In his most recent novel, Seveneves, sci-fi author Neal Stephenson coins an intriguing term: “Amistics”.

Amistics describes “the choices that different cultures made as to which technologies they would, and would not, make part of their lives.” Derived from the Amish principle of the selective use of technology, the example Stephenson’s novel has in mind is not – as you might expect – weapons or artificial intelligence. Instead, his imagined future selects an increasingly ubiquitous contemporary technology for exclusion: “high-frequency social media tools”.

Why? Because of social media’s capacity to “get the better of [the] higher faculties” by bombarding human brains with emotive appeals, distractions, and short-term enticements. In the future envisaged by Seveneves, these psychological prods and pokes precipitate a near-terminal crisis within a society already traumatised by terrible events. Subsequently, “any efforts made by modern consumer-goods manufacturers to produce the kinds of devices and apps that had disordered the brain [like high-frequency social media] were met with… instinctive pushback.”

Amistics, then, is a belated art: the fruit of bitter experience and cries of “never again!” It’s also a neat provocation, and a way in to a troubling set of questions. What does it mean to use technology selectively? How far can whole societies determine which technologies they use – if at all – rather than allowing technology to determine their history?

Amish communities themselves vary in what they permit. There are around 40 different Amish subgroups, all of whom practice selective use rather than outright rejection, evaluating whether a new technology would improve their way of life in the light of their (strongly Christian) values. Television, home computing, and car ownership are banned, together with mains electricity. Some battery-powered devices are allowed, as are home electrical generation and solar power in some settlements. Modern medicine is selectively applied. Most groups allow members to hire vehicles for long-distance travel and business. Non-electric adaptations of other goods are also occasionally used, such as refrigerators powered by kerosene.

Testing technologies for their effect is a formal process in Amish societies. Someone brings a new piece of technology to the community leaders; the community leaders appoint others to test it out; those testing the technology are themselves monitored while using it; and everyone then reports back. If no sufficiently compelling benefit is found, the community does not adopt it. Young Amish are allowed to experiment with technological modernity – cars, media, pop culture – before deciding when they enter adulthood whether to stay and conform, or leave. It’s archaic, patriarchal, and surprisingly robust; Amish numbers continue to grow across America.

Biblical literalism is hardly a practical global approach to technology, but its emphasis on a values-led approach is intriguing. In their own way, the Amish practice an undervalued discipline: critical thinking about technology. More often, modern attitudes to technology are dominated by what psychologist Paul Slovic christened the “affect heuristic” – in which, in the absence of evidence or expertise, a difficult judgement is referred to the emotions. As Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman explains it, “the affect heuristic simplifies our lives by creating a world that is much tidier than reality. Good technologies have few costs in the imaginary world we inhabit, bad technologies have no benefits, and all decisions are easy.”

Can we hope to do better than giving vent to our feelings? One of the problems with any significant technological innovation is that its consequences are inherently unforeseeable. Belatedness comes with the territory. What will remain resolutely consistent and unperfected within any technological situation, however, is human nature itself – and in this regard the Amish have a trick or two to teach.

Amish technological practices are directed against two vices above all: vanity and the pursuit of material wealth. If some farmers are allowed to automate their labour beyond a certain point, the reasoning goes, others will also need to do so to keep up – or those with access to better machinery will gain land, power, and wealth at the expense of those who opt out. Equality can only be ensured by levelling the playing field, much as vanity is to be held at bay by limiting technologies like photography and image reproduction.

Photography and vanity may or may not be entwined (flicking through certain glossy magazines certainly suggests a correlation), but the Amish are on to something when it comes to competition. If you’re looking for the single strongest reason why technological determinism works as a model of history – why, in the long term, technological developments seem to determine what happens to us as a species – competition is the decisive factor.

Imagine that you’re part of an early tribal society whose most advanced technology is the flint tool, and you come up against a rival able to make bronze weapons. Unless you too learn the secret of bronze-working – or, better still, forging steel – you are at their mercy. They can extract unfavourable trading terms or take your territory, if they so choose. Even if they don’t choose to press their advantage, you’re still only safe until the next and better-armed lot come along.

Technology isn’t the only factor in civilisational success, but when it comes to long-term rivalries it tends to be decisive. Once your enemy has machine guns, cavalry charges cease to be an option. Once they have drones, you need bigger and better drones (or hackers, or killer autonomous robots). Once one nation has nuclear weapons, the only deterrent big and bad enough to keep others in the game is more nukes (or careful strategic alliances).

The same applies to the world of business. If you work in financial services and a rival trading operation buys the latest in high-frequency automation, you’ll need the same just to keep up – and something better yet to gain an edge. You’re welcome to opt out at any time, but there’ll always be another to take your place. Reflection is a luxury affordable only after the event; regulation more often than not a species of mitigation drawn up by winners’ clubs.

Thus ends the determinist’s tale, in which technological and human progress are largely synonymous. Protests to the contrary are either nostalgia or denial.

Except, I would argue, it’s determinism that’s in denial of the facts – and doesn’t realise the good part of the story begins only where it leaves off. Progress towards what, and at what cost? Progress in which areas and to whose gain? Unless we can turn to the cumulative insights of other fields – to philosophy, science, politics, and art; to history, psychology, aesthetics, and fiction – we can’t begin to debate such questions. Indeed, we can’t debate anything. We’ve reduced ourselves to the state of automata, and in doing so have failed to do justice to either us or our creations.

The alternative? Dispense with any take on ‘technology’ as an abstract whole, distinct from the societies through which it is interlaced. Embrace the fact that humans and their tools – from flint knives to alphabets to zettabytes of placeless data – are locked in an unending negotiation. Look to what we do, and how and why, not just what we do it with.

As another science fiction author, William Gibson, famously declared, “the future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.” The corollary is that if you look hard and honestly enough, you’ll see a shadow of your future flickering elsewhere in the present. What are people actually doing, today, with tools old and new? What are the balances to be borne in mind – the effects of innovation upon values worth chasing? These are questions worth answering, all the more so because no answers will ever be final.

When it comes to technology, the greatest peril of all is that we abandon critical thinking in a puff of determinism; that, as Stephenson’s fictional society did to its cost, we switch off our higher faculties in a blaze of precision-engineered titillation.

Our responsibility is not to some abstract vision of human potential – whether enhanced by ultimate technology, or denuded of it entirely. It is to each other, as we can best understand our circumstances: compromised, enmeshed in history, bound by ties we have not chosen. To become more free, for us, is not to pretend that the mirrors our machines hold up show anything entirely new. It is to look more carefully at how we live, with them and without them, and hope to become less deceived.

From the 'technology' edition of New Philosopher, out now. Click here for a full list of stockists, or you can subscribe here.