Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Heresy of Technological Choice

Among the interesting benefits of writing a blog like this, focusing as it does on the end of industrial civilization, are the opportunities it routinely affords for a glimpse at the stranger side of the collective thinking of our time. The last few weeks have been an unusually good source of that experience, as a result of one detail of the Retrotopia narrative I’ve been developing in the posts here.

The detail in question is the system by which residents of my fictional Lakeland Republic choose how much infrastructure they want to have and, not incidentally, to pay for via their local tax revenues. It’s done on a county-by-county basis by majority vote. The more infrastructure you want, the higher your taxes are; the more infrastructure you can do without, the less of your income goes to the county to pay for it. There are five levels, called tiers, and each one has a notional date connected to it: thus tier five has the notional date of 1950, and corresponds to the infrastructure you’d expect to find in a county in the Midwestern states of the US in that year: countywide electrical, telephone, water, and sewer service; roads and related infrastructure throughout the county capable of handling heavy automobile use; and mass transit—specifically, streetcars—in the towns.

The other tiers have less infrastructure, and correspondingly lower taxes. Tier four has a notional date of 1920, tier three of 1890, tier two of 1860, and tier one of 1830. In each case, the infrastructure you’d find in such a county is roughly what you’d find in a midwestern American county in that year. With tier one, your county infrastructure consists of dirt roads and that’s about it. All the other functions of county government exist in tier one, tier five, and everything in between; there are courts, police, social welfare provisions for those who are unable to take care of themselves, and so forth—all the things you would expect to find in any midwestern county in the US at any point between 1830 and 1950. That’s the tier system:  one small detail of the imaginary future I’ve been sketching here.

Before we go on, I’d like my readers to stop and notice that the only things that are subject to the tier system are the elements of local infrastructure that are paid for by local tax revenues. If you live in a county that voted to adopt a certain tier level, that tells you what kind of  infrastructure will be funded by local tax revenues, and therefore what the tax bills are going to be like. That’s all it tells you. In particular, the tier system doesn’t apply to privately owned infrastructure—for example, railroads in the Lakeland Republic are privately owned, and so every county, whatever its tier, has train stations in any town where paying passengers and freight may be found in sufficient quantity to make it worth a railroad’s while to stop there.

The tier system also, and crucially, doesn’t determine what kind of technology the residents can use. If you live in a tier one county, you can use all the electrical appliances you can afford to buy, as long as you generate the electricity yourself. Some technologies that are completely dependent on public infrastructure aren’t going to work in a low tier county—for example, without paved roads, gas stations, huge government subsidies for petroleum production, military bases all over the Middle East, and a great deal more, cars aren’t much more than oversized paperweights—but that’s built into the technology in question, not any fault of the tier system. Furthermore, the tier system doesn’t determine social customs and mores.  If you live in a tier four county, for example, no law requires you to dress in a zoot suit or a flapper dress, drink bootleg liquor, and say things like “Hubba hubba” and “Twenty-three skidoo!” This may seem obvious, but trust me, it’s apparently far from obvious to a certain portion of my readers.

I can say this because, ever since the tier system first got mentioned in the narrative, I’ve fielded a steady stream of comments from people who wanted to object to the tier system because it forcibly deprives people of access to technology. I had one reader insist that the tier system would keep farmers in tier one counties from using plastic sheeting for hoop houses, for example, and another who compared the system to the arrangements in former Eastern Bloc nations, where the Communist Party imposed rigid restrictions on what technologies people could have. The mere facts that plastic sheeting for hoop houses isn’t infrastructure paid for by tax revenues, and that the tier system doesn’t impose rigid restrictions on anybody—on the contrary, it allows the voters in each county to choose for themselves how much infrastructure they’re going to pay for—somehow never found their way into the resulting diatribes.

What made all this even more fascinating to me is that no matter how often I addressed the points in question, and pointed out that the tier system just allows local voters to choose what infrastructure gets paid for their by tax money, a certain fraction of readers just kept rabbiting on endlessly along the same lines. It wasn’t that they were disagreeing with what I was saying. It’s that they were acting as though I had never said anything to address the subject at all, even when I addressed it to their faces, and nothing I or anyone else could say was able to break through their conviction that in imagining the tier system, I must be talking about some way to deprive people of technology by main force.

It was after the third or fourth round of comments along these lines, I think it was, that a sudden sense of deja vu reminded me that I’d seen this same sort of curiously detached paralogic before.

Longtime readers of this blog will remember how, some years ago, I pointed out in passing that the survival of the internet in the deindustrial age didn’t depend on whether there was some technically feasible way to run an internet in times of energy and resource limits, much less on how neat we think the internet is today. Rather, I suggested, its survival in the future would depend on whether it could make enough money to cover its operating and maintenance costs, and on whether it could successfully keep on outcompeting less complex and expensive ways of providing the same services to its users. That post got a flurry of responses from the geekoisie, all of whom wanted to talk exclusively about whether there was some technically feasible way to run the internet in a deindustrial world, and oh, yes, how incredibly neat the internet supposedly is.

What’s more, when I pointed out that they weren’t discussing the issues I had raised, they didn’t argue with me or try to make an opposing case.  They just kept on talking more and more loudly about the  technical feasibility of various gimmicks for a deindustrial internet, and by the way, did we mention yet how unbelievably neat the internet is? It was frankly rather weird, and I don’t mean that in a good way.  It felt at times as though I’d somehow managed to hit the off switch on a dozen or so intellects, leaving their empty husks to lurch mindlessly through a series of animatronic talking points with all the persistence and irrelevance of broken records.

It took a while for me to realize that the people who were engaged in this bizarre sort of nonresponse understood perfectly well what I was talking about. They knew at least as well as I did that the internet is the most gargantuan technostructure in the history of our species, a vast, sprawling, unimaginably costly, and hopelessly unsustainable energy- and resource-devouring behemoth that survives only because a significant fraction of the world’s total economic activity goes directly and indirectly toward its upkeep. They knew about the slave-worked open pit mines, the vast grim factories run by sweatshop labor, and the countless belching smokestacks that feed its ravenous appetite for hardware and power; they also know about the constellations of data centers scattered across the world that keep it running, each of which uses as much energy as a small city, and each of which has to have one semi-truck after another pull up to the loading dock every single day to offload pallets of brand new hard drives and other hardware, in order to replace those that will burn out the next day.

They knew all this, and they knew, or at least suspected, just how little of it will be viable in a future of harsh energy and resource constraints.  They simply didn’t want to think about that, much less talk about it, and so they babbled endlessly about other things in a frantic attempt to drown out a subject they couldn’t bear to hear discussed openly.

I’m pretty sure that this is what’s going on in the present case, too, and an interesting set of news stories from earlier this year points up the unspoken logic behind it.

Port Townsend is a pleasant little town in Washington State, perched on a bluff above the western shores of Puget Sound. Due to the vagaries of the regional economy, it basically got bypassed by the twentieth century, and much of the housing stock dates from the Victorian era. It so happens that one couple who live there find Victorian technology, clothing, and personal habits more to their taste than the current fashions in these things, and they live, as thoroughly as they can, a Victorian lifestyle. The wife of the couple, Sarah Chrisman, recently wrote a book about her experiences, and got her canonical fifteen minutes of fame on the internet and the media as a result.

You might think, dear reader, that the people of Port Townsend would treat this as merely a harmless eccentricity, or even find it pleasantly amusing to have a couple in Victorian cycling clothes riding their penny-farthing bicycles on the city streets. To some extent, you’d be right, but it’s the exceptions that I want to discuss here. Ever since they adopted their Victorian lifestyle, the Chrismans have been on the receiving end of constant harassment by people who find their presence in the community intolerable. The shouted insults, the in-your-face confrontations, the death threats—they’ve seen it all. What’s more, the appearance of Sarah Chrisman’s book and various online articles related to it fielded, in response, an impressive flurry of spluttering online denunciations, which insisted among other things that the fact that she prefers to wear long skirts and corsets somehow makes her personally responsible for all the sins that have ever been imputed to the Victorian era.

Why? Why the fury, the brutality, and the frankly irrational denunciations directed at a couple whose lifestyle choices have got to count well up there among the world’s most harmless hobbies?

The reason’s actually very simple. Sarah Chrisman and her husband have transgressed one of the modern world’s most rigidly enforced taboos. They’ve shown in the most irrefutable way, by personal example, that the technologies each of us use in our own lives are a matter of individual choice.

You’re not supposed to say that in today’s world. You’re not even supposed to think it. You’re allowed, at most, to talk nostalgically about how much more pleasant it must have been not to be constantly harassed and annoyed by the current round of officially prescribed technologies, and squashed into the Procrustean bed of the narrow range of acceptable lifestyles that go with them. Even that’s risky in many circles these days, and risks fielding a diatribe from somebody who just has to tell you, at great length and with obvious irritation, all about the horrible things you’d supposedly suffer if you didn’t have the current round of officially prescribed technologies constantly harassing and annoying you.

The nostalgia in question doesn’t have to be oriented toward the past. I long ago lost track of the number of people I’ve heard talk nostalgically about what I tend to call the Ecotopian future, the default vision of a green tomorrow that infests most minds on the leftward end of things. Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last forty years, you already know every detail of the Ecotopian future.  It’s the place where wind turbines and solar panels power everything, everyone commutes by bicycle from their earth-sheltered suburban homes to their LEED-certified urban workplaces, everything is recycled, and social problems have all been solved because everybody, without exception, has come to embrace the ideas and attitudes currently found among upper-middle-class San Francisco liberals.

It’s far from rare, at sustainability-oriented events, to hear well-to-do attendees waxing rhapsodically about how great life will be when the Ecotopian future arrives. If you encounter someone engaging in that sort of nostalgic exercise, and are minded to be cruel, ask the person who’s doing it whether he (it’s usually a man) bicycles to work, and if not, why not. Odds are you’ll get to hear any number of frantic excuses to explain why the lifestyle that everyone’s going to love in the Ecotopian future is one that he can’t possibly embrace today. If you want a look behind the excuses and evasions, ask him how he got to the sustainability-oriented event you’re attending. Odds are that he drove his SUV, in which there were no other passengers, and if you press him about that you can expect to see the dark heart of privilege and rage that underlies his enthusiastic praise of an imaginary lifestyle that he would never, not even for a moment, dream of adopting himself.

I wish I were joking about the rage. It so happens that I don’t have a car, a television, or a cell phone, and I have zero interest in ever having any of these things. My defection from the officially prescribed technologies and the lifestyles that go with them isn’t as immediately obvious as Sarah Chrisman’s, so I don’t take as much day to day harassment as she does. Still, it happens from time to time that somebody wants to know if I’ve seen this or that television program, and in the conversations that unfold from such questions it sometimes comes out that I don’t have a television at all.

Where I now live, in an old red brick mill town in the north central Appalachians, that revelation rarely gets a hostile response, and it’s fairly common for someone else to say, “Good for you,” or something like that. A lot of people here are very poor, and thus have a certain detachment from technologies and lifestyles they know perfectly well they will never be able to afford. Back when I lived in prosperous Left Coast towns, on the other hand, mentioning that I didn’t own a television routinely meant that I’d get to hear a long and patronizing disquisition about how I really ought to run out and buy a TV so I could watch this or that or the other really really wonderful program, in the absence of which my life must be intolerably barren and incomplete.

Any lack of enthusiasm for that sort of disquisition very reliably brought out a variety of furiously angry responses that had precisely nothing to do with the issue at hand, which is that I simply don’t enjoy the activity of watching television. Oh, and it’s not the programming I find unenjoyable—it’s the technology itself; I get bored very quickly with the process of watching little colored images jerking about on a glass screen, no matter what the images happen to be. That’s another taboo, by the way. It’s acceptable in today’s America to grumble about what’s on television, but the technology itself is sacrosanct; you’re not allowed to criticize it, much less to talk about the biases, agendas, and simple annoyances hardwired into television as a technological system. If you try to bring any of that up, people will insist that you’re criticizing the programming; if you correct them, they’ll ignore the correction and keep on talking as though the programs on TV are the only thing under discussion.

A similar issue drives the bizarre paralogic surrounding the nonresponses to the tier system discussed above. The core premises behind the tier system in my narrative are, first, that people can choose the technological infrastructure they have, and have to pay for—and second, that some of them, when they consider the costs and benefits involved, might reasonably decide that an infrastructure of dirt roads and a landscape of self-sufficient farms and small towns is the best option. To a great many people today, that’s heresy of the most unthinkable sort.  The easiest way to deal with the heresy in question, for those who aren’t interested in thinking about it, is to pretend that nothing so shocking has been suggested at all, and force the discussion into some less threatening form as quickly as possible. Redefining it in ways that erase the unbearable idea that technologies can be chosen freely, and just as freely rejected, is quite probably the easiest way to do that.

I’d encourage those of my readers who aren’t blinded by the terror of intellectual heresy to think, and think hard, about the taboo against technological choice—the insistence that you cannot, may not, and must not make your own choices when it comes to whatever the latest technological fad happens to be, but must do as you’re told and accept whatever technology the consumer society hands you, no matter how dysfunctional, harmful, or boring it turns out to be. That taboo is very deeply ingrained, far more potent than the handful of relatively weak taboos our society still applies to such things as sexuality, and most of the people you know obey it so unthinkingly that they never even notice how it shapes their behavior. You may not notice how it shapes your behavior, for that matter; the best way to find out is to pick a technology that annoys, harms, or bores you, but that you use anyway, and get rid of it.

Those who take that unthinkable step, and embrace the heresy of technological choice, are part of the wave of the future. In a world of declining resource availability, unraveling economic systems, and destabilizing environments, Sarah Chrisman and the many other people who make similar choices—there are quite a few of them these days, and more of them with each year that passes—are making a wise choice. By taking up technologies and lifeways from less extravagant eras, they’re decreasing their environmental footprints and their vulnerability to faltering global technostructures, and they’re also contributing to one of the crucial tasks of our age: the rediscovery of ways of being human that don’t depend on hopelessly unsustainable levels of resource and energy consumption.

The heresy of technological choice is a door. Beyond it lies an unexplored landscape of possibilities for the future—possibilities that very few people have even begun to imagine yet. My Retrotopia narrative is meant to glance over a very small part of that landscape. If some of the terrain it’s examined so far has been threatening enough to send some of its readers fleeing into a familiar sort of paralogic, then I’m confident that it’s doing the job I hoped it would do.


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Schoolteacher24 said...

I read your topic with amusement and a smile. I am a public school teacher, and any attempt to point out the limitations of technology when teaching basic literacy and math skills to 11 year-olds is met with shocked contempt. The money spent on technology is usually wasted, since there are insufficient funds for maintenance,updating, and replacement of computers, iPads, laptops, etc. Much of the technology becomes unused "junk" in a very short period of time. Despite this, the mantra of "more computers" is repeated with religious fervor. My students prefer paper and pencil math and reading tests, by the way, and Swedish research supports the observation that students score higher on physical, not virtual, tests. Thanks for the weekly posts.

Eric Backos said...

Dear Mr. Greer, Your Grace, &c.
Cleveland, Ohio: The weekly joint meeting of the Green Wizards’ Benevolent and Protective Association, Tower Number 440, and Ruinmen’s Guild, Local 440 is posted on under the MeetUps forum. Splendorem Lucis Viridis! Public Welcome! Tables for Failed Scholars. (Look for the table topper with the green wizard hat.)
Faithfully yours
Tower 440

Eric Backos said...

What a relief this week’s ADR is! I’ve been noticing increased hostility towards my paperbacks lately. A passing acquaintance examined my copy of Collapsing Consciously, handed it back like a dead chipmunk, and demanded, “Why are you reading that?”
It isn’t just me.
Is anyone else having similar encounters?

Shane Wilson said...

I wanted to share my own "me too" moments. I know of an Eco type who has a huge carbon footprint, always driving or jetting off to some sustainability conference/gathering, and another who dares to call herself an environmentalist who is always behind the wheel going somewhere, but I've never had the chutzpah to confront them on their hypocrisy. I've also experienced subtle rage/ passive aggression over cancelling Facebook and not using any social media, not to mention TV. I've had someone actually plop down a laptop running reruns of the Office in my lap so I could connect with his interest.

Leif Christensen said...

It hardly needs saying that our options for technology in the future will be much more limited than they are today. On one hand, it makes sense to use high-tech options to make the most of our relatively peaceful time now. Doing so allows us to do more preparation than we could do without technological help, and the more we can prepare ourselves the better. When things get sporty, we want our greenhouses to already be built.

On the other hand, it is wise to practice the song you want to play. If we don't practice being free from high-tech crutches now, the benefits we gain by using high-tech to prepare now would be lost by our inability to operate in a new environment. Both using high-tech options and living without them come with opportunity costs.

I would be very interested to know which side of the opportunity cost see-saw our gracious host prefers.

Thank you for your consistently fine writing,
Leif Christensen

Tony said...

I'm off topic here, JMG, but I saw something this week that I just HAD to point you in the direction of.

A while back you ran a series of posts about what you described the waning religious sensibility of our age, the notion that humans *deserve better* than this world and can escape it, and its connection to the mythology of progress and the notion of history as a one way march from the caves to the stars so we don't have to be forever 'stuck on this rock'. You also talked about science fiction authors who regard themseles as some kind of advanced scout for the March of Man's conquest of Nature.

At least one prominent science fiction author has seen this for what it is, and is no longer having it.

Kim Stanley Robinson, well known for a trilogy of books detailing the settlement and terraforming of Mars in Earth's image he wrote in the early nineties, has come out with a new novel, Aurora, detailing 200 years of a FAILED human colonization attempt of the Tau Ceti system. The vast colony ship's biosphere is horrifically unstable, a trillionth the size of the Earth's and lacking in homeostasis, and they fail their terraforming due to the sheer cussedness of the whole systems involved and the comparatively (on the scale of the cosmos) exacting requirements of human life. The survivors of the attempt desperately trek back to Earth in defeat, calling their ancestors who set out on this quest "criminally negligent narcissists." To quote a review (

“The problems that Robinson's characters experience in their interspatial adventures are contrived, of course. As with all lifeboat stories, the crisis of the lifeboat is created by the author's invisible hands, off-stage, arranging the scenery to contrive the emergency. But what Robinson's furtive scenery-arranging points out is that the easy times all our other science fiction stories have given to their colonists were every bit as contrived. By pointing out an alternative, in the same engineering/troubleshooting frame as those other stories, Robinson points out that what we'd taken for an obvious and natural axiom was actually a militant position about the universe's willingness to be colonized, despite the Fermi Paradox, a position so dominant in sf that it was nearly impossible to notice that it even was a position, as opposed to a law of nature.”

What's more, the author has gone and written a whole nonfiction article on this notion in which he tries to provide a reality check for those who take the scifi gospel too literally, calling the notion of interstellar colonization fantasy while arguing that there is still a place for these stories. What got me was the following quotes (from

“This conclusion, startling to some, obvious to others, has ramifications that are worth pondering. If it comes to be a generally agreed on view, it might change how we act as individuals and a civilization...”

“There is no Planet B! Earth is our only possible home! Oh no! But wait: why is that so bad? Here everyone has to answer for themselves. I’m saying it’s not bad at all; it just is, and it can be regarded as a good thing. And good or bad, it just is. That’s reality. We are not gods, and anyone who thinks of science as a magic wand, or even as a verb, is making a mistake”

-Tony B

Bruno Bolzon said...

JMG, every now and then I find myself thinking about how I used to do some things. I'm young (29), so there's not that much to remember, but I can see some differences already. I remember a time when I used to find my way in a city without a gps. Or a time when I did not had a smartphone. It's not viable for me to dump the car or the smartphone, not yet anyways, but the TV, well, I got rid of that a few years ago already. That was circumstantial, however;I haven't devised a way yet to rehab myself from technology. When it gets embedded in one's life, it's hard to get rid of it. I fear it might have to be pried from my cold, dead hands. May I ask you for advice on that matter?

Bruce E said...

So I'm sitting here reading and responding to your post on a tablet while a book I should be reading waits patiently on the table not two feet away.

On the surface I'm nodding my head in agreement, but of course someone in the background of my not so singular mind is starting to rabble-rouse the crowded and distracting chorus of thoughts with, "I wonder if something like a text-only blogosphere might persist in this post-industrial future of ours..." and I'm off to the races. The memory and processing power required is a pittance; surely that could survive in a resource constrained world... I could build an exercise bike generator to power my fair share of the electricity required. It would be grand!

Then Glaucon of Plato's Republic erupts with, "and what sort of fodder will you feed this city of pigs, Socrates?" "What would you have them eat?" "Oh, the usual. Text-only is nothing without the ability to post pictures to highlight your point..." And of course the pics become gifs, and the gifs become cat videos, and eventually of course we get to the absolute necessity and even sanctity of binge-watching the entirety of the Breaking Bad series streaming it on-demand as a way to spend a holiday weekend. Glaucon once again derails a promising internal discussion of what we might be able to build in a sustainable way and instead we get another lesson in the origins of injustice.

The internal conversation I had while reading your post was almost loud enough to drown out your observation that these technologies are a choice I keep making, and not something I need to embrace to keep my job or my wife or a roof over my head. So in that sense it was a success.

You can thank Glaucon for keeping my rage at bay. ;-)

Vesta said...

People are also decreasingly detached from real physical social groups, settling instead for TV and "social" media to satisfy their need for companionship. Foregoing the gateway gadgets that enable this feels like losing friends, which few people do by choice.

FiftyNiner said...

I haven't posted for some weeks, but I have been amused and perplexed at the confusion that the tier system created for so many. Your summary of the strains of "thinking?" and emotion that feed into this inability or unwillingness to understand helped me to see more clearly aspects of the societal forces that demand conformity in ways we are not always aware. I, too, have no cell phone and no television; but we have to have a vehicle because of where we live. (I've gotten it down to a single fill up per month for which I am pleased!)
Along this line of level of services provided in a particular county, I have noticed just this year that there seems to be a significant change in the offing for our unpaved road. Normally the road is graded at least every six weeks or so and the right-of-way is cleared of overgrowth at least by late winter or early spring. This year, however, the road has been graded only about half as much and the debris clearing is still undone here in late fall. Of course, this has been an exceptionally wet year and in heavy rains our sandy road will have four or five wash-outs between my house and the mile distance to the highway.
I have a neighbor who has a logging company and he sometimes takes his tractor with a blade and levels the washouts when he knows the county is not going to get around to it. My intention is to talk to the county engineer about the situation, but I know before I ask that the problem is money. The county can no longer afford to do what they did in the past with the funds they have. The voters here have resisted every attempt to raise revenue for at least the last quarter century.
I can see in the future my county having a return to the "corvee" system just to help maintain the infrastructure! But the question then becomes, will it be choice consciously made, or will circumstances dictate the outcome?

Shane Wilson said...

what if we WANT to wear zoot suits and drink bootleg liquor? :)
I remember when growing up in the late 70s-80s when not having/watching TV and reading was still considered a mark of intellectual superiority, and when teachers still had posters in their classrooms exhorting people to unplug or get rid of their television. Sigh

Repent said...

Excellent essay as always. In a comment I made to you last summer about the problem of 'authentic living', you responded back to me: 'what's keeping you from having authentic experiences yourself?' This was a reality check for me. Since then I've taken my kids out to the park just to toss a Frisbee around, started reading more, going to movies less, doing things I actually want to spend my time doing and life has changed for me. Thank you!

One of my hobbies is a recreational interest in non-violent video games. Just sitting a playing scrabble with a stranger over the internet can be more fun than one would think, and you can build social connections with regular players. One video game I rushed out to buy, Simcity 2015, was an example of just how awful the newest and latest technology can be. The video game is extremely difficult and complex to play, to the extent that they have 50, 30 minute tutorial videos on how to play the game. That's 25 hours of detailed, step by step explanations, just on how to play a supposedly recreational game. (I didn't have 25 hours to waste, so I've never watched the videos and I just jumped in)

The game is awful, the only way to win is to turn off essentially all public services, water, education, hospitals, ect and let the market run itself by fiddling with the marginal tax rates. I gave up on it, after much frustration, but not after going online and watching how other people have vented on it as well:

The fellow in the video above must weigh over 300 lbs, and although he says that he's just pretending, I've never seen anyone get this seething mad about a video game ever. This person has spent hours, and hours trying to coordinate the traffic lights in the video game to ensure smooth traffic flow, for the fictional cars, in the fictional city. Despite the claims in the tutorial videos that this is actually possible, he's been driven to rage by the programming. (It's an awful game, full of all of the fictional garbage atomizers, and wave powered vaporware, that you've spoken about in your essay) A quick view of any one of the tutorials and anyone can see the visual representation of the ecotopia that never arrived that you spoke about in detail.

If people can get this mad about a fictional video game, what happens when fresh food is no longer available during a famine year? My grandfather (passed) once told me they never plowed the out of town highways for snow during the winter until the mid-fifties, so when winter came you were in your town until spring arrived. Now people rage for a 12 hour delay to clear the highways of snow, wait till that service goes away. The video above has 770,000 views- this worries me.

Mark Hines said...

john, Thanks for this weeks post and explanation. I guess i was one of those who understood the tier system almost immediately. To me it wasnt strange that people could adopt a certain technology without adopting the cultural part.
Your comment about Sarah Chrisman and Port Townsend struck close to home. my family and I live in Sequim which is about 30 or 40 miles west of Port Townsend. I thought their lifestyle choice made sense and I was really angry when I heard her write about the abuses her and her husband got when they went out. I particulary remembere her saying that they went to a civil war renenactment that we have here every year, and she and her husband were sitting quietly in the shade of a tree by their bikes having lunch. People naturally came up and started asking questions which they dont mind at all. The one woman reached for Sarahs dress to lift it to see what she was wearing underneath. Of course this is inappropriate for any occasion, but Sarah slapped her hand away and said loudly "dont touch." The lady complained to the event organizer who came and questioned her as to why she didnt let the lady see her underwear. I guess they must have thought that they were part of the reenactment and thought nothing of the behaviour. I believe they were asked to leave.
So, people also can get rude with anyone who is different than them. When people hear that I dont have a cellphone they get a strange look on their face and ask, How do you keep in touch with other people. I say, land line phone, letters, face to face.
Keep up the good work, am enjoying the posts and the story.

Edward said...

You remind me of a debate I had many moons ago when crude was past the $120 mark where I opinionated to someone that if the price continued to rise, the other commenter may have to think about re-arranging his home/work scenario where he and his wife drive many kilometres each day in opposite directions.

The response was a very vicious ad-hominem where my opinion was entirely dismissed on the basis of my apparent age. The fact that he might not be able to afford it was not even addressed. Your post is a wonderful exposition of the phenomenon.

I suspect the running commentary about keeping the Internet alive has less to do with how wonderful it is, and various IT workers (myself included!) struggling with the cognitive dissonance of what to do if/when their job disappears.

Dean Smith said...


I recently saw something at work that I believe illustrates some of the points of this week’s post. About two weeks ago some of my coworkers were planning a “1960’s” party at one of their perspective apartments. Being one of the older people there, they were asking me for some advice. I was born in the 70s, but most of my coworkers are very young and see me as an old dude. I explained that even though I wasn’t even alive in the 60’s, I would give them a few tips. After suggesting some food items they might like from remembering some of my grandparents old cookbooks, I suggested they do away with all technology not around in that time frame. It got dead quite, and the look on everyone of their faces looked like someone had just had broke wind and they were getting the first whiff. After about five seconds of that I was asked, “What do you mean? putting our cell phones on vibrate? I told them, “No, like get a big bucket, put the cell phones of the attendees in it and throw it in a closet until every one leaves.” More deathly quiet. They then proceeded to ask how they were going to do several things (pictures, music, etc) without their cell phones. I described several ways it could be done. Such as for the music, I have an old AM/FM radio / record player they could borrow (with records!), and explained to them that even though disposable film cameras probably aren’t age appropriate, they are keeping in the spirit of the event, are still rather easy to get if you look a little, and waiting for the film to be developed to see the pictures makes seeing them that much more fun. After more silence, and now having a look on their faces like they were standing next to an open sewer, they all left to talk about it elsewhere.
I looked at pictures of their event the following week (on their cell phones) and quietly shook my head laughing to myself. I was puzzled by the absolute disgust and discomfort they felt, and absolute refusal to consider the ideas I was proposing.

