Randall Gerard writes back...

Location: Out West

An old-fashioned guy grappling with new-fangled ways.

Monday, May 07, 2007

On the old adage, 'Less is More'...

My wife blames it all on Tolkien. The great books he wrote are read and re-read over and over in our home; and they were then reinforced by the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy. And here is the sage Gandalf, contemplating the ring in Bilbo's house, pipe-weed smoke swirling about his head. There is Strider, pulling mysteriously on his clay pipe as he surveys a crowded tavern. Gimli puffs calmly on his pipe even as the dark horde converges on Helm's Deep. Enough. I must have one. I settled for a varnished corn cob and generic cavendish, just to see if I would like it. And now I am pining for the slender, artistic grace of my very own clay pipe.
But I don't want to leave the impression that I light up constantly. I have not bought a pipe holster and all the accoutrements, so that I may light up anywhere, anytime. Pipes are cumbersome, requiring two hands and several tools, and that's just perfect for smoking in moderation. Every now and then, once or twice a month, even less in the heat of summer, it's pleasant to put the flame to fine burleigh or cavendish. Or a blend thereof. That way, my dear wife can still stand to kiss me, and her kisses are vital, whereas swirling pipe smoke is an optional pleasure.
But I love to smoke while I read; I find it aids my concentration. Though it cannot make a bad book better, mysteriously enough, it does add quality to the experience of reading a good book. And that is how I was doubly blessed by Eric Brende's fine book, entitled 'Better Off'. Mr. Brende is a lyrical writer, deftly weaving philosophy and some theology with more practical matters. The book is actually Mr. Brende's Master's thesis on how advanced technology effects us socially, materially and even physically. The Brende's, Eric and his new bride Mary, spent 18 months living in a community of 'minimites'. This is Eric's term for folks who deliberately limit access to high technology in order to cultivate real community, meaningful work and a lifestyle more in harmony with the rhythms of the earth and with God. His experiences are poignantly rendered amid many astute observations.
These observations include the very helpful distinction he makes between 'tools' and 'machines'. A tool, first of all, does not replace it's owner's skill or judgement. It is not automatic. It is designed as a simple means to an end. A machine often becomes an end in itself. A machine often does too much, thereby rendering physical effort and conscious thought obsolete in the performance of a task. A machine also makes demands quite similar to the demands of living, breathing beings. It often requires debt service and insurance coverage as well as fuel, maintenance, repair.. usually by skilled technicians. Moreover, these demands increase with the complexity of the machine. A bicycle is a simple machine designed to make our legs and lungs more efficient in transporting us. A car is a complex machine that makes our legs and lungs obsolete for transportation. A saw is a tool. A chainsaw is a machine, and so on.
Also, a machine often carries in it's train many unforeseen consequences. If we think of the small ripples a pebble makes when thrown in a pond, and then the much larger splash and waves made by a boulder, this will be easier to visualize. The machine, by it's many demands, gradually usurps and subverts the very purpose for which it was made. At the turn of the last century we moved about at modest speeds by means of horse power. Henry Ford's model 'T' just barely out-stripped the horse and carriage. And now we have come full circle with 8 lanes of traffic often moving much slower then a horse and carriage, at an immense cost in infrastructure and to the environment. The tyranny of the automobile is now complete. The more I think about it, the more I value Brende's distinctions; and I intend to apply this logic to my own collection of tools and machines. I heartily recommend his book. Even if you have no intention of ever being a 'minimite', it is rich food for thought.