I thought of you today, as I do most every day. I was at my computer, writing, switching back and forth between typing words into a Google Doc and consulting various websites, checking facts and data, sometimes finding quotes or stats to copy and paste into the piece. And I remembered, as I sometimes do in such moments, that your experience of writing is nothing like this.
You write as you always do, pencil to paper, in your pleasing penmanship, with Tanya serving as a sounding board and typing it up. You have never used a computer to write. You are not plugged into the Internet. And I believe with every fiber of my being, Wendell, that you and your writing are better off because of this. You are spared the frustrations that come with keyboards and downloads and passwords. Your writing is still deeply sourced, as the eight-page bibliography in The Need to Be Whole attests.
And yet here I am, day after day, at my computer, writing. Just as my own penmanship has gotten so bad that even I can no longer read it, the research I do for the articles I write could not be done without a computer. Much of my writing for The Bulwark, which appears only online, involves hopping around the Internet, pulling in information from all over. A recent story of mine about the duplicity of Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson had 41 links to various supporting articles and documents.
I think of you also when I’m out on my daily walks, usually with my wife Linda and our dog Stella, and I realize that, even here, technology is making this a different experience for me than it would be for you. I sometimes listen to music on my headphones connected wirelessly to my phone. The Fitbit on my wrist not only tells me what time it is, it counts my steps and tracks the number of miles I walk, helping me meet my daily goal. I can pair it with my iPhone GPS to track my travels precisely and even create a visual record of the walk, superimposed on a street map of my neighborhood, gauged by satellites orbiting the planet.
Sound frivolous? It is. But there have also been times when this technology has proven valuable and, for others if not myself, lifesaving. More than once during my quest to hike the 310-mile Superior Trail, one section at a time, I have gotten lost, which is a scary thing. More than once I was able to reorient using a trail-mapping program downloaded to my phone.
But even if some of this technology is useful, none of it is necessary. I know that because I have lived without it. When I began writing for publication, in high school, I wrote pen to paper, and typed it up into columns. When I was in college, I worked for several years for the Milwaukee Journal—in circulation, dropping off papers at newspaper carriers’ houses, gas stations, grocery stores, and newspaper boxes. I learned dozens of different routes all over the Milwaukee area with just a one-time ride-along. This was in the early 1980s—no GPS, no cell phones, I don’t even remember having any maps—and yet I somehow managed to find my stops. Now I can get lost on the way to the bathroom.
Not long ago, I interviewed a local writer named Meghan O’Gieblyn, the author of an extraordinary 2021 book about technology and religion, God, Human, Animal, Machine, about which I’ll have more to say later. Though she lives in a neighborhood where I lived for several years, I asked my phone for directions to her apartment. I grabbed a parking spot a few blocks away and proceeded on foot, to an intersection where I looked to my right and saw a business I thought was next to O’Gieblyn’s apartment complex. But my phone was telling me to go left. I went left. It was the wrong way. I trusted the phone over my own eyes.
Jeffrey Bilbro has an interesting piece in the Spring 2022 issue of Local Culture titled “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Smartphone,” in homage to your 1987 essay, “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer.”
Both essays observe that people apparently feel threatened to encounter someone who refuses to embrace the latest technology. As Bilbro describes it, “I have been surprised by the almost visceral response some people have when they discover I don’t own a smartphone. Some even take it as a personal affront. It registers as a challenge to the myth of inevitability, the myth that one needs a smartphone to thrive in contemporary society.”
Similarly, the letter writers stirred up by the publication of “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer” in Harper’s interpreted your refusal to embrace the technology they do not wish to live without as a negative judgment of themselves. “[H]e implies that I and others are somehow impure because we choose to write on a computer,” one letter writer complained.” Another falsely asserted that you were portraying your lack of a computer “as a moral virtue.”
Your published response: “I can only conclude that I have scratched the skin of a technological fundamentalism that, like other fundamentalisms, wishes to monopolize a whole society, and, therefore, cannot tolerate the smallest difference of opinion.”
Bilbro rejects that forgoing a smartphone makes him more virtuous or more pure. He acknowledges that there have been times he’s been glad to have directional assistance from his wife’s smartphone. But he has decided that not having a smartphone makes his life simpler and more grounded. Even the need to ask somebody for directions is a form of connection that smartphones are making obsolete.
