Retreat Readings #4

" If we wish to make the best use of people, places, and things, Then we're going to have to deal with a law that reads about like this: as the quality of use increases, the scale of use ( that is, the size of operations) will decline, the tools will become simpler, and the message and the skills will become more complex. That is a difficult law for us to believe, because we have assumed otherwise for a long time, and yet our experience overwhelmingly suggest that it is a law, and th'at the penalties for disobeying it are severe."
- Wendell Berry " what are people for" pg 114

Berry's Standards for technological innovation
1. The new tool should be cheaper than the one replaced.
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 then 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 is 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 purchaseable 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 any thing good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.

" The universe does not require philosophical or theological consistency to function; it merely requires that people live according to the same inconsistencies."
- Dale S. Lushness " Sex and the Iworld" pg 102


Anonymous said...

Re "Berry's Standards for Technological Innovation":

I am skeptical about these standards, because I applied them to the PC vs. manual or electric typewriters and to the "horseless carriage" vs. the "horseful" carriage, and it was not clear that the formers in the initial stages would replaced latters. Would they have been killed by these standards before their fuller potentials become evident?

Roger Hui

Andrew said...

I am glad you said something. I put that list up there for a few reasons. I found it interesting, I think it asks some important questions, and I think it deserves to be thought through.

Does Berry's list demand that we 'kill' innovation, or merely wait to adopt it until it has been gone through a much more extensive process of refinement? Is there value in said waiting? Of course, in our current economic model there is no refinement without early adoption, but is this a necessary facet of technological advancement?

As for all of those things which we now see the full potential of, including computers and cars, are they really good? Yes, we have become dependent on them. Yes, it is hard to imagine a world without them or how we might transition away from them (witness the glacial pace of the auto-industry in the face of rising oil prices) but those facts do not answer the questions.

As a direct result of variable technologies we have burgeoning urban populations relying on a food system propped up by cheap oil. We have sacrificed a lot to get here, and the price has barely begun to be evident. In order to get to this point, the auto industry manufactured a need for cheap oil by purposefully designing less efficient engines than they could off, thereby upping our oil consumption and artificially increasing the development of new oil fields. I could go on. Knowing these things, I sympathize with Berry.

Of course, I also typed in those quotes from my smartphone utilizing a wireless connection to the world-wide-web while staying in a remote valley which has been extensively remodeled through the use of millions of dollars of heavy machinery, to the point where the lake I overlooked was entirely man made.

So, I don't have answers, but I know there is value in asking these questions.

So, apart from what might have been (in terms of pc's and cars and the multitude of other technologies we enjoy) how would you critique, change, accept, and reject Berry's list?

Anonymous said...

Berry's Standard #1 says, the new tool should be cheaper than the one replaced. It doesn't say "in the future", "eventually", "in its maturity", etc. I was not around when horseless carriages first became available (and I am too lazy to look up the information), but I was around when PCs first arrived. I remember that they cost thousands of dollars when typewriters cost hundreds of dollars.

Standard #4 says, it should use less energy than the one in replaces; Standard #5 says, it should use some form of solar energy, such as that of the body. PCs use electrical energy, currently and at the time of its introduction mostly not solar generated. Manual typewriters use only the energy generated by yourself. So definitely PCs would not have been allowed to replace manual typewriters. Similar argument for horseless carriages vs. horseful carriages.

Standard #6 says, it should be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence, provided he or she has the necessary tools. I vainly think that I am a person of above average intelligence, but I don't think I can repair a PC or a horseless carriage, certainly much less than I am able to repair a typewriter or a horseful carriage.


You seem to think that the horseless carriage, a engine-driven vehicle, necessarily lead to the automobile culture we have today, and that it is a bad thing. You seem to argue that urbanization is a bad thing. Over the course of the 20-th century, when engine-driven vehicles and urbanization took hold, many "quality of life" indices improved worldwide: life expectancy, infant mortality, caloric intake, travel, years of schooling, etc. I don't believe that you can argue that these are bad things. (Well, some people do argue that a greater number of years of schooling IS a bad thing ...) And what about unexpected beneficial effects of technological innovation? For example, the PC (coupled with telecommunications) make it possible to reduce or eliminate commuting, make it possible to work anywhere (rather than congregating in cities), make possible the start of the "Arab spring", etc.

To make it personal (and I apologize in advance if that offends you), let me ask you this:

0. Do you live in the country, or at least a small town, instead of in the city?
1. Do you live close to your place of work in order to reduce your driving?
2. Do you arrange your life so that you can take public transit more often and drive less?
3. Do you advocate a higher gasoline tax in order to encourage people to drive less, to purchase more fuel efficient vehicles? Have you written your MLA and your MP advocating this?
4. Do you have a backyard garden to grow some of the food that you consume?
5. Do you consume only locally grown food? Only organic food?
6. Do you use a bicycle instead of a car?

I know more than one of the above are possible (1, 2, 4, 6), having done or are doing them myself. I also know that to a large extent I can do them due to technological innovations that would not have been permitted by Barry's Standards.

Roger Hui

Andrew said...

I do not think that the culture we have now is uniformly bad; certainly much good has come. Good which I gladly partake of, such as those things you have mentioned.

