Wendell Berry’s “Why I am NOT going to buy a computer”

Since I wrote about Illich, I want to nod to Wendell Berry whose thought and love inform a lot of what I do.

I love “Why I am NOT going to buy a computer.” It makes so much sense and it’s just so damnably hard to live into. As Illich would say, we’ve become dependents on an ever-expanding web of technologies. Our educations in some senses make us more dependent on corporations, universities, governments, and their networks at ever accelerating paces. Here I am, communicating with you through this damn machine instead of with food and love at a table, around a fire, or on a porch, or in our commons. We are digitized. Simulations maybe.

More importantly, the essay is followed by critical (mean) replies and then his response as well as an acknowledgment of his role in damaging the planet. This response is eminently reasonable, fair, and kind. In the arguments at hand over the Penn State-Toll Brothers deal, it can serve as a reminder. He writes,

I am also surprised by the meanness with which two of these writers refer to my wife. In order to imply that I am a tyrant, they suggest by both direct statement and innuendo that she is subservient, characterless, and stupid—a mere “device” easily forced to provide meaningless “free labor.” I understand that it is impossible to make an adequate public defense of one’s private life, and so l will only point out that there are a number of kinder possibilities that my critics have disdained to imagine: that my wife may do this work because she wants to and likes to; that she may find some use and some meaning in it; that she may not work for nothing. These gentlemen obviously think themselves feminists of the most correct and principled sort, and yet they do not hesitate to stereotype and insult, on the basis of one fact, a woman they do not know. They are audacious and irresponsible gossips.

In his letter, Bradley C. Johnson rushes past the possibility of sense in what I said in my essay by implying that I am or ought to be a fanatic. That I am a person of this century and am implicated in many practices that I regret is fully acknowledged at the beginning of my essay. I did not say that I proposed to end forthwith all my involvement in harmful technology, for I do not know how to do that. I said merely that I want to limit such involvement, and to a certain extent I do know how to do that. If some technology does damage to the world—as two of the above letters seem to agree that it does—then why is it not reasonable, and indeed moral, to try to limit one’s use of that technology? Of course, I think that I am right to do this.

This response reminds me, and I hope reminds you, of the duty to be kind and the limits of ourselves. We should be critical participants in our lives like Illich and Berry both. Firm and flexible. Critical and kind.


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