Monday, 9 June 2008

Technology and the Transition Home

Does the future lie with genetic engineering or with smoother ox-carts? The answer was expressed by the Viennese philosopher Ivan Illich in the 1960s. He spoke of 'tools for conviviality'. He placed enormous store by the concept of autonomy: individuals and societies, he said, should above all control their own destiny. I like the term 'fulfilment'. Human well-being implies a basic degree of material comfort - good food, clean water, shelter and confidence that your children will survive childhood. After that, fulfilment is up to the individual to decide. Everything is fine (I would say) provided the means to fulfilment does not spoil other people's lives. There is a bonus: because most people are basically nice, and sensible, and cooperative, most people would achieve more fulfilment by cooperating than by battling and doing their neighbours down. Tools - technologies - that are anti-convivial are those that increase the power of the minorities over the majority. Illich identified the bicycle and the telephone as prime tools of conviviality. Both enable individuals to do their own thing in their own time; to go where they want, and talk to whom they want. Both can be built and maintained on a small scale, enabling even small societies to be self-reliant. In principle at least, no one should need to buy a bike or a phone from some foreign based multi-national. Neither technology is innately offensive. Bicycles do not wreck the landscape.

From How the World Could Be, and How to Get There... by Colin Tudge. Taken from the book Do Good Lives Have to Cost the Earth?

Now, let me apologize for starting this post with such a long quotation, but I felt that I must include it; first because it is an excellent quotation, secondly because I thought that it was necessary for you to read it so you had some idea of what inspired me to think about the way in which my family and I use technology. I think there is a popular belief, not entirely unfounded, that we within the "green" movement (I really am unsure about applying this term to myself for some reason) have a rather hair-shirted approach to living. That to be green involves doing an awful lot of work for very little personal reward, that we must give up all the modern conveniences of life, those conveniences which make life easier in order to "do our bit" ...and of course the average stressed out suburbanite may feel rather cross at all of the "thou shalt nots" we greenies expound, as life is hard enough already without having to give up the car and the tumble dryer.

However, I maintain that a green life is a rich and rewarding life and dropping out from participation in these modern "conveniences" frees the individual up for a less harried and more "convivial" existence. Why? Well, simply put, a hyper-consumerist economy thrives on stress and disorder. Too stressed to cook? Then eat out or buy a ready meal. Feel hard done to at work, self-esteem lowered...better visit the out of town shopping centre and treat yourself. You can achieve happiness with a fashionable kitchen and cheap loans are (even now) easy to find. When we're stressed, and so many of us are due to poor working conditions, long hours, traffic jams, bad public transport, social unease and so on and so on then we react in ways which may not necessarily be beneficial to our well-being, we react in a shortsighted, immediate gratification kinda way...we run up bills on our credit card. And importantly, often the very technologies which are propounded as labour saving and "stress free" actually become tools of our own oppression.

Let's take television for example. It may seem like a good idea to have one in virtually every room of the house, each member of the household is then able to watch what they like where they like. However, this puts an end to family viewing...non-stop Nick Junior in the playroom, non-stop Disney Channel in the ten year old's room, non-stop T4 in the 14 year old's room, dad watches football in the living room and mum pops upstairs to watch a makeover programme in her bedroom. This is not a "convivial" picture of family life, not to mention the worry about affording that huge wide-screen plasma TV (bought on credit on an impulse because that fella at work loves his...). Oh, and each programme comes with its very own brand of advertising and often what is advertised to one member of the family would not be beneficial, if bought to the family as a whole. Of course, let us not forget that too much telly watching brings on a mental state something akin to depression, and it can harm little ones...

Now, I'm not against television, I was simply using it as an example where a seemingly wonderful technology can take over us a little, sell us things we don't need and can't afford, show us things we'd rather not have seen (I talk as an ex Soprano's fan here!lol!). I suppose what I'm trying to say, is that if we buy these tools (technologies) with circumspection, use them wisely then we will have a better quality of life *and* we can feel a little better about not throwing away an old but workable TV, not using so much energy to fuel so many TVs in the household. Importantly, we will be more prepared when we may not have the money to afford the energy to fuel the technologies that may be controlling us. I've thought long and hard about the technology we use in our household, how it adds to the quality of my family's life, whether it is indeed convivial or not. I thought I'd share my ideas, but first let me say that the technologies which are convivial to me, may not be right for your own family circumstances, so even though I may reject the tools of the dishwasher and tumble dryer, a much larger family may see them as definitely a good addition to their household. It's a personal thing.