I only meant to say that all of this good has come at a cost, one we have yet to realize or be able to count. We do live in a fragile system, and one might ask if 100 years of good will be worth whatever comes next. The problems in such questions are multiple, however. Not least of all the fact that it is impossible to accurately calculate future effects (as witnessed by such disastrous policies as those implemented against forest fighters). However, a deeper problem is that I strongly disagree with a utilitarian analysis of these things. It can't just be about adding up the good and bad columns and seeing which is bigger.

If we accept that logic, what do we say about all the wars that have led to much good through the rapid advance of technology, but also (obviously) led to a lot of evil and death?

That is why I think Berry is asking important questions. How do we judge technology in the face of these uncertainties? Is it enough to just go ahead with everything and hope that good will come? If not, what are the criteria? So far, we seem to lack any.

As to bringing it to a personal level, I don't mind. As to your list, I do/have done some, and not on others. I am no perfect example; you could make a much longer list and I would fail on much of it. I am fully aware of how complicit I am in this whole system, which is what I tried to imply by noting the ironies of how I put up the post, as well as how I find it difficult to imagine a world different than ours or how we could get there.

However, I do think personal examples are somewhat beside the point. I agree with Hunter (http://thelogo.blogspot.com/2011/03/james-davison-hunter-to-change-world.html) that focusing on the choices and beliefs of individual actors is not an effective model for large scale change.

I think Berry's list is interesting not because it is perfect, or solves the problems, but because it begins to ask the larger questions.

Kristina said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Andrew said...

I should add that I do not intend to use Hunter to avoid taking responsibility, or excuse negligent behavior. I am trying to improve in my own life how I respond to and live in the midst of these issues, regardless of how effective I think that will be in changing things.

Anonymous said...

Hours after my last post, I came upon the source (written in 1987) of Berry's Standards: http://home.btconnect.com/tipiglen/berrynot.html. Much to my surprise, the Standards were in fact part of an argument against PCs, for manual typewriters, which was also one of the two examples I used to argue against Berry's Standards. I believe that this specific example strongly demonstrates the flaws with Berry's Standards. Like you, I don't have answers either, but I know that Berry's Standards are wrong.

What are "forest fighters"? ("as witnessed by such disastrous policies as those implemented against forest fighters" in your post.)

Roger Hui

Andrew said...

aren't typing mistakes great? I meant forest fires!

As for the rest, it is the same context in the book I read, which is a collection of essays. It even goes on to have responses from readers, followed by several of Berry's responses.

One of the arguments Berry brings up is that he will respect PC's more when someone writes a book better than Dante using a PC. Meanwhile, he mentions that he writes by hand and his wife puts it onto a typewriter. Berry's favorite response was someone who wrote in asking if anyone had written a work greater than Dante on a typewriter.

If you read the whole article, Berry acknowledges his own flaws and the incompleteness of his vision. He too is only trying to approach the problem and ask good questions about it.

Andrew said...

So, I again ask, what list would you make? Or woould you have an entirely different approach?

Anonymous said...

The Standards were not questions; Berry wrote that they were "my standards for technological innovation in my own work".

As I already said, I can offer no alternatives of my own. I only know that Berry's Standards are wrong, in many aspects.

It's funny: Before today, I have never heard of Wendell Berry. Then in quick succession I read about him in your blog and then in an article in today's Globe and Mail (about Prince Charles!)

Roger Hui

Andrew said...

Fair enough, on both counts. Sorry to ask you twice.

And yes, Berry does set them out as his standards, but he also acknowledges that he follows them imperfectly and cannot see a way out of where we are now. While he sets something out as a positive step forward, he also invites conversation.

Either way, that is what I want to do.

So, allow me to press on your criticisms for a moment. Your argument against Berry seems to be that good has come from innovations that Berry's standards would have blocked. But is that enough of an argument? Or is it flawed in the same way utilitarianism is? Of course, we cannot imagine what might have been, but that is exactly the point. Is there no other way to judge Berry's standards?

Anonymous said...

I know nothing of "utilitarianism", nor why it is or is not flawed. I only know that Berry offered his Standards as a way to test the acceptability of "technological innovation". I have offered a couple of examples which the Standards would have rejected. In the case of PCs vs. typewriters, it is pretty clear that that is one technological innovation that should not be rejected; in the case of horseless carriages vs. horseful carriages, the case is less clear-cut, but I believe I have presented at least the outline of a case for acceptance. What good is a thing which does not do what it was designed to do?

I guess an even more clear-cut argument against the Standards would be examples of "technological innovation" which should be rejected, but which the Standards would let slip through. I leave the finding of such examples as an exercise for the reader. ☺ ("Atomic bomb" passed an alarming number of the Standards.)

Aside from the things I already mentioned, I find the Standards problematic in some additional ways:

a. To say that they are "standards for technological innovation" seems to prejudge the matter. I wonder if Berry meant "standards for technological change"?

b. What if the new tool is not replacing an old tool, but does something completely new, or least new enough that there was no old tool to do it?

c. #5 "Some form of solar energy" is too broad and encompasses some really bad stuff. For example, all fossil fuel is stored energy from the sun and are in fact, forms of solar energy.

d. #6, #7, and #8 hint strongly of a position against specialization. Do you believe that specialization is a bad thing?

e. #9 seemingly can be used to reject most anything. For example, the horseless carriage put the buggy whip manufacturers out of business, which provided a good living for many people.

Roger Hui