Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology, by Eric Brende. HarperCollins (2004), 233 pages, $24.95 (hardcover).
What would it be like if a young couple left modern technological life for an 18 month experiment without electricity? In Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology, Eric Brende shares his story of living with the “Minimites” (a fictional name for a real community).
Mr. Brende—a former graduate of M.I.T.—gradually became disillusioned with the way technology has taken over all facets of our lives. We work long hours so we can pay for our transportation to our job, purchase groceries and obtain “time-saving” devices. However, these “time-saving” devices do not seem to actually give us any more time. We are still rushing, always too busy to talk to neighbors, pray, cook a meal from scratch, or settle down with a good book.
Better Off is written in the form of a very compelling story. I had a hard time putting it down. In the midst of enjoying the story, I learned some very interesting things. For instance, in winter some community members harvest ice out of ponds and lakes, and pack it into sheds with thick sawdust insulation. Surprisingly, it stays cold all summer and they can have ice cream in August. Indoor plumbing can be added through a “ram” that uses the movement of a stream or spring to pump water to a house. As a bonus, I also received a refresher course on the social impact of technological history.
This book is a living experiment of how technology affects society. What is a community like that has shared values, but no TVs, computers, recorded music, video games, or cars? The hypothesizing stops: we see a real picture. The children are helpful, loving, and kind. The neighbors bear one another’s burdens. Hard labor intersects with socialization that results in close relationships and enjoyment. Meals involve enjoying the fruit of your own labor. People become skilled and knowledgeable workers (not just players) again. Leisure time for reading and playing equals (or surpasses) our own. Modesty is the rule. Divorce is virtually non-existent.
Their community is not perfect, however. They tend to be cultish: they believe their church is the one-true denomination (Brende himself is a Catholic). Their self-government seems to lack structure and written law. Some community members think there is too much technology while others think there should be less.
Like any book, it is not without faults. It gives little detail on some things (How did they solve everyday medical problems? How did they bathe? What would happen during a community crop failure?). While Mr. Brende is a good writer, his prose sometimes spills over into language that a reader might find too extravagant for such a story, for instance:
It was as if the field were there to harvest us, not we it, the whole undertaking a pretext, a cosmic matchmaker’s ruse. At the stroke of midnight we shed our mortal shells and become prince and princess of creation, presiding over the majestic ball of life, ceremoniously joining with nature in jocund betrothal, a feast of love. (p. 173)
But those are small faults for an overall excellent book.
In the end, this book is more than an interesting story. It contains technological history, life lessons, and a personal journey wrapped up in a conservative, ecological philosophy of technology. It raises questions that beg the reader to give consideration to: how much technology is needed for human comfort and leisure? How can we use technologies that serve us, and avoid those that we serve? This book might help you find the answers to questions like that. You may even find an awakening of a desire you never knew existed—a desire “to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands … so that you may live properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12).
Joshua P. Sowin