As you have no doubt heard umpteen times, the use of this technology has for many of us become a practical necessity. Few book publishers or periodicals would work with a writer who did not file his or her copy digitally, unless that writer is in prison or is Wendell Berry. And in the modern world, notes Bilbro, a smartphone may be required to buy a ticket or enter a building or even get a job.
That’s how it happened for me. I put off having a cell phone of any kind until 2011, when I was hired by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and told that this was something I really needed to do. I had gotten along fine without it, even though, as an editor at a weekly newspaper and president of a statewide group, I spoke to people on the phone (landline) all the time. During my first week at my new job, I interrupted an interview with a state Supreme Court justice multiple times because I couldn’t figure out how to use my smartphone. Sometimes, I still can’t.
Interesting aside: While I use my smartphone for lots of things, it hardly ever rings. People are sending electronic messages now, not using their phones to make calls. I receive fewer than ten phone calls a week, and most of those are robo-calls trying to sell me something. Apparently, the more our phones do, the less we use them to talk to other people.
My smartphone does the dumbest things, like suddenly start to play music or call people without my knowledge or consent. Hand to God, here’s a true story from 2020, when Stella and I went on a three-day backpacking trip in a Wisconsin state forest. On the third day, just as I was getting started on what would be a 18-mile hike, I felt a vibration in my pocket, pulled out my phone, and saw the name of the person it dialed: “Wendell Berry.” Having nothing to say, I quickly hung up before anyone answered, hoping you lacked the technology on your end to tell you who had just called, for reasons unknown to all.
And so I applaud your refusenik example, which as Bilbro relates has earned you the moniker “prophet of the evitable” by the theologian Brad East. You have proven that the “commodities and systems” of modern life are not, in fact, inevitable, as Bilbro writes: “We choose them. We can also decline them.”
Perhaps my favorite line of yours, Wendell, is from your essay “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine,” which amplifies on the themes of “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer.” It is simple and straightforward: “Do I wish to keep up with the times? No.”
At times in our correspondence, I have called your attention to technology that you eschew, like when I sent you a week’s worth of daily Google Alerts for new mentions of your name that turn up on the Internet. I pointed out a spelling error in your preface to the Eric Gill book that my computer noticed but I never would have caught otherwise.
The other day, after we spoke by phone, I looked up the name of the documentary filmmaker you had mentioned, which I had written down as “Herbie Smith.” The Internet quickly figured out my mistake and soon I was watching Herb E. Smith’s powerful 45-minute film meditation, “Wendell Berry’s Thoughts in the Presence of Fear,” based on an essay you wrote after the attacks of 9/11. Without a computer, I’m not sure how I could have found this at all.
I could go on, explaining to you the wonders that come in the form of a microchip. Like how my phone contains thousands of songs and photos and can connect me with answers to thousands of questions. I can say aloud, right now as I type this, “Hey, Siri, when was Wendell Berry born?” and my phone will reply—here, I’ll give it a try and write down what she says—“Wendell Berry was born August 5, 1934, and is 88 years old.” I knew the answer already, but it’s kind of neat. I can say “Siri, play Dar Williams,” and suddenly there is beautiful music.
Not long ago, I came upon a plant with vibrantly beautiful orange flowers. I took a photo with my cell phone and opened it to an app called Google Lens, which instantly identified it as a kind of butterfly weed. Later that day, I used my phone to order seeds for this plant, now sprouting in the ground.
I know you will not be tempted by any of these enticements—my phone can also translate whatever I say into any number of languages, something I have never asked it to do—nor should you be. I offer them as weak excuses, meant to salve a guilty conscience. And I know, too, that you are not judging me for my choices, and that the guilt I feel is my verdict alone. The most important part of your declaration in The Need to Be Whole—“Speaking of course just for myself, I have gained far more happiness from my refusal to buy a television set and a computer than from anything I have ever bought”—is the first part, “Speaking of course just for myself.” You do not insist that anyone follow your example, which makes your example all that much more worth following.
When it comes to your life, Wendell, there is no deprivation, no gaping hole that technology could rush to fill. You have found a way to thrive without a smartphone or computer, or even a television set, a device that you once wrote had the sole virtue of being something that can be made to not work: “As soon as we see that the TV is a vacuum line, pumping life and meaning out of the house, we can unplug it. What a grand and neglected privilege it is to be shed of the glibness, the gleeful idiocy, the idiotic gravity, the unctious or lubricious greed of these public faces and voices.”
