Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology, by Eric Brende. Originally published in 2004. 256 pages.
Eric Brende and his wife Mary embarked on an 18-month sabbatical away from urban life to live among a group of people he called the Minimites, a community which eschewed all forms of modern technology. The author’s life, along with his wife’s, was irrevocably changed.
I first learned of this book after reading a review offered by Booky McBookerson. I was instantly intrigued, mainly because the author was interested in more than the popular arguments surrounding personal technology so prevalent today. He wanted to examine the way technology has impacted life in ways that we have long accepted as harmless, lifestyle enhancement that “everyone” agrees has made life better. For example, the burdens inherent with ownership of an automobile and the way cars impact our associations with those in our immediate vicinity.
He offers much food for thought and makes compelling arguments, but he does so in a way that is more engaging than academic. The memoir approach to recounting the experience he had with his wife during their time in this Amish community that wasn’t quite Amish enables the reader to think about these issues without a preachy tone. The experiences often speak for themselves.
One of the most important distinctions he makes is the difference between a machine and a tool, and the fact that we have badly conflated the two as one and the same. They are decidedly not, he argues, and I agree, an automated machine is markedly different from a human powered tool.
Ultimately, Brende highlights the things we instinctively know but have crowded out of our consciousness as we build lives and lifestyles which gives as much weight to technological conveniences and necessities as we do to communities and people, if not more so.
He often wrote about the hard physical labor that was a part of the life they lived there, but that it was infused with community and teamwork, giving him a new appreciation for the term “more hands make light work”. The lightness is not only a reference to less labor, but more pleasant labor because it isn’t being done in isolation.
His introduction of the concept of Gelassenheit was of particular interest not only because I’d never heard it before, but because it is stands in direct opposition to the world in which we live, while being exactly the approach to life those of us who are Christians are called to embrace:
…”he who keeps his life will lose it.” These adages, of course, come from the Bible, and they give expression to the disposition the Minimites held chief among Christian attitudes, Gelassenheit, or self-surrender. Gelassenheit referred less to any particular aim than to acceptance of what may be, a larger and partly hidden design that they did not fully understand.
Modern technology, I suspect, far from being neutral in its effects, has more than on underlying purpose or built-in tendency: besides reducing the need for physical effort (a kind of material surrender) it helps us avoid the need for cooperation or social flexibility (a kind of social or metaphysical surrender). All too readily it countermands the uncertainty that goes with Gelassenheit. Cars, telephones, message machines, caller ID, and e-mail give us unprecedented powers to associate with whom we want, when we want, to the degree we want, under the terms we want, finessing and filtering out those we don’t want-and thin out the possibilities of social growth accordingly. p. 80
Lest anyone misunderstand, I am as post modern as anyone else. I like my privacy. I was fairly mortified on the author’s behalf when the neighbor boy walked in on he and his wife at a most inopportune moment because it was the middle of the afternoon so why couldn’t you just walk into someone’s house?
I certainly appreciate my unprecedented powers to self-select with whom I will relate. I also understand however, that community based on affinity is not true community, and that my self-imposed boundaries also serve as a sort of social prison, albeit a very comfortable one. After all, technology gives plenty of opportunity for some sort of social interaction, no matter how imperfect.
For me one of the most profound downsides of our post-modern dependence on technology is the severe deficit of physical activity that plagues most of us. Working out is helpful, but it is truly no substitute for purposeful physical labor. Technology pays the bills here and we are probably never going to go much farther than walking to destinations under 2 miles and cutting the television off a few of days per week.In other words, what we do now.
The thoughts presented here are well worth considering, and the writing was thoughtful, if occasionally choppy. Brende was good at translating his experiences into philosophical musings, but not so great at story telling in general. The story-telling wasn’t horrible, but it fell a little short from time to time.
I found this book an opportunity for thought and personal reflection on the ways we can slow down and experience life more fully and deliberately rather than a transition to a completely tech-free life, or even a minimalist one. Technology is here to stay, but we can all re-examine ourselves and our relationship to it.