Laundry day used to be a time for friends to get together. In fact, pretty much everything used to be a time for friends to get together. In many pre-modern or traditional societies, this is still the case.
Think about it. Washing clothes by hand used to require long periods of intentionality but relatively low brain energy and focus. Combine this with the fact that, through most of human history, the water needed for washing has come from a central source—a calm bend in the river or a neighborhood well—and you have a situation ripe for people to do what people do when they’re together: catch up on the local buzz, tell stories, pass along jokes, and generally strengthen ties.
But in the industrialized world we have laundry machines. We don’t need to bother with small talk in order to wash our jeans. This is just one example of something that has happened time and again in the industrialized world, for which we could cite a hundred more examples: we quickly adopt an invention, because it solves a very obvious convenience issue, giving little thought to the larger quality-of-life changes that might come as collateral.
This habit of radically altering how we fill the deeper human needs like meaning and relationship in order to solve a comparatively superficial need, is what philosopher Albert Borgmann calls the “device paradigm.” The device paradigm comes about because certain human problems are easier solved than others, given the tools at our disposal as of the industrial and digital revolutions. These easier problems are not unimportant because they’re simple. I’m not romanticizing the fact that so many around the world have to walk several miles for water.
But all the problems solved by modern inventiveness tend to be of the same genre: concrete, mechanical, or otherwise practical. We have invented machines to solve problems like how to wash clothes in a timelier and less labor-intensive manner. We have not yet invented the machines to solve problems like how to find love and acceptance and purpose in life.
The tricky thing about device paradigm is that, over time, it has a way of shifting our cultural brain chemistry. Because the human tendency is to want to focus on the problem that we can easily solve, rather than the one that we can’t, a subtle shift takes place where we elevate these practical issues in importance. Speed and convenience gradually become our supreme values, simply because our minds prefer to dwell on areas where we have the highest success rate. We gradually start to assume that, because we can solve some human problems with new technology, surely we can solve all human problems, right? This is what the transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau meant, when he questioned whether what we call “progress” often just refers to “improved means to an unimproved end.”
It’s not a bad thing that we are learning to solve so many of these concrete but significant issues. I’ve never hand scrubbed a t-shirt in my life, and I’m not suggesting that those of us lucky enough to have easy access to a washer and dryer, toss them out and start a hippy commune. That would be silly and patronizing toward those people around the world whose lives would truly benefit from not having to walk several miles to wash up.
The issue, however, is that those deeper human needs haven’t gone away simply because we’ve solved some of the more practical human needs. Or to put it another way, #firstworldproblems are still real problems. Now that we have washing machines, where do we go to keep up to speed with the goings on in our neighborhood? Where do we go to casually bump into acquaintances, facilitating the growth of new friendships? Where do we go to find that friend who might become something more? When gathering at the well is no longer a part of the normal life pattern, what community enhancing activities fill the void?
Typically, I don’t think the modern world has had a good answer to that question on a popular level. We kind of just adapt to living in more and more isolated ways as devices eliminate more and more of the traditional excuses to lean on one another. Once, when I asked a group of teenagers where they believe the world is heading, they not-so-jokingly referenced the end of the Pixar movie, WALL-E—glazed over people, atrophied and tech-ed out like zombies, floating around in personal entertainment modules.
It’s heartening then that there are small pockets of intentional resistance to this trend. One is the craft beer movement, similar to the slow-food movement to which it shares some similarities. Whether we happen to be the person who farms the ingredients in a higher quality craft beer, or the person who brews it, or the person who drinks it; at every step along the way, we of the craft beer movement are doing something that requires more time, more intentionality, and a higher commitment of resources than is necessary.
It’s not lost on us that this world has the means of production and economies of scale, that is to say, the devices, to deliver a faster, cheaper, more convenient beer. Yet, here we sit, those of us within the craft beer movement, obsessively checking the health of our hop plants, or the PH levels in our mash, or slow pouring into a snifter rather than drinking directly out of the bottle.
Why? Because it’s impossible to do intentional community, when you’re moving fast. Because something deep inside us cries out for the real human value of doing some things slowly.
We feel deep inside our bones that there is something sacred and communal about food and drink, if we’re doing it right. We feel, somehow, that food and drink should never be slap-dashed together cheaply and thoughtlessly or consumed in trough-like portions. However much we can explain the botany behind it, it continues to strike us as miraculous that the earth should once again, this year, decide to produce grain from its soil or that the sky should release more rain to nourish it. We know in our bones that these things should be handled with some level of reverence and gratitude.
So cheers to all those who want more out of life than to get through it conveniently.
Grace and Peace,
Jared Witt is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a founding CEO of Castle Church Brewing Community.
How Castle Church is stirring up a new spirit in the church from a brewery in Orlando, FL.