"Why I'm Not Going to Buy a Computer" (1987) is probably the most famous thing Wendell Berry has written, and it's kind of a shame. Heaven knows how many first-time readers surveyed it and decided this Berry guy is on full tilt.
You can't totally blame them. Wendell doesn't even sound like himself in this one. Or rather, he sounds like the grouchiest version of himself -- a throwback to his "mad farmer" moment, circa 1973.
Of course, the mad farmer was ironical (in a world gone insane, farming for pleasure is madness), and Wendell is anything but mad. Even his famous contrariness is without anger. Watch him in this this clip from ten years ago, reading "The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer." The poem may be a middle finger to convention, but the poet, eyes twinkling, is more Dennis the Menace than Abbie Hoffman.
So it's notable that his short and notorious essay about home computing is as strident as it is. It's a one-two knockout punch. There are no yarns, no quips of humility. The language isn't tempered with notions of possibility and affection. Instead he drops a blunt force argument -- a hammer-blow version of the same thing he's said in a hundred other essays: if you count the costs, the tech ain't worth it.
It's an old refrain with Wendell, and, now that we're well along into our dyspeptic social media age, it's gaining adherents by the day (see my blog from last year A Cure for What Ails Us and this UN piece about tech-enabled violence against women and this week's news about campaign deepfakes going mainstream).
But Wendell's piece stands out. For one thing, he wrote it more than a quarter century before we began to unpack the dark side of the internet. For another, there's nothing agrarian in it; the audience is urban, suburban, young, old, middle. Its target, the PC, is a symbolic golden calf in our techno-solutionist religion -- an idol that enthralls and placates us. If he had written "Why I'm Not Going to Buy a Garage Door Opener," he could have made all the same points and the essay would have had none of the impact.
And what an impact it has had. (Woe unto the critics whose letters of opprobrium are included in my edition, along with Wendells' scalpel ripostes. This three act play -- provocative essay, condemning letters, eviscerating response, delights just for the rhetorical prowess). The truly gobsmacking revelation for me though, rereading the essay after many years, isn't that Wendell prefers pencils to keyboards.
No. The stunner is the reason. Here's his opener:
Like almost everybody else, I am hooked to the energy corporations, which I do not admire. I hope to become less hooked to them. In my work, I try to be as little hooked to them as possible. As a farmer, I do almost all my work with horses. As a writer, I work with a pencil or a pen and a piece of paper.
More than computers, his issue is strip-mined coal and dirty power.
The fossil fuel industry is many things. The chemical engineers and geologists inside it would say it is the magus that has brought inestimable health and wealth to billions. To climate activists, it is the central villain, because it is the largest polluter and species-destroyer by far. To most of us, it is nearly a force of nature, extracting, transporting and compressing earthbound material in unseeable plants and pipes. To some of us, it is a nightmare neighbor -- noxious, noisy and downright dangerous. It's also superhuman in its power, like the fire at its very core, consuming anything that tries to impede it, including politicians, environmentalists and even whole governments. For many, it's just the thing that keeps the heat on, thank god.
But for those millions of us lucky enough to enjoy its services while also knowing something of its depravities, I think it's a source of a vague and unacknowledged shame. You don't need to know much to know that energy corporations are rapists. To them, only the hydrocarbons count; the rest of the world is fit for a dump, or an actual dump. And dump they do, never mind that their "overburden" and dump sites are actually priceless -- mountains, trees, clean water, our atmosphere.
The distance between worthless and priceless is the size of our problem with fossil fuel energy.
What's a conscientious person to do?
There are socially acceptable answers to that question (i.e. protest, electrify, vote for Democrats, organize, shrink your carbon footprint). And there are socially unacceptable responses (i.e. write longhand instead of with a word processor). What's acceptable is anything really, so long as it doesn't downscale energy consumption. What's unacceptable is anything that does.
The nerve that Wendell is touching here is about energy, and even though both energy corporations and computer corporations come under his ire, the real affront is his suggestion that we should use less energy. That's a position that no one takes, not even today as we careen past 420 ppm CO2e in the atmosphere and 1.5 degrees of warming down here on the ground. "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle," is the environmentalists' creed, but the first mandate is much harder than the third and so far has hardly made a dent.
Deep in the climate movement, entrepreneurs and enlightened governments are trying to figure out how to break the carbon habit. But (ironically), it's mostly through "better living through chemistry" -- approaches that hew to the old Dupont Chemicals slogan. Through smarter chemistry, we're making our way toward better cement, better batteries, clean burning hydrogen gas and and sustainable aviation fuel. All will create energy with far less emissions than what we have today, and we should be thankful for these and thousands of other substitutive innovations.
Wendell also wants to do away with emissions; in this piece he calls for the adoption of solar energy and embodied solar (draft animals). He also calls for technology to be cheap, small and easy to repair by a person of ordinary intelligence, in a shop near to home, that is privately owned.
Those are the standards he claims to use for accepting technological innovation in his own work, along with this, the most important of all:
(The new tool) should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.
Sorry cell phones. You're out.
Wendell is challenging us with this polemic about how he lives his life. By choosing to publish this one in the New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly, he ensured that comparisons to Thoreau were going to stick for good. Challenge is the point, I think, and he is careful in how he takes up the sword. He never once says you shouldn't buy a computer, or that you should do your work by daylight. Like Thoreau, he is urging us to question societal norms and to live more deliberately. And of course to slow down, which is probably the most blasphemous message of all.
Earlier this month I was recovering from a bug, and it was a strange one because I didn't have any acute symptoms. I just felt sluggish and unwell. It occurred to me, as I dragged myself around the house, that this must be what it feels like to be aged. I wasn't up for doing the small and easy things that normally give me pleasure, like straightening the house and taking out the compost. I didn't have the energy for it. And I then had an insight that the body is a battery -- an energy capsule that powers our lives. Our lives are energy. We live vigorously in our youth, less so as we grow older, modestly toward the end, until finally the juice is completely drained.
It is radical to suggest that using less energy could be better for us. The idea seems to contradict our most basic biological instincts. But our unexamined expectation that purchased energy be infinitely available is dangerously naive, like our love of controlled fire, of unfettered mobility, of cheap fuel, and so many other climate-altering impulses.
These are human needs, and human vulnerabilities. And yet, despite Wendell's throw-down, they are still in dire need of reconsideration. Now more than ever.