The other day someone I know was running an errand in the outer reaches of a major city. She rarely drives, but for some reason had this day dared to hazard the maze of crowded freeways and interchanges. When rush hour came on, she quickly wearied and pined for a break. A sign for a fast-food place came up, and against her better judgment, she pulled over. Seeing no one at the drive-thru, she slid into the ordering station.
She waited three full minutes before anyone responded, even though hers was the only car in line. Then a male voice came over the microphone:
"Just one moment please."
She waited another sixty seconds.
Finally the voice resumed: "May I take your order?"
"One small French fries please."
"No thank you."
At the window a young man who appeared well fed on fries said, "Uh, we're learning to use a new cash register, so it'll be about a ten-to fifteen-minute wait."
"Ten to fifteen minutes for one order of French fries?"
There was a pause as the young man took in my friend's bewilderment.
"Uh, I see what you mean. But I don't know how to do it. Why don't you pull ahead to the next window."
At the next window, a slightly older female, who might have been the manager, again fielded the request. At first she gave a blank stare. Then a light went off in her head. Taking out pencil and paper, she did some arithmetic and, without any further ado, handed over the fries.
My friend drove away puzzled. Now fully revived, she began to unravel what had happened. It appeared to her that the workers were involved in a chain of command with a machine at the top. It told them what the prices were, it added them together, it cued them to their duties. They took their orders from a cash register. Only when pressured by a customer did the manager at last realize that she had the power to act of her own accord and, in a flash of recognition, overrode the mechanical spell.
SEEDS OF DISCONTENT
I used to be as optimistic as anyone about technology. Once asked in grade school to draw a picture of what my home would look like when I grew up, I sketched, in crayon, a transparent hemisphere resting on a single pole and a little flying saucer containing me, my wife, and our many kids about to dock at it. There were exactly eight little heads (besides mine and my wife's) peeking over the rim of the craft, all identical and propagated with the help of a fertility drug.
Besides often depriving their users of skills and physical exercise, machines created new and artificial demands—for fuel, space, money, and time.
When I reached my early teens, I never failed to watch an episode of Star Trek, and I read almost every piece of science fiction Isaac Asimov wrote. On our family's first cross-country trip, I became ecstatic when we got caught in a traffic jam on the Oakland Bay Bridge. To a midwestern boy, traffic jams were exotic events in which only special people living in modernistic cities took part.
There was always an undertow to my technological infatuation, however, which at first I was loath to acknowledge. On that trip out west, I spent most of the time carsick. A few years later, after returning to the lazy metropolis of Topeka, Kansas, I began to notice anomalies in the mechanical utopia of our modernized household. After we got an automatic dishwasher, the size of the pile of dirty plates on the countertop didn't decrease at all. If anything, it increased. My dad bought one of the first word processors ever made in the hopes of easing the time and effort of writing. He spent so much time with that machine, I almost never saw him again.
In my grade-school years, the neighborhood seemed alive with children out in the street playing stickball and hide-and-seek. But the older I grew, the more deserted the street became—except for the cars, of course, which had multiplied over time and made playing out-of-doors more perilous. After supper even the cars went into hibernation; the only signs of life were the faint glows cast by cathode ray tubes on living-room blinds.
I had always been on the bashful side, so I went more or less the way of the trend, retreating as determinedly as everyone else to the altar of TV. But lest I surrender utterly to The Void, I applied myself diligently at the piano, practicing several hours a day. To survive socially in a place dominated by the automobile, of course, you had to drive; so I also made an attempt to earn money to buy a car by working at McDonald's. But soon I saw the futility and the irony: in a town whose borders motor vehicles had pushed to the horizons (with a population of 120,000, Topeka covered 50 square miles), the only sensible way to get to my job was by automobile. Until I could afford one, I had to bike the six-mile round trip on busy roads with no shoulders or sidewalks, and I arrived dripping wet. Had I stayed on, I calculated that, like the other workers, I would be working mostly in order to pay for my transportation to work.
