Celebrating Untech

What do I mean by untech, and why celebrate it?

This is tricky. ‘Technology’ is a loaded word with broad and diverse definitions and applications. The ‘tech’ prefix, or suffix, is used all over the place to refer to more specific implementations, fields or aspects of a certain technology – for example, ‘biotech’, ‘techspeak’, ‘vo-tech’, ‘mobile-tech’, ‘techno’ (referring to a music genre), ‘low-tech’, and so on ad infinitech.

In its broadest sense, technology refers to the ongoing development of tools (and the practices that surround them) that enable people to shape and master their environment, in the process building their cultures. Through this lens, fire and the wheel are seen as technological developments in human history just as color TV, the smartphone, and the iPad are. To say ‘untech’ when thinking of technology in this sense would seem to imply a return to hunter-gatherer society and a rejection of all implements for hunting (and gathering) other than bare hands.

This, of course, is not what I mean.

As I said in my brief introduction, I am not a Luddite, strictly speaking; on the contrary, I am a recovering technophiliac. I have been breaking and fixing modern technological devices for more than fifteen years, and a healthy portion of my living is still earned in that field. I have a hearty appreciation for innovative (and taken-for-granted) developments such as harnessed electricity, air conditioning, indoor plumbing, and the internet. So then, why untech?

Approaching a Definition

If pressed, here’s what I would say I mean. The word has two parts: ‘un’ and ‘tech’. When I use the ‘tech’ suffix, I am referring primarily to modern technologies that began to take root in the West around the turn of the twentieth century (or just before); ideas and devices that were part of what Daniel Boorstin called the ‘Graphic Revolution’, along with other non-image tech that helped to isolate us from each other, promising true human independence.

This may be said to have started with inexpensive lithograph prints (and later, color prints) in newspapers and sixty-second moving pictures in nickelodeons. Over the last century, we have supported the advance of the ideas behind those initial experiments into cinema, television, personal computing, the internet, and recently, smartphones and tablets. On the non-image side, in the same time we moved from personal communication to the telegraph, on to the telephone, the pager, IM, the cell phone, and now VOIP and Skype (thus integrating voice with images); from hearth to central heating; from legs, horses and carts to to Delta Airlines; from acquaintances to networks; and from family meals to the drive-thru window.

When I use the ‘un-‘ prefix, I do not necessarily mean a complete rejection (though media fasts have their place and I highly recommend that you put yourself through one). At a minimum, I mean a stop and a thorough re-evaluation. I am, at very least, emphasizing reflectiveness and thoughtfulness in the use of these things rather than carelessness. You can see here how my assumptions factor into the way I want to use the word:

I assume on the front end that because our default posture toward modern technological development has been that of the advertisers – more, better, faster, NOW! – that our devices typically hold an immense power over us. More and more they define us, they become the environment for all our interactions with other people, and we believe that the images they show us and the stories they tell are a reflection of what life in this world is, or ought to be (at some level). A primary reason that our stuff holds this power over us is that most of it is designed for ‘convenience’; and I cannot think of ‘convenience’ in our day as anything other than a synonym for thoughtlessness.

When I say ‘untech’, then – and I mean it as a noun that can be verbed – I mean a change of posture toward the media environment and the convenience culture that envelops us.

I mean, as I said above, at least a full stop and a re-evaluation, followed by a more thoughtful and reflective experience of our innovations and gadgetry (if we must).

I also use the term positively to refer to practices, ideas and developments that, instead of isolating us, engage us with one another and with the natural world.

The bottom line is that if you are not fully engaged in the practice of reflection – stepping back out of the frame to consider what’s going on and how your mind and your relationships are being affected – before, during, and after your encounters with modern technology, it is probably using you to a greater degree (and to greater profit) than you are using it.

The evil is not in the stuff. It’s in our habits.

Unteching Ourselves

If this idea is unfamiliar to you, your best bet would be to begin with a media fast. There are a number of different ways to go about this and a good deal has already been written about it. I will give you the short and simple (cold turkey) version:

For a week (or as much longer than that as you can bear), cut yourself off from all the media you regularly use and absorb. Turn off and unplug your TV(s), computer(s), and tablet(s), turn off your cell phone (except in case of necessary business), and if at all possible, stay away from establishments that have any of these devices plugged up and running constantly. Use the time you would have spent in front of these screens, or virtually connected, for activities that enhance embodied life: person-to-person relationships, interaction with the natural world, and building of the imagination. I’m sure you can think of more.

If you’ve never done that before, you will be shocked at how different you feel after a few days. You may not want to return.

If you are already acquainted with how your devices are shaping you, the next step is to put some discernment into practice and place some limits on your media use (and your use of ‘convenience’ anything). You mustn’t be afraid to turn things off or get rid of them if they are taking over your existence, or if you’ve got so much ‘independence’ that you have become isolated from many people in your life and it’s awkward for you to make eye contact during a face-to-face conversation. Remember also, ‘convenience’ usually equals thoughtlessness. This is especially so in the case of food.

The final basic step is to begin replacing tech with untech. If a habit of yours, or a device you use, or a technology in your home is disconnecting you from others and from the physical world, see if you can replace whatever it is with something that has the opposite effect. Here’s a somewhat adventurous example: ‘central’ heating has the doublespeak effect of allowing the family to be dispersed throughout the house rather than together (or ‘centrally’ located), and requires little to no cooperative work for its energy input. By contrast, most of its predecessors dispersed heat from one location – making it most ‘convenient’ for families to be close together during the cold season – and required a family effort to harvest, split, and store wood for burning (not to mention the maintenance of the fire as it was burning). That’s just one of the many trades we’ve made, almost unconsciously, in implementing new technological developments.

You may not be able (or inclined) to make that desperate a change in your home, and I don’t necessarily recommend it, but I hope you can see the applicative principle shining through the rough example.

Once you make a habit of these practices – reflecting with discernment on the way your life is shaped, and replacing tech with untech where possible – you will be well on your way to a more wholesome and truly connected existence.

You will be more human, and you will be more happy.

How have you moved from tech to untech? Tell us in the comments so that we can benefit from your experience.