Technology makes anything possible; it doesn’t make everything good. One of the many reasons I like Wall-E, more and more each time I see it (three so far), is that it doesn’t picture technology as good or technology as bad; it pictures technology as a means to an end, made good or bad by the goodness or badness of that end. It was Huxley I believe who observed that the “triumph of science” has merely been to “improve the means for achieving unimproved or actually deteriorated ends.”

In the last credits of Wall-E, after the plot has run its course, we see an optimistic vision of the future played out via still images (or simple animations). It is a sort of art history spin on the re-construction of society after humans return to earth. One of the striking images we see is robots serving man while man works. The awesomeness of this image cannot be overstated. The Pixar people could have said, “Look, no more robots! We learned our lesson, technology is bad,” and put in only people re-constructing society.  They could have said, “Look, we learned our lesson, technology is supposed to do X instead of Y,” and had the robots all re-constructing society with the help of man. Instead they chose the middle way, the right path, the intelligent and humanizing path, where man is using even the most sophisticated technology as a tool to accomplish things worth accomplishing.

In one brief featurette, they are building a brick building, and the men are laying the morter. The robots deliver the bricks, and the men lay them. Notice that laying bricks takes work! The men are sweating! They are losing the considerable weight they had gained in space, but at the expense of blood, sweat, and tears! Their bones ache! They can only work for part of the day, and then must rest! All of this mess is completely unnecessary if we let the robots do the work for us.

But the men who return from earth in Wall-E have learned the lost value of restraint. “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you ought.” Restraint is the ability to be able to do something, and refrain from doing it, because it is better not to. It may not even be bad to allow robots to build our buildings, or type our blog posts, or calculate our algebra problems, but is there a better good?

If you have a choice between a good and a better good, then take the better good. If writing an email is good, and if writing a letter, which is relatively long, and relatively unpleasant, is better, then forgo the electronic shortcut, and do it yourself.

Merely suggesting this will probably make me sound like a backwards anti-technology advocate. No! I love technology and I think it has improved humanity especially in the areas of medicine, food production/distribution, and communication. It has made us more human, more capable to fulfill our God-given design. It has the potential (in the hands of the wise) to make us more so. But I am afraid of the simple human tendency to choose the path of least resistance, and so damn ourselves. Technology does not put this tendency into us, nor does it really exacerbate it; it makes giving into it more and more dangerous.

In many dozens of hours of conversation with friends and students on the question, “How ought technology be used well?” there are four practical suggestions that come up time and time again to help us develop the virtue of restraint:

1. Do what’s worth doing. If you wouldn’t do it if it were hard, why are you doing it because it’s easy? Many times I have surfed the internet to “learn about some topic” only because doing so is convenient and mildly interesting. But if you stopped me and asked, “What is the point of that knowledge?” I would say, “I don’t know.” If you asked me, “Why do you care? What else could you be learning about that is more important, meaningful, everlasting, and good?” I would say, “there is plenty I could be learning that is more important, but that would be harder.” I had gotten the ends mixed up with the means. I thought, “Learn this easily” meant “learning something worth learning.” It’s the other way around: “Learning something worth learning” means “do whatever it takes, hard or easy.”

2. Use your “No muscle” at least once a day. The trick is that the virtue of restraint requires not that we give up bad things for the sake of good ones, but that we give up good things for the sake of better ones. Rather than saying, “Calling my family is bad,” say, “Calling my family is good, and seeing my family in person is better. This week I am going to decline to call them, but will visit in person those that I want to see.” And for those we cannot see because they are so far away, spend a week just missing them.   The pain of missing somebody is not evil, maybe it’s even healthy. Then call them and tell them about your experiment.

3.  Ask Who am I? not What do I do? Another trick is to realize that just because I am accomplishing a lot does not mean I am becoming a good person. Just because I have multi-vitamins, organic foods, and exercise daily does not mean I have the knowledge and self-discipline of a doctor. Rather I am relying deeply on the ease of access of these things, which meet me at my present level of virtue. If easy health products became scarce, would I be disciplined enough to stay as healthy as I am now? If the gym closed, would I still find a way to exercise? The point here is to focus on developing one’s own virtues (restraint, courage, speed, clarity) in acting rather than on the end product of one’s actions, which may have been assisted by many outside forces.

4. Imagine that electronic technology didn’t exist; would you still be able to do what you want to? When I realized that my handwriting was slipping because I do so much typing I did this exercise. I realized that I still want to be able to write (on paper). If keyboards stopped existing, I imagined not being able to write anymore, and it was terrible. So now I practice my written handwriting in proportion to my typing, to keep both vital and fresh. If the grocery store stopped selling fresh produce, would you know how to pick up the slack? Could you grow your own vegetables, for a week, a month, a year? If not, are you OK with how deeply dependent you are on semi-trucks and super-markets?

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Posted by Keith E. Buhler


  1. Keith,

    Good post. I think your advice is exactly right. One quibble: do you really think the value of (a) technology is entirely derived from the end to which it is used? : )


  2. I can’t think of an exception. Can you?

    Take the contraceptive, the airplane, the electric razor, the internet.