What had begun as car sickness in boyhood had developed, by adolescence, into a deeper case of cultural indigestion. It was only when I got to college that I began the attempt to put a name to this, but already the symptoms of the malady—burdensome material inconvenience and social isolation—had become too acute to ignore.
Luckily, my musical diligence paid off, and I got into a good university. There it was exciting to meet other people of similar interests who lived within walking distance. I threw out the sheet music and threw myself into the life of the campus. I joined debating groups. I took up rowing. I made new friends. I dabbled in religion. And in my academic pursuits, I tried to gain some understanding of what was going wrong in Oz.
On a hunch, I signed up for a course in the history of technology. It was an eye-opener. The young professor, Eda Kranakis, capably surveyed the development of wind and water mills, steam engines, and railroads, and tossed in a graphic description of the inhuman working conditions in nineteenth century factories. She related the tragic tale of the British land enclosure movement, inspired by "scientific farming," which uprooted countless laborers from their hereditary commons in the country and flung them into the cities, where they formed an easily exploited labor pool.
As illuminating as the class was, though, it raised more questions than it answered. Hadn't American society moved beyond the barbarities of Dickensian England (or at least hadn't it subcontracted the dirty work to countries like Mexico)? What was technology's role in the present age? Problems hadn't disappeared; they were just different. But the exponents of public policy remained about as starry-eyed as I had been in grade school. Even the leaders of my elite university accorded every latest gizmo a virtual hero's welcome. Appalled by this mindlessness, I engaged in many heated discussions with classmates. And I wrote an extended research paper for Kranakis, describing the unhealthy side effects associated with sedentary stress and the use of ordinary automated devices. Kranakis liked the paper and encouraged me to develop my ideas.
The conviction was growing in me that the besetting problem was our culture's blindness to the distinction between the tool and the automatic machine. Everyone tended to treat them alike, as neutral agents of human intention. But machines clearly were not neutral or inert objects. They were complex fuel-consuming entities with certain definite proclivities and needs. Besides often depriving their users of skills and physical exercise, they created new and artificial demands—for fuel, space, money, and time. These in turn crowded out other important human pursuits, like involvement in family and community, or even the process of thinking itself. The very act of accepting the machine was becoming automatic.
By the time I graduated from college, my original orientation had become completely reversed: once an overawed vassal, I now burned with the desire to rise up and battle the technological dragon that, in my view, held society hostage. I found out about a new course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that was intended to provide a critical overview of the social effects of machines on human life. It was called "Science, Technology, and Society." I applied and was accepted.
And I found myself in the very den of the beast. Life was never so ticklish. On the one hand, the fledgling S.T.S. graduate program lured me with the promise of free-ranging discussion of all things technological, pro and con. On the other hand, S.T.S. depended on M.I.T. for its existence. There were certain unspoken limits to the discussion, certain subjects not to be broached. The dragon I hoped to slay held me in its palm. I tried to respect my position, but I was not always as cautious as I might have been. The tongue would slip. The papers I wrote would poke a bit too hard.
My curiosity was piqued. Was he Amish or not? He hesitated. "You can say so if you like," he said.
The trouble may have begun when I signed up for a political philosophy course taught by a young professor from India named Uday Mehta. He showed how our modern Western legal system favored the development of technology: In the seventeenth century the mathematician Rene Descartes revolutionized philosophy by reconceiving the human being as a machine. Fifty years later the political theorist John Locke handed the latter rights. Locke, arguably the greatest single influence on the writers of the United States Constitution, expounded a novel notion of "property." By snipping apart the complex social obligations of the past, he created a discrete personal domain of freedom, or individual right. This space he called "property," whether it referred to a person or to a thing the person owned. A hereditary commons available for a mixture of uses and livelihoods had little place in Locke's thinking. His idea was to make the human individual and possessions inviolable. But since property was now synonymous with the person, the two became legally akin. By this innovation the machine got a toehold; it gained stature tantamount to that of its owner, even as the owner descended to the plane of the machine. The machine had acquired citizenship.
I wrote a paper for Mehta suggesting it be revoked.