Washing Machine - Convivial
I would find life pretty grim if I had to wash by hand. Washing machines are a gift to woman-kind and therefore pretty convivial. Washing has to be done and the machines can be made and repaired DHs work used to produce them, I don't think they do anymore, like most manufacturing the machines are now made in the far East. I would only give up my washing machine if there was a service where dirty laundry was collected, washed, ironed and delivered back to me within the week. This service would have to be cheap(ish) and I would want to know exactly how my clothes are washed and the green credentials of the laundry service.

Car - Not convivial...but I love it!
Up until nearly a year ago we were a car free family. We managed just fine. However, now we have a car my husband is home from work an hour and a half earlier, we are able to access the countryside (something which we love), we are able to get our children to the doctor quickly if needs be. We can go camping on our holidays. In terms of family life I can declare that having a car is extremely convivial, but (and it is a big but) cars are pretty catastrophic environmentally. We have little public transport infrastructure to replace the car...we need this in place before people give up their cars. We don't have two cars, we don't over-use the car...oh you know the rest, what do you think?

Radio - Convivial
This is my favourite "convivial" technology. Both local and national radio is a wonderful and useful thing. In cases of national emergency radio is a lifeline. Also, radio is transportable, can be run through renewable energy, entertaining and not as good at transmitting the more insidious effects of advertising than its blousy younger sister...television. I could wax lyrical about radio, but I shan't bore you.

The Internet/PC - Convivial
Useful tool for getting and spreading information or horrid time waster? You decide, but I think overall it's a good and useful tool.

Television - Not Convivial...but I do like it!
Like the car I think the TV should be used mindfully and with discretion. You know the arguments, but if I were to get rid of one electronic device in my household it would be the telly. I could save money, time and carbon by not having a telly. I would miss it though, especially good films and comedies.

General unconvivial, useless items.
Hair dryer, hair straighteners, coffee machine, cable TV...anything which is not useful but possession of which implies status or fashion.

Blimey, I know this is a bit garbled! But what do you really think about our use of technologies. Which household technologies add to your family life, which detract? Have your say!!!


Mrs Pea said...

For us radio detracts. I used to listen too much. Anxious DS heard stuff he didn't need to. I would always be saying "shush". Since I was a child I always listened to Radio 4 as much as poss, and since being at home I would have it on from first thing in the am til I went to bed, 16-18 hours a day.

Now I have it on for the Archers and that's just a habit.

I feels great. I still can't believe I made that change, but it is such a blessing for my own particular circumstance.

Mrs. Amy Brigham said...

Very thought-provoking post! I was especially interested in what you have said about the car. I am a non-driver, and we do own a car, but as my husband is going to be gone for the next year, will be completely car-free during the time he is gone. I have always managed very well, even in cities with lacking public transits, but now find myself in an area with splendid public transit at a ridiculously low cost. I'm intrigued to see what little adventures this next year will bring living sans car.

Gumbo Lily said...

I love simplicity but I never want to knock progress. I'd hate to have to go back to the horse & buggy, hauling water and firewood, the wash board and tub, outdoor toilets, and wood-burning cookstoves. I love my modern conveniences, but like a more "quiet" life -- less noise from TV, radio, computer.

Jody (who does like her computer time too)

Anonymous said...

I reckon it's all about how we use our lives/possessions.

Washing machines...yes very convivial...although one could argue that the days of the laundrette or even the wash board down at the river ;) were much more convivial and community embracing :)

For me TV can be convivial, if it is in the same room, it can provoke discussion, 'in' jokes, etc. Me n' Dad have lots of expressions borrowed from Blackadder or Only Fools and Horses. Such jokes fall flat with the one who doesn't watch TV. So for some I reckon it's very convivial. Think of the Royle what would they have talked about if they didn't have TV? I totally agree that TVs in children's bedrooms and other rooms should be avoided. Radio, for me, on the other hand, is just background noise and rarely sparks discussion or 'in' jokes, etc.

