Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology

better off 2

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.

Grade: B-




7 thoughts on “Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology

  1. Bike Bubba says:

    Something in me hopes you read it on Kindle for irony’s sake, but given that the Kindle price is twice the hardcover price, I’m guessing not. ::^)

    I constantly remind my kids of how things used to be when they start complaining that we don’t have a big enough TV, or that we’re not using AC enough….simplicity has its benefits, even if from time to time yahoos on a Schwinn pass up your buggy. (I used to race Amish buggies on my bike as I rode to work….only thing besides old tractors I could beat)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Elspeth says:

    Well Bike, I actually read the book hardcover, for free from my local library, which had it delivered right to my front door.

    So I kept with the spirit of the book by NOT reading it via Kindle, 🙂


  3. Forays In Fiction says:

    We’re remodeling a house right now that my grandfather built in 1950. I’ve found the labor of weeding a jungle and pulling up vinyl tile and tacking strips very satisfying. I have not done this kind of work in a long time.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Elspeth says:

    I find that I often dread the beginning of a highly physical project (my Benevolent Dictator relishes such things so we do them regularly enough). However, when it is underway, and I begin to see the results of the work taking shape, there is a feeling of exhilaration that kicks in.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Elspeth says:

    Couple of quick thoughts:

    The first is that this post was a typo ridden mess, which I I just realized. This is what happens when you write a post in an insomniac haze, LOL. I hope I fixed them all, but feel free to point out any that you see.

    Secondly, an experience. There is a Publix about 2 and 1/2 miles from our house that we almost always drive to. Well, usually we pop in it on our way from somewhere else. Anyway, I headed out for a walk, and because we were out of coffee in the house, I decided I may as well walk up to Publix and get some.

    My children, even though a 3 mile run is something everyone knows we do regularly around here, were shocked (shocked I say!) that I walked “all the way to Publix!” to buy coffee.

    We are a miserable lot, LOL.


  6. Booky McBookerson says:

    I’d agree but I’ve been helping to move concrete blocks today, lol. But seriously, it’s a satisfying kind of tired at the end of the day.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Booky McBookerson says:

    I can walk all day and be just fine, but I tried a morning run today and made it less than 1/4 of a mile before being painfully out of breath. Embarrassing. LOL Losing some weight is one thing; being actually in shape is another altogether. I wasn’t always this bad, I swear! So I guess this is the next thing I need to work on. Painful. I’m quite sure my 80 year-old father is in better shape than I am.

    Liked by 1 person

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.