Wendell Berry’s Tiny Little No

Sunday Letter | #319

I’ve been thinking about Wendell Berry’s standards for adopting a new technology, from his 1987 essay, “Why I Am not Going To Buy A Computer”:

  1. The new tool should be cheaper than the one it replaces.
  2. It should be at least as small in scale as the one it replaces.
  3. It should do work that is clearly and demonstrably better than the one it replaces.
  4. It should use less energy than the one it replaces.
  5. If possible, it should use some form of solar energy, such as that of the body.
  6. It should be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence, provided that he or she has the necessary tools.
  7. It should be purchasable and repairable as near to home as possible.
  8. It should come from a small, privately owned shop or store that will take it back for maintenance and repair.
  9. It should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.

I can easily see these rules applying to successive iterations of a tool. Take the phone in my pocket; over time, newer models have become smaller (or at least, slimmer), cheaper (on a per-GB or per-GHz basis), and more energy-efficient – though far less repairable (but with potential to be made moreso).

Of course, Berry is talking less about individual tools than broader technologies – not a single computer but computers in general. And for these, I have a much harder time imagining technologies for which all of Berry’s rules apply, particularly the ones at the bottom of the list. Many of the cases I can think of – the hammer, the printed book – have been around for so long that we no longer call them technology.

Knowing the size and clunkiness of personal computers in the 80s, I wondered if Berry had changed his mind since he first penned the essay, and it turns out he hasn’t. The man’s still using a typewriter. In the interview, when asked why he originally felt the need to publicly state his intention not to buy a computer, Berry says:

It seemed to me that everybody was jumping into this as if it would save the world. And that was really the way it was being advertised. “This is the solution to all our problems. This is going to speed things up.” And so, I made a little dissent. It’s really a tiny little no that I said.

Technology builders tend to start with the same question: How can we make someone’s life better? Rarely do they also ask the corollary: How might our solution also make someone’s life worse? Or, with slightly more nuance: How might our solution also make someone’s life less good? And that, I think, is the real point of Berry’s tech rules: to help us recognize that new technologies are seldom, if ever, purely additive.

Maybe it would help for each of us come up with our own personal tech rules – to articulate our own list of “should”s. We may, like Berry, value purposefulness and community. We may value joy, pleasure, and fun. And when asking if we should replace A with B, we can think not only of how our values are served by the presence of B, but also by the absence of A.

And if we suspect, in the final balance, that we are not better off, we can mount our own dissent. We can each say our own tiny little no.