Tuesday, September 18, 2007

what's this all about?

I am trying to understand how people interact with technologies, and why it is so important for our definitions of ourselves as human to develop and use technologies (other people might call them “tools”). I am interested in the principles of good design – of objects, of information – but in the end, design comes down to making technologies more useful.

I have a hunch that the fascination with technology is tightly entwined with a desire to do more with fewer people and perhaps more with more people. In other words, we want technology to help us break from the physical and temporal constraints of our bodies (perhaps ironically, I think in order to do this our technologies probably need to work with the physical and temporal constraints of our bodies). One rigorous version of that is doing more alone.

Growing up, I breathed in a value that self-reliance is an ideal to strive for. A recent conversation illuminated for me that this might have something to do with my parents’ childhoods. My father had a large, loving, and supportive family but never a stable larger community since the family moved often between states; my mother grew up in just one house, but with just one sister and a somewhat distant mother. Her father died when she was a teenager.

In my mind, then, self-reliance is inherently related to the objects and technologies that enable people to work independently. So surely if we are going to design better tools, we should better understand how people work independently. This is not to say that people don’t, can’t, or shouldn’t work in groups. I do think humans are social creatures, and my notion of self-reliance doesn’t exclude a somewhat paradoxical dependence on other people. But I’d like to find out to what extent that’s true, and how the objects and spaces and workflows and narratives that we use mediate degrees of self-reliance.

All of this leads me to explore a community of people for whom self-reliance is a prominent and intentional part of daily life. They sometimes call themselves homesteaders or urban homesteaders; a few decades earlier they might have been part of a “back to the land” movement. Some of them have consciously moved “off the grid.” A few are simply disconnected from most large-scale energy and food distribution systems by virtue of geographical isolation. It is a self-defined community with vague boundaries, but its practitioners generally have a reduced reliance on conventional methods of food distribution, electrical energy usage, and commercial consumer goods. As opposed to “survivalists,” their motivations tend to be environmental rather than apocalyptic, and they respect the simple, the handcrafted, and the local.

The values and ideals of homesteading have a strong appeal for me, and over the last several months I have been trying to move my life further in that direction. It is my hope that by getting to know the people in a distributed network of blogging homesteaders I can not only satisfy an intellectual interest, but also find information, resources, and allies as I continue my own attempts toward urban homesteading.


rhonda jean said...

I will gladly be one of your allies and use the technology at my disposal to introduce myself. Hello, I am Rhonda Jean from Down to Earth blog. It's a very interesting first post and I'm happy to be your first commentator. Welcome to the world of blogging, and to the greener side of the track.

Phelan said...

I will have to agree with Rhonda Jean. Very interesting first post.

Good luck. And I am more than happy to help you an any way.

~A Homesteading Neophyte