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Anabaptist Technology

Lessons from a Communitarian Business

John Rhodes

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  • Dan Grubbs

    Thought provoking, Mr. Rhodes. Thank you for relating these insights. As I read through the piece, I saw a similarity of Mr. Ellul's thoughts to a more common economic theory. I have examined the Occidental food and agricultural systems and so clearly see what Ellul wrote regarding the fact that once a technology is introduced that its benefits cannot be experienced without its detriments. The true costs of American agriculture are not considered in our food system. American food is not the cheapest food in the world because, when honestly considered, you have to add in the cost of healthcare and the cost of our ruined soils and loss of rural communities. Ellul's observations are correct and are even alluded to in economic theory that describes a type of creative destruction: the benefits of developing new technologies outweigh the destruction inevitably caused by the new technologies. However, in agriculture we are now finding out that the benefits are experienced at the front end at the moment we decide to accept the new technology (increased yield) and we do not feel the pain of the destruction that will far outweigh the benefit of the technology through time (denuded soils, erosion, poisoned ecosystems, poisoned watersheds, nutrition-less food, diseased animals, sick humans, no rural economy). This all leads me to understanding the need of building genuine communities. Not all have to be retreating communities, but all need to be communal (as in koinonia) with genuine interpersonal relationships. I'm not saying we have to take the Benedict Option, but we do have to live and worship among a group of people who practice what I have coined as independent interdependence. Thoughtful use of technology, whether it be an internal combustion engine or a mobile phone, can be integrated into a healthy community of people as long as they understand their need to be conscious of "both burden and blessings." I believe this is much of your point.

  • Heidi Hooper

    Thank you for this article. As someone who lives in a home where the tv is ALWAYS on, being logged on at all times is a given, and thoughtful conversation on anything DEEP just about never happens - I rejoice that there is still a place in the world where this is not the case. I will be praying for the unchanging witness of the Broderhof communities.

  • METİN ERDEM

    We serve people that is serving God. And we have faith that the fruit of the service is peace. We all work for each other and share everything and we belong to each other and our hearts are connected by the love of God.

In 1998, Community Playthings, the church-run manufacturing business based in New York in which I work, tried abandoning email. This was not my idea, despite the fact that I’d been leading the company for five years. Instead, the impetus for the move came from the company’s staff. Many of them were angry about the effects email was having.

Today it may seem quaint that people once regarded email, that clunky relic of a time before social media, as a threatening technology. Yet the workers’ complaints were real enough. Email, they felt, exacerbated tensions between colleagues, who used it to bypass each other when making decisions or to avoid resolving conflicts face to face. In what had been an egalitarian workplace with a strong emphasis on collaboration, it erected a divide between those who enjoyed constant access to instant communication because they worked at a computer, and those without such access because they were busy building the wooden toys and furniture we sold. The management team, too, noticed how email led to time waste as office workers were distracted from their duties by recreational listservs devoted to news or sports. (Yes, this was once a thing.) All in all, with the advent of email something had changed in our company. Even I, a supporter of technological business applications who had worked on developing computerized systems since the 1970s, had to admit that it wasn’t all for the better.

Community Playthings’ particular culture made this situation especially painful. Founded in 1948 by communitarian pacifists in Georgia, since the 1950s the company has been the main source of income and work for the members of the Bruderhof, a Christian community movement in the Anabaptist tradition whose members share all things in common in the spirit of the early church (Acts 2 and 4). All those who work in the company are my fellow ­Bruderhof members; in keeping with our vow of personal poverty, none of us owns a share or earns a paycheck, with all earnings going to support the community or to fund its philanthropic and missionary projects.

two men building a green Rifton trike

Working together in harmony is fundamental to Bruderhof businesses. Photograph by Clare Stober, courtesy of Rifton

Despite its communal context, Community Playthings has thrived in the capitalist marketplace. Along with Rifton Equipment, another community-run company that makes therapeutic equipment for people with disabilities, it sells to customers around the world; in 1998, earnings were covering all costs for two thousand people in eight Bruderhof locations in the United States and Europe. Both companies, though medium-sized in terms of market share, are recognized as industry leaders for their durable products and vanguard designs. Such success sprang at least in part from our adoption of innovative technologies. The company had computerized already in 1979, buying a Wang minicomputer; a decade later, a second growth spurt resulted from adopting the Japanese “Just-in-Time” manufacturing philosophy, which made extensive use of manufacturing data.

The fundamental secret of Community Playthings, however, is our commitment to working together with everyone else in the business in a spirit of harmony. Deeply ingrained in our company culture is an abhorrence of any corporate hierarchy. Since the purpose of the company is simply to be an extension of our common life in Christian community, we are brothers and sisters, not managers and employees. While some individuals obviously carry leadership responsibility, all of us earn the same pay: nothing. In the words of Bruderhof founder Eberhard Arnold, “love is joy in others,” and this love is to pervade all we do, even at the cost of business efficiency. True to this ethos, the company needs to accommodate a wide range of workers: young and old, female and male, able-bodied and less so, skilled and unskilled, lifelong community member and newcomer.

