The Biggest Dream is of the Small, Simple Life

Every other Tuesday, a few friends and I get together in the evening for what we jokingly refer to as “Church.” We’re all formerly of the fold, so to speak, and though we remain uninterested in congregating around a set of particular rules, we do remain interested in congregating with one another. We’ve been a chosen family of sorts for many years now. We use these times to support one another in all our ways of life; our material, intellectual, and spiritual pursuits are the currency of our intimacy. Over the past year, it’s been good to know that we can do this just as well over Zoom as we did in person.

One of my friends works as a consultant to a variety of organizations focused on trauma support. She spends a lot of time encouraging her clients to envision a better future than the one they assume is inevitable given the horrors they grapple with on a daily basis. It’s her belief that visualizing a better future isn’t just an exercise in motivation, but that it actually helps to change and refine the things they do today. What would you have to do differently today, she’ll ask, to make that future possible? The problem is that these conversations almost never go well. My friend struggles with how limited their imaginations are — how small their dreams are — how little they believe they can actually change. She’ll ask them to describe a future in which grant-funded trauma support networks are no longer necessary and they’ll describe tiny bureaucratic changes to the healthcare system. Last Tuesday, she was especially frustrated. Can’t you dream bigger? she lamented.

But she also described — rather hopefully — the inspiration she’d personally been drawing from reading speculative fiction. Things like N.K. Jemison’s The City We Became.

A fascinating thing about much of the fiction my friend has been reading is that the better futures imagined within it come at a heavy cost. They’re not the long-term result of slow and steady optimization. They’re not time-worn, aged futures inhabited by enduring, matured cultures. They are futures that emerge after sudden collapse. They are futures only possible when the status quo is no longer possible; humanity has either lost it to their own destructive choices, or been rejected by Earth in some kind of cataclysmic restoration of its supremacy over the species that spoil its surface.

Imagining a better future is difficult to do. It’s especially difficult for those who know the inner-workings of the present. If you know any portion of the detail involved in running this byzantine shitshow that we call modernity, you also know the thousands of things that kill the imagination. Rules. Contingencies. Bureaucratic complexity that began with an earnest desire to manage things well and now look like an intentional mud-moat meant to slow down an unmanageable throng of the needy. Reality is hard to get past. No wonder someone grappling with remaking reality would turn to speculative fiction for inspiration.

World-building, though, is also a tricky business. Imagination — big ideas — is where it begins, but constructing a believable reality around them, I imagine, is kind of like drawing or painting or sculpting. There’s a process of building and taking away, of developing visible patina in some places and noticeable absences in others. So many of the great “worlds” of fiction are the product of assembling the minimum viable amount of detail — just enough to make it believably inhabitable, but not so much as to give the reader cause to quibble over its physics or tax code.

I often reflect, for example, on the ways in which Star Trek shaped my expectations for the future. (And for the record, when I refer to Star Trek, I have The Next Generation, specifically, in mind.) The “world” of Star Trek is, fundamentally, the result of a culture unencumbered by scarcity. It’s what would happen if people didn’t have to work to earn money to buy the things they need to live. It proposes that a certain level of technological progress should free a culture to mature, or, looked at from another view, that culture is held back by systemically unmet needs. Hard to argue with that. What I loved about this future was that even though its people didn’t need to work, they worked anyway. I loved that Star Trek was was an exploration of what is essential to not just humankind — what makes us tick, if not conflict and the accumulation of things — but what is essential to entitykind. I loved that it was cooperation-porn. I loved every second of every drawn out scene of consensus building. I loved that a starship had a conference room.

But Star Trek was smart enough to both believe in the viability of a techno-utopia while also questioning it. The Federation — the galaxy-wide collective of mature civilizations — had all kinds of policy debates over issues you might have thought a post-scarcity culture had left behind: things like resource management, warfare, diplomacy, non-intervention. All kinds of wonking at that conference table, acutely aware of its place in a literal artifact of refined materiality wandering the universe. In their wandering, they regularly encountered cultures that lived differently, and that’s where things got interesting. One recurring trope engaged me most: when the Enterprise crew encountered communities that, despite having reached the same level of technological progress if not surpassed it, had chosen a simpler way of life instead. Episodes like The Masterpiece Society and the film Insurrection explore this theme well. As a child fully engaged in the thought experiment, I had no problem choosing a side. I always wanted to be a part of the community that had chosen a utopia of simplicity over one of complexity. As good as the ship life looked, in all its sterility and power, in its replicator’s abundance, in the holodeck’s infinite imagination, the small, intimate spaces of those post-post-technological communities looked better to me. As big and provocative the dream of a techno-utopia is, a culture that has the ability to make one but chooses not to is one far grander.

Simplicity is relative. It feels like a profound choice to make in opposition to an imagined complexity — to a world like that of Star Trek’s Enterprise. But it’s no less profound to make in opposition to the world of the smartphone, or the world of indoor plumbing, electricity, and the motor. Many communities, for all of human history, have defined themselves by their choice to live differently. To live with less than is possible, say, or to set themselves apart from things and ways that are not just the peculiarities of other cultures, but the new additions welcomed by almost every other human. Often, this choice is misunderstood by those who do not make it. It looks like a choice born of fear, a stubborn line drawn to exclude progress because of what it might do to power. Sometimes that’s true. But not always.

