by Zoe Mullery

I love technology,
but not as much as you, you see…
But I still love technology,
Always and forever.
—Kip Dynamite (from Napoleon Dynamite)

I have been to the small village of Valle Nuevo in El Salvador twice, once in 1999 and once in 2001. In 1999, there was no plumbing in the village. There were springs, and women would bring their jugs to fill up at a spigot, and a couple of places along the stream were designated for bathing and laundry. It was extremely difficult, I’m sure, for the people living there—having to carry all the water needed for a family each day must be a tiresome and physically punishing task. However, I noticed one advantage to this otherwise grueling necessity: the act of filling the jugs at the small spigot took a long time, and women would need to wait their turn. They would sit under a large tree in the shade as they waited, sometimes for quite a while, talking, sharing news, laughing and resting as part of their hard work of the day, while the littlest kids ran around playing with each other.

USAID - cc via flicker

Two years later when I returned, I helped dig some of the ditches to lay the PVC pipe to have water run directly to each home from the springs. It was not a high-tech plumbing system, but it was a huge advance from having to carry water jug by jug. Residents of the village were delighted to be able to turn a tap and fill up the day’s water at their own pila (large basin) without carrying it. I especially remember hearing about one widow whose foot was injured, and whose children had died, being overjoyed at this new water system, which ended her dependency upon her neighbors’ generosity to carry water for her. Each woman was now able to skip the long wait at the well and give those hours to other needed tasks.

These two experiences have become symbolic for me in the way I think about technology. Our ingenious culture unceasingly invents new forms of convenience, improved processes for communication and handling vast amounts of information, enhanced ability to offer more and more services, products, entertainment, and miraculous capacity for problem solving. It’s not difficult to see the advantages in plumbing vs. carrying water, or in a phone that not only makes calls but can also give you step-by-step directions to your destination, live video conversations with your loved ones who are far away, detailed instructions for how to replace a toilet flapper valve or build a house out of tires, access to answers for almost any question imaginable. There is no doubt in my mind that every single woman in Valle Nuevo would prefer plumbing to carrying water. I do not want to romanticize other people’s water-carrying.

My experience in my own culture is that time “saved” by technology’s convenience almost instantaneously increases my expectations of productivity and does not seem to increase the amount of “time” I have.

But, as I experienced vividly before the PVC pipes were laid, there is also a benefit to gathering at the well, and once that is lost, it is difficult to replace. That time spent waiting, which had been enforced by necessity, gets parceled out to a thousand other tasks. My experience in my own culture is that time “saved” by technology’s convenience almost instantaneously increases my expectations of productivity and does not seem to increase the amount of “time” I have. We are living in the most technologically advanced society in history, and people seem to feel busier, more overwhelmed, and less socially nourished than ever. Out-of-control busyness is a kind of chronic American epidemic that I am always battling, and I see others in various stages of infection.

Backdoor Survival cc licence via flicker

Once the daily congregating to collect water is replaced by more efficient technology, what effect is there on the fabric of the community from the decreased time spent together, the increased time available for more of the never-ending tasks of home and work? It’s hard to evaluate the effect of something that’s not there—and it’s more complex than it appears. Surely the physical strain of bearing jugs of water on women’s necks and backs is well worth sparing. But what about the women’s time of resting together and sharing news while they waited? What about the laughter at their gathered children’s antics, or the noticing of dried tears on a neighbor’s face? I’m sure the woman with the injured foot was glad not to have to receive charity from her neighbors any more, and I’m sure the neighbors were glad not to have to carry the extra load . . . but, in Jesus values, what changed? Did her ability to be more independent nourish the community? Did it build up relationships, bring her closer to God? Maybe it did. Maybe there was strain in caring for her that was relieved when the pipes came in, making way for other kinds of relating, as well as praise and gratitude. Maybe she was restored to a sense of dignity in not always being on the receiving end of charity. Maybe her anxiety about provision of her day-to-day needs was lessened. But I can also imagine scenarios in which her independence might also be accompanied by isolation, and in which the neighbors are more productive at the tasks of their own homes but less connected and less satisfied with the loss of their daily visits and participation in serving others.

Generally, the Western mindset towards the women gathered at that spigot, waiting, is that it is inefficient and unproductive time. But when I put on my kingdom-of-heaven glasses, I can see the fabric of relationships and community being strengthened. It is not the only way to strengthen those things, but it is a way. In its absence, do other community-strengthening circumstances arise, or is it a net loss to that aspect of their lives? Do we value the productivity and efficiency parts more than the building-the-fabric-of-the-community parts? How do we push back against Western veneration of productivity when it comes to community and relationships? Are we being vigilant to protect the tender and fragile tendrils of connection that build our communities, even while our culture is continually hacking away at them? How do we embrace the things that support present, engaged, and unhurried relationships with one another and with God? Again, I am very aware of not wanting to propose that water-carrying is superior to plumbing. But I do want to highlight that as we embrace technologies that offer conveniences, solutions, efficiency and increased productivity, there are losses as well. Perhaps the losses can be mitigated if we do better at acknowledging them—and finding creative ways to add some of the lost less-productivity-focused uses of time back into our lives intentionally.

“Lord, I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.”

I think this is both a communal and an individual labor, and a difficult one, with the huge push from the culture going the other way. It’s hard to choose away from convenience and immediacy. But we have to start somewhere, and I take comfort in the line from Thomas Merton’s prayer, “Lord, I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.” I am grateful to be a part of a people of faith who values relationships above productivity, and who has practices to keep us returning to the spigot of living water . . . a people who seeks to continue to find ways to gather at the well, even when the plumbing is in.

I asked myself to come up with a few examples of how I as an individual might engage positively at this intersection of the beloved community and technology. It’s not a very electrifying list, and I’m not always successful at practicing even these:

  • Not being distracted when I’m with others—not letting the phone constantly interrupt. Having times when it is turned off completely.
  • Keeping Sabbath. Not giving in to the temptation of 24/7 work (it’s so funny to me that one of the biggest temptations of our culture is work! You’d think leisure would be more tempting. But I think it’s the self-worth based on productivity that we get addicted to, rather than simply work for work’s sake…). One of my Sabbath practices is not to be online.
  • Being mindful of having some down-time (both with others and alone) that is not electronic—whether that means playing cards, having tea and conversation, taking a walk, baking banana bread, going to the beach, writing, puttering in the garden, or making something with my hands.
  • Modeling for my daughter the kinds of technology moderation and etiquette I would like her to practice as she grows up in tech-saturated San Francisco. Not always being on the computer myself but making sure she experiences me doing other things as well.
  • Calling or talking in person rather than always relying on texting or email. I like texting and email for many things, but sometimes it is one step removed from direct conversation when that would be the more connected choice.

This is a short and very preliminary list—perhaps too short to really begin to address the issues raised, and it mainly mentions individual practices and not communal ones. I would be really interested to hear others’ ideas.

Author: Zoe Mullery

Photo Credits

Technology Mosaic – Thomas Hawk, cc 2.0 via flicker
Women Gathering Water – USAID, cc 2.0 via flicker
Men and Lightbulb – Backdoor Survival, cc 2.0 via flicker