Controlling Distraction in the Technological Society

Christian 'Values'

Previous Chapter: Technological Distraction



So what can we do about this? How can we control the effect of technology on our lives? What can we do to reduce the distractions from our quest for the highest good? First, we should bring our value beliefs in line with the teachings of Jesus. Specifically, God and His kingdom must be at the top of our hierarchy of value and the derivative goods of technology should be near the bottom. Second, we should be aware of the costs as well as benefits of technology with respect to the lower good. Third, we should be aware of the more subtle danger of technology to distract us from the higher good. Fourth, we must act in a way consistent with what we know about technology.

The Amish Approach to Controlling Technology 


One approach that follows this general outline would be to adopt an attitude toward technology based on that of the Amish, a contemporary but "low-technology" culture living in the midst of our technological society, mostly in the eastern United States. Much of the following summary on the Amish is drawn from the writings of Hostetler and Kraybill.

Amish origins

The Amish trace their origins to the Anabaptist movement, which began at the time of the Protestant Reformation. Anabaptist means "rebaptizer," for the earliest Anabaptists were born and baptized Roman Catholic, but as adults, rejected the authority of the Catholic church and were baptized again. They were dissatisfied with the pace and scope of the Protestant Reformation and themselves instituted a Radical Reformation. 

 Amish beliefs 

Anabaptists held and hold to the following beliefs: literal obedience to the teachings of Jesus, the church as a covenant community, adult baptism, social separation from the world, the exclusion of disobedient members from communion, the rejection of violence, and the refusal to swear oaths. Their refusal to participate in the state churches of Europe, which they felt did not adhere to these beliefs, led to persecution and martyrdom, and they came to North America, beginning in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The largest settlements are now in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana, with a total population of about 145,000 in 1992. 

Amish culture

Amish culture is based on Gelassenheit, a German word which means "submission to authority." Although Gelassenheit is not a word most Amish use frequently, it is constantly manifested in several ways. Amish personality is reserved, modest, calm, and quiet. They value submission and obedience to God and their church, humility in demeanor, and simplicity in lifestyle. Their rituals include baptism of adults, confession of sins, ordination of lay ministers (there are no professional clergy), and foot-washing. Their social structure is small, informal, local, and decentralized. Important to the theme of this article, the symbols of their faith -- what is most obvious to others about them -- center around the ways they use and do not use technological objects. They dress in plain clothing. They use people and animals as power for transportation and agriculture. They ride in and haul with horse-drawn carriages and wagons instead of cars and trucks. And they use lanterns rather than electric lights, and generally avoid the use of electric appliances entirely. 

the Amish and technology

Amish dealings with the telephone, electricity, and the automobile are illustrative for our purposes. The following is a general summary. Since Amish human authority is decentralized, there is necessarily variation and the information presented here reflects the practice of the more conservative, "old order" Amish communities.
the telephone Amish may not have telephones in their homes, but the use of phones owned by non-Amish is permitted. Furthermore, some Amish communities permit community phones, typically housed in small shanties at the ends of lanes, shared by several families. In some cases, Amish businessmen are permitted to have telephones in their shops, though officially this may not be sanctioned. 

Although this policy may seem to be contradictory, closer analysis yields insight into a critical attitude toward technology that preserves -- even strengthens -- Amish value beliefs, while at the same time takes advantage of the benefits that technological objects truly offer. Although the Amish do not consider the telephone to be inherently evil, they realize that it is an intrusion into family life that can pull the family apart with out-of-the-home activities and concerns. Furthermore, since phone conversations do not require the time, effort, and attention commitments that face-to-face conversation does, they may trivialize social interaction and erode community. 

The Amish approach to the telephone offers several distinct advantages. For example, the absence of telephones in Amish homes preserves the natural flow of personal interaction so necessary in a family. The Amish telephone policy is a form of control on technology: by keeping the telephone at a distance -- both literally and metaphorically -- the Amish are the telephone's masters and not its slaves, like so many of us are. The use of community phones encourages cooperation. The policy symbolizes the Amish value beliefs of simplicity, separation from the world, and covenant community. The permission of controlled phone use permits the development of small businesses and industries necessary for Amish economic viability. 

electricity While the old order Amish are permitted to use batteries, generators, and many devices powered by those sources, they reject the use of 110-volt (and higher) "power-line" electricity, 110-volt electric appliances, and computers. As in the telephone policy, there is wisdom in the Amish rules about electricity. For example, the prohibition of power-line electricity serves as a way to separate the Amish from the outside world. It is a reminder to them that they are different and that they hold to different standards. The common rejection of electricity provides a source of bonding in the community. The general ban on electricity, removing it from consideration by individuals, is an acknowledgment of the need to submit to authority. It prevented the otherwise inevitable debate over each and every new worldly appliance to come along. It also effectively quarantined the Amish from the electronic media that surely would have compromised Amish community. The early (1919) rejection of electricity served to delay social change that may have eroded more fundamental value beliefs. The giving up of the material conveniences of electrical appliances reminds the Amish daily of their separation from the world and their different, Bible-based standards. 
motor vehicles Old order Amish are prohibited from owning and driving cars and trucks and from holding driver's licenses. They are permitted to ride in others' vehicles and to hire drivers, so long as such use is not frivolous and does not occur on Sunday. Again, on the surface, such a policy seems contradictory, even hypocritical, but consideration of the benefits gained by it refute the criticism. For example, the compromise controls the detrimental effects of motor vehicles while at the same time providing for the true benefits they offer in the context of reasoned control. Controlled use of the car is a way of keeping faith with tradition while giving enough freedom to maneuver in the larger society. With this policy, the pace and complexity of Amish life is controlled, geographical boundaries are maintained, social control is retained, and the community is preserved. Limited use of motor vehicles ensures that the Amish work near home to preserve family and community ties. 