Up until the late 1990s, bringing new technologies into the business had rarely been controversial. The office staff, especially, applauded anything that reduced the drudgery of repetitive typing. Previously, the main worries had focused on the introduction of CNC (computer numeric control) machines to production – some older members had raised questions about the loss of old-school craftsmanship and the sudden importance of the machines’ young tech-savvy operators.

Technology is never neutral: once introduced, it plays its hand.

But it was email that proved to be the bridge too far. Frustration with the unintended consequences of electronic communication mounted, and before long there were proposals for an enterprise-wide email ban. For those of us charged with steering a complex multi-locational operation, with a number of business processes dependent on the email system, we definitely had a “Houston, we have a problem” moment.

In conversations with my fellow members, I acknowledged that email was a technology with low emotional bandwidth: excellent for sharing information, poor or even often awful at creating and sustaining warmth in relationships. But I argued that in a communication-rich environment, where we lived and worked together, met face to face daily for communal meals and worship, and shared a commitment to avoid all gossip and backbiting, email’s weaknesses should be manageable.

The fact that this isn’t how it played out taught me a valuable lesson: technology is never neutral. As the French thinker Jacques Ellul recognized, the technologies we use always have an effect on us, and that effect is both burden and blessing. Importantly, the outcome of a given form of technology depends less on our intent than on the structure of that technology. Once introduced, it plays its hand. Our task is to keep our eyes open and understand what is happening.

This is no easy task, for the changes wrought by technology are often subtle and unpredictable. They can affect our very concept of life and our place in it. Neil Postman, in his book Technopoly, gives an example of how this happens:

Who would have imagined, for example, whose interests and what worldview would be ultimately advanced by the invention of the mechanical clock? The clock had its origin in the Benedictine monasteries of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The impetus behind the invention was to provide a more or less precise regularity to the routines of the monasteries, which required, among other things, seven periods of devotion during the course of the day. The bells of the monastery were to be rung to signal the canonical hours; the mechanical clock was the technology that could provide precision to these rituals of devotion. And indeed, it did. But what the monks did not foresee was that the clock is a means not merely of keeping track of the hours but also of synchronizing and controlling the actions of men. And thus, by the middle of the fourteenth century, the clock had moved outside the walls of the monastery, and brought a new and precise regularity to the life of the workman and the merchant.

“The mechanical clock,” as Lewis Mumford wrote, “made possible the idea of regular production, regular working hours and a standardized product.” In short, without the clock, capitalism would have been quite impossible. The paradox, the surprise, and the wonder are that the clock was invented by men who wanted to devote themselves more rigorously to God; it ended as the technology of greatest use to men who wished to devote themselves to the accumulation of money. footnote

several Bruderhof members working in a community workshop Young and old, skilled and unskilled, work together in a community workshop. Photograph by Mark McCarty, courtesy of Rifton

Unintended consequences are not the only effect of technology. As Postman argues, it is not possible to contain the effects of technology to a limited sphere of human activity – “one significant change generates total change.” He gives a string of examples to illustrate the point: “If you remove the caterpillars from a given habitat, you are not left with the same environment minus caterpillars. You have a new environment, and have reconstituted the conditions of survival. The same is true if you add caterpillars to an environment that has none.” Likewise, in 1500, “fifty years after the printing press was invented, we did not have old Europe plus the printing press. We had a different Europe.” The same was true after the invention of the automobile, radio, television, and every other major technology. This inevitable effect, and the uncertainty of this effect, is what makes us so uneasy about new technology.

The solution is not a legalistic retreat into traditionalism.

As our company debated how to use electronic communication, I found myself making heavy use of Postman’s book, which distills the thought of dozens of earlier thinkers on technology including Ellul, Ivan Illich, and Marshall McLuhan. Given our company’s context as part of a Christian community, I found Postman’s account of the spiritual history of technology especially illuminating. Prior to the seventeenth century, he argues, most cultures found a way to integrate technology into an existing pattern of life rather than be taken over by it. Often, those cultures that possessed the strongest philosophical or religious center were also best able to pull off this feat of integration: where people were confident that their existence had meaning and order, it was “almost impossible for technics to subordinate [them] to its own needs.” Technological developments brought about changes, some significant, but still the culture’s values and institutions guided inventions and limited their effects.