The Amish make the choice to live differently. The present tense of that statement is intentional — important to understanding why they do so, and how. Contrary to common perception, The Amish don’t reject technology simply because modernity clashes with retrograde preferences, or because they fear that if a person wears a jacket with a zipper she might love God less or question her husband. They continually choose the details of their way of life, motivated by strengthening the bond of their community and defining it around a preserved set of values.

It is true that the foundation of The Amish way of life is religious. The Amish trace their identity back to the Swiss anabaptist movement, which first distinguished itself from the established surrounding culture by arguing that baptism is only truly sacramental when requested by its recipient. Basically, they were saying, you can baptize babies all you want, but since they have no idea what’s going on, you’re basically giving them a regular old bath. Baptism is for adults. This was controversial. Eventually, the Swiss anabaptists migrated to Pennsylvania in the 18th century. There was plenty of space for them there to do their thing, and generally, America’s Protestantism was friendly to their preferences.

Since then, The Amish culture has become more and more isolated due to a variety of events, some of them imposed upon them — like the suppression of the German language during World War I — and many of them chosen. Will they use running water, looms, motors, fuels of various kinds? All of those, choices that splintered their communities. There’s even a branch of The Amish called The Beachy Amish — named for Bishop Moses Beachy — that split off over a disagreement over the car. They were ready to hop in, the other Amish were not. But regardless of what The Amish choose, the typically misunderstood — and from my view, the most important — thing is why they make these choices. It’s not really a matter of religion, per se. No one is pointing to a line of scripture and interpreting it as an embargo against a machine. Instead, these choices are made from a rubric that could make sense to any culture, with or without a religious foundation.

Primarily, The Amish choose that which strengthens the community. In fact, their way of life is moderated by a particular form of community agreement, which they call the Ordnung. You could translate ordnung to mean “The Rules,” or, better yet, you could translate it to mean, “The Arrangement.” Each community stewards its own Ordnung, coming together twice each year to review, debate, and vote on a wide array of issues — everything from attire to specific religious practices — not just matters of technology. Everyone has a voice and a vote. What informs their voting are religiously informed values, certainly, but many of them are expressed in ways that I would imagine even a staunch atheist could support. One, for example, is the value of hard work. The Amish believe that hard work is good, not just in its utility — what it produces — but for what it does to the person working. For its reminder of the temporality of the world and the body, for its cultivation of patience, persistence, and perseverance. Because they believe so strongly in the benefits of hard work, they resist technology that takes away the experience of hard work. Not categorically, though. Technology of all kinds is often discussed and debated among The Amish and different Amish communities make different decisions. Though they ask the same question — whether a technology will strengthen a community or not — they don’t always have the same answer.

In his book, Strangers and Pilgrims: Why We Live Simply, Elmo Stoll, an Amish bishop, wrote,

If we meant to stay here, it would make sense to accumulate and enjoy all the earthly comforts. [But] this is vanity. We came into this world with nothing, and we are going to leave it the same way…Love for neighbor provides a second reason for living a simple life. How can I eat cake, when my neighbor does not have bread? How can I discard serviceable clothing because it is not in style, when my neighbor is shivering from cold? In short, how can I live in luxury when my neighbor lacks the necessities?

In these words is an expression of values I can relate to in many ways. The first is a matter of faith. The Amish believe that life on Earth is temporary, but that the life of the person is not. Not everyone believes this, and so I wouldn’t expect everyone to understand it as a foundational value. But it is consistent with their understanding of why there are here and where they are going. The second value is one that every human should find accessible. It’s the one that I sensed when admiring those strange, peacefully retrograde communities stumbled upon by the Enterprise crew. Fundamentally, it’s the idea that progress isn’t complete if it’s not experienced by everyone. What good is a starship if a single person who had her hand in making it goes hungry? What good is fashion if there is waste?

What did the inhabitants of those post-post-scarcity worlds want? Just a place to live and to not have to worry about where their next meal came from? Yes, absolutely. But also to create a way of life that didn’t constantly threaten itself. To examine the expressions of their culture for those things that might become future threats, for the unsustainable, for the right balance between freedom and restriction. It was always crystal clear to me that these communities had not just made that choice once, in the past, but that their way of life was in the choosing. That their culture was one of stewardship over their culture.

Thinking back to my friend’s frustration over small dreaming, the dream of a simple life for everyone strikes me as anything but small. It’s what I want. Thirty years later, I’m disappointed that the worldview Star Trek inculcated in me isn’t more common — that the beauty of a civilization no longer interested in the pursuit of wealth and power wasn’t more persuasive to my peers.

I know that I don’t need a collection of penthouses gratuitously gilded from floor to ceiling and a fleet of stretch-limousines idling at every corner, ready to save me a five-minute walk to my next hamburger. I know I don’t need millions of followers, to be on the cover of magazines, photographed by strangers, or argued over by crowds wanting me for their king or their enemy. I just want a simple life. But how do I convince billions of people to want that, too? How do I convince them to dream that big?

— Christopher Butler, Jan 29, 2021, Durham, NC

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