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- Eberhard Arnold, “Community and the Future of Work,” unpublished manuscript, 1921, trans.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