Better Off: flipping the switch on technologyBy Eric Brende (HarperCollins, 256 pp., $24.95)
The author will discuss and sign his book at Davis-Kidd Booksellers, 6 p.m. Monday, Aug. 16
I'm listening to a radio story about UPN's new reality series that takes Amish youth and puts them in a house in L.A. with non-Amish youth. I think we can figure out how the rest goes. Eric Brende's book Better Off heads in the opposite direction: a graduate student and his wife join a Mennonite community for 18 months and try to make it as low-tech farmers. In some cases, you can figure out the rest here as well, but Brende has big ideas worth considering.
Brende went to live with the Mennonites to test the lower limits of technology as part of graduate work in science and society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In the course of his studies, he had reached the conclusion that "machines clearly were not neutral or inert objects. They were complex fuel-consuming entities with certain definite proclivities and needs. Besides often depriving their users of skills and physical exercise, they created new and artificial demandsfor 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." He decided that for thesis research he would immerse himself in a Mennonite community that had made different technological choices than mainstream America; his goal was to find out whether there's a "baseline of minimal machinery needed for human convenience, comfort and sociability."
This book documents Brende's efforts to work out practical problems of farming and maintaining a house with no motors and no electricity, all while navigating a new marriage and starting a family. Brende provides up-close detail on how work gets done in this community, the rhythms of its life, and the ways its social relations function. He does a good job of balancing detail with a narrative that can hold the attention of media-damaged minds like mine. He goes into events only as far as needed to illustrate key aspects of this community's way of life, and feels no obligation to march through each crop and each household function in detail and in chronological sequence.
Early on Brende realizes that minimizing technology is a matter of brains more than brawn. It requires knowing how natural phenomena and mechanical devices work and figuring out ways to achieve results without using the brute force that either machines or muscle power can provide. For example, Brende decided to grow pumpkins as a cash crop. He was going to bury manure under each pumpkin hill, following the instructions in a book on farming, only to have a neighbor point out that it was a lot of work to bury that much manure. He could get the same effect with much less effort by spreading rings of manure on the surface around the seeds, like mulch. Without the benefit of neighbors' knowledge in this and many other cases, Brende would have worked himself to exhaustion.
Collective action also turns out to be critical. The adage "Many hands make work light" comes up constantly. The book contains the inevitable community barn-raising scene, but also tells of a series of reciprocal, smaller scale exchanges of labor between members of the community to tackle tasks like digging a drainpipe ditch for a cow pen, processing and cooking sorghum, or assisting in childbirth. The collective nature of work in this community provides for social and spiritual as well as practical needs. Work brings people together, and the pace of work without technology leaves time for conversation during and between tasks. Even on a hard day during the peak season, Brende calculated that the men put in only nine hours and 20 minutes of actual labor. Instead of experiencing manual labor as a burden, he reports feeling a profound sense of well-being he attributes to the combination of social interaction and the endorphins released by physical exertion.
A picture emerges of a redefined human condition, in which trends toward passivity and isolation have been broken. Technology allows us to live in isolation. Each step away from technology brings the author into closer touch with other people, the physical world and his own capabilities.
The last portion of Brende's experiment is still in progress. He and his wife left the Mennonite community, went back to Boston to finish his degree, and then settled in the Midwest, where they apply the lessons they learned to what we might think of as ordinary existence. They make soap and barter it with neighbors for milk and eggs. They use bikes as much as possible for transportation, focusing their social interactions on the people who live close by. As much as possible, they minimize their use of technology and the amount of cash they need to maintain their household, and they have adopted a way of life that is more socially interdependent.
The book doesn't offer a program for converting modern lives to this more humane pace, but you can extrapolate ideas to apply in your life. I'm riding my bike more for errands in town, and thinking about getting a hand-pushed cylinder-blade lawnmower. However, Brende doesn't make a convincing case that large numbers of us can reverse the dominion of technology. Nor does he go far enough into the reasons that humanity became reliant on technology, or the forces that might thwart efforts to move away from it now: any inclination to drop cars for bikes, or power mowers for hand-pushed, will run up against strong marketing forces designed to sell people even more technological stuff.
In addition to being the antithesis of the UPN reality show, Better Off represents an alternative to Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone. It shows a corner of America where trends toward isolation have not taken hold, and prompts us to think about how to make choices to structure our lives so that technology serves us and not the other way around.
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