Historians Merritt Roe Smith and Pauline Maier, in another course, unfolded the practical impact of technology on our society, weaving small-scale studies of traditional communities into the larger fabric of the young American republic. It was interesting to find that technology did not always receive the ecstatic greeting it does today. In the early nineteenth century there were uprisings against its encroaching domination, both here and abroad. Smith pointed out the unrest, leading, for instance, to violence against management at the Harper's Ferry armory after new technology was imposed on skilled gun makers. If there was one moment when the scales tipped irrevocably in favor of machinery in the English-speaking world, however, it was probably back in 1817, when the legendary Ned Ludd and his followers were hanged for vandalizing the power looms that were ruining their livelihoods. At that moment came the fulfillment of Locke's novel definition of rights: destroying a machine became legally tantamount to murder. The plea of self-defense counted for nothing, and opposition to technological "advances" has ever since been informally stigmatized as "Luddism."
I wrote a paper for Smith expressing my sympathies—for Ludd.
Midway through the semester, I made an appointment to speak with the S.T.S. program director about my academic progress. Professor Keniston, lanky and affable, was a psychologist by training. For the time I had known him, he had patted my ego in an avuncular way. The rigors of academic life were taking their toll, and I hoped the meeting would help revive me.
Shortly after I walked in his office, however, I sensed a chill. "Eric," Keniston asked with a frown, "do you really want to eliminate laborsaving devices?" The question came out of the blue. It had nothing to do with why I had come to talk to him.
I was stunned and for a split second couldn't speak. I finally murmured a denial. The director went on.
"I just came back from my summer home in Maine. I was trying to move some heavy rocks in the backyard. That pretty well did me in. Took me three days. And I'm not about to do it again soon. Next time I'll use a backhoe."
I shuffled back to my graduate stall in a daze. Keniston had got me all wrong. It wasn't technology per se that I was after so much as an attitude of indiscriminate license, a bias in favor of machines over the interest of human beings. But this was M.I.T., after all. In the future, I'd watch my step.
Still, even Keniston had given manual labor a try, and that was partly why I was in trouble. His misadventure helped me to clarify the purpose of my quest: not to rid the world of technology but to ascertain more carefully how much—or how little—technology was needed. Was there some baseline of minimal machinery needed for human convenience, comfort, and sociability—a line below which physical effort was too demanding and above which machines began to create their own demands? Or if there was no such absolute mid-point, was there perhaps a rule of thumb or a formula for arriving at practical compromise in varied circumstances?
The mathematician Rene Descartes revolutionized philosophy by reconceiving the human being as a machine.
In Keniston's sentiment, too, I divined a hint of the source of the homage (to which I myself had once been prone) that technology widely summoned: the fear that reducing it at all would send us back-wards to the way things were "before technology"—to a nasty, brutish struggle for sheer survival. Technology's very success in certain tasks incited a broader dread at its absence. All the more reason to clarify the terms of moderation, the only alternative to limitless increase and blind veneration.
Still, I was at a loss. Having framed the question in this way, I faced another problem. Until now my effort had been waged solely in the realm of ideas. But as Keniston's travail showed, the real test of the matter lay in a concrete demonstration—a real-life experiment. It was probably not something I could carry out at an institute of technology.
The architecture of M.I.T. did little to endear me to its purposes. Most designs seemed to have taken their inspiration from the Pentagon. Newer buildings were as faceless and angular as the older ones. Even the neoclassical centerpiece of campus, the majestically domed edifice at 77 Massachusetts Avenue, somehow brought to my mind a nuclear reactor. Behind the facades the classrooms were sterile and the hallways straight and seemingly unending—one was actually nicknamed the "infinite corridor." As a metaphor for the whole, the description fit—a means without an end.
In one of the few humane recesses of this vast impersonal complex, a remote corner of the S.T.S. student-faculty lounge, I found an old piano. No one ever used the room, so I could run through Chopin's Barcarolle or Fantasie-Impromptu, or toss in a boogie-woogie rendition of "The Flight of the Bumble-Bee," without being overheard. The passions flew free, and I savored a sense of sweet melancholy of the Polish master. After a session in this mood-venting chamber, I felt something like wine flowing through my extremities, as if my life-blood were being restored.