Robert Mathiesen said...

I haven't watched any TV at all since about 1985, and very little from 1960 to 1985. When I let people know this, I get the same responses you do, JMG. The most striking feature of their responses, to my eyes, is the enormous effort they make to persuade me to watch some particular favorite program of theirs, which they say I will surely like, even if I do not like any other programs.

Sometimes I try to explain my avoidance of TV a little more fully to them. I say that, after so many decades without TV, I find it almost physically painful to be within sight and sound of a working TV, even if I can't see any images on the screen or make out any words. I have become allergic, it seems, to the characteristic TV rhythms of brighter and dimmer light, of louder and softer sound: they make me feel queasy and vertiginous. I need to be far enough away from any working TV that I cannot sense these rhythms, or can at least shut them out of my sensorium. Airports, for instance, have become intolerable for me because of the TVs in the waiting areas. This explanation simply "does not compute" for these people. It is not that they doubt my own truthfulness. Rather, they seem literally unable to wrap their minds around the possibility: it "does not compute" for them. Occasionally they even become angry and break off all acquaintance with me. The last angry words hurled at me by one such person were, "If you don't watch TV, what do you do? Live in a dream world?"

All this most closely resembles, to my mind, the behavior of an addict pushing his favorite drug on everyone in his circle of friends. I have come to suspect that TV is itself a highly addictive electronic medium, quite apart from the content of its programs. And the same may well be true of on-line internet use as well, though the neurological mechanisms it relies on are somewhat different from those activated by TV. Electronic drugs, anyone?

Denis Landry said...

I used to work as maintenance technologist at a company called Devtek-heroux, makers of aircraft landing gear and of Lunar landing fame ,the Legs of the lunar lander.
I was caught in a conversation about which 'THE SPACE AGE' was not possible without 'THE COMPUTER'...
To which i beg to differ and point to the fact that, at the time digital calculators, their name at the time, where bulky tempermental type of affair. unsuitable to weight conscious space traveller. That in fact in the fifties, sixties even early in the seventies, Aerospace was the domain of the slide rule.
Everything major, in fact anything at all requiring calculation was done by hand aided by the slide rule, the trusty sidekick of engineer of the era.
That the Saturn, the soyuz even the Sr-71 the fastest manned aircraft to date were built to spec calculated by hand and slide rule...
Now, the long face i got is straight out of 'medieval paysan being told that god and its angel are not there anymore'.
I am a long time reader of your blog, and i find you are like a lighthouse keeper in the closing night.

TJ said...

Thank you JMG for another timely article. I've been putting a lot of consideration into my internet usage lately. Not just the mindless checking of news, sports, and gossip as well as watching TV shows - none of which can be rationally defended - but also my use of the internet for excessive research on topics (even ones on sustainability).

I'm not prepared to give up the internet as a whole, but I think I should probably get rid of my laptop and only have a desktop that stays at a desk so that I use it only when it makes sense, and not just as a time filler anytime I feel like sitting down on the couch. In reality, this is as easy as just taking a few minutes to list my precious Macbook on Craigslist, but yet I'm afraid of the life behind that decision (and this is from someone that hasn't a car in 5 years). After that, the smartphone needs to go.

"They’ve shown in the most irrefutable way, by personal example, that the technologies each of us use in our own lives are a matter of individual choice."

This is a quote I'm writing down, and I'm not removing it until I pull the trigger and get rid of my laptop.

Doctor Westchester said...


If I remember right, choosing what technologies one should use is a core tenement of Amish communities, with different communities making different choices. Not all such communities reject electricity completely for example. It all depends on how they feel a particular technology fits with their needs.

As you say in this essay, this is a concept that it would be wise for us all to consider.

9anda1f said...

Great post! I read Harlan Ellison's "The Glass Teat" back in the early 70's and have shunned the tv ever since. How much time and mental space have I "gained" by this choice?
I often found a different response when questioned by co-workers about the show they had watched the previous evening (each in their separate homes, mute and alone on the couch next to their spouses) and were discussing at length over coffee (or sodas!). In response to my, "well, I haven't had a tv for nearly 40 years", there arose a chorus of "oh, well we only watch *some* shows, mostly educational stuff" when in fact they had been discussing the latest sitcom or reality programming! Pure denial of the fact that they sat there day after day talking about the tv each had watched the evening prior (or what gadget was currently available at Costco). Their minds and social interactions were greatly guided by what they watched on the tube.

Mitzi said...

I made a comment to a dental hygienist once that I never drank soda. She paused a moment and said, "___ at the desk has been told she can't drink soda anymore for medical reasons. Can you imagine life without soda?"
You put this so well- life without soda or TV or a car is simply unimaginable to them. Taboo. But then someone they consider "smart" thinks it FUN to live this way. If we sit and talk, they start to realize that, as my husband says, there is a strange freedom in not driving, in not embracing a modern enslaving convenience, in not choosing the self-destructive addictions of the modern age.
Thank you. I wish I could move to Tier One.

Island Poet said...

One of the catch phrases I recall from the 70's was Voluntary Simplicity. It started out pretty much as what you describe; CHOOSING what technologies you use, with the understanding that when you choose to participate in any system, you are de facto supporting it. Unfortunately, Voluntary Simplicity became trivialized during the Greed-is-Good 80's to the point where it now means Dwell magazine, Ikea furniture and "cruelty-free" soap. There was a moment there, in the early 70's when we might have turned the course of culture around but we missed it and now the only option is damage control. What, if anything, can be saved of the genuinely worthy ideas and knowledge so laboriously gathered? I think in particular of books like Euclid's Elements and the rationality it can grow in fertile minds. I fear that rationality never did guide very many of this planet's humans and in the future, even those few will become suspect in the Great Rage to come. ISIS is just a taste of the insanity we can reasonably expect... The burning of the Great Library of Alexandria will be a bonfire in comparison. Much will undoubtedly be lost but perhaps, if we act now, something of this heritage can be saved?

sgage said...

The rage, the puzzlement, the confusion that one encounters when one freely and happily chooses NOT to buy into the techno-juggernaut is quite common. I encounter it in my own family regularly. You have caught the essence of the thing perfectly in this essay, as far as my experience goes.

dermot said...


"It felt at times as though I’d somehow managed to hit the off switch on a dozen or so intellects, leaving their empty husks to lurch mindlessly through a series of animatronic talking points with all the persistence and irrelevance of broken records." UNQUOTE

Reminded me of this wonderful passage in 'Coming up for Air', by Orwell, in which he describes an uncannily similar persona, the old public schoolboy 'Porteous'.

“Perhaps a man really dies when his brain stops, when he loses the power to take in a new idea. Old Porteous is like that. Wonderfully learned, wonderfully good taste - but he's not capable of change. Just says the same things and thinks the same thoughts over and over again. There are a lot of people like that. Dead minds, stopped inside. Just keep moving backwards and forwards on the same little track, getting fainter all the time, like ghosts.” UNQUOTE

Every time there's an article about the water crisis, you can count on a small cohort of techno-Porteouses to erupt, hammering on about 'Desalinization plants powered by Thorium Reactors', or similar drivel. If this particular brain-trust ever gets their utopia, they'll cover every last beach on Earth with reactors (with the rising oceans, what could possibly go wrong?)

I love the observation that people correlate a backwards move in tech with an equivalent backward move in social values. It's mind-boggling that intelligent people can believe this without question; a simple survey of other cultures is enough to falsify this (Irish brehon law, for example, in the Celtic period, had far greater rights for women than other cultures at a similar level, and there are hi-tech societies with very different gender roles, etc etc).

But pointing this out, it seems, amounts to Heresy against Progress.

Note also the similarity of the 'Porteus Society for Internet Preservation' (PSIP) to a certain stripe of commenter on, who could relied on to 'solve' the peak oil / energy crisis with we-power. "If we build X then our capacity will increase and we will be able to blah blah our blah blah we blah blah we our blah etc....."

Who this wonderful "we" is exactly, is never explained.

Nathan A said...

I think some of what drives people's criticism and denunciation might be unwelcome pangs of guilt, when someone who takes this sort of stand makes them feel hypocritical. I'm reminded of Terry Pratchett's words:
"You had to hope that when push came to shove you’d act the right way. But there was something slightly creepy about someone who didn’t just believe it, but lived their life by it. It was as unnerving as meeting a really poor priest."

For some, it may also be due to exposure to technology rejecters who, unfortunately, come across as judgemental and moralistic. Personally, I enjoy some TV programmes, though I respect others who choose not to have one. Once, at a gathering of people who would consider themselves progressive, I was so entertained by the antics of some young children that I made what I thought was a fun general statement, "Who needs TV when you have this to watch!" The immediate, rather terse response from one of the adult attendees was, "Who needs TV." This was followed by general noises of agreement. I was left feeling like the idiot.

Ozark Chinquapin said...

I think there are plenty of us who did understand the tier system once you explained it fully, as well as understanding your point about the economics of the internet, but the ones who misinterpret it tend to be louder about their opinions. What I've been thinking about with regards to the tier system is, if its about choice of infrastructure at the county level, why even have a tier system? Wouldn't just having the Lakeland constitution state that decisions about and funding for public infrastructure is paid on at the county level lead to having even more choice? That assumes that the culture has changed regarding technology enough so that many people would rather have a lower level of infrastructure and the lower taxes that go along with it, but acceptance of the tier system requires that too.

Under that system, all of the choices of the tier system would still be available, but there would also be the choice of mixing and matching things from different eras. For instance, a county could decide to have 1860s level of must things, but also maintain telephone service. Or, an otherwise higher tier county could choose not to maintein sewers because people have grown to prefer personal composting toilet and greywater systems. That would provide more choice and flexibility than setting tiers tying the levels of all the various infrastructure to particular days in the past.

In addition, I think this simpler relocalization would be more politically feasible. There's little chance of people interpreting it as an oppressive government forcing them into something. After your future civil wars, I'm thinking people will be pretty suspicious of anything like that. Since just keeping infrastructure decisions at the local level could bring about the same choices and greater flexibility, I just don't ase why the tiers are necessary.

Jason Fligger said...

I have been enjoying your posts for the past few weeks. I am often frustrated by not being able to live in such a rational place as the lakeland republic. I find myself wondering when we will make a transition to a more rational existence. I guess your point is that we can choose to create our own lakeland republic right now.

Alex said...

This is one of your best posts and that's saying something.

Modern internet makes cuneiform seem easy breezy. I won't shed a tear when, a decade from now, the internet is too expensive and too cumbersome for the average person to bother with.

I'm on the fence about a TV. I can buy a decent small flat screen for a coup!e hundred bux and put a wire dipole on the wall, and it can be entertaining to watch while practicing motor ski!!s, whether exercising or p!aying the sax or, I know a guy who trained for his Olympic gold medal in rifle by dry firing to gomer Pyle USMC and the life of Riley.

But I'm pretty big on not using any more electricity than I can avoid, so I'll probably never bother to get one. Radio is good enough for me. I wish radio dramas and comedy shows would come back!

M said...

I actually do commute by bicycle, and do not own a car. It is putting me in a precarious position regarding the type of custody and visitations I can have with my son, due to the fact that, because I can afford a car, it is irresponsible for me not to have one. So far I am making out okay, but I see it being a real issue if it ever gets before a judge.

I don't have a "smart" phone, and I never will. I have tried to figure out how to rid myself of my basic cell phone, but see above.

The one technology that I would like to give up is the internet. However, I have a website that I blog about my local economy on that I enjoy. And of course I read TAR and a few other worthwhile blogs. But I also watch some mindless crap (you don't have to have a tv any more to watch tv) and I would dearly love to give it up. A couple of friends recently bought a duplicator and I am talking with them about chipping in, so that I can publish my blog as a local broadsheet instead.

But I do wonder--if everyone is eventually headed this way, does it really confer an advantage upon those who voluntarily and today give up technology like, say, the automobile, or the internet, other than being a bit more used to the "hardship" of it? Not that this is why I do it--I find the technology of the automobile as distasteful as you find television. And the internet not far behind.

But still, once everyone is carless, or phoneless, or whateverless--I guess what I am trying to say is that I'm not sure how much of a strategy "Collapse Now and Beat the Rush" really is, in terms of a leg up on survival as we continue on the long descent, or helping my son with his life. To me I suppose it comes down to ethics and morality--how do I choose to think and act as a human being in the world, knowing what I know. But I'm not convinced if, like giving up cigarettes, it will potentially buy me a bit more time on this overheating globe.

Ozark Chinquapin said...

You briefly mentioned plastic for hoophouses in your post. Although I know it was just an example of someone's misinterpretation of the tier system, the sustainability of them is something that's been on my mind for a while now and I hope it's on topic enough to bring it up. Hoophouses and similar structures are being seen more and more now, everything from large high tunnels to small mini-tunnels and plastic cold frames and everything in between. There's no doubt with the current cheap prices of plastic that their return on investment can be quite high in present times. However the lifespan of the plastic tends to be only about eight years. It makes a difference how you treat the plastic, but the fact is that ultraviolet light breaks it down no matter what, and it is a very disposable technology. There's no doubt that plastic hoophouses have helped lots of growers compete in the markets where people want everything at all times, as well as a currently cheap way to extend the harvest for small gardeners. Row covers are a similar matter, not just used to protect plants from the cold but also often to keep bugs off. It also has a short lifespan, and it seems inevitable to me that a time will come when using plastic in these ways becomes expensive and increasingly uneconomical for most purposes. That's something few in the organic growing scene want to think about. I don't have a good idea of the timing of that relative to the general process of decline, as I don't know much about the process of making such plastic sheeting and the feasibility of making it from recycled materials. I'm wondering you're (or anyone else's) thoughts on this matter and hope for a discussion of plastics in general in your Retrotopia story.

Peter VE said...

This brings to mind Sarah York, whose story was recounted on the This American Life radio show. She began writing to Manuel Noriega when she was 10 and he was ruler of Panama. After about a year, he invited her to visit Panama in 1988, as the US government began the drumbeat of accusations regarding all the "evils" of Panama. Upon her return to the US, she was derided in the press for being a willing dupe of Noriega. A year later, we invaded Panama to depose Noriega, ( a longtime CIA asset) for his supposed involvement in the drug trade. After this up close view of the Empire, Sarah wisely decided on a course of retreat and at last report was living off grid in northern Wisconsin with her husband.

J.D. Smith said...

Pursuant to this week's post, a song of recent years I discovered only this week.

ratfink said...

Wow, just wow. I guess I just assiduously avoid those conversations when I have the feeling there would be that kind of reaction. As a counterpoint, one of my daughter's high school English teachers encouraged the class to go without their cell phones for a week and write about the experience. Those who took her up on the offer were generally happily surprised at the amount of interesting observations they were able to come up with. My daughter started looking at other technologies and repeating the same experiment, including other electronics, internal combustion engines, and (less successfully) electric light. Definitely started thinking differently about how the world gets mediated.

Misty Barber said...

During a recent camping trip I noticed my friend's campfire percolator made significantly better coffee than my counter top appliance did using the same grounds. Due, I believe, to a combination of all stainless steel components and having clean equipment for every pot. I replaced my coffee pot with it's simpler and easier to maintain stove top ancestor; out with the new and in with the old!

Bill Blondeau said...

Well, um... Goodness Gracious, to employ an exclamation that won't violate the standards of this community.

I was continually baffled to see week after week of comments that apparently came from a place of having not read any explanation of the tier system whatsoever. After a while it got annoying—The Lakeland Republic is much more interesting than weird disputes about the tier system, which had been well explained.

I nearly posted some WYFP ("What's Your Fracking Problem") responses, but I'm glad I left well enough alone. Partly it was that I had a lot on my plate, but partly I had a dim intuition about this. I felt that, somehow, the persistent refusal to comprehend the tier system was probably important, and that I shouldn't mess with whatever rough beast was slouching along.

I'm glad it went that way. When patently smart people refuse to engage their thought on a subject, it's usually significant. My exasperation, however prettily phrased, would have added nothing to the process of observation that gave rise to this week's post.

Ozark Chinquapin said...

Sarah Chrisman's article and the reactions to it were very interesting. One thing I noticed was that she describes her choices for living the Victorian lifestyle purely as a life that she prefers living to the modern one. I've noticed that going at things from that angle throws people off guard most of all. If someone who goes without technology emphasizing poverty or frugality, they're not questioning the taboo because people assume they would have the technology if they could. Even going without technology for political or religions reasons is breaking the taboo in a milder way. If they had said they were going without modern technology to save the planet or reduce their carbon footprint, even that wouldn't break the taboo as completely because that would not question the idea of modern technology as the only path to the most fulfilling life for everyone. They'd simply be seen as depriving themselves for a cause. The fact that they don't consider living the Victorian lifestyle as depriving themselves but rather as a more fulfilling life seems to be what's gotten all this anger directed at them.

There's a number of common technologies I prefer living without, but one that seems to bring the most incomprehension if it comes up is air conditioning. The fact that I prefer summers without air conditioning in a hot, humid climate seems hard for anyone to understand, including the carbon footprint types. My perspective is, living in the fresh air is more pleasant (as well as healthier) than being stuffed up in a climate controlled artificial atmosphere. The outside temperature doesn't feel nearly as extreme if you adjust to it. It also takes an adjustment in mindset for sure, and heat doesn't sffect everyone equally, but it still has always seemed strange the incomprehension that often results if I share that perspective. There's environmental and monetary benefits to not having A/C also, but emphasizing those will just make others assume I'm engaging in self-deprivation.

Liam B. said...

I've been reading "Antifragile" by Nassim Taleb and some of your points about the inherent fragility of ever more complex technological systems reminded me of the ideas put forward in this book. It is an interesting read so far and something I think others might find enlightening.

I also understand the sometimes hostile, sometimes curious reactions people have when they discover that I don't have certain technologies in my personal life such as a TV or cell phone. Often their initial shock (how can you get along without it?!) turns to wistful longing (I wish I could do the same!). It is even more of a shock to them because I am considered the "go to" person for tech questions and troubleshooting at work. This aptitude is not due to any inherent love for modern technology on my part; mostly this unnecessary complexity tends to irritate me.

Your suggestion to attempt a trial elimination of a given "must have" technology has peaked my interest; specifically my internet surfing habits/addiction. My goal is to use the internet primarily for utilitarian purposes (weather reports, driving directions, etc.) and to avoid using it as a time-waster/entertainment distraction. The challenge is finding that balance and not getting sucked in by the glowing screen.

Unknown said...

I have also noticed, I think more now than in years past, that people display a strange habit of screening out unconventional (that is, unapproved) perspectives from their consciousness and conversation, even when plainly stated and factually unassailable. The topics are innumerable: money is debt created, your tax dollars are killing brown people the world over, animated screens are damaging the brains of little children in profound ways, detaching from technology overload is a health issue..
The responses range from uncomprehending to obtuse or hostile. It's a bit like talking to a flatlander who cannot comprehend he lives on a sphere.

Something to do with authoritarian followers, conformism and inability to think for ones self. I think its getting worse.

Ien in the Kootenays said...

I hear your frustration with people who insist on misreading you, or who insist on misinterpreting a nuanced point of view. I love the idea of the tier system. Brilliant. I must admit I would feel quite at home in Ecotopia, though my hope for such a place is fading. Opting out of T.V. and/or internet is a common and honourable choice here in the Kootenays. I LOVE my internet. Made good friends in cyber space and spend too much time on it. You are right to remind us of its true costs. However, while I live a green and simple life otherwise I will continue to enjoy it while it lasts. Thanks for all you do!

John Michael Greer said...

Schoolteacher, you're welcome and thank you! The fact that your 11 year old students have more of a clue than the school district administration doesn't surprise me in the least.

Eric, thanks for the data point! I really need to write a post, soon, on the increasingly frantic chorus of voices insisting, at the top of their lungs, that everything is all right. It's a harbinger, and not of the imminent arrival of utopia...

Shane, I've seen that sort of thing too, though nobody's had the nerve to plop a laptop in my lap playing a TV program -- I suspect the people I know are well aware of my likely response!

Leif, I disagree that current high-tech options make it easier to prepare for much of anything. The only situations in which that's the case are when lower-tech options have been foreclosed. This blog is a good example; I'd publish it as a column in a weekly newspaper, of the kind that once existed by the thousands in the US, if that were still an option. Aside from that, you're much better off "practicing the song you want to play" -- a fine metaphor, that -- and getting through the learning curve of low-tech living while you still have the chance to do so gradually and relatively safely.

Tony, good heavens. That's really fascinating. I wonder, though, whether he's going to be yelled down by the science fiction community for saying that.

Bruno, the best advice I know of is not to treat "technology" as an all-or-nothing thing. Choose some technology that annoys you, and come up with some other, less energy- and resource-intensive way to do the same thing; then get rid of that specific technology, put the other option in its place, and go on with your life. Later, when the new option has become comfortable and familiar, repeat the process with some other technology, and go from there.

Bruce, good. There will indeed be a text-only blogosphere in the deindustrial future, if a certain relatively simple technology stays in place; it's called a newspaper with a large letters-to-the-editor column, and it can be kept viable if you've got hand-operated printing presses and the ability to make paper out of hemp fiber or some other renewable resource. You can even put in woodcuts of cute kittens if you really want them... ;-)

Vesta, and of course that's also a choice. There are plenty of opportunities to have real social interaction not mediated by glass screens, after all!

Fifty-Niner, I've been hearing that sort of thing more and more often of late. I wonder whether your car will still be of use to you when the road is a rutted dirt lane deeply gouged by unrepaired washouts -- because I suspect that, rather than a corvee system, is the most likely outcome.

Shane, if you want to put on a zoot suit and drink bootleg liquor, by all means! I'd be happier if more people made that choice, or Sarah Chrisman's, or anything at all other than mindless conformity to whatever the big chain stores decree you're supposed to have on your body and in your life this season.

Repent, you're welcome, and thank you -- every single person who turns off the screen and goes out to a park to toss a frisbee with the kids is helping to move things in a better direction. As for video games, I really wonder how long it'll take before the sort of thing you've described causes any significant number of people to shake themselves, turn off the screen, and go do something that actually matters...

Mark, glad to hear that somebody got the tier system on the first reading! I've been to Sequim many times, though it's been a while -- the walk out Dungeness Spit was a fave of mine back in the day.

Edward, that sort of instant fury can be taken as proof that the person you're talking with knows you're right and doesn't want to admit it. Familiar stuff in this line of work...

Sheila Grace said...

I find this post fascinating. When my personal crash happened, instead of staying stuck, I chose to start the journey of self-reflection, then turned an eye towards all that exists around me. It landed me in a very unpopulated area with another INT like-minded & aware person. The journey began with a sort of noise detox, then frenetic detox, followed by consumerism detox. Presently I am lucky enough to be 100% involved in understanding Natural systems & patterns.

As far as this particular culture I see this hidden thread (you describe) everywhere I look, now that I’ve changed perspective. I couldn’t see it before. I struggle to describe it; infantilism, unaccountability vs self-accountability, dependent entitlement, it’s actually incredibly deceptive until I tried it myself – extracting one’s self from the Monster – the Monster being the centralized system.

TV was jettisoned long ago, before we met and its absence has severely reduced the number of potential guests we are likely to get. There is a TV on the property. It sits across from an old recliner on the north end of the property exposed to the elements and seasons. Radio is absent as well. Once immersed in quietude, it didn’t take long to recognize the same message emanates from two different sides of the fence; outraged because we need more of something and outraged because we need less of something. One sells commercial time the other begs for your donations and support to continue ‘great programing’. Both are programming.

None of this is easy. A couple of years back when I opened my eyes and really saw what you’re talking about I noticed the Ithaca farmer’s market gets massive support from locals, the majority of attendees drive to the market, so many in fact there is not enough parking space. My suburban Seattle friends have green this and green that AND drive away from their homes multiple times each and every day either to get to work or to attend a green event or to run a small errand.

The most challenging part about electing to have this life style is the approach, decentralize as much as possible, every subset possible, looking at each and every subset, breaking it down to an energy audit as to what enters the property and what leaves and why – including us. Every item in each subset undergoes scrutiny, is it ‘garbage’ why? Can it be repurposed Why? How? What items are entering the property now that are not helpful? Only then can a person begin to get an inkling of how much ‘stuff’ around you is made by and from petroleum; or extracted, fabricated and delivered by the use of fossil fuels. People are stunned when after the first excitement of seeing the double solar array at the end of the driveway they exclaim ‘this is fantastic, wow how great, we would love solar too because of” (fill in the blank punch words) and our response is actually negative as we explain how much energy is consumed to produce these – so much so – that carbon neutrality is a joke, even in the long run.

It takes time to peel away the layers of so much indoctrination over so many years. Fascinating really and I wouldn’t have it any other way. For now I’m using the web technology and other presently available resources in a very different way; to set up low tech self-functioning systems. It allows me to imagine a very different future in which one day a person or group of persons will stumble on this property and will they find low tech systems set up that continue to provide water, food and shelter?

On a more present note we did a blasphemous thing; withdrew some of the money from the vaporous 401k, paid off the mortgage and acquired tangible objects for collecting water.

Shane Wilson said...

Others have already hit the nail on the head, which is that the thaumaturges behind modern screen technology, be it computer/internet or TV, DESIGN IT TO BE PSYCHOLOGICALLY ADDICTIVE. That's precisely why you get the same reaction you would if you were pointing out a smoker's unhealthy nicotine addiction. It's psychologically addictive, they know it's damaging them, but they can't quit.
Along those lines, does anyone ever notice how positively Stepfordian conversations are among screen addicts? You get the feeling when you're around them and they're engaged in conversation, they're just mouthing one pop culture soundbite after another. It's depressing. You want to shake them and yell, "WHERE IS YOUR SOUL/HUMANITY I KNOW THERE'S A HUMAN IN THERE SOMEWHERE?!?"
Regarding the internet, it's become such a cacophony to be anymore that I don't even think it can be used for much useful research much longer. Everything now online seems saturated with ads and poorly written material that wouldn't have even made it into the National Enquirer 30 years ago. It's getting even harder to wade through the muck online. I've pretty much given up.

John Michael Greer said...

Dean, that's so funny! I sometimes wonder if the rigid unwillingness to do without the phones et al., even for a few hours, comes from the fact that everybody knows they'll have a better time without them, and nobody wants to deal with the implications of that fact.

Robert, I trust when that person made his comment about "living in a dream world," you at least considered saying something along the lines of "No, I'm living in the real world." Of course, if my experience is anything to go by, once you said that, you could count on the person in question never speaking to you again. People are incredibly defensive about that particular addiction.

Denis, thank you. I routinely point out that most of the number crunching that put bootprints on the Moon was done with slide rules. This. Is. Rocket. Science!

TJ, it's challenging, isn't it? Still, it's worth pushing through the reflexive fear; on the other side lies freedom.

Doctor W., and not merely to consider -- to enact.

9anda1f, yes, I've seen the same thing more times than I can remember: people who literally have nothing in their heads that they didn't get from a TV screen, who bleat in chorus, "Oh, we only watch a little educational TV" like a flock of sheep.

Mitzi, you can move to tier one. All you have to do is create it in your own life and your own home, and there you are.

Island Poet, that's been a theme here since the beginning of the blog. You're quite right, of course: a lot is going to be lost in the years ahead. What gets saved depends almost entirely on how many people are willing to take action here and now.

Sgage, I've seen it many times.

Dermot, exactly. Thank you for the reminder about Brehon law; that's an excellent example, and one I'll use in future posts.

Nathan, you may well be right. It's a complex tangle, like most things human.

Ozark, good. Now, keeping in mind that Retrotopia is a work of fiction, and like all utopias, has an instructional agenda, perhaps you can tell me why I chose, in the story, to use something a little more edgy and in-your-face than what you've proposed.