summary: the Amish as a model

The Amish do not reject all modern technology, but rather use it in a controlled manner to live consistently with their value beliefs. They subordinate technology to the good of God, family, and community and that subordination becomes a symbol of their separation from the evil world. To the modern Christian accustomed to the comforts and conveniences of telephones, electric appliances, and cars, Amish life might seem a bit extreme in its technological austerity. But extreme situations call for extreme measures. And I cannot think of a more extreme situation than one which threatens our entry into the kingdom of God.

Value-Based Technology Assessment

  However, the Amish model may be impractical for several reasons. First, some of the technologies the Amish reject are, as we have seen above or know from personal experience, instrumental in the realization of the good, both lower and higher. It may be unwise to give them up entirely. Second, the Amish are not fully self-sufficient: they rely on otherís use of "high-technology" production and distribution systems to provide them with the "low-technology" tools and materials they use. Even if there was a general will in our society to adopt the Amish model, it is unlikely that the material needs of the current population could be met satisfactorily without some of the technologies the Amish reject. At least the transition to the Amish model would be extremely difficult. Third, human nature being what it is, even if we generally acknowledged the wisdom of the Amish model, few of us would be willing to give up the material comforts that the Amish reject.

critical questions

So for those of us that are concerned about the impacts of modern technology but not quite ready to lay aside all our technological objects, I offer the following compromise: a value-based approach to technology assessment that draws on Jesusí teachings on value. Before we acquire or begin to use a new technological object (or continue to use one), we should ask ourselves the following questions.
  1. How does/will it help me realize the good?
  2. How does/will it help me realize the bad?
  3. How does/will it distract me from the highest good?
  4. How can I use it (if at all) in a manner consistent with Jesusí hierarchy of value?

a personal example: the Internet

Let me illustrate with a personal example: the Internet. I will give brief answers to each of these questions. My intent is not to be exhaustive, but to be representative.
How does the Internet help me to realize the good? I use the Internet extensively in my work which, besides teaching human factors engineering courses, focuses on aviation safety. My research is directed towards saving some of the thousands of lives that are lost each year in aircraft accidents, certainly a good end. The Internet facilitates that work by giving me easy access to essential information on airplanes, aircraft accidents and incidents, and aviation psychology. I use e-mail to communicate with colleagues in government, academia, and industry. Through the World Wide Web I can communicate the results of my research far more effectively than I could through conventional, paper reports and journals. Besides the lower good I can realize with the Internet, I also use it, in a small way, to realize the highest good. This essay itself is on the Internet and my e-mail signature bears a reference to the prologue to the Gospel of John, an introduction to Jesusí ministry about the kingdom of God.
How does the Internet help me realize the bad? Besides the fact that the gaudy images on many, if not most, web pages belie their lack of information of any value (or the lack of accessibility to such information), there is plenty on the Internet that leads to the bad. Those who have used it are familiar with the huge number of pornographic web pages. Besides websites dedicated to such evil, there are many websites whose contents implicitly or explicitly deny the validity of the kingdom of God or offer "alternative" paths. While I have thus far been able to resist the temptations of the former and the diversions of the latter, it could have been otherwise and others users of the Internet might not be so fortunate.
How does the Internet distract me from the highest good?  Though the proportion of good web pages is small, there are enough of them out there to present many lower goods for me to pursue. The very existence of potentially valuable information on the Internet leads me to spend considerable time at my computer doing web searches. And when I do find a potentially valuable website, it may present to me a nearly infinite series of links to other potentially valuable pages that can keep me absorbed for hours. As e-mail becomes more common, I spend more and more of my time each day reading and writing it. E-mail brings to me many opportunities to further my work: conferences to attend, panels to participate on, and studies to conduct. These opportunities create more activities that contribute to my technological busyness. The Internet, too, has given rise to a derivative good that I call "coolness". The "cool" website has a complex, patterned background, lots of color, gaudy images, virtual buttons to click, and many hyperlinks to other "cool" websites. These features can be fascinating, and I admit to being tempted to invest time and attention in making my own websites "cool". And of course the colorful and busy images of the Web and the transient nature of the information it bears intensify the salience and urgency of Internet-based and Internet-induced activities. In summary, the Internet is potentially a great distraction for me.
So, how can I use the Internet (if at all) in a manner consistent with Jesusí hierarchy of value? I use the Internet almost exclusively for my work (and I consider technological criticism to be a part of that work) and I use it almost exclusively from my office, thus limiting opportunities for distraction. My hypothetical example, above notwithstanding, only on rare occasions do I use it from my home and that, usually, when I am forced by family schedules to work at home. Although I have a personal computer at home for family use, it is not connected to the Internet and I have no immediate plans to connect it. By strictly limiting what I use the Internet for and how and when I use it, I limit the extent to which it distracts me from the lower good of my family and the highest good of God.
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