    The contraceptive may or may not be unethical in all circumstances. We certainly only ask the question about use of the thing, not the thing itself. Most people think using it is ethical in some circumstances. The cases wherein the use of it is considered unethical, we predicate “wrong” of the behavior or the person, not the contraceptive.

    The airplane can be good when used to deliver cheap supplies to companies overseas; bad when used to drop bombs on innocent people.

    The electric razor can be good when it increases the aesthetic value of men’s grooming habits; bad when people who use it allow other natural grooming skills to atrophy, or become obsessively hurried in the performance of good natural functions, like attending to one’s body.

    The internet can be good when used by officials to share important information between government agencies; bad when used by the lustful to enslave young people with deceptively beautiful images.


  3. Laura Contreras August 3, 2008 at 10:21 pm

    Really awesome read Keith, I didn’t think about the fact that they showed the humans working alongside robots when they had the option of showing just robots or just humans doing the reconstruction. I’ll have to pay attention to it when I take my cousins to see it. (it’ll be the fourth time for me…and yet I remain super stoked)
    Also, I really liked the third question with the “developing one’s own virtue” part, really made me think.


  4. Keith,
    I thought what Matt was asking was whether there is any intrinsic value to technology. Or is the value of an electric razor merely extrinsic and instrumental?

    Wall-E (the character) seems valuable both for what he can do and who he is. But that raises the question of whether we, the viewers of the movie, are to think of Wall-E as a machine or a human. Maybe Wall-E and EVE aren’t good paradigms of technology — they’re too human. Or maybe they are good paradigms of technology, and we (I) need to rethink technology as something human.


  5. If we consider the hands and the whole body to be ‘tools’ in this sense, then I would say that some tools are intrinsically good. Are they good when they are not being used? In the case of human hands, yes, they are good because they are beautiful, even when they are at rest.

    So perhaps beautiful technologies (the iPod, perhaps, and Corvettes) are intrinsically good before being used for good or ill purposes.


  6. Regarding the Humanity of Wall-E. I have another post brewing about that. Pixar cheats. Maybe it’s worth it, maybe its cheap, but they cheat. They have fantasy persons (robots, toys, animals) in the same mythic universe as animated real persons (humans, kids, captains).

    That beef aside, it’s pretty clear to me that Wall-E is human.

    Here’s an interview with Andrew Stanton basically stating as much.

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen a persuasive Sci-Fi story with ‘intelligent’ robots that didn’t just cheat by giving up and making the characters 99% human with some purported characteristics of being metal and electrified. If it has consciousness, free will, creativity, speech, and the ability to relate, it’s human. Sorry, AI, Bicentennial Man, Short Circuit, Terminator, C3P0, etc. etc. Calling a chair a dog doesn’t make it a dog; calling a metallic human a robot doesn’t make him a robot.


  7. If you want to see a fantastic non-human humanoid character persuasively presented in a compelling story, check out Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1970’s version, NOT Clooney’s!) The Planetary emanations are just human enough to be convincing, with human memories, impulses, and emotions, but they are materializations of alien intelligence and form… Are they human!? Worth discussing.


  8. I thought the point of “Solaris” was that the ocean was personal but not human. If it had been human, it wouldn’t have been so difficult to communicate with the humans on the station. Right? Or maybe not. Anyway, I’ve always thought of the ocean as personal but not human, like the Christian God.


  9. choochootrain64 August 4, 2008 at 1:44 pm

    I noticed that in your 3rd piece of advice you had a parenthetical reference to the four virtues of poetry from Descent into Hell. Except you replace humility with restraint. Would you mind elaborating on that?


  10. “Personal but not human, like the Christian God”!?

    What other options are there, if you’re ‘personal but not human.’? That’s a weird category to live in. Like Charles Williams’ ‘alien life.’

    Can you be personal without being human?

    (I’ll stop there, but let me know if the question isn’t clear. I’m practicing the spiritual discipline of short comments.)


  11. Good boy, Choo.

    I suspect Williams is doing a modern riff on the four classical virtues. Do you see the correspondance?

    Though I used ‘restraint’ in place of humility to emphasize it, to be more exact, I think ‘restraint’ would be synonomous with Williams’ ‘speed,’ which is the most opaque of the parallels (if the parallel exists at all).

    So the list would be, “humility, courage, restraint, clarity.”

    Tell me if you have a guess at the others… Cf Republic Book IV for all four virtues and a good classical definition of each.


  12. Also, Burglar, define “difficulty in communicating with humans.”

    It seemed to communicate extremely well. The man actually got in contact with his lost wife.

    Those unfortunate little blips and bumps in that communication — O, the suicides and such — do not seem to be based on a difficulty in communicating, but the planet’s (perhaps hasty) decisions about who to resurrect, right?


  13. […] the Virtue of Restraint Keith Buhler pens a wonderful post of the virtue of restraint. There is wisdom in the post for those willing to […]


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