Jason, exactly. That recognition earns you tonight's gold star.

Renaissance Man said...

I think the psychopathy goes deep. People in general place a premium on conformity. Perhaps because North American culture pretends it has no formally-defined boundaries within which people are free to move or press against, people are reluctant to explore, lest they inadvertently stray too far. People cling to the known and secretly despise themselves for their fear and thus angrily resent others who are obviously different.
When I first had to live in suburbia, I found it a very bizarre place. I quickly discovered that everyone is allowed one - but only one - personal quirk to differentiate them from everyone else (and thus 'prove' they are 'individuals'). Thus my uncle was into electronics, but was otherwise indistinguishable. His neighbour's hobby was sailing, so he had a boat. The guy across the street tinkered with his car and had a wall of tools. The guy down the street went camping. And so on. But none of them strayed very far from the normative neatly-mowed lawn, cars in the garage, a few tools, dress & deportment, similar jobs, and selfsame houses.
(I would be remiss if I failed to observe that typically buildings are very similar for any given geographical area and time, e.g. Switzerland, Bavaria, Normandy, or Flanders, but still each period and locality is distinct. 20th Century North America is noteworthy for its lack of local differentiation and general blandness.)
Advertisers harp about 'choice', implying individual preference as paramount, but the manifestly standardized offerings are very limited; politicians and economists abuse the word freedom, glorifying a sacred right to choose, yet permit almost no really distinct alternatives; our educational system is inordinately concerned with inculcating a sense of personal individuality in children, yet even when trying to be non-conformist, membership in any teenage sub-culture typically involves strict dress-codes and uniform attitudes.
I suspect the Chrismans would be perfectly acceptable if they merely collected Victorian artifacts and home décor, rather than live a genuinely alternate lifestyle. The fact that they do undermines the popular delusion of distinctive individuality.
Naturally, I didn't (don't) fit in. I have far too many interests and hobbies to focus on any one and was (am) therefore very much beyond the pale of general acceptability. I've a fascination with history and am always wondering, not whether there is a new (and therefore obviously better) way to do something, but rather, whether an older way of doing something wasn't actually better than the latest fad. Sometimes a new idea is an improvement. Usually, it isn't.
That simple attitude makes me a scarred heretic.

Marcu said...

Thank you for another thought provoking post. This particular issue has been a difficult path for me to navigate. On the one hand I grew up with all these technologies in place and don't know anything else, but on the other hand I know how unsustainable they are. I have undertaken to not replace my current technological trinkets once they finally give in. I had an interesting discussion with a friends the other day about why I still use my 8 year old laptop… Until that fateful day I will just endeavor to be mindful of where, when and how much I use these technologies.


The inaugural meeting of the Green Wizard's Association of Melbourne was a great success. All interested parties are invited to attend the next meeting of the Melbourne Green Wizards’ Benevolent and Protective Association, Tower Number 1223, and Ruinmen’s Guild, Local 1223, (Green Wizard's Association of Melbourne for short, GWAM for shorter) which will be held on the 28th of November 2015 at 13:00.

The venue is Vapiano, 347 Flinders Lane, Melbourne Victoria, Australia.

Please RSVP, or send queries and comments to limitstogrowth1972[at]
Just look for the green wizard's hat.

Zachary Braverman said...

Funny, when I was reading this I started imagining how nice life would be without a cell phone. I like the idea, but thought to myself that, given conditions put upon me by kids and work, it would have to wait. This impulse was automatic and not even very easily recognized.

Then I thought about it some more, and realized that my kids and work will be just fine without a smartphone in my pocket.

Ironic that even while I was consciously agreeing with you, my subconscious was busily subverting the idea that I have any choice in the matter, at least for the forseeable future....

Gary Shannon said...

I have seen that failure to grasp the essence of an argument before in response to my own posts in various forums. I think the reason might be simpler than what you propose. I truly believe that some people read only every third word of a post and fill in the missing 66% of what they "read" with words of their own choosing, and respond to that, rather than what you actually posted. At some, probably unconscious, level they think they already know what your post is going to say and spare themselves the trouble of actually reading all those tedious words.

jbucks said...

I work as a programmer, so I 'should' be someone to tout the benefits of the internet, but many things I've noticed over the years have made me aware of the broader point: that technology only appears cheap because of the energy and labour used to power it, and really the only way to solve the problems which we mistakenly call environmental problems is to stop using technology with high energy costs. It's as simple as that, but a lot of so-called environmentalists don't seem to get this.

John Michael Greer said...

Alex, have you considered getting into local low-power radio, and helping to bring them back? Someone has to make the first step, after all.

M, the advantage that comes from "collapse now and avoid the rush" is that living with less complex technology doesn't come naturally to any of us -- we all have to learn how to do it, and the early part of the learning curve can be very harsh. If you get that out of the way in a controlled fashion now, you'll be in much better shape to weather the inevitable crises ahead, because you won't be fumbling to make an unfamiliar technology work in the teeth of the storm. It's exactly the same reason why you patch your roof before the rains come!

Ozark, I'm pretty sure that plastic row covers will become prohibitively expensive for agricultural use in the decades immediately ahead. Glass cloches and cold frames are far more sustainable, and will likely replace them; I expect Carr to see those when he gets out into the countryside.

Peter, fascinating. I hadn't heard that.

J.D., many thanks for the musical accompaniment!

Ratfink, that teacher deserves a raise, and a medal. I hope your daughter continues to learn from the experience -- and I hope you do, too.

Misty, I very rarely give out two gold stars at a sitting, but I'm going to do that, because you did something that next to nobody in America ever does: you paid attention to your own lived experience when it contradicted the myth of progress, and took action accordingly. Congratulations. You've earned tonight's second gold star, which may be affixed to your new percolator.

Bill, that's a fine exclamation! For what it's worth, it took me a while to see past the irritation and notice the bizarre paralogic behind it.

Ozark, bingo. I suspect you're quite right; it's exactly the fact that they're choosing to use older technologies because they enjoy them more that makes the Chrismans so threatening to other people. As for air conditioning, agreed; I'm far from happy when the weather's hot and humid, but I prefer that to the stifling chilled pseudo-air that comes out of air conditioners.

Liam, one way to take back your time from a technology is to make it inconvenient. In our home we have one computer hooked up to the internet, and it's not the one I use for my writing -- that's an old PC running Windows XP, basically a glorified typewriter not connected to anything. (I'd use a typewriter, but publishers insist on getting manuscripts in Word format these days.) I use the internet computer when and only when I have something to do online, such as fielding comments for a blog post, and when I'm done, I go do something else. It does seem to work!

Unknown, interesting. I wonder if other readers have noticed a worsening.

Ien, I'd get along tolerably well in Ecotopia as well, but I don't see it happening. Retrotopia, on the other hand... ;-)

Sheila, good. That's certainly one option, and an honorable one.

Shane, I know. I listen to people talking these days, and it's brutally clear that in most cases there's not a thing in their heads that wasn't put there by a TV program. One of the reasons I enjoy Freemasonry is that Masons have other things in their heads -- memorizing 19th century rituals will do that for you!

John Michael Greer said...

Renaissance, you may be on to something. The lack of boundaries here in the US may lead people to be even more frightened of lack of conformity than they would be otherwise, because once you stray from the narrow circle of suburban blandness, you might end up anywhere! Hmm...

Marcu, may I make a suggestion? Replace your technologies before they die on you, so you have something else to fall back on. Start taking notes in a paper notebook instead of an electronic one. Start using your land line and an answering machine to field calls instead of automatically giving everyone your cell number. That way, you can make the transition smoothly, and when this or that machine finally dies, it won't be a trauma for you.

Zachary, good. That's how you've been taught to think, or more precisely, not to think. Now push through it and actually, seriously discard a technology, and watch the way your thoughts and emotions respond.

Gary, I suppose that could also be part of it!

Jbucks, you work as a programmer, so you know how computers and the internet actually function. Too many so-called environmentalists have never taken the time to learn a thing about the internet's ecological footprint, and many actively avoid doing so, so they can keep on pretending that it's basically a genie from a lamp.

Glenn said...


Here's a more recent, and slightly more detailed and nuanced article about our local Victorians (we live about 15 miles away). The part with the DeLorean is hilarious.

A bit of clarification. Most of the criticism they've received about not sticking _only_ to Victorian technology has been on line, and is aimed at the fact that they _choose_ which current technologies to use, and which Victorian ones; she expresses a desire for future allopathic medical tech at one point. The local hostility, mostly from women, has been due to precisely the inability to separate the clothing she wears from the mores of a hundred and twenty years ago. My brother has seen her riding a non-penny farthing safety bicycle as far afield as the Deception Pass bridge, in full panoply.

Despite your experiences with "left coast liberals" whom I would describe as middle class progress worshippers, and who exist all over the developed world, there are a fair amount of appropriate tech folks here in Jefferson County and Port Townsend walking their talk. We have plenty of good company.


in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

Mark Rice said...

So the yuppies on the left coast of are less open to someone -- Gasp -- not watching television than the working class people of Cumberland. This reminds me of me in the past.

A long long time ago I grew up in the somewhat more affluent and privileged suburbs of Baltimore. And I had some prejudices to go with a "liberal" upbringing. A friend of mine -- a lesbian was living with her lover in a blue collar neighbourhood of row houses in Baltimore city. It turns out they had very good relationships with their neighbours. I could not wrap my head around this. I thought tolerance was limited to "liberals" with education.

Rob Rhodes said...

I think you have violated the First Law of Progress: Thou Cannot Stop Progress.

A conversation similar to those you've described comes up when one challenges the assertion that all those people in the Third World all want all the cool stuff we have. Describe people in places that are aware of the temptations but are deliberately resisting them to preserve their simple life and the counter is either "They must not be able to afford it." or "Well the guy bringing my drinks at the all inclusive sure did". Point out that no, some are risking their lives to save their culture and/or declining resource revenues that would provide the means and a head is shaken, eyes rolled and the subject changed. Those poor uneducated people just don't understand, "You can't stop Progress".

Perhaps the anger, fear and denial arises because to suggest that progress is a human artifact within human control insinuates that someone has behaved as if helpless when they need not have.

Moondira Magia said...

First time poster. I've been enjoying your articles for ages.

I'm withdrawing from technology more and more, noticing that it's taking away something vital in my life.

I couldn't get a book I wanted on Kindle so had to order a hardcover and I started noticing how wonderful it felt and looked, like a wonderful treasure that I couldn't stop examining and touching for awhile before settling down to read.

Then I watched a series on PBS named Indian Summers that takes place in India during the 1930's, and I was just loving watching them shuffle the papers around and write all the secret and official notes to each other, and then hearing the crackling sound as they folded them neatly to nest in books or desk drawers. I felt like a kid in a chocolate shop longing to touch all that paper. Laughing*

I'm not sure most people I know would understand this, and think me a bit odd if I expressed it.

patriciaormsby said...

Lovely essay, this week, JMG! I'll prod a few more people into having a look, including an activist for the rights of the electrosensitive--people who are aware they are being physically harmed by modern technology. What I expect, though, is for her to ignore this as irrelevant, when nothing could be further from the truth.

I'm beginning to think you are really spot-on with your concept of "the civil religion of Progress." I'm still certain that addictions, both physiological and mental, play into this, but the electrosensitive have been forced to free themselves of any physiological addiction, or else they suffer severe consequences that they cannot ignore. Nevertheless, when I brought up the idea several years ago of a possible future collapse of industrial society, that would solve their biggest concerns overnight, they treated me as invisible. No amount of tugging on their sleeves would get them to acknowledge what I was saying. They would be perfectly right to tell me that we must take steps to combat the problem anyway, because between now and then a lot of mischief is apt to occur, smart meters for one, as the hysterical phase of Lobaczewski's "hysteroidal cycle" comes to visit (and I hope Jean Vivien in Paris is okay). When the electrosensitive speak up on forums that allow it, they usually preface their remarks with, "I'm not a Luddite, but..." I think most of them want a solution that addresses their particular problem, but allows technology to go forward. A large number, including myself, were very much enamored with technology to begin with, and they got burned in this way.

In any case, none of the other factors I've identified in the puzzling persecution of this growing minority really satisfies all of the observations, but merely add to it. So your hypothesis of a "civil religion of Progress" has plenty of evidence to support it from my perspective as well. The aluminum foil in my skullcap is covered with cloth and inserted into a stylish sort of hat, so I avoid most of the trouble suffered by more obvious iconoclasts. When I add a veil in heavily electropolluted places, then most people think I've converted to Islam, and they usually give me no trouble, but some of those who recognize the silver veil will go out of their way to make sure everyone knows I'm crazy. In other words, even the hysteria against Muslims these days is less severe than that against this one particular disabled minority, who have no choice about their condition, but are legally obliged to enter the same buildings and stand in the same lines as everyone else.

ed boyle said...

We have old mobile phones which we use rarely for when someone is on a trip and no smartphones. My wife garden veggies and berries. We never had a car. I have howeverrecently rediscovered popo music on radio. My kids listen to classical music cds, humming along to Mozart. No whatsapp and skype and popmusic and soccer for them. They are out of the loop. Internet means emails from teacher and wikipedia for school research. TV seies were not thei thing as when I grew up. We bought videos with favourite films which they watchedoften and they read dozens of books in 3 languages, from all family's basic attitude corresponds to what you are saying in wll senses. My kids are technofuturists but accept our practical hatred of screen zombiism and modernity in transport. They are atheist whereas I mistrust science, do yoga and tai chi and do horoscopes. PO is for them a red flag to a bull as I have said it since they were small and the world still exists. Generational problem here. My east bloc romanticism is of course due to the fact that in villages some live in a distant past without electricity, during soviet times in big cities cars were a luxury and in small towns in the north a lack of own potato patch meant near starvation in winter. They did not throw things away. A fridge lasted 30 years, radio, TV, car as well. So tech was for a lifetime. There was no cyclical seasonal replacement to please fads and investors. Tech was permanent, like in 19th century, a felt background. The pace of change now is financially forced by markets. Yearly i phone or car model update. People literally live in various such models you have discussed due to lack of roads and infrastructure in middle of nothing there. In Alaska eskimos use satellite tv, smart phones, suv, drugs. It is an American problem, tech obsessed. Russians would take to your idea of tiers like fish to water.

Maxine Rogers said...

Hi John Michael Greer,
We gave up owning a car two and a half years ago. At the time, we were surprised by the agitation of our friends and I, the female in our couple, was singled out as having deprived my husband of his right to a car. We got a lot of negative attention from an older couple who are living on a fixed income.

In the past few months, one of their cars had to be given to a relative. My husband patiently explained the financial benefits of having only one car to the other husband. Our friends are now sharing their car. The man sometimes walks a whole kilometer to the cafe whe he does not have the car!

Other friends of ours have a small truck. They loan it out to members of our informal group of friends. Presents are given and the truck is returned clean and full of fuel. This is all a good thing as everyone needs a truck sometimes but almost no one needs a truck every day.

My husband says it is a good thing we gave up our car because we also live on a fixed income but it would not now cover the expense of owning a vehicle. People have stopped bugging us about our lack of a car. All our friends want to loan us their vehicles. We use one for shopping once a month. They like the presents we give and feel good about helping us be car free. It is like the Russians say, "you can get used to anything."
Max Rogers

patriciaormsby said...

@Robert Mathiesen
Have you heard about electro-hypersensitivity (EHS)? It is an increasingly common condition, and the symptoms you have described fit it well. I have particular trouble at airports too. You have probably been sensitized to the frequencies and modulations of TV radiation, especially the most recent ones. You might also be affected by other forms of radiofrequency radiation.
There have been more than 20,000 studies published, many in peer-reviewed journals, that report on biological effects of non-ionizing radiation (electric fields, radiowaves). Google "Bioinitiative Report" for detailed information. The IARC (part of WHO) has classified radiofrequency radiation as a Type 2B possible carcinogen.
Lots of groups have formed in response to the problem. A huge concern is smart meters. I'll look for your response, and if you want, I'll try to post some links (don't have time now). If you haven't heard of EHS, it's because it is taboo. Never bring it up with your doctor. Always start from the 3rd person: "I have this friend who gets dizzy..." and see how they respond to that.

Tom Fitzpatrick said...

It is incredibly hard to be among friends in light of my aversion to TV and Cell phones as the conversation inevitably veers into TV land. As a struggling addict they seem to pull me back in. I've made a no-screens rule with some of them when we are together, but add anyone else to the equation and they are staring at there phones again and angry when I say anything. It is exhausting. As someone who is very insular it is difficult to have what little interpersonal time I be sabotaged and treated like I'm a neurotic zealot.

jbucks said...

I just read all the comments so far, and I appreciate the thoughts from people who have started to 'de-tech' and who are thinking of doing so. I'm working on this, too, and it is difficult.

The area where I've been most successful, aside from learning to grow vegetables, has been with music-making, which I do as a hobby. I used to use my computer, hardware synthesizers, microphones and loudspeakers to make music, but a couple of years ago I sold everything except the computer, and used the money to invest in piano and composition lessons in order to learn these things thoroughly.

The transition to a no-electricity music setup isn't totally complete: I have a digital piano which I use with headphones to avoid disturbing neighbours, and I use a kind of word-processor for music notation on the computer to do my composition 'homework'. But once my partner and I eventually move out of our flat, I will get an acoustic piano and soon I will only need empty notation paper and a pencil to do composition.

The idea of using money resulting from the sale of high-tech things to fund lessons in low-tech skills is something I will explore in other areas!

Trmist said...

Wonderful post

The part at the end of the essay where you say, "contributing to one of the crucial tasks of our age: the rediscovery of ways of being human that don’t depend on hopelessly unsustainable levels of resource and energy consumption.". Is perhaps one of the most succinct and elegant notions expressed. This sums up much of what I have learned reading you work in just a sentence. My complements.

BTW I'm enjoying your fiction series. It has prompted me to start reading more fiction. I am espially fond of the new cli-fi genera. Lots of interesting ideas on how our might look after progress.

mgalimba said...

But come now, Mr. Greer, was it not your intention (on some level) in devising the Tiers as a literary element of your utopia to elicit just such responses?
The Tier system would be highly unlikely to have much of a shelf life among actual restless, invidious, unreasonable human beings, but it is a wonderful device to pry apart social identity from current technology, as well as "de-couple" the hidden costs of public infrastructure from the technologies they make possible.
Is it any wonder that cognitive dissonance is the response when we are all becoming more or less parasitized by overly complex technologies, but don't know how to (or given the option to) live any other way?

Brian said...

Excellent post Mr. Greer, on a subject I have been pondering for a long time. I share your bewilderment at the common notion that you cannot pick and choose from the technologies you choose to adopt. In my own life, being very selective about what I use was a natural consequence of my basic habit of parsimony - realizing early on that I was unwilling to work at the kind of jobs most people consider normal, it followed that anything I purchased had better pull its weight and last, because I didn't have a lot of money to waste on things that would land in the trash within a year, because they broke, turned out to be a pain in the ass, or I got bored with them. Later, the environmental consequences of throwaway crap became more important to me, but it's still mostly about the fact that I'm really frugal - and proud of it.

On the subject of television, having only owned one for a few years a couple of decades ago, I've long been used to the reaction you describe of people who realize that not only have I not seen the fabulously interesting program they want to talk about, I've never even heard of it and couldn't care less. I personally don't have any trouble watching colored images jerking around on a screen; what drives me bonkers about television programming is the staccato, non-sequitur quality of it, and most annoyingly, the advertising. Apparently it seems normal to the average television-watcher that the same insultingly stupid ad will be shown four times in an hour - to me, were a person in my home to exhibit that same behaviour, if they weren't suffering from an advanced condition of dementia they would be politely but firmly asked to leave. If I wanted to hear the same thing repeated over and over, I'd buy myself a parrot.

kayr said...

Some few years ago I had a very startling epiphany about how some people thought they would save the world and make an "Ecotopia". I was at an event that was all about living green and local economy. A guy on a bike came up and after a little bit of talk it was clear he was a young, well off, "green entrepreneur". He rattled off all the "green" things he had done to improve his home (PV, insulation, bamboo flooring, ect.) and now he could be just sit back and know he had done his part in saving the world. All I could do was stare at him as it suddenly struck me that he was trying to buy salvation. Saving the planet was a consumer product as far as he was concerned. He wasn't changing his life in any meaningful way, just "green washing" it. The sad part was I realized I had been on the same track. I just couldn't afford it like this guy could.

I wish I could say that I have totally disconnected from cars, cellphones, internet, TV, etc., but I haven't. All have their annoying factors, but I still have a use for them. At least they still seem useful to me in many ways.

I guess you could say I have compensated for my sins with gardening, food preservation and other low-tech skills. I too don't have AC, I use a clothes line to dry my laundry and I make and sell my clothing items with a very vintage electric sewing machine I got from my Grandmother. I do my level best to not participate in corporate consumerism, but sometimes you just don't have a choice. Even though I have PV array on my roof, I didn't install it to save the planet, I did it to lower my personal expenses so that I might be able to afford to stay in my home through a good part of my elder years and I have very mixed feelings about it.

There doesn't seem to be anything easy about this "collapse now and avoid the rush" business, but increasing awareness of how we are embedded in our technology culture can't hurt. And of course practice, practice, practice.

Great essay this week.

Jen said...

While I have my differences of opinion and temperament with Sarah Chrisman, one thing she mentioned in the linked article caught my imagination: the idea of spending my days reading mostly books published during or before the Victorian era. I consistently find my time and attention monopolized by hot-off-the-press reading material, and I know it's intellectually stunting and a source of stress (trying to keep up with the latest bad news in geopolitics, etc).

So I decided to put together a little project in which I read works published before 1901 for the next year or so:

I know, I know, this is exactly the sort of gimmicky year-long challenge that lends itself so readily to mockery, but I think it will be refreshing and I would be glad if anyone here with similar interests would drop by to discuss the books, exchange recommendations, etc. If it ends up being just me typing into the void, I will be unsurprised, but I would welcome a bit of company.

I am thinking of either Charlotte Bronte's Villette or Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle (oft-mentioned by JMG but not yet read by yours truly) for the first book on my list.

averagejoe said...

Don’t know if anyone has seen this story.
What it does is hammer another nail in the coffin of the modern day ‘religion’, i.e. faith in progress. Oil and modern technology has bought us a 100 years reprieve thereabouts, from bacteria . But natures ability to use disease as a means of population control, will win the day again. Also its a great leveller. I note the UK prime minister, a man of great wealth, has been raising the issue for sometime. Unlike other issues, the rich can’t easily buy themselves a solution. If it only effected the poor it would be ignored.

Ben Iscatus said...

Bravo, Mr Greer, for forcing your poor readers to confront their own cognitive dissonance!

If I promise you I'll never buy an 1800 watt leafblower and will always use a broom, will you tell me I'm a good boy and can reduce my TDQ (Technology Dependency Quotient) from tier 7 to the maximum acceptable tier 5? Will you treat me as a special case if I tell you I get serious high-tech withdrawal symptoms?

I guess not!

Cold turkey is coming.

Ondra said...

Dear JMG,

thank you for your post.
It has been decided in my country that towns all the way down to 2000 inhabitants should not pollute water by their sewage. And you may guess that this sensible requirement has been translated into the directive that every such town must build its own sewer system.
Our village (which has about 2500) is built along a stream in a valley, which means that it is about 5 kilometers long, and on average only about 0,25 km wide. So we already had few years of annoying digging, damaged roads, geology is unfavorable (soft sediments and few meters later rock), there is only slight slope, so we even have a pump mid-way to lift the sewage to a higher level. All this cost already sums on the order of millions of US dollars (in official exchange rate). Characteristic is that there was never any discussion about other ways of treating - or even using for some benefit - sewage.


Manoj Samanta said...

I grew up in a different country, and that Victorian lifestyle was pretty much our childhood - out of necessity. During most of my school life (1980s), we filled our pens with ink. Our government could not provide us with steady electricity, and so we had to often use small oil-filled lamps.

Now I have computers in data center (and that too in Puget sound area), and I can see the other end of it as well. Given that I take care of those servers myself (including replacing disks), I can clearly see the costs and vulnerability of modern technology. This thing is not sustainable.

russell1200 said...

The nice thing with the low tech counties would be that you could pick just the exact technological features that you wanted without paying for the rest of them. Don't want any electricity except of refrigeration and some ac? Just go the solar (using ice cubes rather than batteries) or propane, or some combination thereof. If you look at the lifestyle the Amish live (rather than what we project on them) you could see that it wouldn't necessarily turn out bad at all.

If you figure that after 1900 (when it was discovered that mosquitos carry yellow fever) most of you prime preventive medical knowledge was in place, but very little in the way of utilities were available outside major urban areas, you could drop back quit a ways and still live reasonably.

But trying to do it on your own, as our neo-Victorians have, does tend to buck a certain amount of tribal/status instincts.

Karim said...

Greetings all!

I have a basic cell phone (10 yrs old!) and I refuse to have a smart one. And I say so. By and large people find this attitude incomprehensible, but thankfully I don't get any abuses!

It seems that rejecting advanced technology is like making an affront to the non-transcendental Gods of modernity and progress.

It is unacceptable. One transgresses a religious taboo. Therefore one must be punished.

Renaissance Man said...

As I posted late yesterday, the tier system is quite easy to grasp: if one county chooses a tier with a civic centre, a pool, and sports facilities for free public use, they pay taxes for it. If the next county over decides not to, then their denizens can go down to a privately-run health club & buy a membership. Nothing precludes such facilities from existing in any given tier. And all one has to do is show photo ID with your home address on it to see who belongs to which county, so no cheating. Ditto for libraries, schools, and any other service. Pretty simple, as far as I can tell.
The only caveat is there needs to be some economic arrangement to ensure that all people will be able to make a living, so that those in tier 1 can afford all the services they must pay for, the simplest arrangement being that advocated by Ricardo & expounded by Henry George, of taxing land and resources, and pollution, but not wages or profits, since history has shown repeatedly, from Denmark in the 1840s to Taiwan in the 1950s that this approach really works.

Apropos of TV...
Decades ago, it occurred to me that people on TV almost never watch TV... they are detectives out on a case, or they are spies dodging bullets, or flying spaceships, or they are busy doing something. The thought that came to my mind was: why am I sitting down, doing nothing, vicariously watching some fictional character having exciting adventures, when I could go out have my own real ones? (Obviously not the getting-shot-at kind and I don’t fly spacecraft...)
So way back when, I ditched the cable service & sallied forth.
For about a decade, I had no TV. But, eventually, I missed it.
Now I spend most of my time making things or working around horses, when not earning a living, which leaves very little time for watching screens, or reading books for that matter, but as I am a very visual person, I enjoy movies and shows; I like seeing the costumes and sets and imagery. I now watch online. There are two or three compelling shows that I enjoy, some stuff on YouTube, documentaries, the nightly news, but it’s no longer passive viewing. I find that I can no longer just sit still to watch anything that comes up. I must have something tedious and time-consuming to do, such as polishing boots, or washing horse-tack, or mending torn clothes: mindless, boring, but necessary activities. Conversely, if I don’t have something to entertain me, those mind-numbing jobs never get attended to.
If others don’t like looking at a screen of moving images, fine, but I’ll argue there is nothing particularly intellectually superior about books, per se. There is as much dross committed to ink and paper as there is dreck broadcast over the airwaves. There is also some excellent work in both genres. In about the same ratio of good to bad, I’d say.
As to attitudes, ironically, I work in I.T., and no longer believe that anything new is better – in fact, it probably isn’t. Most of my co-workers look like they’re bracing for a painful blow every time management saddles us with some new software package and laugh bitterly at my joke that ‘upgrade’ is a compound word composed of ‘up’ which implies something better with feelings of hope and expectation and ‘grade’ which means ‘to flatten out’ (as in grading a road-bed). A surprising number of us are quite aware that 'newer' does not mean 'better' and that a lot of things have not been improved by the inclusion of compuer chips.