And yet, looking at my own life, both its obligations and choices, I am forced to face the fact that I am probably never going to haul my television set out to the curb, once and for all. Nor can I imagine parting with my computer and smartphone—at least not until something else comes along, or my capacity to use these devices becomes even more impaired. This technology is too essential to my life. That may be a shame. It is a shame. But it’s where I am at, uncomfortably.
Again, I absolve you of any complicity in my discomfort. That is not your intent. In fact, I recognize you as a fellow sufferer. As you write in your reply to the letters about “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” “I am implicated in many practices that I regret,” unable to “end forthwith all my involvement in harmful technology, for I do not know how to do that.”
None of us do.
This, as you know, is one of the themes of the just-published book by your friend Wes Jackson and co-writer Robert Jensen, An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity, which you commended to me in your most recent letter.
They note that we are all to some extent locked into complicity with the so-called advances of modern civilization, including automobiles. But, they go on to say (as you have, many times), that the problem runs so much deeper than that: Our beleaguered planet has far too many people who want far too many things. The change that is needed is toward a simpler and more sustainable way of life. The authors portray this change as inevitable, but I struggle to imagine how it is even possible.
There was a brief moment, early in the COVID-19 pandemic, when I felt a sense of optimism that humankind could unite in a common purpose, in a spirit of shared sacrifice. How naive that now seems, given how quickly a sizable chunk of the population came to regard the notion of shared sacrifice as tyranny, pushing back against vaccination and other measures meant to protect the vulnerable.
Like Thoreau, I do not wish to practice resignation, unless it is quite necessary, but I fear that this is where we’re at. As Jackson and Jensen put it, “We are living with illusions that are not only the product of today’s irrational technological exuberance and the past two centuries of fossil energy gluttony but ten thousand years of drawing down the ecological capital of Earth beyond replacement levels.”
What’s needed, the authors argue, is “a down-powering on a global level with the goal of fewer people living on less energy, achieved by means of democratically managed planning to minimize suffering.” The “crisis of consumption” that has come to define modern civilization must come to an end. And even still, we must recognize that it is already “too late to prevent billions of people from enduring incalculable suffering” and millions of species from going extinct. Yikes.
Yet instead of any honest reckoning with the ecological mess that our choices have wrought, what we are seeing is a stubborn and foolhardy insistence on the ability of technology to rescue us from the harm it has caused. Jackson and Jensen refer to this misbegotten faith as “technological fundamentalism,” the same term you used in replying to the criticism of “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer.”
The technological fundamentalists of our time, they write, are committed to such crazy ideas as “releasing sulfate aerosol particles into the stratosphere to redirect more sunlight back to space”—a fix that, as Elizabeth Kolbert explained in her 2021 book, Under a White Sky, would have the side-effect of turning the color of the sky from blue to white.
“Technological innovations,” Jackson and Jensen allow, “can help us cope but cannot indefinitely forestall the dramatic changes that will test our ability to hold onto our humanity in the face of dislocation and deprivation.” Yet the future they envision, one “defined not by expansion but by contraction,” seems to me possible only insofar as it is unavoidable, for every ounce of human ingenuity will be poured into trying to avoid it, or to shuffle off its worst consequences onto less fortunate others.
The human condition is about to run into the buzzsaw of human nature.
“We might surprise ourselves and each other by being stronger, braver, kinder, and more compassionate than we thought ourselves capable of when a crisis demands those virtues,” Jackson and Jensen write. “But we also should remember that we can be weaker, more cowardly, meaner, and less compassionate than we thought.”
In all likelihood, the future will contain elements of both, as the battle between good and evil plays out in our hearts.
Meanwhile, technology is threatening to transform what it means to be human.
I refer you to Bill McKibben’s important 2019 book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?, which I reviewed for The Progressive. It is partly about the threat to humankind posed by climate change, a subject McKibben has been writing about for decades. But it is also about another existential threat posed to humankind as the result of new technology: the advent of gene-editing techniques that can, simply and even cheaply, allow parents to create children with made-to-order characteristics, from eye color to height to intelligence. It is a development that McKibben, quite appropriately, views with horror.
“Once substantial numbers of people engage in genetic engineering, it will become effectively mandatory,” he writes. “Not by government diktat, but by the powerful forces of competition, as the possibility of improving your kids sets off a genetic arms race.” McKibben raises troubling questions about this brave new world. For instance: Will a child born in 2029 be at a serious competitive disadvantage to the newer models produced in 2034?
