An essay on Wendell Berry and cell phone culture.
Late last year, when my 2008 Nokia “Twist” finally up and twisted itself into two parts, when a Verizon Wireless salesperson bantered with me in a textbook sort of way—as if his employee manual suggested engaging in such a tactic to close a sale—I was forced to explain, once again, Why I’m Not Going To Buy a Smartphone.
There is no word, anymore, for a phone that is not smart. I want a Normal phone, I told him. A Not-Internet phone—I want Just A Phone.
Why? he asked, concerned.
Keeping the overhead costs low on the writing life, I said. Too many screens in my life already. One more gadget to maintain, one more piece of plastic in my life, one more tie between me and Apple’s belching factories in China.
But wouldn’t it be nice to have one? he asked.
Yes, yes of course. It would be nice. Sometimes I get lost driving around or between strange cities and I think, well shit. It sure would be nice to have a smartphone to tell me which way is which.
Slowly but surely the tide turns against me, against the list of reasons Why I’m Not Going To Buy A Smartphone. But there is always Berry to back me up—Wendell Berry, who said it first and said it best.
Why I’m Not Going to Buy a Computer was originally published in the New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly (and was eventually anthologized in the collection of essays What Are People For?). Berry, writing from his farm in rural Kentucky, begins the essay with the stridently articulate rhetoric that makes him so eminently quotable—and occasionally intolerable.
“Like almost everybody else, I am hooked to the energy corporations, which I do not admire,” he writes. “I hope to become less hooked to them.” For this reason, Berry farms by the work of horses and writes with the tools of pencil and paper. “My wife types my work on a Royal standard typewriter,” writes Berry. “As she types, she sees things that are wrong and marks them with small checks in the margins.”
He goes on: “I would hate to think that my work as a writer could not be done without a direct dependence on striped-mined coal. How could I write consciously against the rape of nature if I were, in the act of writing, implicated in the rape?” (Where, dear Berry, do you think wood pencils and their rubber erasers come from?) “For the same reason, it matters to me that my writing is done in the daytime, without electric light.”
This is—it almost goes without saying—a rather annoying statement to those of us living in cities and liking our Facebook pages.
But we don’t read Berry for his stridence—to compare ourselves against such unachievable measures. Rather, we read Berry for his in-the-world complexities, and when Berry got bombasted by readers, Harper’s Review, where the essay was subsequently published, gave him a chance to respond.
“Wendell Berry provides writers enslaved by the computer with a handy alternative,” wrote one reader. “Wife—a low-tech energy-saving device. Drop a pile of handwritten notes on Wife and you get back a finished manuscript, edited while it was typed. What computer can do that? Wife meets all of Berry’s uncompromising standards for technological innovation: she’s cheap, repairable near home, and good for the family structure.”
Berry replies: I am surprised by the meanness by which these writers refer to my wife. Maybe she likes doing this work, finds it meaningful. But reader wrath didn’t cease, so Berry wrote another response and called it Feminism, The Body, and The Machine, and this is where Berry shines. Where he goes out into the world, pokes around it, and wonders about what makes for good work and, by proxy, good lives.
“If I had written in my essay that my wife worked as a typist and editor for a publisher, doing the same work that she does for me…. it would have been assumed as a matter of course that if she had a job away from home she was a ‘liberated woman,’ possessed of a dignity that no home could confer upon her,” Berry writes.
It’s a provocative argument. As we know it today, work takes place outside the home. Work is something we do out there; chores are something we do in here. But what makes for good work? If a wife edits her husband’s manuscript because it contributes to the economic well-being of a shared household—and because she enjoys it—is this better work than what she might do for someone else, somewhere else, to earn a paycheck for that same household? The better question might actually be—is it more pleasurable? “More and more, we take for granted that work must be destitute of pleasure. More and more, we assume that if we want to be pleased we must wait until evening, or the weekend, or vacation, or retirement,” wrote Berry in a later essay, Economy and Pleasure. “We are defeated at work because our work gives us no pleasure. We are defeated at home because we have no pleasant work there.”
But back to the computer. Wendell Berry himself admits that the Wendell Berry Who Won’t Buy A Computer does “no real, practical, public good.” The materials and energy he saves are not significant, just as “no individual’s restraint in the use of technology or energy will be ‘significant.’”
But here’s the crux. Here’s the reason that Berry is Berry, the reason we suffer through his black-and-white proclamations. Why does his computer-less-ness matter? Because “each one of us, by ‘insignificant’ individual abuse of the world, contributes to a general abuse that is devastating.”
Wendell Berry still drives, still flies on airplanes, heats his house. What is permissible abuse? Where do we draw the line? Berry says, “It is plain to me that the line ought to be drawn without fail wherever it can be drawn easily. And it ought to be easy to refuse to buy what one does not need.”
And so it is, for me, easy not to own a smartphone—and cheaper, too. The shorthand I use when explaining myself to a Verizon Wireless salesperson—keeping my overhead costs low—is actually the heart of the reason Why I’m Not Going To Buy A Smartphone. The higher the cost of doing business, the more that business must earn, and the same is true for an economy of one. Rather than working to earn money to pay for my smartphone, I am—slightly, $30 a month—more free to work and write however seems most meaningful to me—at home or in the world.
But we all have our Wife at the Typewriter, assisting our endeavors—no one is an economy of one—and so it is that I must call my boyfriend when I am lost in a new place, helpless at the hands of my dumb phone.
A version of this essay originally appeared on Essay Daily.
Megan Kimble lives in Tucson, writes about food an the environment, and hopes to have an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Arizona come May. She’s written for the Los Angeles Times and is an Assistant Editor at Terrain.org.
Cell phone vector art courtesy Shutterstock.