Jason Heppenstall said...

You will no doubt be delighted to hear that eBooks have almost completely fallen out of favour in the UK. Whether it's the general substandard 'look' of the books, the fact that you always manage to lose the charger and run out of battery power when you are just getting to the exciting bit, or the various warnings about them affecting sleep patterns - whatever the reason, plummeting sales of eBooks are being offset by a corresponding rise in paperback sales.

I'm going to engage in some curious paralogic now and recommend a TV series (several, actually). Victorian Farm, a series made by the BBC, took three people and made them live on a farm in Victorian conditions for (I think) a year. They made other series too, set in different eras, but IMO the Victorian and Edwardian ones were best. Interestingly, at the end of each series, the participants seem somewhat unhappy to be going back to the 21st century. So, watch these before you throw your TV in the dumpster - you will learn many things that will be useful in the future. Oh, you can also see them all on YouTube.

Lastly, as a final point of interest, they have begun to teach mindfulness as my daughter's primary school (there's a link here). It has been recognised that the constant stimulation by computers and TV was having an adverse effect on the young minds to the extent that they were unable to think, and some were becoming depressed. Now, the kids sit and meditate for half an hour a day and the result of this has been greater concentration levels and more relaxed kids. Some of the parents were resistant to the idea as they had been conditioned to associate meditation with hippies and 'mind control', so the language surrounding the project is very careful. These same parents would no doubt be happy to sit their kids in front of a TV screen for six hours at a time ...

Timcognito said...

Ah JMG, this post sings to me for a number of reasons.

How do I keep this concise. I am from the UK, met my wife whilst living in the US and we now live in France. In no small part to taking your advise a number of years back and choosing to voluntarily collapse. We all clubbed together (extended family, brother, parents) and bought some extremely affordable land in Normandy. Why Normandy? Cost!

In order to make this "stick" we have had to continuously find ways of weaning ourselves off of the mainstream consensus, to remove ourselves form the over bearing pressure to conform to a western-approved method of living. So we have looked at means of reducing our need for money, to purchase stuff. Which is a challenge to a forty plus and thirty plus couple indoctrinated into the western lifestyle. BUT we continue to remove things from our lives. Things we thought were essential, but as it turns out, weren't!

We practice permaculture in order to better fit into our small haven. We host WWOOFers to gain and share knowledge about a more unconventional way of living. We try to use as little hydro-carbons as we can to maintain our small-holding, challenging, but HUGELY satisfying.

And all of this is done with my 1-year old and 5-year old living this way. They are ALL that matters.

Where your post sings to me is in the CONSTANT defending to family, friends and colleagues of our choices... "Why do you use an axe and cross-cut saw when you could use a chain saw?" "Why would you choose to live like an 18th Century person?" "What kind of future are you preparing your children for living this way?" "Your kids are going to be so sick living amongst so much dirt!"

The fact is, we do not live an exceptional life. We still have internet, mains electric and running water. We haven't turned our backs on the 21st century. We are simply trying to re-tool ourselves. My main lesson for my girls is that food and water are primary concerns, all else is gravy! Creativity, resourcefulness and an understanding of food and seasons is all you need to survive... I think.

Thank you for continuing to inspire us and encouraging us with your writing to be brave in the face of the coming interesting times.


Martin B said...

I don't have a car or a TV or a microwave oven or even a bicycle ;o) This morning I did my weekly chore of hand-washing my laundry and hanging it out to dry. (Not coincidentally, I don't have a wife or a girlfriend.) But I do have a hand-me-down cellphone; it's a lot cheaper than the landline I used to have. And fortunately, shops and public transport are a ten-minute walk away. Plus of course I have a laptop for reading ADR.

John, I think arguments on the tier system will continue until you tabulate what amenities are available in each tier, plus the population density and the general level of wages and taxation.

My impression is that most of us believe Lakeland's standard of living is similar to today's, but I suspect it will be much lower, and incomes will be much lower, and population densities much lower as well.

I was professionally involved with the design of township services for some years. Personally, I think five tiers is too many. There's not enough scope for cutting services in fine graduations. Urban and rural, yes, with maybe an in-between tier as well.

We have places here where people pay no taxes. Squatter camps. And they aren't nice. Garbage everywhere, frequent fires because of the use of candles and kerosene stoves, no roads for the fire brigade to get through because shack dwellers build where they like, expensive water sold by contractors, stinky bucket toilets, electricity controlled by gangs who steal it via illegal connections, it goes on and on.

To have a reasonably healthy and well-regulated community by modern standards, your minimum level of taxation is going to be quite high already. I don't think there will be enough differentiation between top and bottom to support five tiers. Not to mention common expenses for federal parliament and courts, armed forces, customs and immigration, teaching hospitals; and regional electricity, water and sewage disposal which will depend on local topography, trunk roads, etc etc, which will establish a lowest-bound tax burden between tiers.

flute said...

I recognise very well what you are talking about in this article. I haven't had a television for nearly 30 years, and always get that look of disbelief when I mention that fact.
I do have a mobile phone though, but one with buttons, not a smart phone. This of course is a source of great amusement to my colleagues in the computer business, as is the fact that I insist on using cash to pay, not a card. I've stopped counting the number of "stone age" comments I've received.

thriftwizard said...

Just a quick aside: lessening your dependence on cell-phones (and all microwave-related technology) may ultimately prove of benefit to your health, as well as your general happiness & resilience. Personal experience, including the early deaths (from brain tumours) of 3 friends & family members, all enthusiastic adopters of mobile phones & microwave cookery, leads me to wonder whether the widespread adoption of microwave technology is actually a potential "black swan" waiting to reveal itself. However, I know better than to wonder that out loud, now; the subject is clearly not open for debate!

The Constitutionalist said...


I've been reading your blog posts for some time now and since I am up every day at about 4:00 getting ready for work I integrate it into my morning "coffee with snack and bible reading routine" on Thursday. I'm only sorry you don't write everyday. I'm completely thrilled with most everything you write and I've really appreciated this retrotopia series particularly the tier structure ideas.

Fact is, this approach in local government is already germinating at the county level i.e. Gravel roads instead of asphalt in Michigan. Your tier structure is a simple and easy to describe systemic menu of options that is as refreshing in its clarity as it is practical in its realism. I would describe it as two steps into the future from where we are now. Very little in the collapse genre is as helpful to my thinking as your writing and none of it nearly as hopeful.

The end of this present era is very near, much closer than many imagine. I don't mean to be nasty but quite frankly if the people criticizing ideas like yours don't start engaging their brains more frequently than their thumbs life is going to get very ugly very fast for them. These techno addicts are going to suffer withdrawal symptoms more severe that crack fiends; I imagine that is what's driving some of the delusional behavior you're referencing.

A happy Thanksgiving to you and yours and keep up the good work of ideas, it is much needed!

Swimmer said...

Regarding weirdness at sustainability-oriented events:
Last week I attended a regional climate meeting where the co-president of the Club of Rome -- Anders Wijkman -- was speaking. On the meeting he represented the Swedish government, and its mission for a strategy to keep Sweden both wealthy and fossil-fuel independent in year 2050. What he said was among others that we need to be optimists in order to save the climate, and that the law of diminishing returns does not apply to the new smart-tech that are going to transform society in the near future, as fast as IT and internet technology has changed the last 10-20 years...

It's one thing to read about such statements, even from a president or what have you, in a forum where you have support. But to feel very alone among many persons in a big hall, and to really see the weirdness of the religion of progress, among leaders, speakers, friends, and journalist... I felt quite bad, and a bit paranoid, actually. The meetings' take-home message was that climate change might indeed become a VERY big problem in the future, but can be solved quite easy, if just everyone BELIEVE (in decoupling, high-tech and so on). And if someone dares to not believe, we will fail and LOSE (but that scenario is taboo to even speak of, since, well, it's not so funny, I suppose)

A last weird observation that not even the tough journalist-moderator opposed to: liberal think-tank leader Mattias Goldmann said that we CAN save the climate, but only if we continue to let us (the middle class) to continue to feel very good, and continue to go to the skiing resorts. Because if we allow us to continue doing that, we must also save the cold climate, and the snow in the skiing resorts.

Damaris Zehner said...

Mr. Greer,
You are as usual right on target, and the bafflement at different technological choices you describe is not a new thing. In 1984, I told the high school students I taught that I was quitting and joining the Peace Corps in West Africa. The first, horrified question was "How can you leave your TV?" When I told them I had never had a TV, I finally achieved that total class silence that was so hard to manage under other circumstances. Then, in the early years of this century, I was living with my husband and four young children in Central Asia, under relatively primitive (for us) circumstances. I was having lunch with a group of young Turkish women, wives of teachers at an evangelical Muslim school in town; I mentioned that we didn't own a TV. Again there was consternation. "What do you do with your children?" one mother asked.

However, the local Kyrgyz people I lived with illustrated your point that technology adoption is a choice. People with little food in the house had a TV; people with outhouses and no running water got internet connection first. Not the choices I would have made.

Finally, I couldn't help but read "Ecotopia" as "ectopic" every time I saw it in your post. Hmm -- perhaps I'm on to something!

Thank you for a brilliant article.

Dave Ruggiero said...

One of your commenters already mentioned the Amish this week, but your post reminded me of many conversations I've had with people about them. I can't count the number of times I've heard insinuations that the plain sects are "hypocritical" or "self-contradictory" because, for instance, some of them allow refrigeration in the milking parlor, or allow their kids to ride scooters, or even (in one case I encountered) use smart phones to keep track of their sawmill's inventory. "That's not how it was in 1850!" these people exclaim. It seems awfully hard to explain that the point of the Amish lifestyle is not to live as some sort of Civil War re-enactor, faithfully doing things exactly as they were 150 years ago, but to pick and choose those technologies that they want to include in their life based not just on economic productivity but on the effects they'll have on their family, community, and quality of life. It seems really difficult for people to accept, first of all, people would want to choose to use less technology in their lives, but then it seems even more difficult for a certain type of person to accept that you could pick and choose some technologies and leave others alone.

One other note, since it came up: I spent seven years as an organic vegetable farmer and the waste produced by greenhouse plastic, fabric row covers, plastic mulch, and drip tape are all well known and worried about in the field. I have no doubt that they'll drop out of use in the a less resource-rich future (and some of them would drop out of use sooner if the USDA was a little quicker to approve alternatives). For now, however, I'm inclined to give our farmers the benefit of the doubt on points like this as they're already struggling to make ends meet competing against various cheap foreign imports in the grocery store. While I'm sure the good agrarians of Retrotopia are now using glass cloches and acres of cold frames, the many years of sanctions on foreign produce have no doubt gone a long way to making that a viable alternative. In the meantime, I'll count every person who's able to make a living farming and selling locally, instead of working for a global multinational, as a step in the right direction.

Marc L Bernstein said...

I don't own a cell phone, an IPad or any other sort of small device that so many people carry around. I own a television but i's the same one that's been around for nearly 20 years. I have no plans to get a new one. I must admit to being addicted to the internet, but in all likelihood I'm too old to be around by the time the internet disappears. It might get somewhat more expensive though.

There is one anecdote that is similar to some of your experiences. One day a year or so ago I was talking to a Cox Communications technician about downgrading my television service because I was unhappy with their channel selection and decided that I only wanted the basic channels. The technician on the phone acted as if I had not said anything and started blathering rhapsodically about a variety of new channels and their new digital technology. I finally told him "I want less, not more!" He acted as if nobody else had ever said that to him.

Chloe said...

My mother keeps asking me if I want an iPhone. (I do have a mobile - it's approaching ten years old and I've resolved to keep it until it dies. After that, we'll see.) Every tenth time she asks or so, I reply with, "If I ever change my mind, I'll let you know." No improvement. But recently, in an attempt to make fun of me, she mentioned to her partner's (teenage) children that I have a really old phone, and isn't that silly? The kids weren't playing along: their response was "Wow! That's really cool!"

The one that particularly angers her, for some reason, is when I decide to wash up by hand instead of using the "perfectly good dishwasher". The joke? The dishwasher *never* gets things reliably clean. (I mostly get pitying/"knowing" looks if I mention that I don't ever plan to own a car.)

I do watch television, but I'm picky about it - I stick to the kind of shows whose creators would have been in theatre if they'd lived a hundred years ago, rather than those whose creators would have been in, say, war office propaganda. (And I tend to knit at the same time.) I do find it's a rare talent to be able to turn the television *off* even when it's clear to everybody that the programme is mindless drivel. If I am compelled to watch something, I try to view it as an anthropological exercise…

The strongest taboos are always those we don't recognise. It's not going to be easy: people will cling to precious technology and equally-precious psychological blindnesses for as long as possible, and there will be a lot more pain if they have to abandon the first before the second. But afterwards, well, people don't tend to miss what they don't have, however much they expect to.

On a side note: I sometimes do searches for "peak oil" and skim whatever news articles come up. Is it just me, or has there been an uptick (again) in the number that pronounce "Peak Oil is Dead!" then go on to describe a situation that reads - as any geologist or anybody who knows the first thing about deindustrialism will recognise - as precisely what we would expect to see at the start of the downslope?

Brian Romanchuk said...

You may have written about this elsewhere, but how do you think the voting for choosing the tiers would work? For example, imagine that 35% of the decided voters wanted tier 2, 20% tier 3, and 45% tier 4? Although it would be less interesting from a narrative standpoint, a two tier system seems easier to grasp. I guess that once the tier is chosen, the county could have a referendum to move one tier in either direction if there was a demand for it.

Robert Douglas Castle said...

Hello JMG,

New commenter here. I discovered your blog about a year ago and have been an avid reader ever since. I especially like your approach to the predicament of our time and I find it very sensible. You have helped me clarify my thinking in a number of areas and introduced me to many new subjects like the life cycle of civilizations and the alternative tech movement (which I somehow ignored when it was happening). I think that all of these things will prove very useful in the years ahead and I believe you've given me a better understanding of the situation we all face.

As for this weeks post: I still own 2 TVs although I almost never watch them. My TV viewing declined drastically after the late 70's and continues to decline today. When my friends tell me about some new show, I mention that I watch very little TV and usually they act almost as if I hadn't said anything. Sometimes one will ask me why I don't watch. I've found that if I tell them say, that I don't like commercials, they will helpfully suggest ways that I can acquire a whole season's worth of some show without the commercials. Since I'm not interested in watching said show, I now find it easier to tell them that I prefer to read instead. Usually they give me a look of disbelief as they shake their heads in pity at my ignorance.

Cheers, Robert Douglas Castle

ourgreattransition said...


What you mean you don't miss the permanent intrusion of the glowing screen faces from the corner of the room rudely interrupting your attempt at a conversation uninterrupted? My, im shocked! ; ) I just LOVE going around a family members house and being joined by the latest reality TV contestants...

This post brings up some interesting and uncomfortable feelings for me, which I thank you for. Being another who likes to highlight the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of our current age I can appreciate that. I am currently writing this comment from my lovely, dapper iPhone 6 knowing full well the torments by which this phone came into existence. To be frank, 12 months ago when I bought this phone I'd pushed those uncomfortable cognitive dissonances out of my mind. I mean who wants to admit to themselves that the very thing they wanted was only possible due to slavery and enormous amounts of energy and resources? Disproportionate to the benefit gained. Sadly 12 months ago I wasn't able to admit this. So this post slams everything into my face.

So what is it I actually use my 'smart phone' for? Well I read blogs like this, Google maps, keep up to date with email, listen to music or audiobooks occasionally (though of course with my phone now being 12 months old the audio jack is no longer working, planned senescence I've heard it called), and apart from a few very occasional other activities that's all I use it for. Oh and occasionally I get a message or speak to people. And I pay handsomely for the privilege. Appears that I've bought their marketing lies hook, line and sinker.

The reality is that while I am only in my late 20s I can still remember the days of having a street atlas, using pay phones, actually speaking to friends or shock horror visiting as opposed to texting and so on. And as far as I remember the sun still rose in the morning and set in the evening.

So what does that mean for me? I've been thinking for a few months I should just take a hammer to my pretty iphone (the drastic action of metal shattering my phone will be particularly pleasing, after all it will break during the next 12 months anyway...). I think my monkey mind has run out of arguments.

One other thing that comes to mind about the above post is a British journalist and broadcaster, Paul Mason, who has recently written a book called Post-Capitalism. I haven't and doubt I will read the book but I did watch a 3 minute clip with him introducing the ideas explored in the book. Seemed to hinge on the idea that the future economy will be based on 'free information,'citing wikipedia as his evidence for such a future. The idea that Wikipedia can be so omnipotent and yet remain free seems to be the basis of a new economy. Of course a fair economy. I actually tend to like his columns but he is of course a product of the modern left, that believes irrevocably in the power of progress, technology and the inmate good of the proletariat. I'm still none the wiser how Wikipedia can from the model for a new economy. He seems to buy into the idea that Wikipedia is actually free however.

That also reminds me of a couple of conversations recently where people have assumed as being obvious that renewables will pick up where oil left off. I lightly introduced some arguments to the contrary. Not sure if they quite got it though.

Finally, I started reading Star's Reach this week and thoroughly enjoying it. Really terrific writing. Thank you.

Alex said...

I have heard, from some friends of mine who have visited the Pennsic War in the last few years, that the number of mobile devices in public view is on the rise... that even among those for whom living in the middle ages for two weeks every August, it's getting harder and harder to shut out the modern technological "conveniences".

But I understood what you were getting at from the beginning — that the infrastructure is based on taxes in the Lakeland Republic. If you want more elaborate infrastructure, you pay for it. This seems to be a common problem in many parts of the US today, actually: on the East Coast, the infrastructure costs were staggered — water systems were built in the 1830s and 40s, steam heat systems in the 1870s and 1880s, gas systems in the late 1800s and early 1900s, electrical a little later, telephone a little later than that. In other parts of the country, those systems have been installed all at once — and some towns are still paying off the bonds that made it possible for them to have these systems in the first place... at eye-opening prices when paid for 'all at the same time', when the costs were assumed within a few years, as opposed to being spread over several decades. In large measure, the US is living on the infrastructure boom of about 1880-1920, with the superhighway system begun under Eisenhower being the one major infrastructure improvement since then. The country is living off of those investments in many ways. And the Lakeland Republic is making clear, through its county-infrastructure system, that you have to commit yourself, and your neighbors, and your children, to the costs of making those improvements (I imagine that the L.R. uses some sort of bond system to pay for these kinds of improvements, but if you have some ideas about how to move away from that kind of financial instrument, that would be interesting. Very interesting.)

One of the things that I think would be interesting, as well, is to see Lakeland democracy in action. The American Prospect ran a piece recently about the narrowing of American civic life ( which touched on issues raised in this blog some time ago — how Americans learned how to work in democracies through membership in unions, voluntary societies like the Freemasons, Oddfellows and Grange, and community organizations like the Italian-American club. I'd like to see Mr. Carr attend one such meeting as a guest, and then see how democracy is put into action. But of course, that might require initiation, and that would carry some challenges of its own...

Mitzi said...

The process of tiering down has already begun. I live in a rural town on the edge of the Appalachian foothills, teaching (pre-med) in a small college, gardening, and walking to work. A student, seeing my garden across the street from student housing, asked me to show her how to garden- she can grow flowers, but no food, and is concerned. I warned her that I do not own a motorized tiller- my beds involve shovels in the spring. I knew she might become a friend when she smiled and said she would be my "second shovel".

donalfagan said...

I think the unusual aspects of the Lakeland tier system are that it is acknowledged, democratic and granular. As I commented toward the end of the last post, we have a tier system in the US, but it results from wealth and ethnicity as much as a more rational determinant like density. The engine of our tier system is the developer.

In high school, we used to go to Georgetown DC to buy books at the Savile Book Shop, which was three row houses crammed with books. We didn't know that Georgetown had once been a slave port, that most black, working class people had been priced out after the New Deal attracted white government workers, and that the remaining blacks were forced out by the gentrification of the Old Georgetown Act. To us, Georgetown was an exciting mix of people and businesses. Along M Street and Wisconsin Ave, there were hippie shops like Commander Salamander alongside the preppy Britches of Georgetown, and all sorts of counterculture people walking around. It was a free show. Even though parking was always a nightmare, at night we went to great clubs like the Cellar Door, Clyde's and Bayou. There was even a low-key porn shop with windows painted yellow. For several blocks behind the storefronts there were a mix of historic showplaces and unrestored rowhouses along cobblestone streets. Young people could just about swing an English basement in Georgetown, or an apartment in nearby Cleveland Park.

We did notice when developers crammed an indoor mall and called it The Shops at Georgetown Park with A&F, Godiva and underground parking. Georgetown became too rich and genteel for the elements that made it fun, and was on its way to being as stuffy as Olde Towne Alexandria. In Lakeland terms, it had gone up several tiers.

In many cities gentrification has been accompanied by policing targeted against obviously poor people and minorities, and I remember going on a date, and seeing the cops beating the crap out of some wino on M Street in the 80s.

carol.b said...

So refreshing to read this. I have lived without a car (and, heresy of heresies, without a driver's license)for almost thirty year. I've raised two children without a car or a tv and they delight in telling their peers. Their generation seems to think it's fantastic or at least exotic, but even now I still have listen to endless excuses from friends and strangers alike about why they can't possibly live without a car and comments on how uncomfortable and inconvenient my life must be. Very irritating, but the hard part of it is that sometimes it really is uncomfortable and inconvenient, especially living as I do in a car-oriented northern city with less than stellar public transportation, and I often feel I can't be honest about that because even my friends leap on it as proof that living without a car is unrealistic. Can't things be difficult and realistic at the same time? I thought that adulthood was supposed to include an element of hard work and even struggle, but that seems to be the biggest heresy of them all.

Bill Blondeau said...

"What's more, the author has gone and written a whole nonfiction article on this notion in which he tries to provide a reality check for those who take the scifi gospel too literally, calling the notion of interstellar colonization fantasy while arguing that there is still a place for these stories."

"Tony, good heavens. That's really fascinating. I wonder, though, whether he's going to be yelled down by the science fiction community for saying that."

Probably he will. I like to remind people about Charlie Stross's heretical 2007 post, The High Frontier, Redux, in which he bluntly laid out the insuperable physical problems of interstellar travel. The enraged butthurt (if I may use the somewhat uncivil, but exceptionally apt, term) in the comments was and is entertaining, and will be very familiar in the context of this week's discussion. When SF fans accuse Charles Stross of not being a real science fiction writer, it's a definite pass-the-popcorn moment.

Still... the SF community has been evolving considerably since then. Rigid technophilic traditions notwithstanding, there are a lot of reasoning people in Science Fiction and Fantasy fandom, and they are beginning to question the tropes and norms of SF. This is a wide-ranging phenomenon, happily including the resurgence of ecological themes in SF (and in Fantasy!), but also involving things like the dethroning of Old White Guy predominance in the field, and a growing recognition that Alien Space Bats (as we call them here) are no longer satisfactory as unexamined worldbuilding elements. There is also a literary movement called New Space Opera that often embraces the old norms of planetary SF—the ones that got shot down when the landers and probes showed that the solar system was not a glamourous neighborhood of Venusian jungles, Martian dead cities, and forested Jovian moons—and simply treats those old dreams as the fantasy fiction settings that they truly are.

This points to a curious cultural phenomenon. Science Fiction, long a special-status, prescriptive thought leader in the kind of techno-worship described in this week's post, is being folded back into its more proper position as just another kind of general imaginative mythology.

If Kim Stanley Robinson's article generates a lot less fury than Charlie Stross's post did, that will be another sign that SF, and the SF community, are adapting to the realities.

Which would be healthy and helpful all around.

Leo Knight said...

My local library, Baltimore County, has drastically reduced its holdings of paper books. They only have a few of each title, maybe only one, and shuttle them around the county on request. The last time I went to my local library, I overheard the librarian say they were trying to get rid of books altogether, and go completely digital. For those of us without Nooks, Kindles, etc. that might end the library altogether.

The venerable Pratt library in Baltimore fares little better. Most of the central area is filled with computers. The stacks are horribly depleted. Very sad.

At least the citizens of thr Lakeland Republic get to choose how much infrastructure they want. Currently, those decisions are imposed from without, as in your essay "The Whisper of the Cutoff Valve."

jonathan said...

the one problem i see with the tier system is that it is likely to be a one way trip. if a county votes for a 1950's era infrastructure, it represents a huge investment, one that would be difficult to abandon/mothball once built. i can see a county in which opinion is closely divided bouncing back and forth between embracing a 1950's infrastructure and an earlier era from election to election. perhaps changing tiers should be subject to some sort of super majority vote.

Fred said...

The taxpayers don't get to vote on the level of infrastructure they want. Things could be better if they did, but they don't and I doubt that they ever will get to vote on it because too much of our infrastructure benefits the pocketbooks of the people who wield the political power (because of their financial muscle).
For example, here where I live, the local school district gets to have a 4.1% "raise" every year. I am very good at what I do and i have NEVER gotten a 4.1% raise. This is very clearly not sustainable, and I would never in a million years vote to continue with this, but…..I DON'T get to have any real say about it!

fudoshindotcom said...

It seems to me that the resistance towards, and attempts to re-orient, the conversation are motivated fundamentally by fear. We've spent decades allowing big budget advertising to tell us what is best for us in order to "improve" our lives without doing the due diligence to determine if there's any factual basis for their "advice". Anyone, an ArchDruid perhaps, who has the temerity to suggest that their sagely guidance might not be all that wise can well expect to be met with strong opposition. The alternative being that we consider the possibility that our faith has been horribly misplaced, and that the responsibility for this lies squarely at our own feet. Accepting responsibility for our actions is something we apparently aren't well equipped to do. We're quick to make the most tenuous claim to credit when something turns out a success, but extremely reluctant to stand up and proclaim, "Yup, it was me, I screwed the pooch!" when failure is the result.

It may not be off-topic to mention that in one of his lectures Manly P. Hall posits that "common sense" is one of our least common commodities.

Robert Tweedy said...

"And just when you thought television could not be made more toxic, we have created Reality Television. It is enough to make one weep with joy. When have two words ever been more inappropriately paired?"

Slashreap, a devil from Richard Platt's As One Devil to Another

Revelin said...

Another one here with no TV, no cell phone (smart or stupid), no internet at home (using library), no car (or driving permit even), and frankly couldn’t care less.

It’s a given to me now that you were so absolutely right to frame this whole belief in technology/progress some years ago in religious terms, it is so obviously very much a faith/belief thing, these cited reactions alone tell the tale; but while most people the world over follow a faith or religious belief usually openly & willingly (ok, also tradition, education, coercion, hypocrisy, whatever), here it’s amusing that we have so many worshiping at an altar and seemingly not realising it at all. Rather funny if you’re of a certain persuasion.

The Sarah Chrisman story and her opting for the ‘Victorian’ reminded me of something else – I grew up in the UK and witnessed firsthand Margaret Thatcher’s ‘revolution’ in the 1980s. One of her favourite dictums was ‘Victorian values’, as in social norms and mores; if I recall correctly, in the US at the time you had many looking back to Ike’s America as an ideal for living (interesting that it was that particular period of US history but that’s another subject).

Again, amusing when contrasted with all these adamant views that you can’t drop a technology without reverting to the social norms and values corresponding to the age of the older technologies you’d replace them with. Meaning, oh yes we can have techno ‘progress’ coupled with social ‘regress’ when it suits us politically, but somehow it’s impossible to have techno regress without social regress, go figure.

And you may be amused to learn that there was a big jazz & zoot suit revival in hip London precisely during Thatcher’s early reign. Didn’t last long though.

Odin's Raven said...

This extreme spiritual valuation of physical objects sounds like fetishism. Maybe on your other blog you could discuss whether it constitutes black magic, and how and by whom particular technologies are selected and positioned to zombify the public and who benefits from that.

redoak said...

