When is enough enough?

Written by joe : September 29, 2008

It must be one of the questions that have been asked since the beginning of rational thought. Looking around at the world, the middle-aged Luddite mutters moodily:

“Round wheels? Who needs round wheels?”


“Horses? Why are we bothering with those, what is wrong with our oxen?”

And it is the role of every young oik to smile and with a glint in his eye proceed to trounce everyone else with the new technology.

So, dusting off my old-fart jacket and adorning myself with oik-repellent, I prepare myself for the onslaught: Why are we so addicted to new things?

Did you know, for example, that the new Ipod can hold up to 40,000 songs? Does anyone even own 40,000 songs?

A while ago our washing machine broke down. It had multiple programmes and a lifespan of less than 8 years.

We have been living without a washing machine for six months, and experiencing a little of what it is like to live without something we take for granted. It is possible, just difficult and annoying. Not so long ago the same thing happened with our fridge, which is even more difficult to live without.

My grandparents had an two tub model which lasted 30 years and never broke down. There were no programme controls, it was either on or off. What have we really gained by the extra complexity?

Ten years ago, constant access to the internet was barely conceivable for most people. Today it is everywhere.

The Luddites were a radical movement in England in the 18 century. Faced with rapid industrialisation of the textile industry, they saw their livelihoods destroyed, so rebelled and broke the new machinery. The owners and the state reacted fiercely and executed many of the leaders of the movement.

Since then the term has entered the language as a relatively mild form of abuse.

But surely they had a point - if our new technologies adversely affect the weakest of society, they are worthless however much we appreciate and lust after them. If they so insulate us from the realities of life for the poor, to the extent that we cannot really contemplate how we might live without a fridge or a washing machine, something is seriously wrong.

Maybe as well as new-monasticism and emerging church theology, we need Luddite theology. Maybe we need a few less conferences with a few less star attractions who jet from one to the next. Maybe we don’t need to go to worship events to hear what new thing God is planning. Maybe we don’t need more efficient cars - maybe we don’t need cars, period. Maybe we don’t need to try to make the lot of poor producers marginally better by offering them very small subsidies for crops they would never eat - maybe we need to help them learn how to grow the things they actually need and learn to become more satisfied with what we can grow ourselves. Maybe we need to move away from our flickering screens and do more to communicate with people who don’t know how to use a keyboard.

Maybe being radical and prophetic has less to do with new things and ideas and more to do with redeeming and reclaiming old things.

Perhaps it is not enough to stop the violence, to be aware of the pain. Maybe we have to start to deconstruct ourselves, to turn our swords into ploughshares.

Author Bio:: Joe is wondering why.

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Viewing 11 Comments

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    I'm honored to be the first to second these thoughts! Every time I ride a bus I resent my car-related bills a little more. We don't need more, we need to use what we've already got better. And I feel the same way about theology, to an extent, insofar as we need to read and know the great works of the past 2000 years instead of only reading the newest stuff out there, as I sometimes am in the habit of doing.

    Thanks again for your your beautiful writing and your imagery here!
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    Amen to this, Joe!
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    "Maybe we need to move away from our flickering screens and do more to communicate with people who don’t know how to use a keyboard."

    So, to be consistent, shouldn't you have written this longhand and mailed it by post? Not trying to criticize; the fact that I'm typing on this keyboard in front of this "flickering screen" means I'm complicit as well. I'm a big a fan of the Internet, but sometimes I wonder whether our obsession with Internet culture makes keeps us focused on the less tangible community we imagine to be "out there" and less on the real, face-to-face community we have around us.

    Anyway, thanks for asking the questions. They're the type of questions I find myself asking daily. Except when I start craving fast food or see that brand new book in the bookstore or see that totally hilarious ironic t-shirt on that website or....
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    Ben, this is entirely an exercise in self criticism. I know what I am like and I am constantly struggling to keep focused on the community I want to see rather than the next shiny thing.
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    Okay, that's what I thought. I hope I didn't come off as accusing or anything. I appreciate you putting this conviction into words for us.
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    Hi Joe,
    Your question "Maybe being radical and prophetic has less to do with new things and ideas and more to do with redeeming and reclaiming old things." I think reveals a lot about the answer you seek. I suspect that the answer is not the either the new or the old, but the both/and when new things and ideas redeem and reclaim old ideas and things.

