In an article about the Amish last month, I suggested that they are fundamentally different from the rest of us, because while they make decisions about whether or not to adopt new technologies at a community level, we don’t – and can’t.
The Amish: America's most sophisticated users of technology
However, that’s not entirely true. Indeed, mainstream western societies contain thousands of communities where the decision to allow or prohibit certain technologies is made collectively. They’re called schools.
Of course, in schools, “collectively” means hierarchically – the teaching staff making decisions on behalf of the pupils, as they very much ought to.
Katherine Birbalsingh is the influential headmistress of the Michaela Community School in West London. Posting on her blog, she leaves no one in any doubt as to her policy on one particular technology – the smartphone:
“The same goes for that smartphone. We are clear that if we see or hear a phone, we’ll confiscate it. And we’ll keep it for a long time. The kids are clear. The parents are clear.
“So guess what?
“No one at Michaela ever takes out their phone. I can count on one hand the number of times a pupil has deliberately taken out their phone in the past 4 years.”
This isn’t just a self-defence mechanism against distractions in the classroom or the sharing of harmful online content in the playground; it is consistent with the school’s guiding principles:
“At Michaela we have a quote on the wall that says, ‘Freedom comes from self-control.’
“Many people think that freedom comes from a lack of control. But at Michaela we believe the opposite: it is only by mastering one’s base desires that one can be free to embrace real freedom and genuine choice. Only with knowledge can one know freedom of thought. Only with practice can one know freedom of expression.”
How smartphones make our young people unhappy
Michaela’s crusade against smartphone addiction doesn’t stop at the school gate:
“But even [after school], we try to support our pupils and parents. We give them a series of boxes to tick (to give a sense of achievement) if they manage to stay away from their phone for 3 hours in the evening. This frees them up to do their homework, talk to their families, or simply read a book.
“Parents are SO grateful. In fact, we sell brick phones at reception as an alternative to the smartphone. We understand that parents like the security of being able to contact their child after school. Mobiles are a convenience of the 21st century. With a brick phone, you get the advantage of being able to contact your child without allowing them through the doors of hell…”
This is truly inspiring stuff. Supporters of civil society often speak of the importance of independent local institutions as a check on the over-mighty, centralising state. However, they’re just as important as a check on the most powerful private corporations – especially those in the digital sector, whose reach into our lives rivals that of government.
Social media is the ultimate mimetic product – something you’re made to want because you think everyone else wants it too. Schools, churches and other community institution have a vital role to play in creating spaces where social media is very much not wanted – thereby breaking its mimetic spell.
The tech giants should watch out for the little platoons!