I recently finished a science-fiction slash speculative fiction book by the author Neal Stephenson called SevenEves. One of the things that stuck out at me was a word he coined called “amistics.” Amistics is the practice of intentionally selecting which technologies we allow into our lives. The etymology of the word relates to the Amish, a group of Christian Anabaptists well known in the mid-Atlantic slash northern Appalachian region of Pennsylvania and Ohio, amongst other places.
The author’s contention, is that mostly this is an unconscious process in most human communities. We’re not here discussing the anti-technology doctrines of Luddites or anarcho-primitivists, but something akin to what the Amish do. The Amish have a process whereby they determine which technologies will be adopted into their communities wholesale, or even in particular cases. A general prohibition on electrical grid connection and usage might be lifted for a community member who for health reasons requires refrigeration or something like that. Roller skates might be allowed, but zippers not. To hire a car for long distances might be allowed or might be disallowed depending on the community in question. There is a wide range in Amish communities about such rules.
Another interesting point, in Pennsylvania Dutch, the word Rumspringa denotes a period of adolescence when Amish children may engage in otherwise prohibited activities as the rules of conduct are slightly relaxed, and rules less sever. For those used to living near, or driving through Amish country, it’s not uncommon to see a horse and buggy on the road. The men driving are usually in plain clothes, as are the women with their hair covered. Occasionally one will see a teenager in jeans and a t-shirt listening to an iPod (very occasionally, for me, seen only once). This period allows the burgeoning adult to experience what will intentional abstained from, and decide to keep their traditional prescriptions, or leave the community for the world of “Englishmen.” Oftentimes, however, this period of life is misrepresented in popular culture, so beware that “stereotypes and misunderstandings abound.”
Thus: we arrive at Amistics.
What relevance does this have for a Stoic? We are bombarded constantly with new devices, new technologies, new social networks, and the like. Moore’s law has thus far proven that every two years we can expect major leaps in technological capability. There is never ending parade of new things for us to buy, to do… to try and fill some hole inside.
But does it?
The collectivity informs and shapes your will to happiness (“have fun”) by presenting you with irresistible images of yourself as you would like to be: having fun that is so perfectly credible that it allows no interference of conscious doubt. In theory such a good time can be so convincing that you are no longer aware of even a remote possibility that it might change into something less satisfying. In practice, expensive fun always admits of a doubt, which blossoms out into another full-blown need, which then calls for a still more credible and more costly refinement of satisfaction, which again fails you. The end of the cycle is despair.
—CityDesert, The Hermit as Outlaw.
Stoics are clearly looking at and for a different stripe of happiness, for one similar to (albeit not nondifferent from) the sort that folks like the above are also looking. The above piece is (clearly) couched in a Christian frame, and that is probably not perfectly suited to the Stoic outlook, but even if the why and the end conclusion are not for us, the process in the middle is relevant to our interests. Despite the differences, I quite enjoy reading the above blog.
While we may not be retiring to a retreat or hermitage, we are often living in a way outside of what the average Westerner expects. This seems to follow reasonably for someone living a philosophy as a way of life, and the idea Amistics can help us be wary of a reactionary pull-back and make informed, rational decisions about the environment we create for ourselves.
“As we call a statue Phidiac which is fashioned according to the art of Phidias; so show me a man who is fashioned according to the doctrines which he utters. Show me a man who is sick and happy, in danger and happy, dying and happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy. Show him: I desire, by the gods, to see a Stoic. You cannot show me one fashioned so; but show me at least one who is forming, who has shown a tendency to be a Stoic.”
—Epictetus, Discourses II.19
One of the metaphors for making a virtuous life is akin to making a piece of fine art from stone.: to remove what is superfluous, and allowing the shape underneath to take form and be visible.
One of the thing I’ve been chewing on lately, my use of social networking. At one point, it was a significant contributor to my study of philosophy, but I think that time has passed. I may be undertaking an experiment in Amistics here before too long, and removing large portions of my social media time, in part, to be able to focus more on the people around me, and my writing.
I’m interested in what sort of via negativa removals you may have exercised, and if that fits in with the above.