Thursday, June 24, 2010

Book Review: Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology by Eric Brende

I'm going to do my best to dispel the rumor that I never blog. Sure, it took getting out of Arizona and away from work a few days to do it.

I just finished the book Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology by Eric Brende. Brende, graduate of Yale, Washburn University and MIT, took the drastic step of putting his money (and his life) where his mouth was. For 18 months, Brende and his wife lived among a pseudo-Amish community and eschewed the so-called modern conveniences (electricity, automobile, TV, telephone) so as to better understand our motivations as a society. They grew their own food, or bartered their labor with others to get the things they needed.

I like Brende's book. If there is one small criticism, it would be that attachment of a spiritual significance to his experience. This is most likely a product of his own religious background and the obvious religious nature of the type of community he was living in. But, I believe, it definitely does not take a Christian mind-set to appreciate the benefits of simpler living.

What they found was that technology, instead of making things easier, "Besides often depriving their users of skills and physical exercise, they created new and artificial demands - for fuel, space, money, and time. These in turn crowded out other important human pursuits, like involvement in family and community, or even the process of thinking itself. The very act of accepting the machine was becoming automatic."

By removing most of these tools, those things that we work so hard to make time for (recreation, exercise, education, socialization) become part of an integrated lifestyle. And instead of having to work harder and longer, we have more time for true leisure and reflection. Our current society barely leaves us enough time to think. "By speeding through life with technology, you reduce what any given moment can hold.  By slowing down, you expand it."

Another byproduct of our reliance on technology is the isolation that it encourages. This isolation is, perhaps, one of the biggest contributors to our partisanship in politics and human interaction. "Modern technology .. far from being neutral in its effects, has more than one underlying purpose ... besides reducing the need for physical effort, ... it helps us avoid the need for cooperation or social flexibility ..." If, in the course of a normal day, we had to rely on the help of others and, in turn, helping others, we might be more likely to find common ground.

I read a quote once, and I'm paraphrasing, "You first shape a tool to fit your needs, but as you become more dependent on it, the tools shapes you." We change our behaviors to accommodate those things we first created to make life easier. As Brende says,

"... The changes I have made to live less technologically are easy compared with the contortions most people go through to maintain technology. Their beloved machinery does not so much save labor as separate it out in time and place and thereby make it harder to obtain-physical exercise in the gym, moneymaking in the office, education in the school, and "quality time" with the family in the national park. Rather than an integrated whole, life become a temporal and geographical obstacle course."

Believe me, I'm not a Luddite. Anything but. Michelle has a valid criticism of me that I have too much technology. Technology is not inherently bad. But just think about whether it is really making your life easier and allowing you to spend more time with those things that really matter - your family, friends, and the acquiring of knowledge. And when evaluating the costs of your technology, don't just consider the price you paid, but also the costs on our environment and our society. One of the biggest problems with our modern culture is that we only consider the price that is on the sticker. People will go to Wal-Mart to buy cheap crap because they think they are getting a good deal. But they have no concept of the slave-labor it took or the sub-standard and environmentally harmful elements that comprise it. We like our cheap food, yet don't understand that it's because it is made up of nothing but government subsidized corn products made by huge corporations. Those fresh vegetables you get at the local farmers' market may have the higher sticker price, but the effective price is much lower. And people need to start thinking that way. Do more things yourself. When buying important things, think more about craftsmanship and the skill it took to make them. Barter. Volunteer. Ask for help and give help freely. Turn off the TV. Read a book. Grow a garden. Turn off the computer ..........


Note: I'd also suggest reading "Nothing grows forever. Why do we keep pretending the economy will?" by Clive Thompson in May '10 Mother Jones Magazine. It examines how a growth-based economy is not necessarily the best thing for the future of our society.


wunelle said...

A couple books that are right down my alley. I've wondered about all these concepts over the past few years, but without making much philosophical headway with them.

I've understood that the Amish are concerned about whatever is deleterious to the family unit or the community; in itself this seems noble and wise, though exactly how a zipper hampers these things is unclear to me. But I can see the harm to personal relationships inherent in the more extreme examples--TV or the internet--and so I must acknowledge that degrees can matter.

I (and others) have written about my sense of isolation within my community, a function, I've argued, of my rejecting religion and not being active in politics or any civic organizations. But who's to say what role all our modern conveniences play? As for food, I think business and profit motive bring harm to us. I may have to check this book out.

And also the Clive Thompson article. I've wondered for years at the wisdom of an economy that requires growth to survive.

dbackdad said...

I found the quote (and the quoter): "We shape our tools, and afterwards our tools shape us." -- Marshall McLuhan

Wunelle -- The Clive Thompson article is very good. If we continue on the path where growth is the only measure of success, the world economy (and our environment) are going to collapse within 50 years. We've already seen the signs of both.