Why Wendell Berry is still not going to buy a computer

John Flavell/The Independent/AP/File
Kentucky author and poet Wendell Berry reads the local paper Feb. 14, 2011, while occupying the governor’s offices to protest mountaintop removal mining in Frankfort, Kentucky.

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In today’s hyperconnected world, it’s hard to imagine life without a computer. In 1988, essayist and cultural critic Wendell Berry shocked Americans by declaring that he was not going to buy a computer. Still computerless three decades later, Mr. Berry is in a unique position to observe the effects of digital life on society. 

“It seemed to me that everybody was jumping into this as if it would save the world,” he tells the Monitor during an interview at his home in Port Royal, Kentucky. “And so, I made a little dissent.”

Why We Wrote This

The digital revolution has certainly been a catalyst for progress. But that comes at a cost. In an exclusive interview, digital resister Wendell Berry cautions against putting blind faith in computers.

From behind his typewriter, he has watched as the internet has placed a library of information in the hands of the world. The ability to call up information instantaneously may satisfy an immediate curiosity, Mr. Berry says, but it “doesn’t contribute to the formation of a mind.”

His abstention from the digital world has been “a part of my strategy to try to keep myself whole as a human being,” he says. “I don’t want my life to be lived for me by a machine.”

While much of the world salivated at the promise of the desktop computer, essayist and cultural critic Wendell Berry was unimpressed.

Three decades after publishing his controversial 1988 essay “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer” in Harper’s Magazine, Mr. Berry still doesn’t own one. He doesn’t have a smartphone either.

That perspective has lent the octogenarian a unique view of the role of technology in this increasingly digitized world. From behind his typewriter, he has remained skeptical about what he sees as “a technological fundamentalism,” or blind faith in computers to liberate humanity.

Why We Wrote This

The digital revolution has certainly been a catalyst for progress. But that comes at a cost. In an exclusive interview, digital resister Wendell Berry cautions against putting blind faith in computers.

Mr. Berry recently sat down with the Monitor at his home in Port Royal, Kentucky. The following discussion has been edited for clarity and brevity.

What made you want to publicly declare your intention to abstain from the computer bandwagon?

It seemed to me that everybody was jumping into this as if it would save the world. And that was really the way it was being advertised. “This is the solution to all our problems. This is going to speed things up.” And so, I made a little dissent. It’s really a tiny little no that I said.

While you were staging that “little dissent” President Ronald Reagan declared the computer revolution “the greatest force for the advancement of human freedom the world has ever seen.”

The idea that you’re free if you buy everything that’s marketed to you is absurd. You’ve become free only when you begin to choose. Take it – or leave it. That’s our freedom, that’s real freedom.

The way the human race practically bought into this computer sales talk was just contemptible. You come on the market with this thing. It’s exactly the way they marketed television. “This is the answer. Everybody’s going to be smarter now. Everybody’s going to be in touch.” Same line. And they don’t anticipate any negative result. Never.

Three decades later, conversations have turned to controlling those unforeseen negative results. The shooter who recently killed 50 Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand, is reported to have found inspiration for his belief system on the internet.

The education industry argument always is that better education will do the trick. And it’s up to us; we’re the last hope of mankind. They never think, much less admit, that to educate a born crook is to make a worse crook than he would have been without an education.

One of the appeals of computers is up-to-the-minute access to information. It’s almost as if computers have transformed people, giving them their own isolated command centers.

They got whole libraries now in these things. And if you want to know something, you could just ask your computer and it’ll tell you. But this doesn’t contribute to the formation of a mind.

Information refers to something with the power to inform. It’s formal. And it’s organic. Your mind is made from within, to a certain extent, by information. Made from without, too, because it responds to its social situation, and its geographic situation, its cultural situation. This is really complex and really interesting.

Nobody could be bored who is really searching the world for knowledge to inform the mind. So why stick a keyboard and a screen between the mind and the world? I’m not without information. I study the fields, the woods, and the river. I read, and I hear, and I remember.

In Martin Ford’s “Rise of the Robots,” he predicts that lawyers, teachers, fast-food workers, radiologists, even journalists, all could be mostly automated in the future.

There is such a thing as human relations. And there is such a thing as getting a lot of satisfaction, joy, fun from human relations. And I don’t understand why people are willing to give up on that. When you write an article for a magazine, you’re offering half – you’re part of a conversation. The reader is invited to complete it, perhaps by disagreeing. This is a relationship.

The only motive that’s worth anything is love. If you don’t do the work that you love, and if you don’t do it for love, your artistry is not informed by love. It can’t be any good. So there’s the argument, as far as I’m concerned, against robots.

You can’t make a robot that will work from love. It doesn’t work from anything; it doesn’t have any motives. Or its motive is electricity, you could say.

So my little essay about the computer, why I’m not going to buy a computer, was just a part of my strategy to try to keep myself whole as a human being. I don’t want my life to be lived for me by a machine.

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