Musings: Technology and Cohousing

The temptation to use technology to make life more convenient, more practical, or just jazzier – whatever the cost – is always with us.

In our Nevada City cohousing community, we adopted online signups for common dinners. Previously, signups were on paper in the common house. I’d often stop by the common house at around 8 pm, when there would be three or four people hanging around near the signup book. There was considerable dialogue among us all, some of it dinner-related. “Are you coming to dinner tomorrow?” “Oh, I forgot to sign up on time.” “Don’t worry, I’m cooking and I haven’t shopped yet.”

The System

We lost more than 100 people-hours of community and community-building in the common house. When it comes to stitching a viable community together, that’s a huge number.

About six months ago, after we decided to do all dinner sign-ups on line, the drop in common meal participation meant we lost more than 100 people-hours of community and community-building in the common house. When it comes to stitching a viable community together, that’s a huge number. And I have noticed the loss. We might go back to paper, but once you’ve become accustomed to technology, it’s very difficult to go back – especially when you do things by consensus.

Recently, I heard an NPR reporter interviewing an Amish farmer. They were walking around out in the barn when the reporter noticed a cell phone on a small table. “What’s this?” exclaimed the reporter, “I thought the Amish rejected 21st-century technology.” The farmer replied, “Yes, but we’re not going to be foolish about it. If a 14-year-old kid gets poked in the eye by a pitchfork, we want to be able to call for emergency help immediately. However, that doesn’t mean that we want to see a 14-year-old walking around with a phone sticking out of his or her head. Anyone in the community can propose that we use new technology. Then our elders get together to decide if it would be good for the community (to adopt it) or not good for the community. It’s completely binary. It’s either beneficial to the community or deleterious to the community. By not adopting the auto, for example, everyone stays within about 10 miles of home and we’ve decided that’s better for the community.”

Trudesland, the community in Denmark that Katie and I lived in for six months, still has dinner sign-ups on paper in the common house 26 years after move-in, even though there are more than two computers for every household. They decided to be their own elders.

The System

Technology can be managed. Take the time to consider the pros and cons before you pull the trigger. And remember, part of the point is community.

This is not an attempt to influence my own community – I know that I have to do that in-house – but it is a caution to others. Technology can be managed. Take the time to consider the pros and cons before you pull the trigger. And remember, part of the point is community. Someone might ask, “What if someone is in a wheelchair and can’t easily make it to the common house to sign up?” As the Danes (especially the seniors) are so hyper-aware: a well-functioning working community will always work better at serving the needs of all and can work out individual needs as well.

Another Example

Using emails to make or influence policy doesn’t appear to work. The town meeting and the timeless act of getting together to discuss issues of the day seem to work and to be necessary in order to facilitate cooperation, community and consensus. So much more can be done when you hear people’s heartfelt opinions, the nuances in their voices and see their body language. Study after study shows that more than half of communication is body language and facial expressions. And you can get clarifications along the way. If you manage the ranch, you can make the decisions.

But if you weren’t at the meeting, email makes it so tempting to be a Monday-morning quarterback. It is extremely discouraging to have someone who couldn’t make it to the meeting criticize it via email. It takes the wind out of the sails of those who did bother to spend their Saturday afternoon forging a decision with neighbors. In other words, if a decision is compromised via email, there will be few people who want to spend their time on subsequent Saturdays making a decision. If people stop coming to meetings – since only logistics, announcements, and some committee work can be accomplished via email – then it’s hard to manage the ranch. If the ranch can’t be managed efficiently and fairly, then people will want to stay in their single-family houses where there is no one else to blame for mismanagement.

So resist the temptation to embrace technology too much. People are very impatient about wasting their time in meetings and sensitive to being second-guessed after the fact. If you really have a good idea or amendment after the meeting, make a proposal and get out there to the meetings and hammer it out with your peers like everyone else — that’s only fair. Or better yet, either make it to the meetings or learn to trust what your neighbors come up with.

It’s challenging because pre-35-year-olds haven’t experienced pre-email work. So it’s not obvious to them what the advantages are. For sure, there are advantages to both – just don’t assume technology is the default.

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