I made a recent technology change that might be illustrative of the more general process a place like Lakeland Republic followed in its evolution. I’ve got a chunk of land in NH and clearing weeds and brush around the glacial wreckage (stones) is a regular chore. For years I battled ethanol decay in a Sthil weedwacker. The fall ritual of a few hours of parts acquisition, replacement, cleaning, etc. would put me on the end of smoking angry noisy weed thrasher to do a few hours of work. This fall I took down my father’s scythe, put a razor edge on it in 20 minutes of file work, and have been happily enjoying the fall birds, creek trickling, wind chimes, etc. Better yet, the scythe is infinitely more flexible and selective than the weedwacker. It cuts from grass to saplings with a mere shift of concept, sneaks out a briar grown into a blueberry or lays low eight foot swaths of golden rod. Granted, you might not want to work the scythe for 5-6 hours straight, but it is not a sprint, you know.

It seems to me that in many ways modern technologies allow us to do things faster, but to the detriment of the experience and product. The advantage in quantity always at the expense of quality.

Renovator said...

Another very annoying and prevalent example is the current sport culture that pervades every inch of modern life. Here in the NE United States, where I reside, there is an assumption that all living, breathing homosapiens with any sort of pulse, must have a strong affinity to modern sports culture and furthermore, must integrate this culture into not only their daily discourse but into a belief system that DIRECTLY INFORMS THEIR IDENTITY.

Casting aside, or simply ignoring, this "culture", is done with great social risk, as doing so seems to throw a wrench into the gears of said believer's psyche and cause bat-$h@# lunacy and much frothing of the mouth on their part. This can, and often does, cause frictions that, to me at least, seem incredibly frivolous, but to the mouth-foamer, seem perfectly well suited.

It would appear that at least some of the "paralogic" these people exhibit is because they can't or won't make a distinction between WHAT THEY BELIEVE AND WHO THEY IDENTIFY AS. Questioning their belief seems to question the very core of their existence. I'm not sure if this is simply "human-nature" unbridled and unchecked or if there is something else at play here. It surely is mind-boggling and a bit unsettling to say the least.

Odin's Raven said...

Maybe some 'environmentalists' could benefit from attempting to communicate with the actual beings in their environment, without technology.
Here's a short video of the work of Anna Breytenbach in that regard:

Glenn Murray said...

Thank you JMG. It is interesting how these unexpected tics in out psyche turn up to indicate you've hit a nerve.

The good news: Americans will ditch their cars, walk, bicycle and ride public transit to get around, live more local, get more food from their own gardens and prepare it themselves, compost, recycle, ditch their TVs and spend more time face to face with friends and family.

The bad news is we will do all this and more because [due to economic and environmental realities] we will have no choice.

Howard Skillington said...

About twenty five years ago I made the acquaintance of a college-educated couple who had purchased farmland along a river that included a one hundred fifty year old log cabin. They set out to master the skills required for the technology of the era in which their cabin was built. I had the opportunity to help my friend fell trees, buck them into manageable lengths with a venerable two-man crosscut saw, and direct his draft horses up the logging trail with gees and haws. A good night’s sleep was well-earned after that labor. On another occasion I was allowed to walk behind a plow pulled by those same horses – less difficult than I had supposed, in that rich bottomland.

One crisp fall night they invited me to join them for dinner. The cabin was cozy from the wood stove with which they had prepared good food from their garden and fresh-baked bread. The oil lamp twinkled and the night was exquisitely silent.

At one point in the evening I noticed a square mortise in a beam overhead and asked about it. They explained that the property’s previous owner had run a wire to the cabin and a single electrical box had been installed there. They had removed it.

By now I imagine that couple regard their labor-intensive lifestyle as completely normal. Their son, now a young adult, has grown up with that skillset. How ironic that their neighbors regarded them as inexplicably backward. How far ahead of the rest of us they were.

Dennis said...

For some reason, the discussions of television reminded me of listening to Kurt Vonnegut in college when he came to campus in 1996 or 1997. In the Q&A, someone asked him what he thought about the internet, and he derisively said something like, 'it's just jazzed up TV'.

Very small, but I just removed twitter and facebook apps from my phone. I had 'made them difficult' to use from the phone (by not having the icons on the main screen), but I always overcame this modest self-imposed imposition. Now they're gone! Freedom!! :-)

Greg Belvedere said...

A lot of people have suggested the TV show The Wire to you recently. While I agree that it is probably one of the few worthwhile shows to appear on TV in the last decade, I realize that you will never watch it and would like to suggest a book by the show's creator David Simon. He has both fiction and non-fiction works that take place in your home state. He has a background as a crime journalist and deals with the topics of crime and bureaucracy in all their complexity.

As for the heresy in my own life, when I tell people we plan to have midwives deliver our next child at home people loose all sense of propriety and tell me how I must be crazy. The fact that we have done our research on the matter and can articulate the safety and benefits of our choice does not sway them.

Luddene Perry said...

I’ve just finished reading Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Pulitzer Prize winning work: A Midwife’s Tale. It is a discussion of Martha Ballard’s diary from 1785-1812. While I certainly wouldn’t want to return to that time, the level of small town cooperation was certainly praise-worthy. Ballard’s descriptions of barter, trade and the economy in general, were enlightening, and possibly, a guide for a way forward for our time. While I couldn’t imagine weaving yards of cloth today, it was a good example of a community coming together to get the job done. From Ballard I didn’t hear a lot of projections into the future. In her world, it was all about the here and now.
On a different note, I’ve just come back from a 2 week crave crawl on which I spent some time in Toledo. I was born there 60+ years ago, but I didn’t remember much. While driving through, Retrotopia kept creeping into my mind.

Zach said...

Dear JMG,

I assume you must be familiar already with Eric Brende's "Better OFF: Flipping the Switch on Technology"?

Brende was a graduate student at M.I.T. and documents that the taboo is in full force there, even (especially?) in the department dedicated to understanding the societal impacts of technology. One may consider anything there except the notion of saying "no" to it.


Shane Wilson said...

I just wanted to share my story to encourage others. I cancelled Facebook over 2 years ago. I just got a flip phone after being without a phone since Aug. Before that, I deleted all the meet up apps on my phone. I stopped using my computer for social purposes. The biggest thing for me was breaking the spell behind whatever technology is being pushed your way. For example, social media is marketed to "connect" people, but I found that I didn't feel any less connected having cancelled social media. Being connected via social media did not make me feel like I had a meaningful connection with another. Even more so with online porn. The biggest fear that these technologies are preying on is fear of being alone or being disconnected, but, here's the spell breaker: "you're just as much alone WITH these technologies as without, if not, more so, because you're ignoring the people right next to you." There you go, spell broken. For me, the recurring challenge has been about learning to be alone in the world, and to not let others snuff out my spirit when I insist on a different path. I read this blog, and know you people are out there somewhere, but I've yet to meet anyone like myself, or like a lot of you all, in person, yet.

Patricia Mathews said...

As for Sarah Chrisman and others like her - I think the problem goes much deeper than "how dare they reject Our Technology?!?!?"

Robert Heinlein, who I keep quoting because he was a major influence on me in my formative years, said (through several of his characters at different times) that to understand human beings, go to the monkey cages in the zoo. That if you take one of the monkeys out and paint it green, the others will tear it apart as an alien. (Was that experiment ever done? He must have seen it at one time; it surely made an impression on him.)

As a fat nerdy social inept teenager and young woman for a long time, I can testify to a lot of that, as well as many failed attempts at makeovers on the part of the well-meaning. The different are a target or a threat to the monkey-brains among us.

The Chrismans have chosen to be the green monkeys in the troop of brown monkeys and are getting just what Heinlein predicted. A sorry commentary on human nature, but there it is. The pure aboriginal ape at work.

Friction Shift said...


As a resident of a certain liberal West Coast town you know rather well, your post today has a familiar ring to me. I often describe this town to outsiders as a place that enthusiastically supports walking and bicycle commuting, as long as someone else is doing it. Some random observations:

I wonder if there is a correlation between the twilight of the New Age movement you detail in an essay on your Druidry blog and the rise of the so-called "sustainability" movement so warmly embraced by the people driving their new electric cars as they hunt for a parking spot at our local food co-op. I seem to recognize some of the same faces. They are rather proud of their electric cars, which in our part of the world are actually powered by a combination of coal, and hydro power from dams that have killed the ancient salmon runs. Yes, for those of you whose hypocrisy meters are pegging, I realize I am using the same power sources to write these words on my computer.

I was dished some pretty harsh and irrational comments this past summer when I had the cheek to enthusiastically share an article that described the horrendous ecological footprint of Burning Man. Most of them, failing to refute anything in the article, ran along the lines of "You've never been there. Burning Man is wonderful." Accompanied by a condescending tone, and the stink-eye meted to heretics.

From the comments already posted, it seems like a lot of your blog's readers are following the path of replacing complex, energy hog technologies with human-powered ones. I'll take coffee from a stovetop percolator over those Philip K. Dickian aluminum coffee pods any day. While I haven't returned all the way to Victorian technology, I have been spending a lot of time figuring out how my grandparents did things.

buddhabythelake said...


I am greatly encouraged by this week's post. You've pointed out (again) an underlying myth that persists largely b/c we are unaware (or refuse to be aware) of its existence -- we simply accept it as "how things are." In my journaling, I've taken to calling these cultural memes and lenses which color our perceptions of experience "the empire of the mind" in order to remind myself that the most pernicious form of imperialism is that which converts your very interpretive processes. The first step in overcoming this bondage is to recognize and name it for what it is. Only then can we act effectively.

Twilight said...

Mostly off topic but related to the issue of the internet and ever increasing technological complexity – I've been quite skeptical about stories concerning the elimination of cash transactions, but have recently come to think that this may in fact come to pass. The infrastructure appears to be mostly in place, with several nations already serving as test cases, and a large percentage of transactions already occur in this way. Imagine the insertion of a middle man into every transaction, and the massive increase in technological complexity required! Relevant to today's post, this would not really be a technology choice, as a cell phone and paid up account would be required for any use of the existing financial system.

I think that if this happens it will immediately stimulate an increase in barter and the adoption of something else as a cash substitute(s). Nonetheless it would greatly increase the impacts of failures of the various systems that keep the internet data system functioning.

Dammerung said...

I think perhaps a lot of people subconsciously feel - something which I feel rather more consciously - that humanity is simply going to ride the bomb. We're going to burn fossil fuels until it's no longer economically possible to do so, and forget the consequences. As a collective we're going to keep driving our cars until we literally can't afford to do so. We're going to run the rat race until the wheel comes off and it, us, and all the hamsters with us drive the wheel right into the wall, after which all the king's horses and all the king's men will despair of ever putting the world-that-was back together again.

So there is, I imagine, no small amount of partying in the Führerbunker while the forces of reality slowly encircle the city. People know what's going on. But what good does it do to say so out loud? It's not going to stop the "conservatives" from rolling coal and it's not going to stop the "liberals" from buying a new SUV. May as well have whatever you consider to be a good time while Rome burns, and pointing out the smell is a little bit impolite, considering that humanity isn't going to change its mind until it has its mind changed for it.

Shane Wilson said...

Regarding plastics, I had a question regarding tailpipe taxes--do they take into account the chemicals coming out the other end? Say we're in tier 1, farmhouse "A" is heated by conventional wood stoves, so they're spewing tars, particulates, and other toxins into the air even when they burn conventional wood, not to mention what comes out when they burn trash from the sinkhole on their farm. Farmhouse "B" has a rocket stove mass heater, so, with their insulated chimney, they can combust darn near anything thoroughly--the only thing coming out their chimney is water vapor and CO2. Indeed, they often burn styrofoam and other waste plastics that have been salvaged from the local landfill. Do the tailpipe taxes recognize the difference in the conventional stove and the rocket stove, or recognize that the rocket stove user is taking a liability off the hands of future generations by destroying the plastics and other waste?

Thor of Oakland, OR said...

"A Doric column is no more totalitarian than a tensile structure is democratic."

"Horizontal and vertical sprawl... are the dinosaurs of an ending fossil-fuel age of synthetic culture."

"Modernist architecture and town planning is inimical to human beings... based on the Darwinian concept that nature is open ended, that there must always be something new and better."

-Leon Krier

:) As always, JMG, blessings and thanks!

Crow Hill said...

Hello JMG:

Thank you for the post. The paragraph “the internet is the most gargantuan technostructure” is a good summary of the environmental and social cost of the internet which can easily be forgotten—will be copying it for future use.

I find the tier system makes sense. It could be applied mutatis mutandis to present-day countries, for instance I would describe the country I chose to live in as about two tiers lower than my country of origin.

Found these examples of issues you bring up in the post:

A book re the Ecotopian Future : Author Jonathan Porritt, former director of Friends of the Earth UK; chair of the Green Party; Title : Alex MacKay’s story from 2050 ; from the cover: “the book provides a unique opportunity to connect (Alex MacKay’s world) in 2050 with what we can do today to help make it a reality (My comment: hope it doesn’t materialize, but if you're right JMG it won't) ; a world in which standard IT devices are computing at the same rate as the human brain, and everyone loves their robots ; A world in which nanotechnology, 3D printing and biomimicry have transformed manufacturing ; a world in which personal genomics allow everyone to manage their own health, live longer and healthier , and die when they want to."

Sue Thomas author of Technobiophilia defending her technophilia : “ We’re caught in a battle for our digital well-being. We’re told to leave our phones at home and take a walk outdoors. Or get back to nature at a digital detox camp. Or turn off our internet and observe an electronic sabbath. But is all this frantic self-denial really necessary?"

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

JMG, thanks for your illuminating remark that in Lakeland, railways are privately owned. I had rather sloppily been reading your narrative through a Canadian or European lens, and I had consequently been making, or had been verging on making, the assumption that Lakeland railways are government entities. With private ownership, it does become a little easier to imagine lines and stations even in your Tier One counties.

This much said, I do want to add, a little wistfully, that one might prefer monastic ownership of railways. One thinks of it thus: the monks run the trains with the meticulous attention to scheduling that they already bring to Terce, Sext, None, and the rest of the Hours; they apply the already customary Benedictine injunction of hospitality, making "Welcome on board" a natural extension of the normal "Welcome to the guesthouse"; they specialize, as monasteries do anyway, in keeping things tidily maintained on the smallest feasible budget; and they specialize, as monasteries do anyway, in making the enterprise pay its own way, cutting out superfluity. (Cutting out superfluity means, for instance, eschewing plastic cups for coffee, asking travellers either to bring their own mug or to rent a ceramic mug from the railway.) The monastic idea is that the railway is meant not to make a profit, but to serve.

Part of service might mean reviving the dreaded Third or Fourth Class of 19th-century Eastern Europe: if you are poor, you get to ride at a price you can afford, but your carriage is heated in winter only by a wood-burning stove, and your bench is wooden, and you share your space with awkward things like bicycles and freight parcels and goats.

One recalls here also the medieval tradition in which those key components of marine infrastructure, the lighthouses, were on occasion maintained by religious hermits.



just over 20 track miles north of Union Station in Toronto

GHung said...

JMG: Thanks for helping to sort out where I've been in my relationship to technology for a couple of decades (at least). Having never been a conformist, or a slave to trends and fashion (I still wear the same overalls I've worn, most days, for decades; comfortable, durable, and have huge pockets), I've developed a sort of resistance to being mesmerised by the latest technology. It could be that, having been in service of said technology, professionally, I understand the costs and limitations of these things. People get really upset when the things they think they depend on stop working, never considering that they could do quite well without many of these modern "miracles".

Going off grid from scratch was a good way to determine just how far down the rabbit hole of modernism one is willing to go; a bit of a tier-system vetting process. Just how much can the sun be expected to passively heat a structure, and how much additional technology is required to bring a home into a reasonable comfort zone; where costs begin to infringe, and where diminishing returns make going farther down that hole not worth the efforts involved. Turns out that, in many respects, that point is decades behind what our contemporaries consider normal, and far less costly in terms of money and resources.

Anyway, you brought up not having a cell phone, something I gave up years ago, though I've recently decided to make a concession on that front, due to an accident involving my brother where my having a cell phone may (or may not) have saved a couple of his fingers. As it turns out, an older cell phone (one I found refurbished) is also cheaper to purchase, and qualifies for a much cheaper plan. Newer cell phones, with their "4G" data capabilities don't qualify for the 50 dollar per year voice-only plan I'm looking at. The new "smart" phones force users into a higher tier and much more costly plan. Besides that, the older phone I'm purchasing is reputed to be virtually indestructible, a 'waterproof' tank of a phone that will likely last me for years, even if dropped, left in the rain, or lost in the compost pile for a time. It even looks a little steam-punkish. It's not going back to tier one, but going back a couple of tiers will suit my needs fine. If I get any scorn for being "old-fashioned", maybe I'll get a pot of water and throw my phone and my antagonists phone in and see who can still make that emergency call.

It was a tough decision, but family is insisting. My wife wasn't on board with the kerosene lantern thingy either, but loves the woodstove, the gravel driveway, and actually opening windows on warm days. Here's to finding balance, eh?

Dan Mollo said...

It's interesting how science and technology have become inseparable concepts. I remember once seeing a video of Neil DeGrasse Tyson complaining about people who didn't "believe" in science, like it's and ideology not just simply a method of observation, and saying something to the effect that if you want to go back to the caves where people only lived for 25 years (which isn't accurate), then by all means don't believe in science and all the technological benefits that come with it. Like its one or the other. Though I suppose this isn't surprising when your concept of humanity is a linear and ultimately inevitable progression of history from primitive (a value judgement) and advanced (whatever that means anymore). Last time I checked there were plenty of advanced civilizations with complicated technological practices that existed before our modern concept of science was developed.

It's seemingly intelligent people like this, without any concept of actual history, deep cultural memory, and no understanding of alternative life-ways the have been highly successful for different segments of humanity that have ultimately led to their failure to convince humanity of the benefits of science. They do not truly understand how to think in systems, cannot grasp the idea of diminishing returns of technology and externalization of costs, and how energy actual works in reality. You would think that a physicist would know better, but ultimately he and his ilk are nothing more than technocrats.

Rita Narayanan said...

Yup! it is Mendacino meets Bhutan w/ pumpkin patches, baskets and la, la las :) am amazed when I read well read ecological elites (who frequent Schumacher) constantly go on about Gross National Happiness and can one devise a formula for human development without looking at the socio-religious-political template.Bhutan is NOT an Oriental Berkeley.

*polite request to Mr John Michael Greer...please open a twitter account and post your talks & podcasts.Youtube may not have everything :)* Thoroughly enjoy the podcasts so thanks in advance.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

On aeroplanes: As the principal exponent of rail travel in my small social circle, I occasionally deal with friends or relations who use the airlines. My tactic is to praise aviation to the skies, while unsubtly hinting that this is an old-fashioned style of public conveyance: "Aeroplanes! So wonderful! So gloriously retro! Vera Lynn, the Battle of Britain, radar!"

So far, nobody has hit me with anything, or has even yelled at me.


PS: I have in private conversation done less ridiculing of television than of airlines.

**BUT** I do want here to remark, perhaps not for the first time, that the television enterprise is put into its rightfully silly place by the 1936 BBC promo material "Television Comes to London". This promo can be viewed at One cannot improve on perfection - the British sex-kitten (she in reality was caked in brown and green makeup, since the camera had poor pickup even under kilowatts of studio lighting; and the camera optics had to be run at such a low f-number that depth of field was minimal, as one can perhaps guess from the unnatural way the sex kitten keeps her hand in the focal plane when gesturing); the white-coated technicians; the mythical husband and wife brought closer together in their darkened sitting room as they contemplate their ever-so-expensive glowing phosphor; and, what is a master touch, the closing curtain at the performance's end (as in ancient Sunday School concerts).

This same material is retrievable by putting into the YouTube search box the phrase
"television song 1936". - I notice, btw, that that YouTube search today pulls up also a 1936 suspense-or-mystery film, with the promising title "Trapped by Television".

JMG, do Tier Five, 1950-level, counties have television, or have they figured out some way of not having it?


Bill Lehan said...

This is the only blog I know of that discusses such things; there is no one I know of in my family or limited sphere of acquaintances to whom it would occur that one's level of technological dependency is something one could, or should attempt to control. It has occurred to me since at least my junior year of high school that the endless refinement of the technology infrastructure has probably resulted in diminishing returns on some index of "happiness" since at least 1950? 1930, perhaps? ( I might be comfortable in tier 4).

Nastarana said...

I imagine many on this forum have been on the receiving end of post-war American demand for conformity and hatred of eccentricity. My reading of pre WWII fiction convinces me that there was arguably more acceptance of at least the milder forms of eccentricity at that time.

The mass consumption economy requires mass participation supported and encouraged by mass advertising. This worked for a while when products were durable and useful, remember the Maytag washing machines, and most folks could afford to participate. All of this depended, as the Archdruid has said many times, on easily accessed cheap energy. Then American oil reserves began to run out; what was left was increasingly expensive to extract. The American taxpayer was required to support the costs of a massive military whose one assignment is to keep the oil flowing. The price of energy increased dramatically, followed by the prices of housing and utilities. At the present time large and increasing numbers of people simply have no money left and are unable to shop even if they wanted to do so. What money one might have, whether from inheiritance, savings, public subsidy or patchworks of part-time and self employment, must be shoveled into the yawning maw
of Real Estate, Insurance and Finance, the infamous REFI.

This reality is being greeted with howls of outrage from various quarters, such as agribiz and its paid media lackeys. Note the articles about how local food production is actually MORE environmentally destructive than mass production. Then there are the various domestic and foreign interests who depend on US military spending and protection, such as it is. Note the angry neo-con insistence on the pages of the NYT, WSJ, etc. that America, but no one else, apparently, Has Responsibilities to drown the rest of the world in blood.

I have read that people are mesmerized into mass delusions en masse but awake from such delusions one at a time. More and more of us are waking up to the reality that if you need something done best do it yourself or find someone in your neighborhood you can trust and pay, in cash or kind, that person what their help is worth. A modest suggestion; I think all of us Americans should immediately start describing ourselves, online and in conversation, as citizens, not consumers.

Gavin Harris said...

Them: Have you seen "XYZ" on the TV?
Me: I don't watch TV
Them: Oh, what do you watch?
Me: Paper. I read.

I've lost count of the number of times that I've had conversations like that over the last few years. The wired in assumption that you MUST be watching something, somehow is incredibly insidious.

It reminds me of a set of evening classes I took several years ago on basic psychology. In this case stereotyping and the fact that people see what they expect because that's how their brain simply handles the flood of information being thrown at it. In this case its that their entire view point is framed by the technology they use, so that they only see the picture and are blind to the frame and the rest of the gallery.

I may be more generous than some in that I think that for most people its not a deliberate attempt on their part to ignore answers like that, its that the filters in their minds struggle to process that information and they fall back into asking the same question again hoping to get an answer that will pass the filter and make more sense. When the next answer also fails the filter, they get frustrated and, on the internet unfortunately the gap from frustration to flame war is all too brief.

Then, some people are just *insert expletive of choice here*. Or, for the Buddhists out there, a chance to practice compassion in a challenging environment :)

Robert Honeybourne said...

The Chrisman's place looks marvellous

When I win the lottery.... I would like to set up a small country house hotel. Again, Victorian, with electricity lacking. The guests would be spoilt - they can have fires warm their bedrooms and gas lighting. I think I'll run to a piano in the lounge

I think a chance to stay a few days 'without' would be a glimpse that some have never had of a world they might like more of

I have lived a few weeks that way and enjoyed it - it's a bit more work than I could manage all the time. I couldn't do rough in the woods eating grubs, but I think a step back us good

I like the tiered government. In the uk central government won't allow local government to raise local taxes or lower services - so why vote! The choice should be returned? I'd vote for higher spending on social amenity as I'm that way inclined but it would give folk a choice

I'm glad we have the Internet for this blog...

Laylah said...

Thank you for another thought-provoking post, and thank you also for curating one of the most worth-reading comment sections on the internet. So many people have had good experience and perspectives to share this week. I'm also in the no-TV camp -- it makes me agitated and restless just trying to be in the same room with it a lot of the time -- but all too dependent on the internet to provide me with stimulus, socializing, and if I'm completely honest anesthesia for the frustrations of life. TJ's plan to step back from the always-available laptop to desktop computing sounds like it might be a step I should consider.

On a related note, does anyone reading have any thoughts on the process of trying to collapse (or even just crumble a bit) in a shared living space with people who aren't interested? Working out compromises is tough business, and there are multiple reasons that "just stop living with them" isn't an answer.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

JMG: Sorry, I now realize that my question regarding television in the Tier Five counties was rather foolish. Television is not primarily a matter of public infrastructure. There is nothing to prevent Tier Five, or even Tier One, entrepreneurs from setting up a television broadcasting station, and of selling television receivers (with the associated cumbersome batteries, for those purchasers who lack grid electricity). Whether Lakeland market forces will render such an enterprise viable is a different question, with perhaps no easy answer.


Bob Patterson said...

Good points covered this week. Your tier system harks back to the "pure democracy" of the New England town meeting. But you might be surprised at the effect of pressure groups and incompetent petty tyrants can have.

Your discussion of individualism under attack, seems to be based in a fear of the attacker that they are mistaken, deluded, etc. Quite true, I think.

I am feeling quite optimistic today, as I have just finished the book "The Collapse of Globalism" by John Ralston Saul. A good exposition of facts about the subject.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

JMG, and readership more generally: I was shocked at one of JMG's facts this week, regarding the true cost of server farms. That the electricity consumption is high is predictable, given what one can see on the Internet regarding the problem of cooling the server racks. But that a server farm requires one or more daily truckloads of replacement hard drives is news, of a shocking kind. Perhaps JMG or others could direct me to some high-quality publications on what it takes to keep a server farm up and running, with some particular emphasis on the problem of hardware replacements?

I did touch briefly on the nasty side of hardware back on 2004, in my essay "No-Frills GNU/Linux:Philosophical Foundations" at www(dot)metascientia(dot)com, and I may as well here quote the most pertinent paragraph (based on some research of reasonable quality for 2004; my focus in this essay is admittedly on the scams prevalent in software, rather than on hardware):

Let's for a nanosecond belabour the obvious: we stress the biosphere by scrapping hardware, with its load of toxic residues, long before its lifetime is over. We all know, for instance from anecdotes in our local GNU/Linux User Group regarding long-lived hard drives, or again from our experience with keeping that valiant little early-nineties IBM PS/1 monitor running on a minor workstation in the Year of Grace 2004, that the natural lifetime for much hardware is on the order of fifteen years. We also all know, for instance from glancing at the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD) report at, under what third-world working conditions shiny new hardware, so tempting as we gaze on it in the retailer's window, gets assembled. (In China, says CAFOD, you may be forced to wear a special red overcoat when the brigade leader finds a mistake in your soldering. Let's not even get started on the hours, the wages, the safety.)



PS: If anyone wants to e-mail me, privately, tips on researching the hardware replacement costs inherent in running a server farm, I can be reached at Toomas(dot)Karmo(at)gmail(dot)com.

S.Treimel said...


If you did want to publish this column in serial format on paper, and mail it to subscribers, have you calculated the costs to do so profitably? I'd be interested to find out.

At present, users of the internet have so much free content available, and we forget to compensate the writers. In former times, we had to subscribe to newspapers, magazines, and journals to fill our desires for quality writing on topics of interest.

It is also difficult to estimate the hidden costs of having an internet, as so many of the costs of mining resources, energy production, manufacturing, etc. are either subsidized, inflicted upon the environment, or passed on to future generations. I like the explanation of the tier system and the discussions of the political/environmental economy in the Lakeland Republic narrative, as it portrays a society that attempts to account for and pay all these costs up front.


Steve Thomas said...

This is a great post.

I've noticed the same sort of phenomenon in a few other areas.

Do you remember a couple of years ago when the Big Story that Everyone as talking about was that there was a kid lost in a hot air balloon, and then it turned out that there wasn't a kid lost in a hot air balloon, it was just his parents trying to get attention?

I remember when that was on the front page of every big American news site, I went and looked at a dozen or so foreign sites and, while the front page news varied, it always had to do with something consequential happening in the world. CNN, Fox, ABC, the New York times, all had this bit of not-just-fluff, meta-fluff.