Computer/internet - for me much less convivial than the TV, when I'm using it I am not sitting with the family, in fact my back is to the family, I'm not enjoying the jokes/news/documentary/discussion with my hubby/children but I am enjoying it apart from them. It's entirely about me and my computer. It is, I agree, good for finding a community we can relate to (I found you through the internet and you've been such a blessing!)...but also damaging because people express things they would never express in a face-to-face discussion. The anonymity of the internet is dangerous. I don't think it is any better at spreading a message than TV...but having said that it is the only way the average joe can spread his message (unless he gets on Big brother :). However, not everyone's message is good and there are little controls on the information that is out there.

Car - for me very convivial for my friendships, helping Gary by getting all the errands run before the weekend, getting to church and visiting. However, the environmental impact is not convivial as you say...why is more work not being done on cars with alternative fuel sources? It just shows the government is only pretending it is bothered about emissions from cars, etc. Really it just wants an excuse for massive tax hikes. Some university bods are trying to get their solar powered car from one end of the country to the other...why are more big car companies not pushing this? Are they so under the thumb of the oil companies?

Hairdryer/straightener - totally essential!!! :) Couldn't live without them, my hair is bushy and wiry without them. Just awful. Fashion or no fashion I need 'em. Hehehehehe.

Hmmm, much to think about .


Anonymous said...

Sorry this should read..."For me TV can be convivial, if it is in the main room..."

Dulce Domum said...

Hi Mrs Pea
Yes, I think we need to review which technologies are best for our own particular circumstances. What works for one person may no work for another.

Hi Amy
Yes, we were car free for year and we did just fine...but we didn't get to see much of the countryside. Public transport was fine going from city to city etc. Having the car has also stopped the DH getting so many colds and infections in the winter-time. He did a four hour commute each day on buses and trains and would be stressed and prone fellow commuters germs. It's helped us...but we use our car like people did 50 years ago...just one car per family, day outs and commuting only. I still walk to the shops, town, church etc and find it easy to be a car-free mum. Enjoy your car-free adventure and best wished to your DH whilst he is away.

Hi Jody
Oh I agree completely. I think a bit of leisure time is good for humanity...a nice balance of work and leisure. I do not hanker for ye olden days where life was taken up with the just plain survival, technology has helped us to have a little more free time...I just think we need to use it more wisely, for our own sakes and the sake of the environment.

Hi Sarah
I agree with the TV bit, we have "in jokes" too. My sister and I call each other Barbara and Margot (from the Good Life) and we all have our favourite sayings from The Simpsons. I just think that the two technologies which do the most damage are cars and telly, simply because we don't (as a whole) use them properly and of course and they can end up damaging us and the environment.

Regarding greener cars/fuel. It is such a complex issue...especially as the growing of biofuel has been responsible for food price hikes in recent months. Electric cars which can be recharged using renewable fuel sources...apparently they're not far off the battery technology which will make a reliable electric car...and when you think how mobile phone technology has developed over the past two decades I can see it being a bit of a goer. However, we need proper government incentives to reward us for choosing greener options...public transport being properly CHEAP (nationalise it again imo)...why aren't there more people converting chip fat to fuel?? Get rid of the tax on it, train up young unemployed lads to covert the cars etc's a great business opportunity.

Regarding your hair dryer and straighteners. I make statements about them being unconvivial under the cover of anonymity...I have a friend who would beat me to death with her precious straighteners if she knew I'd said such a thing!!! Nice to see you back.

Anonymous said...

Yes public transport here is rubbish too. If I lived in the town it would be a great deal easier to get to the shops , etc. But for me the local shops and church would take an hour to walk to with the children, 1/2 hour vigorous stride if it was just me. Town is even further away.

Chip fat run cars? How interesting, I didn't know that! We have bio-fuel station in our nearest town but it is taxed so it's not massively cheaper than normal diesel.

Hubby's company is a haulage company and it's overheads used to be 25% of costs were fuel it's now 75% of costs. Lots of haulage companies are going under. If they go under costs will rise, food costs will go through the roof, indeed the cost of every product that requires transport will go sky high, etc. There is no other way to transport things except by haulage, so the country is going to go splat and the government is not looking ahead to the changes that need to be made - neither reduced tax on alternative fuel options nor alternative transport options such as using the railways more (although products will still need to be transported from the rail depots). Indeed many will lose jobs, including my hubby. It's very frustrating.

