Jen Gerson from the National Post recently interviewed me about Hutterites and our relationship with technology. Her article focused on photography in particular. Ms. Gerson appreciated my response, indicating that she thought it was thoughtful enough to include with the online edition.The experience was a positive one for me because my thoughts were presented in their proper context, in contrast to several other times I have been interviewed. In discussing and editing the text with other people, I realized how much I enjoyed thinking and writing about the ‘Hutterite condition.’ Coupled with my disappointment with the media at large for relying on non-Hutterites for a Hutterite perspective, I decided to take the plunge and launch “Ask a Hutterite.”
The following interview is slightly different from the one posted on the National Post site because it was edited for length, and I did some ‘niggling-and-pookle-penning’ after the fact here.
Q: What kind of technology is allowed in Hutterite communities? Is it safe to say that communities have become more liberal in adopting new technology? If so, why?
A: To begin with, and as an aside, I find the highly politicized designations of ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ unhelpful in this type of discussion. I prefer to use the words ‘progressive’ and ‘traditional’ in their positive sense instead. Hope that’s OK. Keep in mind that I come from a more progressive community, so I am trying hard not to speak for those who are more traditional because I realize their contribution is equally important in the overall scheme of things.
I cannot call to mind a specific technology that is officially banned in Hutterite communities across the board at present. Television and radio used to be, but now there are communities who have both. Some chose to say yes to some technologies, while others say no to the same item; some will say no to TV, but at the same time they may say yes to the internet. That said, all technologies are regulated to some degree.
As far as I know, Hutterite have never really critically analyzed technology in general as to its effects on our communal lifestyle; we have those who try to stop everything in its tracks, and those who say ‘bring it on’ to everything and eagerly embrace any new technology without much thought–it’s new, it’s awesome, it must be good! As a result, like many other closed societies, we then endlessly debate the merits of each other’s choices internally.
Ideally, the pros and cons of each technology should be carefully considered as to how it will effect our lifestyle. For example, in my particular community cell phones are provided to all members, male and female, who have drivers’ licenses or another specific need in which a cell phone would make their work easier. Some young people manage to acquire them on their own, but this is strongly discouraged because they are still immature and to prevent foolish behaviour. Though preventing inappropriate behaviour might be considered reason enough, I find it fascinating that the primary concern of our leaders in this matter is not that they might misuse the technology, but that they acquired the cell phone by nefarious means. In our culture this is called Eigennutz, a word that defies direct translation but can be summed up as pursuing something for selfish or individualistic purposes instead of considering the health and wellbeing of the larger community. Certainly an important virtue in any community!
In my opinion, Hutterites have primarily adopted technology for two reasons: economic and education. As any business person knows, the use of technology improves production and efficiency on many levels.
Since the late 1980s, Hutterites, particularly in Manitoba, have realized the need to improve the educational standards of their communities. This need eventually evolved into the formation of the Hutterian Broadband Network Inc. which delivers interactive instructional programming via the internet to Hutterite schools across the province. This technology overcomes challenges like low enrolment and limited resources to deliver a sound educational program with skilled teachers from within the Hutterite community to Hutterite children–in other words an education that is sensitive to the Hutterite faith and culture. Even with this ‘home-grown’ solution, not everybody is still convinced that it’s the way to go.
Q: Are there Hutterite communities trying to keep technology out? How effective has this been?
A: There are some Hutterite leaders who are particularly cautious with technology. I understand that this is especially true among the Leherleut branch (not sect!), but I don’t have any concrete references. Because Hutterite communities are quite autonomous, the means and extent by which technological limitations are enforced differ considerably.
Due to its incredible availability, media consumption technologies are nearly impossible to ‘control’ if somebody makes up their mind that they want a smart phone or camera. The effectiveness of these attempts at keeping technology out vary from community to community. Much depends on whether or not the individuals that make up the community are committed to observing their community guidelines.
Q: Why are Hutterites uncomfortable with photography?
A: As strict biblicists, Hutterites have traditionally adhered to the second commandment to “make no graven images” both literally and figuratively. Today you have the full spectrum of perspectives within our communities: people who shudder at the thought of having their photo taken to those who relish it. In addition to this biblical directive, individuals and communities struggle to navigate the tension between vanity and modesty. Finally, and much much more common in my opinion, is the simple dislike of having their photo taken. This is certainly not unique to Hutterites, but common among all cultures–some people have a personality that just doesn’t want to have them in front of a camera.
In addition to this, our elderly people grew up in an era where photos were taboo. Camera’s were perhaps owned and used only surreptitiously by non-Hutterites teaching at the community school. This seems to have put in place a mental or psychological response that triggers even today, in a time when photography is more acceptable. This area, of course, needs to be navigated with respect and dignity.
Q: How many Hutterites use things like cellphones, social media and computers?
A: In Manitoba communities, almost everybody interacts daily with cellphones and computers, especially the younger generation. Most work places make use of what ever technology is available and affordable. As in mainstream society, we also have people who are entirely too swept up in the latest technological gadgetry; we are not immune to consumerism. I find that our communal lifestyle can offer a much needed buffer to reign us in and call us back to the thing that is deeply needed in any time and place: human relationships.
Cell phones and computers are available in a variety of places such as work places, schools, or communal computer labs. Social media and sites like Facebook or YouTube are monitored or blocked. One element of HBNi (mentioned above) is that it provides a filtered and monitored connection to the net.
Q: New technologies have had a major impact in mainstream culture. What kind of an impact has it had for Hutterites?
A: This is a huge question! Technology has shrunk the Hutterite world! With this come many wonderful opportunities as well as challenges. We can interact more easily with each other and non-Hutterites, but this instantaneous interaction also engenders gossip and exposes us more to “the ways of the world”, used in the biblical sense. It is difficult to remain faithful to a Gospel-based, counter-cultural lifestyle when your life becomes so public and its opposite is so readily available.
With technology like texting and email the need for face-to-face communication dramatically decreases. This form of communication can be bereft of nuance, tone and expression. This can cause misunderstandings and sometimes people say things they would never say face-to-face. For example, I’m personally loath to request permission from our community leaders to go to town via text or phone call. This personal interaction provides us with the opportunity to ‘check-in’, if need be, with each other on matters besides the business at hand.
Our young people are growing up in a world where everything is open and sensationalized. They see a public where there are no secrets and often questionable morality; some strive to become part of it because they do not understand nor appreciate the heritage bequeathed to them. We do not wish to completely cut our young people off, but we must challenge them much more in regards to contrasting their beliefs with the media they see. The very nature of these technologies, however, makes this process quite difficult.
There is a real struggle to remain different and maintain a unique Weltanschau–communal versus individualistic. Ready access to mainstream media exposes our people, especially the young, to powerful messages that are often contrary to christian faith and our communal mores. For example, it is much more common to see Hutterites wearing designer clothing or jewelry than it was even 5 years ago. This challenges the Anabaptist Hutterite concept of justice, simplicity and modesty. How can our young people imagine a communal future when they are frantically embracing and pursuing non-Hutterite ideals today?
Our struggles are indeed similar to visible minorities everywhere.