I tried to talk to 2 different groups of people about this. In both cases, after I'd finished my spiel, they kind of stared at me uncomfortably and then turned to each other and started "talking about" the boy in the hot air balloon.

I put "talking about" in quotes because they weren't actually even talking about this "news story" which would have been irrelevant even if it wasn't fake. They were just repeating things that other people had said about it on TV or the internet.

After that I started listening for it, and I noticed that people do this constantly. That includes people that think they're very intelligent-- it's just that, instead of repeating what they heard on Fox News, they repeat what they read in Noam Chomsky.

I'm sure that I do this to, and I try not to. The exercise-- that I learned from you-- that has helped me in this regard is the practice of resolving binaries, as you described it in CGD. The only problem is that I've noticed that whenever you present a third option on any major issue on which there are only two options (Our Opinion and the Other Opinion, that only idiots that watch the Other TV Channel believe), people just react as if you'd presented The Other Opinion and attacking it by repeating Our Opinion over and over again!

Ursachi Alexandru said...

Well, I finally raised a question that got mentioned in one of your posts, though I'd have prefered it to be something we would agree on. :) Here are some explanations du rigueur on my behalf:

My disagreement with the feasibility of the tier system is not the technological triage itself, which I am perfectly aware that will be unavoidable as energy and resources become scarce. Nor am I ignoring the fact that it allows people to choose how much of their money goes into infrastructure. I disagree with it because, first of all, I think that people living within the same country would not be happy with a system which would allow the possibility of large differences in development between different parts of the country being legally endorsed, whether we're talking about counties or other types of administrative divisions. And even if it is by their own choice, as you say. Because "choices" in this case can depend on oh-so-many things.

I think that a system that would legally endorse such large differences in development between parts of the same country (counties, regions, etc.) would be rejected by most people. You talk about people being able to "choose" how much of their income goes into infrastructure. And you mentioned that you live in a less developed part of your own country. What you didn't mention is that some regions being more wealthy than others, it's not much of a "choice" when deciding how much of your own money goes into infrastructure, if you don't have enough to begin with. Those with the most advantages (geographical, economical, and so on) will get to have more infrastructure because they can pay for it. It happens anyway, and most people do not like it when they live in a less developed region of their own country. A legal system that would openly exacerbate such differences I think would be rejected by most people, and widely condemned if ever put in practice. And when I mentioned how hypocritical I think the elites of your fictional country would be in the real world, that is the condemnation that I had in mind. Not that "eew, I hate these backwards-thinking people who want to take away our internets!"

And then there's the fact that infrastructure is also critical for national security. Which is why I think that most countries faced with the reality of deindustrialism will handle critical questions about infrastructure/technology triage on a national level, and not delegate everything to local governments. You mentioned railroads, but I think that many others such as roads and electricity grids would be taken into account as well, depending on how much the country in question can afford. That personal cars or the internet magastructure will not survive no matter how much people want them, I never argued against.

I don't know how many times I have to repeat myself that I agree with your arguments for technological triage and its inevitability. It is your particular idea of putting it into practice that I didn't agree with, that's all. I don't have a car or TV either, I do have a cell phone but it is an old fashioned one without all the shiny toys (and a battery that lasts a lot longer) and I walk to work or use public transport. I don't know if you wanted to label me as one of those people with kneejerk reactions, but I suggest that it would be a bit of a stretch.

Sorry for the long message.

Eric S. said...

One thing this train of thought leaves me wondering about is where the possibility of an eventual print newsletter version of these blogs that would present the same information in a more analogue form currently stands. I've seen you mention the intent before, and I'm just curious about the circumstances and level of reader interest, subscription fees, etcetera, that would be required to eventually make such a thing worthwhile. Is that something you could see ever happening even while there's still a free internet to post on?

Regis Will said...

I've been reading this blog for years but this post as finally compelled me to comment. This kind of thing pervades our thoughts on technology at all levels. Even within groups of relatively simple technologies, say bicycles, there can quite a bit of animosity from some people if you choose say a steel frame over a carbon fiber one. This example doesn't even really change much about how the bicycle operates from the user perspective. I think responses get even more interesting if you choose a technology that requires more effort and or skill on the part of the user than the acceptable tech in that space. Take for example choosing an axe over a chainsaw for felling a tree. People start really wondering why you would ever want to do such a thing. This example also brings to mind your post on tools vs prosthetics, at least I think it was your post. Any choice that requires a person to use more physical effort, have more skill, or be more mindful is definitely one that will bring some angry responses to the fore.

Best to you,

blackwingsblackheart said...

If you all think people's reactions to you not having a smartphone or TV are hilarious, tell them you don't have a microwave. Ours finally broke down (it had belonged to my parents originally); at first we didn't have extra money for a replacement, but as the months wore on my roommate acknowledged that it wasn't really necessary. Then friends gave us a toaster oven, and any plans to someday replace the microwave were abandoned. There's vanishingly little you can do with a microwave that the stove can't do better (popcorn being a case in point). Reheating, which is the only thing they're good for, just takes a little longer in the toaster oven. People, however, comprehend the lack of microwave even less well than they do my veganism--at least they ask questions about veganism ("So do you eat fish, then?"), whereas the microwave issue receives stunned silence, pitying looks, or anxious comments that they're really cheap at Target and I could probably afford to get one now.

The same friends who were kind enough to give us the toaster oven were unkind enough to also give us their digital converter box. I'd almost gotten my roommate used to not having a TV that did anything but play DVDs, and then all my work was undone. I'm waiting for either the converter or the TV to die a natural death, and then we'll see.

Charles DeYoe said...

I always appreciate your perspective on technological choices. I'm definitely not so close to your level - I have a deep love of motion pictures, so I'm not too eager to give up the TV; though it is exceedingly rare to watch anything aside from movies on discs, which is already passe for a lot of folks. But for as much as I love a lot of modern, unsustainable technologies, I've long had at least one foot in the past: I still shoot photographs on film, if I'm working on making my own movie, I typically shoot it on Super 8 film as opposed to video, I like computers from the 1980s more than a lot of newer ones, and have zero desire for a smart phone. In some ways I feel torn between the types of folks who want to live exclusively off the land, forsaking computers and movies, and the types of folks who are obsessed with the latest Apple-branded gewgaw.
But I suppose that's not the worst place to be, all things considered. At least I can recognize that there are options and alternatives?

Shane Wilson said...

When did intellectuals go from reading and being "too good" for TV to watching TV? I distinctly remember the former in the 80s and ever 90s in school. My theory is that the internet, marketed as it was as the "information superhighway" AKA the "thinking man's TV" broke down the wall/divide between books and learning on one hand, and screens/TV on the other. Once you have one screen and are watching, say, videos on YouTube, the barrier between education & screens is effectively broken, and you might as well have a TV. Seems like this was about the same time that "high end" TV dramas started being marketed. I'd like to know others thoughts about when they think TV went from being something only working class people did to being an acceptable pastime for intellectuals.

Bill Lehan said...

I have similar feelings about television. I rarely watch it, and when I do it's what most people would call "appointment" television, a show I really want to see.This is increasingly rare. I can't remember when I last turned on the set just to "relax" or to "see what's on". Most of the other people in my household are TV watchers, and I find myself escaping into another room to avoid being distracted by it.

For me, and perhaps for others, I usually don't enjoy TV because the idea that I am spending significant time sitting still watching contrived characters deal with contrived situations really bothers me.

Phil Harris said...

Presumably its not just us anglo-phones develop herd opinions and become devotees of 'Progress'?

I think modernist rejection of both non-conformism and non-conformists pre-dates TV by a mile.

Take, for example, beards in late 19th and first half 20thC. "Beaver" I believe was the cat-call on the street in my dad's childhood before WWI in Britain. This was despite our two bearded kings, the son going on into the 30s. Looking at an old family wedding photo from 1890s, all the young guys had moustaches but no beards. These were reserved for the old men. (Enduring exceptions, seem to have been Naval officers and artists. Come to think of it, George Vth was a naval officer.)

I remember being called 'beardie-wierdie' in the 1960s, and my dad, though almost polite, was clearly disconcerted. He was very much a modernist, though heaven forbid not a social-progressive!

Very much the 'package deal', I'm afraid.


Shane Wilson said...

I think you may be on to something. Using the terms of addiction, one of the things recommended to friends and family of addicts is detachment, separating oneself from the destructive behavior of the addict. So if we see this contemporary insanity leading nowhere good, it is best for our own well being to detach to spare ourselves the pain and maintain our sanity.

aunteater said...

I had noticed this phenomenon, but had never been able to elucidate it before. Thank you. My parents opted out of television, and I never missed it. Sometime after college, I spent a couple of years "catching up" to see what I'd missed, culturally, and came to the conclusion that my parents were right: we were better off without it. I have almost no tolerance for fast-cut video editing (migraine trigger) and the insipid repetition that happens when an hour-long show must stretch out ten minutes of content by recapping all previous events after each commercial break. I'd rather take three minutes to read the transcript, if it's something I'm interested in.

The encounters I've had over the years with TV devotees have always left me baffled. There's a predictable pattern to them: once people find out I don't watch TV, and have never had one, they launch into full evangelization of their favorite show/s. When I try to make it clear that I'm not interested, and I'm not going to check out their favorite show-- it does not matter how I say it, sometimes I say flat out that it's a useless waste of time and I'd rather spend three hours a day shoveling manure, and sometimes I politely invoke my migraines and say "I can't" in an apologetic tone, it makes no difference-- the conversation goes all cold and hostile. It's like I've just insulted their kids. The best explanation I could come up with for it was that they know, deep in their hearts, what a horrific waste of their lives it is, and when they meet someone who doesn't partake, they feel judged.

The weird part was having this happen just last week, with my own sister-- who grew up in the same house, with the same parents...

Bill Lehan said...

What are we really talking about, when we talk about the types of technologies that make us uncomfortable?

For me, I have decided that, if I cannot explain at more than a very general level how some particular technology works, then I am potentially uncomfortable with it. I do not understand how computers and smartphones work. Not even a little bit. I don't understand how the circuits on a microchip manage to deliver text, pages, and graphics on a screen. I don't understand how wireless signals carry information. I couldn't build a computer, not even if I was given the parts.

A bicycle, however, I understand. I can see how the chain engages the gears, how the force rotating the crank turns the rear wheel. I can observe how releasing tension on a cable moves the derailleur to change the gear ratio. I have never built a bicycle, but I might be able to assemble one from the parts, since I can recognize them and know how they work.

We are not, of course, asked to understand the technology we use. The purveyors of mobile devices, of web software, of internet service, could not possibly care less if we understand it. That way, of course, we are dependent on them. The more dependent, the better.

nuku said...

@Zachary Braverman,
When you talked about giving up your cell phone,

"Then I thought about it some more, and realized that my kids and work will be just fine without a smart phone in my pocket".

I noticed you equated "cell phone" with "smart phone". They aren't the same at all. You could give up the smart phone, and drop back a notch to a simpler technology, a basic non-internet connected cell phone (which is really not much more than a cordless telephone). This is another example of how people imagine that giving up a particular technology means "going back to the Stone Age".
Giving up your automatic digitally enhanced "smart" washing machine doesn't mean you have to go back to pounding your laundry onto a rock in the stream with no soap. A simple old-fashioned wringer/single tub washer works fine, and dropping back a level from that is a non-electric hand-operated unit I used for years on my sailboat.

Re the smart phone: ask yourself is there anything inherent to the smart phone that is essential for my needs right now? Could a simple cell phone satisfy those needs? Maybe in the future your communication needs will change: your kids will leave home, you'll change/lose your job, and you won't need a cell phone of any kind...

The point is: you do have a choice in the level of your technology; its not "all or nothing" and its a shifting situation.

John Michael Greer said...

Glenn, oh, granted. I'm sure there are as many privileged liberal hypocrites on the right coast as the left one, and no shortage of them in between, just as there are also people who are actually doing something useful about the crisis of our time all over -- yes, even in Jefferson County, WA. ;-) I've simply had a lot of personal experience with the particular (and peculiar) species of privileged liberal hypocrite found in the coastal West.

Mark, exactly. It's an easy trap to fall into, until and unless you have the chance to get out of the bubble of privilege.

Rob, good. The role of evasion of responsibility in all this demands close attention.

Moondira, I understand! I love the physical presence of books -- the bindings, the paper, the scent, the heft of the object in my hand. I've never owned an e-book reader and never will -- from my perspective, e-books are to real books what pornography is to hot sex.

Patricia, no argument there. It fascinates me that so many of those people who are being harmed, obviously and personally, by the worship of progress still can't think their way out from under it.

Ed, one of the difficulties peak oil activism has faced is that so many people in the early days let themselves get sucked into apocalyptic thinking, and when the apocalypse didn't arrive, a lot of people decided that the entire subject of peak oil was discredited. I warned about that back in the early days of this blog, for whatever that's worth.

Maxine, I'm glad to hear that your friends have come around!

Tom, understood. I sometimes wonder if it would be a good idea to advertise a meeting for people who want to socialize without screens -- in any town or city of decent size, you ought to be able to attract a decent crowd.

Jbucks, good. Step by step is generally a more practical approach than cold turkey anyway.

Trmist, you're welcome and thank you!

Mgalimba, I expected that it would stir up conversation and allow certain points to be made. I didn't expect that it would cause brains to freeze up and people to basically go "Gah, gah, gah" on the subject!

Myriad said...

My experiences with this phenomenon vary. At my two most recent homes, in coastal New England and in southeastern PA, I've gotten "good for you" reactions for doing my yard work with a manual mower, a rake, and a snow shovel, from neighbors who take on the same tasks in storms of noise and exhaust fumes when they deign to do it themselves at all. I tell them I need the exercise, and I don't mention the noise, fumes, or vibration-numbed hands avoided. They already know the downsides, and maybe they wish they had the resolve or stamina to do it my way but they don't. So I pretend to admire or envy their fine hellish machines and we all stay friends.

People react poorly to their choices being challenged. If technology choices are particularly prone to this, it might be because people are actually somewhat embarrassed by their dependence on it, making it a sensitive area. Or maybe it's because of the role of technology as substitute achievement: "My parents at my age had a house already half paid off, but they never had a TV screen this big or a phone this smart or an Internet this pornucopian."

Human communication is a wonderful and sometimes frightening thing. It doesn't seem reasonable or fair that telling someone something innocuous about ones own preferences, like "I simply don't enjoy watching television," can be read by them as "I think less of you due to your wasting time watching TV." Yet, that unfair and logically invalid inference is nonetheless generally correct, is it not? If it's not in your case, it probably is in other similar conversations that person has had.

I admit I think less of people who seem excessively dependent on their cell phones. Especially the ones who appear to be negotiating life like an astronaut in constant communication with Mission Control. "Houston, sixteen ounce container of Miracle Whip acquired... Negative, Houston, 32-ounce is out of stock... Roger that, proceeding to the bread aisle..." What's wrong with them? My wife and I trust one another to handle errands, travel about, and react appropriately to unexpected events and even emergencies, in one another's physical and electronic absence. We don't need cell phones.

Yet, technological choices are rarely made in isolation. I can choose whether or not to carry a cell phone, but I can't choose whether or not the train station where I'm catching a connection will have pay phones available. So when my mother requests "call me from the station" on my way to a visit, I can choose to say, "Sorry, Mom, I can't do that," but that's no longer just a choice about technology. Not when a prepaid flip phone with 100 minutes costs way less than the train ticket and my mother offers to pay back even that cost. Do I care about her peace of mind or not?

As a result, my wife and I do own cheap cell phones (we didn't make my mother pay for them), that sit in a drawer most of the time but we bring them along to reassure relatives when we travel.

I have zero objection to anyone thinking less of me for giving in to family pressure or because, for instance, I do watch TV. That's completely justifiable. (If they knew me better, they might find even better reasons to think less of me!) But my reactions to such things don't seem to be typical, and are not the same now as they've been at other times in my life. It seems very likely to me that the people who push their own current favorite show as a mandatory exception to your dislike of TV are not really defending the programming or the technology, but their own tastes, choices, and self-worth.

pygmycory said...

Off topic data point I think people might want to know:

Resistance to an important 'last line of defense' antibiotic called Colistin is being passed between bacteria and turning up in human patients in China.


The Lancet

On another note, health inequality between rich and poor is increasing in Canada, not just the USA.

nuku said...

@Martin B,
Re squatter camps and how people live: I've been reading a book called "Shantaram" which is set in Bombay (Mumbai) in the 80's. The main character, like the author, is an Aussie prison escaper on the run who ends up living in an illegal slum next to a legal slum attached to a building site. Yes, the slum is dirty, smelly, very basic, on the surface chaotic, BUT it "works" for the very poor people in it. For them, the slum is a significant step UP from the most basic level of life on the street with no home at all but a doorway or a piece of pavement.
The very basic "municipal" services in the slum like water, garbage, and latrines are all that the slum dwellers can afford, and they all pay tax in the form of their own community organized labor such as latrine cleaning, water carrying, and garbage collection.
As described, its a fascinating self-regulating organism more like a living animal than the-down-organized, money mediated, machine-like structure of a "modern" town.
As described, there is a huge amount of suffering and inconvenience in the slum, but also a huge amount of joy and human kindness.
Maybe we could call this tier "0"?

Ruben said...


You said,

"I think that a system that would legally endorse such large differences in development between parts of the same country (counties, regions, etc.) would be rejected by most people."

And then you say, "It happens anyway, and most people do not like it when they live in a less developed region of their own country."

So that is a bit of a contradiction.

And I would offer that many people specifically move to less developed regions because they afford many benefits.

Probably few of those benefits are financial, for all the reasons discussed:

If you don't have paved roads, you may have to pay for 4WD vehicles.
If you don't have a sewer system, you will have to pay for septic fields, very few places allow outhouses anymore.
If you don't have water service, you will have to pay for home water treatment, as so many water sources are contaminated with agricultural or resource extraction effluents.

But, you can build whatever building you want. You can park car wrecks anywhere you want. You can shoot guns from your porch. You can shoot all sorts of illegal guns from your porch. You can rip around on dirt bikes and atvs. You can moonshine. You can raise animals and slaughter them. You can paint your house any colour you like, or not paint it all. You can choose to not even live in a house.

Basically, coping with fewer of the "benefits" of modernity frees us to enjoy fewer of the restrictions of modernity, and that is something that many people are very, very happy about.

John Michael Greer said...

Brian, by all means get a parrot. They're far more interesting than televisions are.

Kayr, no, it's not easy, just necessary and rewarding.

Jen, it sounds like a great idea -- and The Voyage of the Beagle really is a delightful read. One advantage of reading only 19th century books for a year, as you probably know already, is that time has had the chance to filter out much of the garbage -- an advantage that readers of current bestsellers don't have.

Averagejoe, I did indeed see it. As you probably remember, that's been discussed here repeatedly, too.

Ben, the only cold turkey I recommend is the kind that shows up the day after Thanksgiving, in sandwiches and the like. Take it a step at a time, and get a replacement in place before you ditch the latest piece of high-tech trash.

Ondra, that's really too bad. I have no idea who first came up with the idea that it makes sense to dump human wastes into clean drinking water, thus fouling the water and losing the fertilizer value of the waste!

Russell2000, exactly. I really need to do a post one of these days on the bizarre conviction that doing without "smart"-phones equates to living in caves.

Karim, welcome to the Heretics and Blasphemers Club!

Renaissance, if you like looking at little pictures on a screen while doing boring chores, by all means. The point of technological choice is, ahem, technological choice, not one more set of Thou Shalts and Thou Shalt Nots!

Jason, that's really good to hear. I suspect the fact that people found out they don't actually own their e-book copies, they just lease them from the provider on a terminate-at-will basis, may have helped.

Tim, delighted to hear it. Your daughters are the wave of the future.

Martin, you might want to go back and read what I wrote in the post. The lower tiers don't have your supposed minimum -- countywide electricity, water and sewer service are tier five only, and dirt roads are standard in the two lowest tiers. The reason you don't see room for more than two tiers is that you're missing the actual diversity of options.

Flute, you might try making fun of the "stone age" comments sometimes. Sure, cave men used push-button cell phones!

aiastelamonides said...


This confirms my personal experience – a relative of mine, after hearing that my parents did not own or want a television, and after repeatedly failing to convince them that it was bad for the children not to have one (!), went ahead and gave them one as a Christmas present.

The outrage against Sarah Chrisman really is bizarre, and particularly the idea that she is trying to live in the past, or deluding herself in some way. It seems plain enough that Ms Chrisman is not trying to live in the past, but rather living quite successfully in the both the present and a corset (and an old house, relative peace and quiet, etc). Now, if the Chrismans read the 1875 New York Times over breakfast each day and earnestly discussed it as though it were current news, or were trying to revive the Temperance movement while pretending that Prohibition never happened, or followed only those laws that applied in the old Washington Territory, or refused to believe twentieth-century scientific discoveries, or tried to land-speculate in the old frontier style, that might be called trying to live in the past. You could legitmately call that a deluded approach to life, though completely harmless so long as not too many people try to live that way. (You might say, if you were of a certain disposition, that too many people do indeed do something comparable, though shifted forward a century or so, or even forward another century into an imagined future.)

(When I look at it out of the corner of one eye, as it were, I too find even an external attempt to recreate one specific past era full-time rather disconcerting, though not anything close to outraging. I haven't been able to find a good reason for this that holds up under two-eyed scrutiny, and in any case it is only a part-time personal preference.)


Nastarana said...

Dear Jen, you are in for a treat. Dickens, Balzac, Stendhal, Austen, Elliot, Hugo, and don't forget Gaskell who in her own way was just as good. The romantic poets, and some history from that era is not bad, even though archeologists' shovels have turned up much which was not then known.

I once spent a very happy summer reading through much of Balzac's Human Comedy which books I found in a community college library in Eastern Oregon! Gold is where you find it.

PatriciaOrmsby, thank you for the reference to Lobaczewski, of whose work I blush to say I had never heard. Local library system does not have his book, natch, money can't be spared from computer access and DVDs, but there is a website to which I am headed shortly. Our library does not do interlibrary loans. I know. I tried. One's request gets filled and forgotten.

Bruce Port Byron said...

Oh, the "ocean" we live in- not even knowing the "water" is there unless we swim against the current or see others doing so. How shocking it can be to those, that only then see themselves being swept in some direction they haven't, and don't want to, considered. Yes, and how easy it is for almost each of us to drift, momentarily comfortable, with that current.

Heather TB said...

I have been ruminating about the horrible reaction to Sarah Chrismas's lifestyle as posted on The Concourse. You are absolutely correct that there are some truly bizarre mental gymnastics going on there.

As you have pointed out, the idea held by some that "if you adopt one aspect of a time period, you must adopt all of it," as though there is an "All or Nothing Era Adoption Policy" that is an immutable law of the universe, is so arbitrary that it's ridiculous. Who made that rule? And by what authority?

However, the whole line of reasoning presupposes that the thinking of an era was one homogeneous worldview. Sure, there may be some over-arching themes, but the notion that one must adopt everything from an era or nothing is predicated on the assumption that there was a single set of thoughts and beliefs held by all during that era, which is false. I'm sure that there were many Victorian ladies who dreamed of a day when they could wear a dress and breathe at the same time.

There is also a weird disconnect with reality. Ms. Chrisman is being lambasted for her decision to use material goods that are authentic to the time period. Adam Prosk writes "Were she an actual inhabitant of 19-century Victorian culture, the cotton for those covers Chrisman writes about painstakingly stuffing would have been farmed on slave plantations and woven by fingerless children in sweatshops." This is all true except for the part where she ISN'T actually in the 19-century. In the year 2015, where she actually lives, her choices are more ecologically sound and less exploitative than most people's. It is also based on the assumption that the items we use today weren't made with human misery. The main difference between the pollution and human misery associated with Victorian lifestyle and our modern one is that our supply chains have allowed us to move the pain and suffering across the world and out of our sight.

I'm sure that your observation that the Chrismans have committed the heresy of demonstrating that a happy life can be lived without technology accounts for some of the vitriol, but I have to wonder if there isn't more to it than that. Could part of the issue be that the genteel and courtly comportment of some earlier eras is so antithetical to society's current way of being that their mere adoption is perceived as a judgement by those who enjoy being vulgar? I don't know, but the reaction is certainly disproportionate to the "offence" or non-offence, as the case may be.

Swimmer said...

Yesterday I would have said that I cannot work without Internet in my rural home-office, where I write reports, prepare lectures, and do all my critical academic work. Today, thanks to this post, I have very different feelings. Admittedly, my mind must have been badly blocked, since it was so easy when I set the mind free, to realize that I can probably work off Internet at least 4 days per week and still do the updates of home pages that I administrate, download the reports that I need, and communicate enough to still be attractive for my customers. In fact, I think that my results can be even better if I do like this. This also leads me to the conclusion that tier one might be an attractive location for some authors and researchers. Thank you John Michael for freeing my blocked mind! You're a Great wizard!

Urban Harvester said...

John, I admire your ability to engage with people tangled in such paralogic and to illuminate the underlying issues. The Chrisman's story struck home for me, and reminded me of how earlier this week a friend and I were bemoaning the lack of the vigorous counter-cultures we had amongst today's young people. We were also lamenting the loss of our local punk rock music scene. I was saved by being in a punk rock band. It introduced me to a whole world of people engaged in "lo-fi" and DIY audio technology. My bandmates and I spent much of our time scavenging at the thrift stores for the gems that people were casting off: reel-to-reel audio recorders, record players with integral tube-amps which made for the warmest electric guitar sound... our recording "studio" was entirely composed of paraphernalia dating from the 40's to the 60's.

However, perhaps because I've taken a certain amount of personal pride in that deliberately anti-high-tech-finger-to-the-man approach, I've taught myself to ignore the indignant objections of people who take issue with my unconventional ways, sometimes to the point of being oblivious to them. One of the things I've been really enjoying about reading your blog is your ability to engage the reality police and its influence in dialogue.

Your tiers struck me as brilliant off the bat, and I'd agree that this device of yours is looking to be very effective. I also appreciate that your writing is a reliable force in my life for curtailing the pervasive influence of distractive thaumaturgy (even if it is at the expense of another Retrotopia installment :). It's tendrils are always creeping in somewhere... like mice... you think you have all the holes stopped up when they gnaw through an old baseboard or eat their way through the lathe and plaster (how do they DO that?).

So I have a renewed gratitude to the gods of punk and retro-tech (whoever they are) for helping set me "off course". I have to wonder if whoever the entities were encouraging Baudelaire to dye his hair green and to try to make people face the coarse, unrefined, unpleasant aspects of life around them, weren't the same ones inspiring the New York Dolls to dress like dandies and make music that was rebelliously idiosyncratic and deliberately rough around the edges more than a century later. As to what entities favor the refined craft that goes into the older, durable technologies that even punk rockers salivate over (those tubes, the lines on those old amp cases)... I imagine they are different, but perhaps allied for the time being. As you're no stranger to encouraging us to either look at uncomfortable reality or to consider retro-tech I'd be curious about your take (although that might be a question for your other blog).

The issues surrounding the Chrisman's case strike home for another reason, they are analogous to developments here in Utah last week: where the hierarchy of the LDS church, in response to the prospect of having to interact with healthy, well adjusted, happy legally married same sex couples in their congregations, have instituted a slew of draconian policies that a) make same-sex marriage grounds for apostasy, b) require mandatory disciplinary (excommunication) councils for anybody that gets into one, and c) in an act of gratuitous and un-christian spite bar children of same sex couples from fellowship until they are 18 AND disavow their gay parents' life styles. This last is especially sticky as there are many children of previously "mixed-orientation" marriages, who now have to choose between their straight and gay sets of parents, or be second class citizens in their devout extended families and neighborhood church communities. All of this because the LDS hierarchy can't handle divergent lifestyles. The Chrisman's experience (especially the reaction to their happiness) demonstrates to me that the technology-lifestyle issue is in fact, as you have argued, a RELIGIOUS one.

will said...

