Recently I was reading the insightful book Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick J. Deneen, and he raised an issue I have been thinking about for some time: “Does digital technology bring freedom or limit our freedom?”
We tend to naturally think that digital technology brings freedom. After all, can’t we connect with whomever we want, whenever we want, and wherever we want? Don’t we have access to endless information and products at the tips of our fingers?
Yes, we do. But is this power what brings true freedom? Have we really taken the time to reflect on whether digital technology makes us freer or constricts our freedom? I am not sure we have.
There is a powerful lesson we can learn from the Amish.
Powerful Example: The Amish
Consider a counter-example to the common narrative about technology––the Amish. They are often considered aversive to technology because of their rejection of electricity and insurance. But few people reflect much deeper and ask the basis for their practice.
The core reason is because they have deep community values that they aim to live by. In fact, they believe these values actually make them freer than simply abiding by values of the wider culture. Thus, they subject new technologies to a simple question, “Will this help advance the commitments of our society?” If the answer is no, then they reject it.
Consider the example of buying insurance. Many Americans get house, life, and other kinds of insurance in case of an unforeseen emergency or tragedy. Companies pool contributions together and then deliver them to insurers who (unfortunately) meet the criteria laid out in the insurance contract, such as the sudden loss of life.
Certain Amish groups prevent members from purchasing insurance. Why? The reason traces back to their core community commitments about personally caring for one another. They aim to build a society where people rely upon one another in tragedy rather than an unknown, impersonal insurance company. Agree or disagree with their practice, it is easy to see how their values shape their practice.
The Amish and Technology: True Freedom
How does this shape the issue of technology? Deneen explains:
We regard our condition as one of freedom, whereas from the standpoint of liberal modernity, adherents of Amish culture are widely perceived to be subject to oppressive rules and customs. Yet we should note that while we have choices about what kind of technology we will use–whether a sedan or a jeep, an iPhone or a Galaxy, a Mac or PC–we largely regard ourselves as subject to the logic of technological development and ultimately not in a position to eschew any particular technology. By contrast, the Amish–who seem to constrain so many choices–exercise choice over the use and adoption of technologies based upon criteria upon which they base their community. Who is free? (p. 107)
This last question gets to the heart of the issue: Who is free?
Is freedom doing whatever we want? Or is it being able to live consistently with our most cherished values?
It seems to me that the Amish are on to something important.