Simplicity, Time and Technology

During the summer I spent time as an Eva Koch scholar at Woodbrooke – the Quaker study centre in Birmingham. I was researching the subject of Simplicity, which is a Quaker Testimony alongside Peace, Truth and Equality. Testimonies are like codes of conduct – a kind-of blue-print of the values and insights – and resulting actions – that we aim to live our lives by. This is the second in a series of six articles that I wrote based on my research and the one-to-one interviews I conducted. These articles have previously been published in the Friend magazine.


Exploring the impact of technology and the importance of making room for God in our lives.

What are the barriers to leading a simple life? I asked the participants in my research this question and was surprised to find that social media and technology took a distinct back seat. Far and away the biggest concern was trying to practice simplicity with a husband, wife or partner whose values did not sit comfortably alongside the respondent’s own. Second came the pressures of society – the ‘norms’ we are expected to follow and having to go ‘against the flow’.

Where does technology sit in our thinking about simplicity?

For most people I spoke to, technology provides a tool that we need to use appropriately. The internet and computers were seen as having many benefits: keeping in touch with family, learning a language, buying groceries online, finding information, satellite navigation, emails as a form of record and communication and an aid to memory problems. ‘It’s simplistic to say that Facebook is bad,’ one Friend said, ‘human existence is about relationships and a lot of these things are about relationships’. One older Friend, though, found the assumption that everyone has access to the internet was ‘a real burden’, and limited her options.

Technological advances such as washing machines were also generally accepted as making life simpler and saving time. Simplicity is ‘not doing without a fridge/living in a mud hut in the middle of nowhere’ said one Friend. Technological progress is a positive thing, another felt, ‘we are meant to be inventing, meant to be curious’.

The importance of time and focus

One Friend I spoke to had returned to washing things by hand; this felt simpler, she said, even though it took longer. Perhaps this was because she gave time and attention to the task. In Holiness in the Everyday, David Cadman suggests that to change our way of being we need discipline and to accept a slower pace. The greater challenge of simplicity is not to do with possessions but ‘the right use of the gift of time’ said one person in Twelve Quakers and Simplicity.

Making time is important. For one Friend simplicity involved reducing the number of contacts and complications in her life. ‘Having time to be’ is part of simplicity said another, enabling spontaneity and making room for God and other people. By simplifying her life this Friend found that she interacts with her neighbours more, and is open to listening and hearing what other people say and want.

Friends acknowledged the tendency of technology to ‘suck energy’, and limited its use by, for instance, keeping computers away from the lounge, deleting the Facebook app on their phone, and using a weekly podcast to catch up on news. In his book A Sustainable Life, Douglas Gwyn says: ‘We read about different religions and learn new spiritual techniques, for example, through books, the internet, and other outward resources. But ultimately, these resources only scatter our attention, intention, and energies, leaving us exhausted and lost.’

We need to employ such technologies as help us towards our goal ‘without distracting’ says Martin Cobin in Workers in God’s Mine: Maintaining Simplicity in a Society Preoccupied with Technology. Cobin returns us to the territory of discernment, of identifying those ‘few concerns’ that God asks us to be faithful to as outlined by Thomas Kelly in A Testament of Devotion.

Avoiding technological ‘utopia’

A Friend who attended Quaker Quest told me they had discussed whether George Fox would have had an iPhone; their answer was ‘yes’ – he might have used it as a tool but not own the latest model. Most people I spoke to had older versions of technology, resisting the pressure to upgrade. One Friend had chosen not to buy a smart phone at all because mining the minerals needed to make them was fuelling war in Congo.

Some Friends spoke about the cultural and peer pressure their children and grandchildren were under to have the latest technology; however young adult Friends had generally chosen to limit the technology they used, although this isolated them amongst their friends. One was challenged because she felt that most technology is environmentally unsound yet ‘the level of social exclusion you’d experience as a young adult not being on any kind of technology is daunting to say the least.’ She spoke of the conflict between the ‘ecological soundness of it and being part of the (political) conversation’ and sometimes had ‘screen-fasting’ days.

In his essay Technology and Simplicity in The Hidden Door, Mark Burch talks about our ‘enchantment’ with technological progress and how many people are ‘technological utopians’. My interview participants appeared to resist this trend and concur with Burch’s view that we need to bring mindfulness to our use of technology. Burch goes further, saying society needs to explore how technology’s role might change in order to serve simple living.

We should also ask: Does technology increase our joy? Joy is one product of experiencing the ‘Eternal Now’ according to Thomas Kelly in A Testament of Devotion. Writing in the early 1940s, Kelly said the era was one of ‘this-sidedness, with a passionate anxiety about economics and political organization’ and that this was causing people to ‘neglect the Eternal Life springing up within our “ordinary experience of time”.’ Is technology taking a similar role today? As one Friend told me: ‘my mobile phone doesn’t make me happy… It does complicate my life, to be on Facebook… and to have all sorts of ways of people contacting me at my fingertips’.

Media and a sick society

Friends were uncomfortable with the media. It ‘confuses people’ said one Friend, because it can ‘get the weightings wrong between the traditional wisdom and the need to make it controversial.’ Another disliked the pressure of advertising and said that you ‘could very easily get swept away by the forces of the media… that you need things… and that to be happy your life should be more complicated almost’. In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster says: ‘The mass media have convinced us that to be out of step with fashion is to be out of step with reality. It is time to awaken to the fact that conformity to a sick society is to be sick.’

But fashions do impact on us and lead to changes in the ways we learn and practice spiritually. Douglas Gwyn writes about how Rex Ambler based his Experiment with Light meditations on a mix of George Fox’s advice and methods used by psychologist Eugene Gendlin. ‘Living in an era dominated by technology and technique, many today find a series of steps more helpful than the traditional Quaker palette of evocative images and metaphors’ says Gwyn.

Framing the problem of distraction

A Friend in his late twenties felt sad that young people appeared to feel there is something better going on elsewhere, constantly looking at their phone rather than experiencing the moment, the here and now. ‘I’m so fortunate I grew up just (before) that time… all this social media stuff became so in your face, it’s now like kids are hard-wired to it from a young age.’ He said that it is when he feels unable to ‘express himself to the full’ in ‘more powerful ways’ that he uses Facebook most, becoming addicted to it even though it doesn’t nourish him.

Thomas Kelly says that ‘the outer distractions of our interests reflect an inner lack of integration of our own lives.’ It is hard to believe that attentiveness, slowness, silence, and compassion will improve our wellbeing, says David Cadman, but we have to learn to ‘let go and dwell in the Divine with an open heart.’

This article first appeared in ‘the Friend’ on 07/10/2016

© Anne de Gruchy

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