Here's a story idea, one that's probably better suited for your Galabes Well, but .... an investigator of the supernatural uncovers a conspiracy of sorts - all of the soul-sucking tech glamour of 20-21st century - and by "glamour", I mean the literal casting of an illusion-inducing spell - and by "soul-sucking tech" I mostly refer to mass entertainment television - is actually engineered by the Fae in retaliation for having been pushed out of their natural habitats. It seems the Fae hope we'll all be reduced to dream-haunted, illusion-addicted shells and our civilization will fall apart, leaving them to reclaim their lands. 

The investigator attempts to rid himself of his flat screen ... and finds he can't.

Pentrus said...

Choosing what technology is appropriate spills over into our schools. I happen to be an older person (60s) teaching high school science. The push now days is to adopt more and more "technology" (read computer technology) to classroom activities. For a while I had an IPad cart to use because the administration wanted to go with ebooks and my, the students would have so much access to so many "gee whiz" websites and apps and, gosh, it would just make the whole learning experience "better" for the students. I tried to use the Ipads, but they were not compatible with a lot of things I used, they were often difficult to get connected to the school network, and even having blocked most inappropriate websites, these tech-savvy kids know how to get around such things. I found the Ipads to be an enormous time waster. I ended up doing a property transfer to get them out of my room and into a younger teacher's area giving the administration the logic of "I think a younger teacher might be able to better use this wonderful technology". One of the subjects I teach is chemistry. I find it much more satisfying to work with apparatus, pencil and paper. We have honest-to-god paper textbooks that the kids lug around, and some of them carry the books like a badge of honor. It is fun to see a student's eyes light up during a titration laboratory when they understand how knowing something about one reactant can be used to ascertain the properties of another using simple ratios determined during the the reaction. They seem to enjoy the very process of assembling apparatus and running a reaction to do chemical separations which allows them to identify the ratios of elements to each other in compounds. And on, and on... I tell folks that I am using technology, it is just of a different kind. And a decay curve generated on graphing paper is just as legitimate as one generated using a spreadsheet and computer. My other classes are in the Earth Sciences, where my kids go to the field to examine the nature of rock strata and their relationship to each other, make topographic or geological maps, or collect fossils that are brought back to the lab where reference books and pamphlets are used to decipher the kinds of environments the ancient organisms lived in as well as the age of the rocks in which the fossils are found. They use compasses and trigonometry to navigate. They visit observatories (Cincinnati) and peer at the wonderful star clusters and planets through a telescope built in the 1840s (it has a mahogany optical tube and was built by apprentices of Fraunhofer). I could go on but you get the picture. I am viewed as an old, backward guy who shuns technology because I am just not as "with it" as the younger crowd. But, my students return year after year to tell me about how successful they've been in first year chemistry classes at university or how they still look at geologic structures or fossils during trips with their families, and some have even gone into the study of geology at the college level. My technology is never down. When other classes are bemoaning network difficulties, we don't even notice since the students are working problems, asking questions, reading books, looking through microscopes, keying out rock and fossil samples, collecting biological specimens in the field during field studies, etc. However, guys like me are being quietly phased out through attrition (retirement) and I am sure future students will fare much better with a younger more technologically able teacher.

Jason Heppenstall said...

Last week I took delivery of my latest utilitarian toy. It's a trailer for my bicycle, and it can carry 40kg. Currently we live 12 miles away from the woodland we own, and the cost of petrol for getting there and back in my rusting Mitsubishi 4WD is not inconsiderate. Often I need to have heavy tools with me, and I also find myself pulling around heavy trailer-loads of firewood and soil. It's a problem.

But it's also a problem in terms of danger, if I want to cycle there and back. People drive their high-powered cars like maniacs around where I live, and more or less every day there is some terrible accident in the vicinity. However, I've figured out a route that's half off-road, following coastal paths, minimising the danger. Mind you, cycling 24 miles over hilly terrain, and doing a day's heavy work in the woods, is pushing the limits of my 44 year-old-body. I've done it a few times so far, and aim to do it more with time. I figured that traffic would be thinning out by 2016 as various supply problems take hold, but we'll just have to see.

One partial solution I've come up with is to only produce things that weigh very little. Bags of charcoal and woodland mushroom don't weigh very much and can be delivered easily by bicycle (in my new trailer!). Other woodland owners, I have noticed, love to boast about their heavy machinery and what it can do. They seem to relish dealing with very heavy items, such as milled lumber. Not many of them consider the amount of energy their machines need to operate, or where they will get replacement parts from if supply lines experience problems. A case in point: I needed a largeish pond on my land for irrigation and to add to the biodiversity. Everyone I spoke to told me I needed to get a mechanical digger in as such a task was considered herculean. However, I dug the pond by hand, using a pick axe and a shovel. Granted, it took me 18 months but I just did a half hour or so on every visit. Most big jobs are possible with time and patience.

Anyway, my point here is that I'm trying to do away with the need for anything high-tech or energy guzzling at the woodland. I've still got the chainsaw, but other than that it's just hand tools and a scythe. Slowly, slowly ...

nuku said...

Re confusion of sports with personal identity: Here in New Zealand, a small ex-colonial country, rugby is the "national game" enhanced by the all powerful world champion "All Black" team. A recent poll showed 33% of the respondents (don't remember the # of people polled) felt their peronal sense of identity and self-worth is tied to the fortunes of The Team. This is of course aided and abetted by the Media and the gambling lobby.
The other 67% couldn't give a toss (Kiwi for "don't give a sh_t") about rugby, but mostly kept that to themselves for fear of been seen as un-patriotic/non-conforming. A significant number of those even secretly wished The Team would loose the so-called World Cup to Australia so that the other 33% would stop all the boring talk about rugby.
The squeaky wheel often gets the grease, but the other wheels just keep on quietly turning.

Doctor Westchester said...

JMG and Eric Backos,

I have a dear friend who really get it. She teaches dance for a living and also arranges reskilling classes. These are classes that teach food preservation, wild plant identification, simple sewing skills and the like. She recently told me that when she first started offering these classes five years or so ago she could tell her students that these classes would be useful in the case of emergencies, or if something else more permanent happened. Today she can only promote these classes in terms of their cuteness or Martha Stewart-factor. To get some sense of her student's demographic I might mention that Martha Stewart herself resides in this county. I remember that I told her that this is likely to be a harbinger of something and as JMG said, it isn't likely to be utopia.

l33tminion said...

It seems obvious to me that some of the dislike (and probably a lot of the most intense dislike) of the Chrismans is just "they're weird, get em!" But I don't think it's all just dislike of difference. The article made them seem pretty smug about their lifestyle, going quite a bit beyond talk of mindfulness about technology to claim special insight into the lives of historical Victorians, while seeming oblivious of the differences between their lifestyle and that of actual Victorians (non-rich Victorians in particular). Overt non-conformity can also seem like rubbing it in to people who routinely feel they need to toe the line to maintain their safety and livelihood.

The reaction was similar to, I don't know, maybe polyamorists who claim some special insight into the lives of pre-agricultural humans and brag about how their subcultural relationship style makes them happier and more enlightened. Sure, some of the reaction that generates is just simple bigotry, but there are also some good reasons to find that sort of rhetoric snobby / oblivious / annoying.

Adrynian said...

The tier-system is interesting and has possibilities. I have two sticking points, however, which I'm hoping you haven't already addressed and that I missed.

1) The opportunity-cost of non-participation: I notice you said you don't have a cellphone. Presumably you still have a phone, however, and for good reason. When no one has a phone, the advantages to ownership are few, but when everyone has a phone, the costs of non-ownership are great (e.g. having a phone is generally considered necessary for job-hunting). I have some concern that the tier-system could impose opportunity costs similar to this on people in lower tiers.

For example, I happily avoided car ownership for years, but when I went into the trades to pay back my university student loans, I reluctantly made the switch. I need a car because on any given day I could be working anywhere in the greater metropolitan region where I live. Were I to forego a vehicle, I would lose access to much of this income. How would the tier-system affect labour mobility of this sort - and the economic opportunities it creates? If lower-tier-living negatively affects one's economic opportunities, it could reduce the relative per-capita state/federal tax base of lower-tier municipalities and I don't see that going over too well.

2) Natural monopolies: It's interesting to me that you assume railroads will appear anywhere there are enough people to ride them. But some forms of infrastructure - including railroads - have such large fixed costs that they deter competition and private investment. Typically, government has to step in to make the investment in these cases (or at the very least, to protect consumers from exploitation by monopoly power). If infrastructure of this sort needs to be funded by a higher level of government, it could generate hard feelings by lower-tier municipalities who don't want to pay for it, and thereby undermine state/federal efforts to make these sorts of investments. (This is also true of public goods, where people benefit whether they contributed to the investment or not - think security, parks, street-lighting, flood-controls, etc. - though in this case I suspect it is the higher tiers who will have a problem with 'free-riding' lower tiers.) I am curious whether you have considered how to address this, beyond mandating that all such infrastructure investments occur at a municipal level.


A natural monopoly is a distinct type of monopoly that may arise when there are extremely high fixed costs of distribution, such as exist when large-scale infrastructure is required to ensure supply. Examples of infrastructure include cables and grids for electricity supply, pipelines for gas and water supply, and networks for rail and underground. These costs are also sunk costs, and they deter entry and exit.

nuku said...

@Patricia Mathews,
If you want to read more on our ape-like nature, may I recommend "The Naked Ape" by Desmond Morris? This man spent a lifetime observing animals' and humans'behavior in and out of zoos (cities) all over the planet.
His "Bodywatching" is another classic analysis of human behavior seen from the perspective of humans as just another animal species, not some half-God-like transcendent beings.

jean-vivien said...

Regarding the comments on TV :

May I suggest that people, unconsciously, don't really want to watch TV, but just hear the ambient sound it creates ? Sort of, like, reinventing radio...
Stimulating music in your headphones might be enough stimulation, and one might not necessarily need the visual stimulation so much as the auditive.
Music gives a human being a certain perception of time, it structures our perception of reality into a coherent beat, upwards and downwards trends, and it can structure even the train of emotions we do experience - which is what lots of good music do.
Somehow, so many people have been hijacked into the culture of imagery. Much like a modern-day idolatry of the Golden Calf...

jean-vivien said...

Regarding this week's topic's on-topic topics :

The notion of technological choices is poignantly mordant at just this time in my country. I won't repeat what has already been said about Paris' attacks, but the very topics of the war against ISIL in the middle-East has everything to do with technological choices :
France, in alliance with the big powers currently on the loose in the region, is going for even more of the tired-out, endlessly re-hashed option of air strikes.
That kind of more-of-the-same novelty is not even worth our Pope-Cornes to watch on !!
Meanwhile, ISIL is parading on its magazine cover a handcrafted bomb that would allegedly have brought down the Russian airliner over the Sinaï. A bomb made in the crudest fashion one could imagine : a fire extinguisher's metal latch, a soda can, and a bit of wire.
My guess is that it is not articulated too loud in Western media, but ISIL is trying to play on young people's attraction to violence and power, for sure, but it does target more than that : it advertises in a positive light the sort of overpowering simplicity that would appeal to a large, long-neglected part of society that has grown up in poverty, and displays it as a mark of power.

Another notion that gets shoved aside by contemporary thought : technologies are just tools, and humans constantly and simultaneously use both social tools and technological tools.
Terrorism, for example, is a social technology being used not just since it makes sense in a practical concept (it's cheaper than air strikes, after all), but also because it makes sense in a social context (a significant part of the poor young population feeling that they have no future, and are being already sacrificed).
That's where most train of thoughts in the media prefer to stop : the notion that we have made technological choice at the same time as social choices, and that far from improving the social context, developping technology has only added technological problems and dependances to an existing set of social problems.
I am referring to the "spirit of the years 70" : the notion that the social context could be improved while ignoring the effects of the technological context upon the social sphere.
This breed of fanatism also feeds on ungratefulness, because poor people in suburbs still get a lot of public services and benefits from an affluent society. But probably not so much of a social role, a problem that is only exacerbated by choosing automation-slanted technologies.

Which brings me to what I am feeling right now : these attacks are a perfectly valid, essential opportunity to stop talking about the choices France did make as a society. Stop protecting its domestic commercial markets, shed too much of its industry, and import a lot of cheaper immigrant labor to do its blue-collar jobs.
The blue-collar jobs have been disappearing first, which has led to the suburbs' timebomb situation France has sat on for too many decades now. But even white-collar jobs have started to disappear over the last decade, as a result of rampant globalization. The consitutional changes on security come handy, as in a few years from now a lot of violence is bound to unfold over the country, and not just from religious fanatics but from an ever-increasing part of formerly -affluent new poors.

Of course the affluent part of the population cannot bear guilt for what just happened, and there is probably more social diversity in those areas of Paris than in your upper-middle-class US neighborhood.
But the fact is, noone is questionning how Paris has slowly been gentrifying, and how small-scale industry businesses have been replaced by office and service-sector jobs.

Despite one comment I read on David Brin's blog, of course ISIL is trying to divide the country with this strategy of terror, but it does not aim just at 'progressives', it aims directly at the gentrification of society, and the terror only compounds an existing, deeper set of social issue.

John Michael Greer said...

Thriftwizard, I certainly don't intend to open that can of worms here. It so happens that the few times I've used a cell phone, I've felt an uncomfortable sensation, like heat but not quite like heat, all through the bones in the side of the face on which I've held the thing; the license exams for my amateur radio license included a lot of questions about how to minimize the hazards of exposure to radio waves, which have substantial health risks, and pressing a microwave antenna against the side of my brain just somehow doesn't seem like a good idea to me. Still, by all means let's not discuss that! ;-)

Constitutionalist, if I rate time in there with your Bible study, I'm honored!

Swimmer, I've seen the same thing. I've wondered more than once whether the people at those events realize just how much they sound like a cult: "You have to believe..."

Damaris, I'm half tempted to write a parody titled "Ectopia," which is the place where you're never quite where you should be, or something like that!

Dave, I'm certainly not telling farmers today not to use this or that technology -- as long as it doesn't poison the land or the water, that is. My point is simply that plastic row covers aren't going to survive the end of the industrial age, so other options should be kept in mind.

Marc, that's a good story. I'll feel better about the future when more people start telling the cable guy that.

Chloe, it's not just you. We're getting quite an earful of "peak oil is dead" stories. The reason? Petroleum production in the Bakken shale has peaked and is dropping at this point, just as the peak oilers predicted -- so of course peak oil has to be booed off the stage.

Brian, I'm not at all sure how tiers were chosen originally -- I'll have to consider that as we proceed -- but once they're in place, you need a 2/3 supermajority to change to a different tier.

Robert, glad to hear it. Next time somebody starts blabbing about their favorite TV program and how you absolutely have to watch it, start blabbing in turn about some book you know they've never read and will never read -- Russian novels are a good choice here -- and how they just absolutely have to get it and read it. Keep on obsessively talking about it until they lose their temper and demand that you shut up about the book, and then smile and say, "Now you know how I feel when people babble incessantly about some TV show they think I have to watch." You may lose some friends, but after a few cycles of that, you'll be hassled less.

Ourgreattransition, get that hammer and swing it!

Andrew, I'll consider getting Carr into a town meeting -- that would be easier than getting him into a lodge meeting. It's a good idea.

Mitzi, thank you for the story! That's definitely cheering news.

Blueback said...

Here's a great example of the hate mail directed at the Chrisman's, a typical foul mouthed rant of the sort you would expect from post-modernist Left these days, demonstrating just how tolerant of real diversity these people really are. This sort of thing, by the trendy middle class liberal apostles of "tolerance" and "diversity", no less, makes me sick.

I share the deep sense of loathing that people like Oswald Spengler, Robert E Howard and J.R.R. Tolkien felt towards the era and civilization we live in. Like a growing number of people, I am thoroughly disgusted with the depravity, hypocrisy, degeneracy and sheer insanity of our "modern world". Good riddance when it falls. Perhaps some of the more worthy discoveries and inventions of our era can be saved and I know there are people working in that direction (including in the Green Wizards movement), but as for the rest, I will not miss it. You are quite right when you point out that the peoples of the future will see us as real-life Orcs and Nazgul.

PS I once read a review of Julius Evola's "Revolt Against the Modern World". The title of the review was "The Revolting Modern World", sentiments I couldn't agree more with...

John Michael Greer said...

Donalfagan, exactly -- one of the points of including the tier system in the narrative is that it forces consideration of the ways in which we already have, and enforce, involuntary tier systems.

Carol, good. By and large, if it's realistic, yes, it takes work.

Bill, it'll be interesting to see what happens. The thing is, it used to be very common for SF writers to write about futures in which humanity didn't go to the stars. It's really only been the last few decades that such things have been unwelcome in SF -- and it's probably not a coincidence that it's only been in the last few decades that science has really made it clear that we're not going to the stars, or even colonizing the solar system. I hope SF can get itself out of the done-to-death, utterly implausible space-travel rut and start writing about interesting futures again!

Leo, that's sad indeed. Half the books I request via interlibrary loan here in Cumberland, MD come from the Pratt library in Baltimore. We really do need to start thinking about private subscription libraries again...

Jonathan, keep in mind that a 1950s infrastructure requires constant, expensive maintenance and a variety of expensive inputs. If those become too much of a burden, abandoning the infrastructure can be the most cost-effective option. That's why many US counties right now are turning paved roads back into gravel and abandoning dilapidated bridges -- it's less of a burden than throwing money the counties don't have into the endless black hole of upkeep.

Fred, okay, now imagine that things can be different. That's the point of a narrative like the one I'm writing!

Fudoshin, oh, granted. And Hall was right, of course.

Robert, funny! A good point, too -- "reality television" is a fine contradiction in terms.

Revelin, that's a very useful point! Of course you're quite right -- if we can have technological "progress" and ethical "regress," a la the Reagan-Thatcher counterrevolution, then the entire notion of technological determinism goes out the window once and for all.

Raven, it does indeed sound like fetishism, though I'm thinking more along the lines of latex lingerie...

Redoak, exactly. There's an extent to which progress is a swindle, in which people are sold something "better" that, in objective terms, is quite simply worse.

Renovator, that issue leads very quickly into deep waters. People in today's America cling to the most bizarre notions of identity, because they have no idea whatsoever who and what they are, having been taught to avoid introspection and self-knowledge at all costs. I should do a post on that one of these days.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Dear ourgreattransition:

You write, "with my phone now being 12 months old the audio jack is no longer working". I have found from my own experience with an Apple iPhone 3 that the culprit can be dust or lint, in which case a remedy is available. The Web has quite a discussion on the cleaning of jacks. In my own case, what worked quickly was the construction of a tiny tool, from a plastic toothpick into which I made some short cuts, with scissors, parallel to the length of the pick. With those cuts made, the toothpick became in effect a thing with barbs at one end - a sort of broom, with rather sharp bristles well fitted to grabbing lint. By poking around in the jack, I was able to pull out quite a surprising amount of detritus, thereby restoring the signal.

I would urge here the use of wood or plastic, as opposed to metal, in making a grabbing tool. You want something which can snag lint and dust-bunnies and yet is not liable to scratch, or in other ways to injure, the metal portions of your jack walls.

Tom = Toomas(dot)Karmo(at)

jean-vivien said...

@nuku :

I heard that the New-Zealand rugby players were high on the same fear-suppressing drugs as the kamikaze human bombs, and I have seen the famous akka at the beginning of a rugby match, and the gestures are pretty explicit gestures of terror, like motionning the bethroatal of an enemy.
The chemical thing is probably a rumour. Yet these days yielding terror requires the existence a highly sophisticated infrastructure too : full-blown democratic political structures to terrorize, the Internet to release terror videos, TV to broadcast sports game...
Maybe the peak of communication technology would also coincide the peak of terror... Although that would sadly be a naive belief on my part.

Other than that, the terror crisis has been tackled politically, at least in the short-term phrasing of security and warfare. But noone is willing to assess how much of an impact our lifestyle can have on the rest of the world...
It will take an entirely distinct sort and scale of disasters to cause us to change that. Does not sound too promising. Apparently the taboo about technology choices is paralleled with the taboo about social choices.

John Michael Greer said...

Raven, thanks for the link.

Glenn, and the other piece of good news is that some of us are doing these things already. That's what this week's post is about, you know...

Howard, that couple is on the cutting edge of the future, and they and their kids are probably already doing better than the people who've committed everything to the continuation of the status quo.

Dennis, trust Vonnegut to get it right.

Greg, thanks for the recommendation. If I ever get a hankering to read that sort of thing, I'll certainly keep it in mind.

Luddene, er, what on earth is a "crave crawl"?

Zach, I've seen it but haven't read it -- it's on the get-to list.

Shane, I sometimes wonder if it might be a good idea to have some kind of a get-together for Green Wizards one of these days, perhaps in an old hotel in a town with regular train service and a range of old-fashioned amenities. I'm not in any position to organize one -- the time that would be needed is time I simply don't have -- but it could be entertaining, and I suspect a lot of people would end up feeling a good deal less isolated.

Patricia, of course that's part of it, but there's some importance in how any given group of apes chooses the kind of outsider that gets torn apart. There are always some kinds of deviance that are openly tolerated, some that are overtly rejected but covertly tolerated, and some kinds that get rejected across the board -- and which forms of deviance get assigned to which category is a complex process with deep roots in the collective thinking of the society in question.

Friction Shift, that seems, shall we say, utterly familiar!

Buddha, "the empire of the mind" is a good useful label. Thank you.

Twilight, I can certainly imagine the thing being attempted. The underground economy is already large enough that the result would simply be more people earning a living outside of the official economy, using something other than Federal Reserve notes for money, but that's just one of those things.

Dammerung, I think there's a lot of self-justification in that claim: it's not that people think that humanity's going to ride the bomb all the way down, and therefore decide to party until they drop; it's that people want to party until they drop, and use the insistence that humanity's going to ride the bomb all the way down as an excuse. Still, what about those of us -- and as this week's comments show, there's no shortage of us -- for whom using older and simpler technologies is simply more pleasant than buying the latest heavily marketed trash?

Shane, how you burn as well as what you burn influences your chimney tax, so yes, a more efficient rocket stove is going to involve a lot lower tax burden.

Thor, hmm! I'll have to look up Leon Krier.

Crow Hill, those are classic. Oh, the horrible, unspeakable, inhuman self-denial of ditching some noisy, irritating piece of cheap plastic and circuitry and having to put up with the quiet loveliness of a walk in the woods!

M Smith said...

I've never been one to conform, so I learned long ago not to let people pressure me into having the latest and the same as "everyone else" had. It made me a little grouchy but overall, probably much happier and healthier than "everyone else".

OT but I went to pump gas this week and as the tank filled, I heard a voice speaking above the roar of the passing traffic, and looked around for the source. Yep. There was a screen on the pump facing me and jabbering about some late night talk show or other. Shudder.

John Michael Greer said...

Toomas, I don't think that's likely in the Lakeland Republic, but it's not impossible -- and the thought of a monastic order dedicated to railroads, lovingly tending the great locomotives in the intervals between singing the monastic hours, belongs in a future Space Bats story!

Ghung, exactly -- and I want to stress that the point of this week's post, and of this blog generally, is not to cheerlead for a stone age lifestyle! The point is to find the technologies that are (a) sustainable, and (b) convivial, in Ivan Illich's sense of the term, rather than simply accepting whatever some gargantuan corporation wants to sell you, in the blind faith that it must be good because it's new.

Dan, for Neal DeGrasse Tyson, science is an ideology, not a set of tools for exploring nature. More to the point, it's a secular religion, and Tyson pretty clearly sees himself filling Carl Sagan's shoes as its current pope. Of course he's going to phrase things in terms of blind faith backed up by rigid dualisms!

Rita, I barely have enough time to keep up with this blog, my writing schedule, and my duties as an archdruid -- I certainly don't have time for Twitter! Sorry.

Toomas, too funny; thank you. I'm pretty sure that the Lakeland Republic has no television, because advertising is taxed fairly heavily, and so the only revenue stream that can support broadcast television isn't really viable.

Bill, understood. Me, I'd be happiest in Tier 3, I think -- I love trains and streetcars, loathe automobiles and canned music blaring all over the place, and enjoy having sidewalks to walk on in town.

Nastarana, I like that! "I'm not a consumer, I'm a citizen." Everyone, repeat that silently to yourself, and pay attention to the implications...

Gavin, oh, granted. It's a source of quite some amusement to me that so many people affect to despise Freud these days, at a time when the drowning of consciousness in erupting unconscious material may just be more common than ever before!

Robert, it's a standard bit of flaming irrationality on the part of progress worshippers to insist that anything other than the latest fashionable technotrash is tantamount to eating grubs in the woods. Congrats for seeing past that.

Laylah, that's a real challenge, and one with which I don't have any real experience -- I've been very fortunate in that my wife is just as clear on the need to downshift, just as uninterested in fashionable technotrash, and just as happy with older, simpler, and more human-scale technologies as I am.

Toomas, good -- but remember that television as we know it receives a range of direct and indirect subsidies from the rest of the economy. In the Lakeland Republic, those aren't present, and so entrepreneurs interested in launching a television industry have to face the prospect of doing so in a very unfavorable economic environment.

Bob, not at all. I've seen plenty of pressure groups and petty tyrants in my time! The advantage of the tier system is that it restricts any one petty tyrant to a single county, rather than letting one or more of them establish infrastructure rules for the entire nation.

Toomas, I got that data point from a friend and regular reader who helps manage a data center for one of the big you-know-the-name internet firms. If anybody's discussed that in print, I'd welcome hearing about it.

Shane Wilson said...

Well, I could dust off my organizing skills from years past and work on a Green Wizards Gathering. Maybe Cincy? Though I'm not sure I'm the person others on here would respond to, though I do have meticulous Southern manners in person.

Shane Wilson said...

I've noticed, JMG, that you seem to not flinch from confronting people on their hypocrisy, etc. and get your fair share of diatribes from others. I must admit, I'm not so courageous, in part because I'm way more collapsed and my situation is more precarious, and secondly, my Southern upbringing makes it painfully uncomfortable to confront people, however, waiting till they've left the room to say something isn't an issue.

MKA said...

I am struggling with this, mainly because I'm a "don't need tv, would rather read, and don't think we need two cars, would rather take the bus everywhere" type, while my husband is a "will die without cable and we need a second car for the mobility" type.

I am glad to see that I am not alone in my desire to limit technology in my home, so that I am not dependent on it.

John Michael Greer said...

S. Treimel, no, I haven't. Given the realities of how many hours there are in a day, I'd probably need to work with someone else who would run the publishing end of things and get the bulk of the income from it, paying me the usual writer's share.

Steve, I somehow managed to miss the story of the child and the balloon, but I've seen way too many times how anything but Our Opinion gets flattened out into The Other Opinion. I recall with great amusement how the same post here, in the early days of the Report, was decried as hopeless doomer porn by a techno-optimist and delusionally optimistic by a doomer.

Ursachi, I'm not talking about technological triage. I'm talking about the fact that these days, in the US, quite a few people are eager to make the choice that you insist nobody would actually make, and would gladly have less in the way of complex technological infrastructure if that meant they had to pay less in taxes. Read the comments to this week's post and you'll hear from a fair sample of them. As for national defense, we'll get to that in forthcoming posts; as you'll see, there are ways in which less infrastructure is a major advantage to a nation facing foreign invasion. More on this later.

Eric, as noted above, I'd have to have someone else do the publishing; on the one hand, there's only so many hours in a day, and on the other, I'm not very good at business, and publishing requires the kind of business sense I don't have.

Regis, exactly. The hidden commandment of the religion of progress is that human beings are forbidden to have any talents, abilities or strengths of their own -- all they can ever be is meatware peripherals to the Machine. All hail the Machine!

Blackwings, if you have a private moment, open up the converter box and snip a dozen or so wires, then close the thing up again. Oops! It just stopped working...;-)

Charles, if you love cinema, by all means enjoy it. The point is to choose what technologies you want to have in your life, rather than just doing as you're told!