Then the compliments came. To my surprise, faculty and staff had begun leaving their doors slightly ajar in order to catch snatches of lyricism wafting through the corridors. Those hard bare walls had one advantage after all: their very emptiness opened up a resounding cavity that could be filled by what they lacked—soul, passion, spontaneity, or at least a musical distillate of these.
Between semesters, when money permitted, I traveled back to Kansas, and on one of these journeys I decided to take the bus. It wasn't any cheaper than the plane, thanks to an airfare war, but I guess I thought if I were ever going to try out more rudimentary technology, I might as well do so now.
It wasn't as bad as I thought it might be. The weather was nice, the scenery beautiful. There was plenty of time to unwind and relax and forget. The only tedious moments were the rest stops... until Pittsburgh. There I noticed a man getting on the bus with a full dark beard and wide-brimmed black hat. He looked Amish. I eyed him wistfully—and warily. I had once visited Lancaster County in hopes of finding a patch of human culture unravished by machines. At first I was taken in by the lush cornfields, immaculate white barns, two-hundred-year-old houses, old-fashioned buggies, and traditional costumes. Then I found out something odd: the yeomen had loopholes in their rules. They didn't own cars, but they could lease them. Telephones were off limits in the house, but not in booths outside. Appliances were verboten if they ran on electricity, but not if on pressurized air, propane, or gasoline. Retired farmers often moved to Florida and congregated in special Amish condominiums. Locally they commuted to work from new subdivisions in hired motor vehicles. They even manned the crews that built the subdivisions. They did almost everything everyone else did, using a substitute device. What was the point?
It took a while for my proposition to sink in: "But how do you wash the clothes?" she inquired.
Admittedly not all of them had gone hog wild on machinery; some upheld the spirit of their rules and perpetuated lively practices of reciprocal aid and traditional agrarian labors. But they were fast becoming a minority. Hence my ambivalence when I spied the black-hatted man.
During a rest stop a few hours later, I noticed him standing beside the bus by himself. He looked a little lonely, so I sidled over to him. He seemed glad for the company. His features were fairly striking—his brows jet-black, his eyes alive and fiery. You could tell English was not his first language from the way he clipped his syllables and sometimes groped for a word. Though he was a bit equivocal about his origins, it seemed safe to assume he was Amish.
But he was not from Lancaster County. This man and his neighbors inhabited an area far from the dense human throngs of the eastern seaboard. Somewhere deep in America's heartland, they lived the life the Lancaster Amish had mostly discarded. They brought in the sheaves over their shoulders and hauled them to their barns by horse-drawn wagon. They husked corn by hand, loaded hay loose, and cut firewood with bucksaws. They got by without electricity, telephones, and motor vehicles. And, he said, they observed a rule prohibiting all motors. This was a stricter standard than even the most conservative Amish usually upheld. My curiosity was piqued. Was he Amish or not? He hesitated. "You can say so if you like," he said. He shrugged his shoulders as if, for all he knew, the scythe might well be taken up again by farmers everywhere.
A thought came to me, and my heart began to heat faster. I mustered some will, then made him a proposal. He grew silent. Shortly the twinkle returned to his eye, and he gave me his address.
Once having taken the bus, I was really getting carried away.
It was odd how my journey into the heart of technology detoured so readily to these untechnological yeomen. It was even odder how it led to my discovery of a research assistant.
I had one more semester of classes to complete, and as I did so 1 continued bicycling back and forth to school from my apartment off-campus. As I became more familiar with the route, a pattern of carelessness caught up with me.
It was a gray and drizzly day, and the car was gray too. It had the right of way, but I didn't see it coming. There was an impact, and the next thing I knew I was on the pavement.
I ended up in the emergency room of the Cambridge City Hospital, and after three hours' waiting, I was told nothing was wrong with me. The doctor was puzzled about the intensity of my pain. He guessed it came from a deep bruise, close to the bone in my upper left leg. He handed me a pair of crutches, and I left the hospital.
