Chesterton’s Fence and Technology

Chesterton’s Fence and Technology July 24, 2023

Header-Chesterton's Fence
A dilapidated, but potentially still important fence and gate. Generated by the beta-version of Adobe’s Firefly.

Chesterton’s Fence

My last few posts have inspired a furor amongst some readers. From the sidelines, they have breathlessly asked:

When are you going to get around to mentioning Chesterton’s Fence?!?

Some (who shall remain unnamed) have done more than just ask.

For those unfamiliar with the idea, it comes from G. K. Chesterton’s 1929 book, The Thing:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

My readers are (as always) correct, Chesterton was talking about the same thing I was. 

In Religion is Technology, I explained the process of cultural evolution. Humans naturally construct adaptive, and useful “fences” of tradition. If these fences are strong enough, they become religious taboos. 

In The Technology of Religion vs. The Technology of Progress, I gave a specific example of cultural evolution: the complicated steps taken by indigenous South American tribes to remove the naturally occurring cyanide when preparing cassava. These steps can be counterintuitive, so even if we were following Chesterton’s advice, our attempts to “see the use” of something could be unproductive, even misleading.

In Separating the Beneficial From the Barbarous, I pointed out that if understanding is difficult, then deciding which fences to keep and which to destroy becomes equally difficult. Some fences will clearly need to be destroyed, others just as clearly preserved, but what about the great bulk which fall in the middle? I argued that, if we’re having a hard time deciding, our default should be to preserve the fence. Particularly as such things (religion, tradition, culture) are hard to construct, but easy to destroy, and once destroyed nearly impossible to put back together.

You can see why some readers were asking when I would get around to remarking on the many parallels. That time has finally arrived, and like all great analogies, Chesterton’s Fence can be expanded in numerous interesting directions:

What if We’re Not Taking Down the Fence, Just Replacing It?

Chesterton initially imagined that someone might want to clear the fence away. But frequently, rather than removing it entirely, people want to replace an old fence with a new, high-tech version. In theory, this shouldn’t be a problem. It may even be beneficial. Perhaps the old fence is dilapidated and in many spots it’s fallen over completely. Replacing the fence might then be a very good thing. But we should be aware of potential differences between the old fence and the new, because often differences that seem subtle end up being very consequential. 

One example would be replacing a barbed wire fence with a chain link fence. On those infrequent occasions when I go out hunting (generally wabbits) I often come across a barbed wire fence. They’re easy to pass through; you can just pull up one strand of wire, push down another, and duck through the gap. 

Chain link fences require climbing. Sure I can climb a chain link fence (though one of my daughters despairs every time I do) but it’s a whole different operation and most of the people I hunt with (for example my 74 year-old father) would rather not. 

To take a more extreme example, perhaps you’re familiar with electric dog fences. With old models you would bury a wire and put a shock collar on your dog. When the dog crosses the wire they get a mild shock, which quickly trains them to not cross the wire. This allows you to have a beautiful open front yard without an unsightly fence, which is nevertheless fenced off with respect to your dog. You can let him out into the yard without fear he’ll run away. 

Of course technology has progressed even farther (which is what technology does). You no longer need to bury a wire, you can set up a virtual fence using GPS. This is obviously pretty cool, but it’s a far cry from a traditional fence and those differences could end up causing problems you didn’t anticipate. 

All of this brings to mind our discussion of cassava. It was easy to conclude that the enormous amount of time the Tukanoans spend preparing cassava were all in service of removing its bitterness. From there it was easy to see that some steps could be skipped, not realizing that the whole time it was the cyanide that was the problem. In the same way we might imagine that the purpose of the fence was to keep the dog in the yard, but actually it had multiple uses, including keeping the d@%& kids off the lawn! 

Chesterton’s Gate

While everyone refers to Chesterton’s Fence, he actually wrote a “fence or gate”. In many respects, a gate makes an even better analogy for the way in which many traditions are viewed. A gate lets some things through — generally people who have a key — while keeping everything else out. 

Many of our traditions work along a similar principle, particularly our taboos, which are gates around certain behaviors. One I’ve mentioned before is the taboo against unmarried people having sex. This gate kept them out, while letting married people through. Lots of unmarried people didn’t like the gate, the field on the other side of the gate appeared quite lush and the gate somewhat arbitrary. One of the big arguments was that it was necessary to prevent unwanted pregnancies, but once the pill came along there appeared to be no reason to keep the gate shut. 

Metaphorically I’m not sure if it’s more accurate to say that the gate is wide open, or if it’s more accurate to describe it as still locked, but in such horrible repair that anyone who wants to can easily step over it. It is clear that some people try to maintain that particular gate in their specific community/religion. But it’s become more difficult. 

The key question is whether the gate should have been maintained. That’s a pretty big question, but when one looks at the vast increase in single-parent households, and the negative effect it has on children raised in such households, we should at least entertain the idea that that gate was doing more than we thought.

One gate that, until recently, nearly everyone agreed should be open was access to single-sex male spaces. That gate has been open so wide for so long that these spaces effectively no longer exist. Opening it to such an extent seemed unobjectionable, the gate was clearly the barbaric relic of previous oppression, so much so that it was not merely necessary to leave it permanently open, but to demolish it entirely. But as the crisis of masculinity becomes more and more apparent there is a growing awareness that perhaps that gate was important after all. Even some avowed feminists are starting to question whether we should have dismantled these spaces in such a precipitous manner.  

Six-Lane Highways and a State of Nature

When we have discussions like this we often focus on discrete subjects: specific fences and obvious gates. But the idea that we can act in such a targeted fashion is an illusion. Humanity is not all standing around and collectively deciding the fate of a single gate on the only road in town. We’re arguing about millions of roads, and thousands of gates and fences. 

And we don’t just want to remove them, we may want to replace them, demolish them, or pave over everything in sight and put up skyscrapers and six-lane highways. In such conditions spending any time at all discussing an old fence on a small country road seems naive (if not bordering on immoral).

As we object to the destruction of gates and fences, some people may justifiably ask how much thought was put into the original fence? Certainly some thought should be given before we tear down old fences, but shouldn’t we also give some thought to erecting fences on virgin land? Probably so, the erection and destruction of fences both deserve more consideration than they currently receive. Though like everything this impulse can be twisted. NIMBYs love all the time for consideration they can get.

These are all difficult problems, and while Chesterton’s Fence provides much needed wisdom, it is not an absolute guide. As I’ve been saying repeatedly over the last few posts, there are some fences that need to come down. Nevertheless in our rush to be accommodating, in our rush to appear charitable and loving, and most of all, in our rush, period, we have torn down some very old, very important fences. Fences which are not easily replaced.

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