Shane, good question. I wonder whether it happened right around 1980 -- a lot of things changed very suddenly at that time, as I remember rather too well.

Bill, that makes sense. Having a place where you can go where the TV isn't yelling at you is probably a good plan.

Phil, sure, but as I noted above, the question of which eccentricities get ignored and which get punished is a complex one.

Aunteater, sorry to hear about your sister. I've been in many of the same conversations, though, and I think you're right. When each of these people are on their deathbeds, waiting for that last moment, will they be thinking, "Gosh, I should have spent more time watching television"? I doubt it...

Bill, granted, and it's very much a personal thing. I do understand how televisions and cell phones work -- an Amateur Extra ham radio license will do that -- and I still don't like them.

Nick said...

I'll save the compliments - most of the time, compliments for a writer are usually intended to announce what good taste the reviewer thinks they have.

You are completely right about the 100% sacrosanct nature of the myth of progress and the powerful cultural forces that punish any public transgressions. I suspect it's because of two things: subconsciously, most people know that the present experiment in progress isn't working, but thinks they are alone in this thought and therefore keeps it to themselves. And also, to obtain the rewards that can be found in "collapsing now and avoiding the rush", there is substantial investment required - you need a community that is at least somewhat open to these ideas (or maybe just a few friends and maybe a significant other). You need to be out of debt. It seems like land ownership is necessary, but where I live, even land far from cities that has no particular use to industrial civilization (too hilly for mechanized farming, no natural resources other than pulpwood) is extremely expensive.

The problem is that participating in Western "culture" represents a local optima, and even if that optima is rapidly fading away, the valley in between a simpler life and the life that is sold to us is still dark and full of unknowns. There are still lots of ways not to conform within our culture though. In addition to eschewing smart phones, TV, the Internet, not buying a bunch of crap, not having a car, a big one is vegetarianism / veganism. It saves money, and likely reduces your impact on the planet more than not having a smartphone.

I think the most important part of the peak oil and climate change story is not rig counts, the keeling curve or the real or imagined unemployment numbers. It is clear that a vastly different story about who we are and what we are doing here is necessary. We are already seeing the rise of a set of seriously ugly explanations for why American reality is not matching expectations for most people. An intelligent, constructive explanation of what the situation is and what can realistically be done by individuals and small groups is needed, but it is not the full story. For example Chris Martenson's website/videos are great, but they really fall short in terms of storytelling. Rob Hopkins with his Transition Town story does much better but I don't think goes quite far enough.

Like most people, I don't have the answers. People that do not have anyone's but their own best interests at heart are working hard on making up answers that suit their needs.

John Michael Greer said...

Myriad, and that's a good point. As I noted in response to an earlier comment, people these days in America frantically clutch at anything that will provide them with a surrogate identity -- a sports team, a television program, you name it, no matter how meaningless or absurd -- because they've been systematically taught to avoid introspection and self-knowledge, and the empty space behind their own eyes terrifies them.

Pygmycory, yes, I saw that. The end of the antibiotic era is getting very close.

Aias, you might be amused, in a bleak sort of way, to know that several trolls have tried to post hate speech about the Chrismans here. The extent to which people will go to yell down something that makes them think...

Bruce, and it takes a certain amount of clarity to notice that the current is pulling us straight toward a net...

Heather, good. You've seen through two of the core irrationalities behind what's going on here -- the insistence that you can't pick and choose among the technologies of any given time (including ours) and the frankly bizarre claim that using the technologies of a past time makes you retrospectively guilty of everything blameworthy that happened in that time. Mind you, I wonder how many people who insist on that latter point are willing to take responsibility for what's happening around them today...

Swimmer, you're most welcome. Just doing my job... ;-)

Harvester, I'd tend to think that Dionysus is probably the god of punk rock, as of every wild, antinomian musical subculture. The god of retro tech? Old hoary Saturn, of course, who is the Lord of the Golden Age as well as the master of all that's tried and true.

Will, have you considered writing it?

Pentrus, your students are lucky to have you as a teacher. Of course they have a great time assembling the glassware and doing the experiments -- they're actually doing it themselves, not just sitting passively watching little colored pictures on a glass screen -- and by the same token, they actually learn something.

Jason, good. Have you considered moving closer to the woodland? That's probably the only workable long-term solution, given the realities of transport and middle age...

Doctor W., a harbinger indeed. I should talk about that sometime soon.

l33tminion, I've noticed that very often when people these days say words like "smug" and "arrogant," what they mean is "how dare you be happy?" Most Americans are frankly miserable these days -- by and large, they dislike their jobs and their lives, distrust their government and the institutions that shape their lives, and see no way out -- and I suspect that drives a lot of the rage against those who do something different and enjoy it.

Adrynian, welcome back! The opportunity cost of nonparticipation is one reason why the tier system is by county -- if everyone else in a county has the same infrastructure you do, it's close enough to a level playing field to keep this from being a problem. As far as natural monopolies, I'd addressed that early on -- in the Lakeland Republic, most natural monopolies are run by publicly owned utilities, and they take that to the extent of treating consumer banking as a utility. In the US, privately owned railways worked exceedingly well for a century, and that leads me to think that it's not necessary to have them as public utilities.

John Michael Greer said...

Jean-Vivien, I suppose the desire for music could be part of it. As for Daesh and the situation in France, I'll trust those such as yourself who are actually on the scene; your analysis makes an uncomfortable degree of sense. Still, we'll see.

Blueback, fair enough. How have you separated yourself from those aspects of the modern world you find revolting?

M Smith, well, it's always worked for me.

Shane, with regard to the gathering, let's see whether anyone else responds to the idea. As for my rudeness, you're quite right that I wasn't raised with the generally praiseworthy Southern sense of courtesy! Growing up in a town that was founded by drunkards and failures (that would be Seattle, WA) does tend to give one a certain useful brashness. ;-)

MKA, that's a real problem, and it's one I hear about fairly often. I wish I had an easy answer.

Nick, no, there you're wrong. Collapsing now and avoiding the rush is not about following the tired fantasy of running off to the country to homestead. It's about doing what you can with what you have, right now. If you have the chance, you might consider reading my book Green Wizardry, which tackles this issue in quite some detail.

Robert Suchanek said...

I like the tier system that you envision and would seriously consider moving to a suitable tier to live amidst a like minded population. Too many harsh words have been aimed at this bicyclist by car culture idiots in this suburban car culture paradise!

Ozark Chinquapin said...

You ask

" Now, keeping in mind that Retrotopia is a work of fiction, and like all utopias, has an instructional agenda, perhaps you can tell me why I chose, in the story, to use something a little more edgy and in-your-face than what you've proposed."

Hmm, that's one I think I'll have to wait until I've read more of the story to see if I have an answer then. I admit there's a lot about Retrotopia that I don't understand the reason behind as of yet. That's very different from Star's Reach, as I was reading that story I could see pretty clearly how it fit in with your nonfiction writing. I guess some of that is because there's a different intention behind writing Retrotopia than writing Star's Reach.

I'd also been noticing the references in Retrotopia to Lakeland being a complete oddity as compared to not just the Atlantic Republic but the rest of the world as well, which is still pretty much bumbling down the same path as now only with different imperial powers. That seems to me very different than what you proposed in your recent post,

I got from that post that the economic status quo was unraveling around the world, and other options would be replacing it in many different countries for better or for worse on a timescale well before 2065. In Retrotopia, Lakeland has made extreme changes to its path while the rest of the world has made very few (other than different global certers of power, that is). Am I misunderstanding the post I linked to above and do you think the vast majority of the world will remain in the mindset we see today with possibly a few exceptions, or is the resto of the world portrayed the was it is in the Lakeland story as a literary device to emphasize the difference between Lakeland's system and the present day's?

Bruno Bolzon said...

JMG, Nick, and others, "collapsing now and avoiding the rush", in practical terms, means simplifying your life and making it sustainable in the long run.

For example, in my case (I'm a physician) it means working close to home so I don't have to use a car; ditching expensive diagnose methods as much as I can, trying to substitute those for proven and reliable older and cheaper ones; getting rid of the smartphone, replacing it for a cellphone (so my patients can contact me in an emergency); throw out the TV; sell the iPad; slowly but steadly turn my laptop into a glorified typewriter, and then get rid of it, too; learn how to do simple house chores, such as fixing leaks and electrical wiring; etc. In sum, try to life as close as possible to the lifestyle my grandfather had, using the resources available to me today.

team10tim said...

Hey hey JMG,

A fun XKCD comic about turning off the gadgets:

And the surprisingly simple 'tech' he used to set up this 'system'

Also, idle curiosity, how much money would it take to set up the sort of private library that you are thinking about?


Thomas Prentice said...

A sure sign of the looming apocalypse: RE "The mere facts that plastic sheeting for hoop houses

>>>>>>>>>>> isn’t infrastructure paid for by tax revenues, and that the tier system

>>>>>>>>>>> doesn’t impose rigid restrictions on anybody—on the contrary, it allows the voters in each county to choose for themselves how much infrastructure they’re going to pay for—

>>>>>>>>>>> somehow never found their way into the resulting diatribes."

What in the world happened to reading comprehsnions skills? They USED to be taught in ALL the tier public schools lol but I guess they started being phased out in Tier 5? Sighhh.

beneaththesurface said...

Like you I've do not own a car or television. I rarely use a cell phone and primarily use a landline. (A few years ago, someone lent me a prepaid cell phone for a specific purpose, but then didn't want it back. I did keep it, but it sits turned off in a desk drawer. A few times a year I take it out to use for babysitting jobs I have -- many houses don't have landlines now and parents want me to be able to call in an emergency. I add the minimum amount of money -- $10 -- per year to it. I've contemplated getting rid of it entirely. Regardless, since I rarely use it, it feels like I don't have a cell phone 99+ % of the time.)

I distinctly remember a time that another woman, upon learning I didn't have a cell phone (when that was entirely true) lectured me how as a woman, "you must have a cell phone. It is a matter of safety. You really need to get one." Um, for 99.9999...% of human history no one had cell phones--how did anyone survive and feel safe? And the irony -- when I walk around the city, and see people unaware of their surroundings, glued to their phones, even texting while they cross streets. Rather unsafe!

For the most part I find it's not too hard to live without using a cell phone. I do have to make meeting plans in advance. I have to make more adjustments in traveling to work: At the library where I work it is expected that I notify my manager even if I'm running 10 minutes late. That's hard to do without a cell phone. So, I just leave earlier from home than when I would otherwise to provide some buffer in case a bus is late. I've only been late to work once in two years, where my co-workers are frequently late. So my lack of cell phone use actually makes me a more reliable employee. Luckily my work itself doesn't require a cell phone, though if I were a manager it would be required.

I also don't use social media, own a dryer, don't have air conditioning, rarely watch movies... The list could go on. Some people have mentioned they lose friends from these lifestyle choices. Perhaps that is not a bad thing though. If someone is turned off by my lack of cell phone or social media use, they're not the kind of person I want to be friends with anyhow! Nice to have an effective way to screen potential friends, I say.

Robert Mathiesen said...

Thank you, Patricia, for your thoughts on electro-hypersensitivity. It is generous of you to offer to share the resources you have pulled togther, and I appreciate it.

However, I don't think that what I have is entirely the same thing as what you have described. My hypersensitivity seems to involve only the senses of sight and hearing, and only certain fairly well-defined kinds of stimuli received through those two senses. I seem to be untroubled by activity anywhere else on the electro-magnetic spectrum. So I deal with it well enough by avoiding TV as much as possible, and by carrying earplugs and a book when I cannot.

I think this hypersensitivity of mine to TVs was reinforced by two things: (1) I never saw a TV at all until about 1950, when I was nearly 10 years old; and I never spent much time at all in front of any TV after 1960. So I never got gradually used to the frenetic pacing and rhythms of modern TV -- which have, I think, become far more frenetic over half-century between 1960 and now. And (2), I am very much an introvert (the more so as I age), whereas following a TV series or channel is essentially an act of total social immersion in a community of viewers. Total social immersion in any sort of community is a viscerally unpleasant, "squicky" sort of thing for me. My "silver veil," if you will, is the difference between typing words at a distance and face-to-face spoken communication.

And then, too, I just plain don't like most new things. I never have liked them, even when I was a 'teen. And TV is definitely a "new thing" for people of the Silent Generation, like my wife and me. I still cut my firewood with a hand saw or an axe, and split it with steel wedges and a sledge-hammer, even now that I am in my 70s and getting creaky in the joints. We have always had just one automobile. Our current one, bought new, is now 23 years old and has not yet been driven quite 175,000 miles. (We have never lived more than two miles from where we worked.) My workshop, with three minor exceptions, has only hand tools, some of which we inherited from as far back as my wife's great-grandfather, a lumberjack in Maine in the later 1800s. We own one minimal mobile phone -- a "geezer phone" as I described what I wanted to the salesman -- and we keep it turned off in a drawer except when one of us takes along in case of some emergency while traveling somewhere. I still do my calculations in my head, or with a pencil and paper, or when that is not enough, with a slide rule. We use paper maps when we am driving somewhere new. We try never to buy anything if we can make do without it somehow, though -- like the Amish -- we allow a few exceptions for what seem to us to be very solid reasons. And so forth ... (But I'll stop ranting now. I have become a garulous old geezer.)

latheChuck said...

jean-vivien -

If you and I have seen the same photo of the "Schweppes bomb" by ISIL, it's rather more than just a can, a wire, and a switch. The can, of course, must be filled with an explosive compound. Professional explosives are carefully compound NOT to explode until just the right time (not when burned, or dropped, or zapped with static electricity). The "wire" is attached to a blasting cap, a fairly sophisticated electrical and chemical device designed to trigger the main charge. The switch module appeared large enough to contain a small battery and electronic timer, for those occasions when the bomb setter wants to be far away when the bomb goes off. The timer, in particular, requires a modern electronics infrastructure. (On the other hand, a mechanical clock could do the job in a somewhat larger package.)

I understand the "sense of power" that one gets from a well-designed explosion. When I was a teen (1970s), improvising an explosive device was a part of "boys being boys", not (as far as anyone told me at the time) a felony crime.

Shane Wilson said...

To prevent the kind of hypocrisy outlined in your post, we could ban solo driving to the Green Wizards conference. Anyone driving solo to the conference would be absolutely barred from attending. Yes, we would ask, yes, we would verify, and, no, we don't care if you throw a fit--our sergeant at arms will be more than glad to escort you away! Ticket pricing could be tiered based on mode of transport, with train being the lowest priced ticket. Carpool tickets would be proportionally priced based on the number of people per vehicle. Tailpipe/resource tax in action!

will said...

John, I consider writing every story/essay idea that burbles up, thanks for asking. Have to meditate on them for a time, see if they have real resonance for me or if they're just sensory tickles. The Fae hypno-tech idea, dunno as yet. I compose music mostly - and harking back to a previous essay of yours, I did come up with a song inspired by a concept you discussed, thanks for that. It's a trad-like, 3/4 time folkie. And I choose a tier where folk and classical music and pre-50's jazz are in the fore. Here's song's lyrics, as if you didn't have enough to read:


Once was a prairie, forever it rolled,
A ghost song was whispered out of its dreaming soul - 
Now the tall grass is broken and the herds have been thinned,
But the song still remains in the Buffalo Wind - 

Now come, says the Raven, remember your home,
They'll be no forsaking the night prairie song,
For the Buffalo Wind even sang as she cried
When her shaggy beast shuddered and laid down and died -

We people of tumbling cities and towns
With our spirits gone bleeding in the clash of our sounds,
We're bound to a battle, we're born into sin,
Still we live in the mystery of the Buffalo Wind -

The great mall is empty, they're closing the banks,
The stores by the river are covered in planks,
And the last one left standing is the first one to hear
The Buffalo Wind in the fall of the year -

latheChuck said...

On the psychology of divergent behaviors -- I was once married to a woman who, as it turned out, deeply believed that for me to make a different choice was to judge her choice as flawed. "After all," she reasoned, "you THINK about things. So, if you think that your way is RIGHT, then you must believe that my way is WRONG. And I resent that!" For example, if I wanted to go out for a stroll about the neighborhood after dinner, and she didn't, there was no negotiation. I had already decided, hadn't I? Not to take the walk would inevitably lead to frustration and resentment, wouldn't it? "You don't want to watch TV with your in-laws?" (Oh, that was a can of worms!) "I'd be happy to play Scrabble with my in-laws." "But they always watch TV after dinner. You should watch with them."

The simplest thing was divorce.

My second marriage has been a delight (for both of us, as far as I can tell), despite any number of external shocks.

beneaththesurface said...

On the subject of cell phones, I want to let people know of a YA novel that I got my library to order and recently finished reading:

Blue Gold by Elizabeth Stewart

In this novel, Elizabeth Stewart tells the intertwining stories of three very different teenage girls on three continents, whose lives are connected by the rare mineral coltan in cell phones: Sylvie lives in a Tanzanian refugee camp, where she survives on meager rations of food and supplies, her family having fled the Congo after her father was killed in the conflict over coltan. Soon to be forced to marry a warlord much older than her, she attempts a dangerous escape to freedom with her family. Laiping travels from her rural village to the city of Shenzhen, to work in a Chinese factory manufacturing components for cell phones, intent on sending money home to her financially-strapped parents. Work in the factory is not as it was advertised to her; it is exhausting, grossly unfair, pays much less than promised, with severe consequences for anyone who questions these harsh conditions. Fiona, a middle-class Canadian teenager, endures weeks of unwanted trouble after she thoughtlessly snaps a photo on her cell phone and sends it to her boyfriend.

JMG & Shane: I am definitely in favor of having a Green Wizards gathering. It seems that a number of people have started organizing local gatherings, including me (the DC area gathering in October was a success!), but something more regional might be nice. Face-to-face interactions with other Green Wizards are valuable and reduce the feeling of isolation; Internet communication has its limits. Plus, with no ASPO or Age of Limits gatherings for the foreseeable future, I've been missing "the gathering of the tribe," as I think you termed it in one of your older posts. It doesn't have to be a conference with any formal speakers, just a gathering for conversation--which was the most enriching part of those conferences anyhow. While I can't commit to taking the lead on organizing something of this nature, if there were a group of people interested, I at least would be willing to help out. I would love an excuse to take a train to some old hotel with old-fashioned amenities. : )

hcaparoso said...

Dear Mr. Archdruid, Sir, I very much enjoyed this week's blogpost, and obviously am not the only one, judging by all the thoughtful comments! I have also been on the receiving end of odd comments from people wondering why I spin yarn, " don't you know you can buy yarn"? Or weave cloth, blankets, shawls, etc. Or people wondering why I wouldn't bring a cell phone into the woods when I went on long, meditative walks. Or why would I used cloth diapers, when disposables were so available? I could go on, but everyone here gets the point. I am so glad that I am in my early 60s and can remember a time when there were no computers, cell phones, etc. And when clothes weren't " throwaway fashion".
I was reading all the comments this afternoon on my computer and had to go somewhere. I was thinking I wish this blog came out as a weekly newsletter with comments in it from the last weeks blog. I much prefer to read off of paper than a computer and it would be more portable for me, as I don't own a " smart phone" to read on when I'm out. I know you have plans to do just that when the Internet goes down, but how about before that point, to force people off their computers and make us Luddites happy? Just something I was thinking about, it's your blog, of course, and you can do with it as you wish! Just my 2 cents.

@Greg Belvedere, So glad you are going to have a home birth! My last three children were born at home with a lay midwife in
attendance and those births were definitely the high points of my life! I caught my son with my own hands as he was born on the night of a beautiful full moon. It is a most empowering experience for a couple, especially for the mother, I think. After my home births I always felt so strong and knew no matter what happened, poverty, unemployment, even being without a home, all of which I have faced at different times of my life, I knew I could endure, and that my kids would be fine. And I did, and so did my kids. More power to you and your wife, and don't listen to the naysaying eejits, though it sounds as if you are strong enoughg not to.

@Luddene Perry, I also enjoyed The Midwives Tale. I just wanted to say that weaving many yards of cloth at a time really isn't so difficult. Of course when you have to do it in a hurry to help pay some bills, it isn't as enjoyable, but it definitely can be done!

I so enjoy this blog and all the comments. Makes me feel as if we might have a future after all! A big "Thank you" to all of you!

234567 said...

I have a cell phone, but not a smart phone. I need it for business, but since cellular costs so much I dumped my landline. I would be quite comfy with a beeper, but there are no pay phones any longer. But here is the kicker: I have lost 3 customers due to my decision to not use a smartphone. I was informed that if they could not send me images and other non-SMS data IMMEDIATELY and get a response IMMEDIATELY, that I could not possibly service their needs.

I do 3D design work and farm and make wood bowls and mugs - these 3 things keep money coming in. Without internet, the wood goodies have no profitable market. No computers, and the design work is over. Farming goes on forever, but you cannot make a living at it if you have a mortgage without a lot of free help and a lot of really good weather.

Another thing I have noticed is people tend to gang up on anything remotely Ned Luddish, such as my flip phone. They make issue with me mowing my own lawn, and the relatively low frequency of my doing so. I do not like lawns per se, and do not want to fertilize or weed - unless it is with manure, which is not allowed here in my suburban digs. So I constantly have people 'suggesting' I do things which they want me to do - and I don't.

It feels like this is simply herd mentality, and goes to the current state of a people who have forgotten freedom and the art of polite discourse. I do not think anyone born after the western frontier was closed has a true idea of freedom. Rather they have an idea of entitlements which freedom is supposed to impart - incredibly fallacious.

Respect is also at an all-time low, where people routinely insult, castigate, defame and slander others in the anonymity of the internet. This is one reason why I do not comment often - in many venues, it is a complete waste of time.

But this is the same as it has been since biblical times - read your Bible and see how it all works. Or read Tacitus or other old tomes so you understand that "there is nothing new under the sun"...

Catoctin Mountain Mama said...

Dear JMG,

Thanks for the excellent post and for holding up a mirror that has forced me to see some uncomfortable truths about my life. Although, I gave up watching T.V. years ago, I have replaced it with an addiction to Social Media and the Internet. As a fairly self-aware and introspective person, I need to admit that after having had a smart-phone for two years my level of distractability has increased significantly. I used to hate being in social situations where everyone clutched at their phones. And, now, I am that person!

I held off from getting a smart-phone but finally caved when both my laptop and digital camera died around the same time. In May, my family participated in Screen-free Week and I was shocked by how much I struggled.

I love taking photos of my two children and have enjoyed using Instragram frequently. It hit me a few weeks ago. Why not just use an actual 35 mm camera and shoot black and white film? Head slap. I've been dragging my feet to make the change. Now, this timely post has convinced me to dig out an old flip phone and 35 mm camera. My Mother was just asking what I want for Christmas and she has (at least) 4 excellent 35 mm cameras in her basement from deceased family members.

Many thanks to you and this fantastic community for continuing to inspire me to make changes every week!

Unknown said...

Saw your post on ADR - An interesting idea; looking forward to seeing which book you pick first. I will attempt to get the same one and read it too. Kind of following the idea of figuring out what things will be like in the 'future' from the point of view of people living at that time, I'm just looking up Jules Verne at my local library right now.

The other Tom said...

I think fear of the unknown, or perhaps fear of the unfamiliar, plays a large role in the hostility we encounter when we question the status quo, whether it's technology or social mores or beliefs about the future.

Confronted with oncoming catastrophe, when one can a)continue what they are doing and hope "things work out somehow," or that "somebody will think of something," meaning they are doomed in a short time or b)go into a more difficult, uncertain, challenging search for longer and sustainable future, most people seem predisposed to Plan A. They would rather enjoy a short, untroubled time in their familiar, comfortable life than deal with the stress of thinking everything out. This, I believe, is why so many can see the writing on the wall, understand it, and act as though they didn't see it.

This morning on an NPR program they were discussing the Rube Goldberg solutions to "saving" Miami Beach from the Atlantic Ocean. Although I didn't hear the entire program, I didn't hear anyone say that it was absurd, that maybe it was time to move, that it will be as impractical as megacities in the desert or colonies on Mars.

I have to be cautious when speaking to anyone with young children, especially if they are planning a future for them with the same material and energy abundance as they've had, or more, going 80 or 90 years into the future. Maybe everyone thinks their kids will be in the one percent.

I've been reading "The Last Battle," by Cornelius Ryan, about the last few months of WW2 in Berlin. It is fascinating to me when he writes about comfortable, middle class civilians living in the suburbs. Some of these neighborhoods were still intact, not bombed, and these civilians were hoping to ride things out. But they knew the Red Army was only 50 miles away, and thousands of German refugees were streaming in from eastern Germany, with news of raping and mass murder on the way, and yet they stayed in place, hoping for the best. It was not a good idea.

I see this pattern of behavior everywhere. I wonder if there is a "conservative" behavior hard wired into us, a strong reluctance to change that takes a great effort to overcome. Perhaps this served us well for tens of thousands of years when our technology changed very slowly, but it really hinders us now that we have overshot our resources.

When confronted with unwelcome reality, our Default Position is to ignore it and carry on.

jbucks said...

@Steve Thomas and JMG:

"The exercise-- that I learned from you-- that has helped me in this regard is the practice of resolving binaries, as you described it in CGD."

What does 'CGD' stand for? I'm interested in further reading about this... thanks!

Dwig said...

197 comments the first day after the post (more than all comments on the last post)! Talk about touching a nerve...

It occurred to me that many of the reactions described here appear to fit in Kubler-Ross' 5 stage model of coming to terms with death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance (in particular, the descriptions of "greenwashing" by self-described environmentalists strike me as a kind of bargaining). The apparent vehemence of the rejection, anger, etc. may be a sign of subconscious awareness of the breakdown of the civilization.

(A caution here: these stages don't necessarily occur in a rigid sequence. "Kübler-Ross noted later in life that the stages are not a linear and predictable progression and that she regretted writing them in a way that was misunderstood. Rather, these are a collation of five common experiences for the bereaved that can occur in any order, if at all." -- from the Wikipedia article.)

John Michael Greer said...

Robert, alas, that's the one detail I haven't worked out yet!

Ozark, bingo. In the Retrotopia narrative, the outside world is our world, a little further advanced down the same route but recognizably the same; that's pretty much hardwired into the utopian genre, which works by contrasting the author's invented society with the surroundings familiar to his readers.

Bruno, exactly. That's a good summary.

Tim, his computer reboots a lot faster than mine does! I honestly have no idea what it would cost to launch a private lending library; if one of my books ever makes me rich, I'll look into it.

Thomas, I don't think it's just reading comprehension. The people who do this sort of thing normally follow along with no apparent problem, until they hit an idea they can't process.

Beneath, well, there's certainly that! I get the impression from the very lively and almost entirely positive reaction to this post, though, that the number of people who are bored to tears with the latest fashionable technotrash may be getting fairly large, enough to justify beginning to talk about the emergence of a subculture. Time to get those old-fashioned duplicators rolling and start a newsletter... ;-)

Shane, that could be very entertaining indeed. Perhaps your badge should have a little indication telling everyone how you got there... ;-) There might be interest in trainpooling -- groups of people coming from the same end of North America arranging to take the same train, and talk Green Wizard shop en route!

Will, those are solid lyrics -- I'll look forward to hearing the song sometime.

LatheChuck, oog. I feel sorry for her; as long as she holds that belief, she's guaranteed to make a miserable mess out of her life and the lives of everyone she knows.

Beneath, okay, that's three votes in favor. Anyone else interested?

Hcaparoso, I'd be delighted to see that happen, but as I've noted above, I simply don't have the time. If somebody else feels up to the challenge of running the newsletter, in exchange for the great majority of whatever profits it makes, I'd certainly cooperate with the process.

234567, having read the Bible and Tacitus, among other things, I'm not inclined to disagree.

Mountain Mama, you're most welcome and thank you!

Other Tom, no doubt that's part of the picture -- and yet what an amazing adventure the future approaching us is going to be!

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