When I got home I was famished. It had been difficult enough crawling in and out of the taxicab. Now I had to balance on one leg while wielding pots and pans. In desperation I called a woman I had taken on a couple of casual dates. When she heard what had happened, she came right over.
I had originally met Mary, as it happened, because of a comment I made on the dance floor about my interest in the Amish. Over the din of the amplified music she had cried, "I've always wanted to live on a farm!" She had an impish twinkle in her eye and a shimmer in her movements that I found irresistible. She had the physique of an elf. She was five feet four inches tall and weighed 105 pounds—a weight, I found out later, that hadn't varied in ten years. But she never dieted. In fact, for dinner she prepared three pork chops, and when I passed up the third, she happily ate it herself. What a rare combination of elfin grace and amazonian metabolism.
But what most attracted me was her sparkle. It wasn't just in her eyes—her whole slender being seemed to shimmer and twinkle, beckoning to me like a waving banner.
I never planned it like this, nor would it have happened if I had. For someone who never had found it easy meeting eligible women, the accident provided a remarkable opportunity to get to know one in the most natural way, without any effort or contrivance. For Mary's part, the arrangement was also less nuisance than it might have seemed; she told me it was hardly more difficult cooking two plates of food rather than one, or doing two loads of laundry instead of one (. . . one thing led to another). A beautiful human relationship had flowered despite all the technology surrounding us—or, rather, precisely because of mechanical breakdown.
Mary hadn't been kidding, either, when she said she wanted to live on a farm. But her idea of one was a three-acre lot in Ayer, the second-to-last town on the Boston westerly commuter line. (The train did closely skirt Walden Pond.) She had been house-hunting there in hopes of putting as much distance as she could between her home and her job—a job she disliked but needed in order to pay for the house. As a number cruncher by day, she wore a mouthpiece by night to keep from grinding her teeth. Most of her work consisted in transferring the contents of ledger sheets to ever-changing computer programs, by which she managed larger and larger accounting client pools.
The purpose of my quest: Not to rid the world of technology but to ascertain more carefully how much—or how little—technology was needed.
It took a while for my proposition to sink in: a nonelectric hiatus, a telephoneless exile, a life that could pay its own way ...
"But how do you wash the clothes?" she inquired.
When she asked this, she had been washing my clothes using an electric washing machine for several weeks already. My recovery was coming very slowly... One day I reached in my mail slot and, under the pile of bills and advertisements, found the letter I had been waiting for. It was all set up. In careful, almost childish handwriting, mention was made of accommodations large enough for two.
Her reservations about clothes-washing notwithstanding, Mary was on the spot. Our relationship had heated up well beyond the level of friendship. Fortunately for me, she had never been emotionally attached to her job, and the potted plant in her office simply did not satisfy her hankering for the country. On the other hand, she had a list of unanswered questions: How heavy was the work? How long were the hours? What about refrigeration? What about food preparation? When I pointed out that people have been living without modern gadgetry for thousands of years, she finally gave in, brimming with curiosity to see how they did it.
We tied the knot at St. Paul's Church ten days before the scheduled arrival at our new home. To live in close quarters with a group like this, you had to be properly married. It would be premature to say, however, whether ours was a marriage of convenience.
We decided to shoot for an expedition of eighteen months—enough time to experience a full change of season. Mary agreed to go along on one condition: that she would get the deciding vote in the decision of where to live after we finished our "fieldwork."
And so, svelte assistant at my side, I set out in the general direction of a still-mysterious clique of manual laborers, imbued with one lone hope: that they might lend me a hand in my experiment. How hard and time-consuming was this life "without laborsaving machines"? And was it one Mary and I would consider leading ourselves? I dearly hoped the exercise would not amount to a sheer test of endurance. What I really wanted to discover was a balance between too much machinery and too little, or better yet, how to arrive at it wherever one found oneself. This knowledge was what modern society lacked and what I hoped my yet-unknown neighbors would provide some clue to.