Francis Bacon, however, heralded a new attitude when he wrote in his 1620 masterwork Novum Organum that the only goal of science is the “endowment of human life with new inventions and riches.” Progress, with its emphasis on efficiency and production, was born. By the end of the next century, the factory system was developed, Postman writes, and “small-scale, personalized, skilled labor” gave way to “large-scale, impersonal, mechanized production.” Our concept of human nature began to shift. People were no longer children of God, but economic units, treated like machines during work, and as consumers otherwise.

It was technology’s tendency toward dehumanization, I realized, that my fellow community members were reacting to in their objections to email. While profoundly inconvenient for those of us leading the business, the reaction was a healthy one, rooted in our community’s tradition. Eberhard Arnold, in laying the groundwork for the Bruderhof’s structure in the 1920s and 1930s, addressed the subject of technology extensively. Having seen firsthand the dehumanization of factory workers, he was skeptical of its benefits: “Many machines do not permit man to put his soul, his heart, his mind into the work; it is a curse for man to have to do something without having his whole heart in it.”2 He was horrified that Christians passively accepted technology’s evils, such as the tens of thousands of traffic deaths that accompanied the spread of automobiles.

Yet to Arnold, the solution was not a legalistic retreat into traditionalism. Instead, he insisted on recovering the old integration of technology into a holistic vision for how humans can best flourish. As he wrote in 1921:

We cannot yet tell in detail how this communal love of work with its voluntary nature and joy in creativity will become practical reality. We do not know to what extent mechanized industry will be struck when the works of the devil are destroyed. The evolution of work has arrived at a deadlock: division of labor and victimization of people. Love must also become inventive in the technical area, so that soul, oversight, and unity are brought into every piece of work once more.3

Technology has found its rightful place, then, when it enables people to work well with all faculties of their being, and to work well with one another.

Community Playthings’ email crisis soon passed. After a week or two of email sabbath, we cautiously began using it again, now with a common awareness of dangers to avoid and a renewed commitment not to allow barriers to grow between us. Two decades later, email is regarded as outdated. Yet the principles we learned from this episode have continued to guide our communities in the years since, and not just in business life. Here are four of them:

  1. Families and community first. Any use of technology that undermines the richness of human relationships is presumed suspect, especially technologies that encourage passivity rather than creativity. That’s why Bruderhof members minimize their use of social media, and why Bruderhof homes don’t have television. It’s not that we regard either of these as a sin; it’s just that we’ve seen how it distracts from more important ways to spend our time, such as reading a book to a child, inviting a lonely neighbor over for tea, or painting a picture. For similar reasons, we seek to push back against the pressure, enabled by technology, to allow our daytime work to spill over into times that should be reserved for our families or for the community. The laptops stay in the office when five o’clock rolls around.
  2. Technologies have an agenda. Often the agenda is that of mammon: many technologies are designed to turn us into consumers. (Television, again, is a timeworn but still relevant example.) Since this is the case, we ought to approach them with the same skepticism we’d show an untrustworthy used-car salesman. As Postman points out, it’s the structure of the technology, not our intentions in using it, which often change us most.
  3. Screens and children don't mix. This is a corollary of points 1 and 2. For several years, Bruderhof schools enthusiastically adopted educational technology. The results were alarming, and our communities did an about-turn, removing computers from the classroom up to high school. The reason: the heart of education is not the transfer of knowledge, but the nurturing of relationships – of child to teacher, of children among each other, and of children to nature. Academic learning, while important, takes second place to the more central educational task of growing in relationships, and in fact often occurs as a side benefit to it. In this process, the intrusion of a machine is counterproductive. (Quite different is the use of technologies for children with disabilities, for example communication boards for those who cannot speak. Rather than substituting for relationships, such technologies make them possible.)
  4. Don’t be afraid to walk away. To be tech-savvy is not a virtue; “blessed are the early adopters” is not a wise rule for living. If a form of technology is proving to be deleterious to relationships with others, we must have the fortitude to drop it.

At times, as in our community’s abortive attempt to get rid of email, we’ll end up reversing course, either adopting a new technology that we’ve spurned or re-adopting one we tried to do without. Even then, the exercise of sorting out the good effects from the bad is almost always a fruitful one. It ensures that we are technology’s master, with our tools serving to promote human flourishing – not the other way around.

a man spraying green paint on a metal frame Technology is integrated into community life, but does not dominate it. Photograph by Mark McCarty, courtesy of Rifton

Footnotes

  1. Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (Vintage, 1993), 15. The following three paragraphs draw extensively on Postman’s book.
  2. Eberhard Arnold, “The Problem of Machines,” talk given on August 8, 1935, trans. Nicoline Maas and Hela Ehrlich (Bruderhof Historical Archive, EA 439).
  3. Eberhard Arnold, “Community and the Future of Work,” unpublished manuscript, 1921, trans. Emmy Barth Maendel (Bruderhof Historical Archive, EA 20/21a).
Contributed By John Rhodes

is director of development for Community Playthings and Rifton Equipment.

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