The US novelist Wendell Berry is also a noted conservationist and small farmer. In his 1987 essay, he offers a passionate defence against the encroachment of computers into his writing process. As Berry states:
“I do not see that computers are bringing us one step nearer to anything that does matter to me: peace, economic justice, ecological health, political honesty, family and community stability, good work”.
Berry’s criteria for deciding whether or not to adopt a new tool or technology into his life resonate clearly with current discussions around digital degrowth – not least reframing digital technology consumption along lines of ‘voluntary simplicity’, ‘conscious minimalization’, ‘reparability’ and so on. To quote a series of dot-points that Berry offers toward the end of his essay in way of a conclusion:
“To make myself as plain as I can, I should give my standards for technological innovation in my own work. They are as follows:
- The new tool should be cheaper than the one it replaces.
- It should be at least as small in scale as the one it replaces.
- It should do work that is clearly and demonstrably better than the one it replaces.
- It should use less energy than the one it replaces.
- If possible, it should use some form of solar energy, such as that of the body.
- It should be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence, provided that he or she has the necessary tools.
- It should be purchasable and repairable as near to home as possible.
- It should come from a small, privately owned shop or store that will take it back for maintenance and repair.
- It should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.”
Other than Berry’s point about diminishing size and scale, it seems difficult to imagine holding the purchase of a new smartphone, laptop or other digital device to these standards. This list therefore tells us much about the ways in which the computer industry has developed over the 35 years or so since it was first written.
Besides these nine criteria, many other elements of Berry’s writing offer welcome provocation when read in the 2020s – not least his railing against energy corporations for their implicit enabling of the computer revolution. The essay opens with a typically bold statement: “Like almost everybody else, I am hooked to the energy corporations, which I do not admire”.
That said, one element of this essay’s reasoning might seem notably off when read in the 2020s – notably Berry’s celebration of his wife typing all of his writing on a standard typewriter, copyediting and improving the text as she goes. As Wendell enthused: “We have, I think, a literary cottage industry that works well and pleasantly. I do not see anything wrong with it” (indeed, Wendell later doubled-down on the ‘meanness’ of readers who criticised him for this patriarchal celebration of spousal free labour ‘working well’ – as he retorted: “my wife may do this work because she wants to and likes to”).
Notwithstanding its questionable gender politics, ‘Why I am not going to buy a computer’ is a lively reminder of the value of 1980s’ computer criticism. This was a time when the ongoing encroachment of computers into everyday life was not taken as inevitable, and people exerting more control over their relationships with new technology was deemed worthy of serious consideration. Nearly forty years later, such conversations are well-worth revisiting and reviving.