium Is the Massage.

We are social animals, who function best in a social group. Really large groups of us naturally fragment in to cliques. We like groups of nine plus or minus two. Negotiating the dynamics of social groups takes time and energy but the evolutionary pay-off has been enormous: language for instance!

A feature of Western societies is fragmentation. Not so many decades ago most of us would have been a member of a local community. Here in England you would have been additionally marked by a distinctive accent by which people could pinpoint your birthplace, in some cases to the actual town or village! With mobile populations and urban drift we increasingly find ourselves surrounded by strangers. This can be very stressful for us social primates. So we compensate by forming cliques based on such things as religion or a common interest such as sport. Community is not an optional extra for us, and loss of community or isolation can be devastating. Solitary confinement is considered a harsh, even cruel, punishment. The impact of loss of community on various indigenous peoples, in the wake of European colonisation, has been devastating. When you compare rates of crime, substance abuse, and mental illness with the Amish they start to look as though they might be onto something! (Which is not to suggest, by the way, that they don't have any problems at all).

Marshall McLuhan was not really a semiologist, but his most famous aphorism is “The medium is the message”. This is a semiotic statement in that he is telling us what media ‘means’. McLuhan, in trying to understand the role of technology in society, wanted to draw attention away from the content of media, towards the form of it. He considered the forms of communication media to be more significant that the content of them. He includes such things as alphabets, writing, and printing in this analysis. McLuhan saw technology as an extension of the human body or senses, but I think we need to add a dimension to this. It seems clear that the message of cellphones is “connecting to people, and creating a sense of belonging to a community”. So technology in this case is an extension, not just of an individual, but of the social aspect of human primates. It can be seen as a direct response to the collapse of local communities and our dispersal across the globe – my own family lives on three continents. These days I belong to the group defined by the numbers stored on my phone.

I see problems with this technological solution to fragmentation however. For instance there is no substitute for intimate personal contact, mutual grooming and eating each other’s ticks. We might forego the latter, but otherwise we are just like our primate cousins. Touch is an essential element in a healthy community. Without it we feel lonely and unhappy. The Amish know this and use telephones mainly to arrange face to face meetings.

The adoption of technology is relatively passive. We don’t ask the kind of penetrating questions that the Amish do about the impact of technology so we have whether it’s good or not. Perhaps we could argue that if it didn’t work then it wouldn’t be adopted. But if we have adopted the cell phone because we lack a sense of belonging, then we are just plastering over the cracks. A phone call might help us keep our community in line, but it is a simulacrum; it won’t satisfy. We aren’t addressing the real issue of alienation.

I’m a member of the community known as the Western Buddhist Order (WBO), and of its auxiliary: The Friends of the WBO (FWBO). Our community relies heavily on email and phone calls to organise and administer ourselves. Online forums are just starting to be used, and are frequently the medium of choice for dissent. Our founder, Sangharakshita, has said, “the group is always wrong”. By which he means that we must learn to think and act for ourselves, and not simply react in accord with the wishes of the majority, or from social conditioning. As Buddhists we are trying to free ourselves from stereotypical responses, to be free to make appropriate responses to the world. To do this we must bring our experience of the world into full consciousness – we must understand where our ideas and habits come from. This is not easy in a society, because groups of people are frequently intolerant of novel behaviour. The Amish practice of shunning is only a more explicit version how groups control the individuals that make them up. Isolation is painful, and we therefore will go out of our way to avoid it.

If we use technological solutions to plaster over the cracks of our feelings of alienation, then we are asking for trouble. Alienation is not the same as individuation. Spiritual growth, the revolutionary awareness that can ultimately set us free, depends on us taking responsibility for the contents of our minds. We can’t avoid taking on board social conditioning as we grow up, but we can, as self-aware adults, start to examine that conditioning. But it requires awareness. We must be prepared to sit with the pain of alienation to some extent, to see what it really is and where it comes from.

The FWBO has tended to take Sangharakshita’s aphorism a bit literally at times, and so I don’t think we cater well for the social needs of our people. We have seen groups as a literal enemy and a desire for belonging as an almost fatal weakness. It is said that one of the reasons that Buddhism died out in India, and Hinduism did not, is that the former lost touch with the common people, while the latter did not. The Amish with their strong social integrity can effectively limit the impact that technology has on them. It may be too late for the rest of us, but I think we can learn from the Amish approach to society and technology.

So I’ll finish with my own aphorism:

The best possible use of a cellphone is to arrange to meet with your friends.
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