It might even be possible, McKibben says, to genetically engineer human beings to better adapt to climate change. (Ah, yes, 115 degrees Fahrenheit is the new comfy, and those floodwaters are a lot less scary when you have fins—I think I’m being facetious, but you never know.) McKibben rejects this, saying we need to address the climate problem by changing human behavior, not human beings. Sure, we should seek new ways to help people with genetic disorders, but most people’s genetic make-up is fine as it is.
We need to make the right choices about the use of this technology now, to preserve our humanity. As McKibben puts it, “We’re the only creature who can decide not to do something we’re capable of doing. That’s our superpower, even if we exercise it too rarely.”
Another existential threat posed by new technology is discussed in that book I mentioned earlier, God, Human, Animal, Machine: Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning, by Meghan O’Gieblyn. It deals with two troubling developments.
The first are efforts to make machines seem more sentient, like robotic dogs that greet you and learn tricks or chatbot apps that allow you to create a friend with whom you can carry on a conversation. These aspirants to artificial intelligence, O’Gieblyn told me after I eventually found my way to her place, “create this very intimate connection with you as a user so that, you know, you will divulge more about your life.” This information can then be used to steer users into buying certain things or voting certain ways.
But the second and more chilling development is the effort to make humans be more like machines. In 2016, tech tycoon Elon Musk, the richest man in the world, quietly launched an initiative called Neuralink, which, O’Gieblyn explains in her book, “is devoted to connecting the human brain to a computer using very fine fibers inserted into the skull.”
The goal is to create superhumans with flawless memories and a knowledge pool as vast as the Internet. It would also, as O’Gieblyn put it during a 2019 talk, shortly after Musk went public about Neuralink, “basically allow people to create a copy of themselves, so that part of their mind could live on digitally even after their body dies.”
In “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine,” published in 1989, you seemed to see this coming: “The danger most immediately to be feared in ‘technological progress’ is the degradation and obsolescence of the body,” you wrote. “The body has limits that the machine does not have; therefore, remove the body from the machine so that the machine can continue as an unlimited idea.”
O’Gieblyn, who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian family and attended a Bible college before losing her religion, is struck by the similarity between this modern technological quest and Christian prophecy. Jesus Christ, she writes, “alluded to a coming kingdom where death would be defeated. He promised that we would obtain new bodies, that the dead would rise, that we would ascend to heaven and live with him forever.”
O’Gieblyn uses a term, “transhuman,” coined by Dante in The Divine Comedy and adopted by futurist Ray Kurzweil in his 1999 book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, to describe this concept of using science to achieve a kind of evolution to immortality. “What makes transhumanism so compelling,” she writes, “is that it promises to restore through science the transcendent—and essentially religious—hopes that science itself obliterated.”
This is where technology has brought us—to the verge of obliterating the body to attain eternal life as a machine. And passing it off as a religious experience.
And so where does that leave us? I think we can agree that many technological “advances” have objectively done more harm than good, in terms of the human condition as well as the Earth, and that we face a bleak scenario of looming catastrophe. But this doesn’t mean that there is no way out.
We do need to take seriously the threats identified by McKibben and O’Gieblyn to what it means to be human. If we cannot get rid of our devices, we need to treat them as tools, not masters. Most of all, we need to know that technology can’t save us from the harms that technology has created. Rather, we must achieve that through community.
In “Mind Change,” the essay-in-progress you’ve shared with me, you write that breaking the hold of technological determinism will require that communities place “a limit upon the wants and wishes of its members individually” and that it be “a limit that the members must accept.”
That’s a tough order. As you immediately add, “Such an acceptance could not be more at odds with the industrial program, which sets no limits and thus in effect puts the self-seeking individual in competition with the community.” (A new book I’m reading quotes Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, urging a conservative gathering in 2015 to “believe in the economic system that creates more stuff for more people than at any time in recorded history.”)
Yet there is no other way. The problems we face, you write, “cannot be solved merely by money, technology, politics, and continued violence to the natural world, but can be solved completely and lastingly only by conforming our ways of life to the natural and economic limits of our dwelling places.” Or, as you put it in the essay “Word and Flesh” from your book What Are People For?: “We must achieve the character and acquire the skills to live much poorer than we do.”
What you have done in your life and writing, Wendell, is strip away the gloom from this eventuality, by showing us how operating within limits is not just the right thing to do but the best way to live.
This is not a time for despair but for resolve. We know the way to go, in part because you have pointed it out. We don’t even have to ask our smartphones.
Image Credit: Lionel Constable, “Landscape” (1849-55).