    I like learning old stuff, new stuff, and lots of stuff. I think God gave us a creative mind and enjoys seeing what we can come up with. But the more that I am rooted in the simple life, the more my focus is on the purposes to which he has called me, the more I can discern which new gadget or idea or fashionable trend is for me.

    A 40,000 song capacity ipod would be great for someone who was trying to capture native cultural music in the field. That would mean that there was less to lug around and it would be easier to power such devices. It also might be great for having a musical library for a church. The musical history of the Church is long, beautiful, and extensive. New things like 40,000 song ipods allow us to reclaim and redeem things from the past in new meaningful ways.
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    Why have a 'memory' at all? Why not 'download' all cultural knowledge into a machine and have it remember for us? Sooner or later we won't need friends, neighbors, or places to help us think. One can only hope (sarcastic sigh) that these really great ideas and technologies go on unhampered by the annoyance of human beings.

    I hope you will forgive my sarcasm here. I'm not a Luddite, I'm not a Luddite, I swear!! Just consider it irony--especially since I type this on a macbook! :)

    @Joe: The idea of replacing something 'simple' for something more 'complex' sort of misses the point, I think. We enter into the heart of complexity (and avoid an oversimplification) when we refuse a costly machine and embrace embodied culture/community.
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    Jason, that is a fair comment. I am not suggesting it as an exclusive theology but as something we need to consider much more carefully than we often do. When such a great proportion of most churches budget is tied into buildings and technologies (video screens, music equipment, etc) asking 'at what point do we stop? ' strikes me as being prophetic but YMMV
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    Joe, my weird (poorly worded?) late-night comment was intended to be funny but also to make a point. If my perceptions are correct, at least my point and perhaps the humor wasn't clear. So just in case, here it is: I don't like to think of powerful technologies as modes that lead to complexity (versus simplicity). They usually end up oversimplifying and, therefore, reducing the community and place we belong to. In other words, to use the ipod as an example, the real cost for this piece of machinery should include more than just time and money. But the allure to become sedated (as the Ramones might say) is always lurking. This quote from Wendell Berry is appropriate in that sense. He is referring to an ad (year: 1992) which advertised the use of 'hypertext' as a replacement for the written word:

    "Dear reader, I hope you will understand at least somewhat the disgust, the contempt, and the joy with which I have received this news.

    "It disgusts me because I know there is no need for such products, which will put a lot of money into the pockets of people who don't care how they earn it and will bring another downward turn in the effort of gullible people to become better and smarter by the way of machinery. This is a perfect example of modern salesmanship and modern technology--yet another way to make people pay dearly for what they already have...

    "My joy comes from my instantaneous knowledge that I am not going to buy either piece of equipment. When the inevitable saleswoman comes to tell me that I cannot be up-to-date, or intelligent, or creative, or handsome, or young, or eligible for sexual favors of so fair a creature as herself unless I buy these products, dear reader, I am not going to do it."

    I suspect that at least some (if not all) of my comment would be supported by your thesis. If not, that's ok. But those are my two cents (and Berry's).

    The quote is from Wendell Berry's book of essays: Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community (pages xxi-xxii).
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    Maria, I also like new things. But it strikes me that we are in great danger of ignoring the depth of knowledge by continually focussing on the new. Why do we assume that God wants to do a new thing or say a new thing to us? Maybe he has already said what he needs to say and we just need to listen and take it on board.

    And I think part of the problem is that sometimes we are too postmodern for our own good. We enjoy the ride more than reaching the destination and avoid having defined targets and goals. It isn't so surprising that we fail to achieve things so often. Once it has become 'old hat' we're bored of it.

    Regarding Ipods, whilst there might well be some people who would find this capacity very useful, surely you would agree it is hardly a mass market necessity. People are being sold something they don't really need on the basis it is 'bigger, sexier, shinier' than the last version.
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    I agree that people often buy new technology for the wrong reasons. When we understand our goals, then we have an appropriate basis to evaluate whether a new technology will help us get there.

    I agree that there needs to be a balance between enjoying the ride and reaching the destination. If we're too goal oriented then we miss opportunities that come up a long the way (such as technology that can make the ride easier), but if we're too busy enjoying the ride (exploring new technologies), we never make any progress (in spreading the gospel, etc.).

    I hear you calling readers back to the things they learned in kindergarten, that learning to do something well is as important or possibly more important as doing something new. If that is so, I agree. Most of us do better if we avoid either extreme of single mindedly deep or very shallowly broad.


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