Changing Times

Egbert de Vries, a Dutch sociologist, has told of how the introduction of matches to an African tribe altered their sexual habits. Members of this community believed it necessary to start a new fire in the fireplace after each act of sexual intercourse. This custom meant that each act of intercourse was something of a public event, since when it was completed someone had to go to a neighboring hut to bring back a burning stick with which to start a fresh fire. Under such conditions, adultery was difficult to conceal, which is conceivably why the custom originated in the first place. The introduction of matches changed all this. It became possible to light a new fire without going to a neighbor’s hut, and thus, in a flash, so to speak, a long-standing tradition was consumed.

“In reporting on de Vries’ finding, Alvin Toffler raises several intriguing questions: Did matches result in a shift in values? Was adultery less or more frowned upon as a result? By facilitating the privacy of sex, did matches alter the valuation placed upon it?”

— Neil Postman, Technopoly, 1992, citing Toffler’s introductory essay “Value Impact Forecaster — A Profession of the Future” in Kurt Baier and Nicholas Rescher’s Values and the Future (1969)