We are no longer an agricultural country so there is little locally grown produce, local farmers round here mostly concentrate on sheep we have no local dairy, beef farm, vegetable farms, etc. Most people do not have the ability or the space to grow their own food at home (particularly in the little back-to-back terraces in our villages, which have no garden or yard), they cannot raise their own animals (many leases round here prohibit the keeping of livestock), they can't make their own products/furniture/clothes and even if they could there are few places to buy the materials cheaply enough to make it worthwhile, etc.

I often wonder what the solution is and why solutions are not being investigated by the government (or opposing parties) whose job it is look ahead to the likely needs of a country struggling so much because of the effects of soaring oil prices and excessive taxation on fuel.

Sorry about the long comments, it just your post interested me and I've been thinking about some of the issues you raised recently.

Dulce Domum said...

Hi Sarah
I think your points about agriculture are very valid. Less than 1% of our population are involved in farming yet we live in a fertile and gentle land. We need to move away from agri-business (and lots of imported produce) and back onto small scale mixed farming so we as a country can be more self reliant. And, importantly communities can access good food...oh, it has been estimated that to be self-reliant (not self sufficient) we need at least 20% of people working on land...yet an agrarian economy is *still* seen as a backward economy...this is ironic as self-reliance could the answer to all sorts of social and environmental problems we are experiencing today.

Oh, and don't get me started on New Labour. They are about as much for working communities as Mrs Thatcher...ruled by corporations and multinationals. They're a tired, tired government at the moment.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I totally agree on both counts. Governments are only generally interested in things that generate lots of money. Farming is heavily subsidised, thus costing the government money rather than bringing wads in. They can't see past the pound signs.

Anonymous said...

I have a book called 'Henry and The Great Society' that is a fictional story showing how technology tore a family apart. It is a very interesting book.

And while I wouldn't wish to go back to, as you said Dulce Domum, back to where survival took every moment of the day sometimes I do long for things to be simpler.

And I thought Sarah's views on the Internet were spot on. It is so easy to say things and hide behind a computer screen, that we'd never say face-to-face. To alleviate some of this I've removed the anonymous comment feature off of my blog. If you're going to leave me a comment you are going to *have* to use a name of some kind. But I digress....

A very thought-provoking post!


Zillah said...

DD, have you read Eric Brende's Better Off? It's an account of his time living with an American community of the Mennonite/Amish type who have a VERY conservative attitude to technology. It's a fascinating book and certainly changed the way I think about technology. It's not published over here, but you can get it on Amazon, or send me an email if you'd like to borrow mine.


Dulce Domum said...

Hi Michele
I'll google the story you mentioned, thank you for the tip! I too think Sarah's points about internet usage to be very valid...we can hide behind its anonymity. I suppose ultimately we need to use each of these tools with discretion and intelligence, do a quick audit about the usefulness and conviviality about each technology. Technology can be an easy snare.

Hi Zillah
I shall google the book you mentioned. I am very interested in the Amish and Mennonite communities, not just for their "plain-ness" (for a high-ish Anglican I do like a bit of plain lol!) but for their self-reliance. You may be interested in Morning Ramble, it's a blog written by an ex-Mennonite woman and she really does focus on simple living and has some good insights into what living in a plain community is really like.
PS. If I feel broke I may borrow the book from you rather than buy it from the warned!!!

Patty said...

Love this post...I might add a clothes dryer as something we don't need. We have lived for 17 years without one. Hanging up clothes is a delightful pastime, even in the snow and ice, well maybe not delightful, but certainly character building !
We went for nearly 2 decades without Television, didn't miss it but we have it now and I certainly enjoy some shows.

Maymomvt said...

Have you read Kunstler's "Hand Made Nation"? It's a story about a small community after the world falls apart. It's interesting to see what technology makes it.

For us--we live in a very rural place. We need 2 cars. TV and the computer are both problems for us as they separate us. We got rid of the TV but not the computer.

Dulce Domum said...

Hi Patty
I'm with you on not having a tumbler dryer. The clothes smell better too when they're line dried.

Hi Sarah(maymomvt)
I think our car-free life would never have been achievable if we hadn't been townies. Like Patty and her telly, when we were car-free we didn't miss having one, but now I enjoy having a car, we love the freedom. I could easily do without telly, I think the kids would too, but DH loves that telly, bless him!