Paring back – in an extreme sort of way

June 9, 2006 at 10:48 pm Leave a comment

10008842.gifShortly after I read Smart Mobs, my brother brought home a book called Better Off, by Eric Brende. I read it as soon as Tyler had finished with it.

Whereas Smart Mobs is about a society infested with technology, Better Off is about a community almost devoid of technology. It’s the true story of Brende and his wife, who spend 18 months living in a community with no electricity, no air conditioning, no microwaves, no electric lights, and no motorized equipment of any kind.

This community’s technology is so limited, in fact, that even the Amish consider it primitive. Now that’s pretty severe, if you ask me.

But the author doesn’t seem to think the experience was a negative one. On the contrary, he concludes that a life free of technological excess is richer in the end.

Social elixir

One of the points Brende makes repeatedly throughout the book is that our attempts to conserve time and labor through technology actually “rescue” us from things we need most. “It often makes no sense to save labor and time,” he explains, “when ‘labor’ provides needed exercise and ‘time’ is spent with family or neighbors.”

Case in point: The idea of picking the bean crop is a task that Brende at first attempts to avoid at all costs. He eventually discovers, however, that the work itself becomes automatic and is hardly a big deal. It serves, though, as the catalyst for “conversational nothings” that foster togetherness and community. The physical labor of bean picking, then, is not only good for the body, but is “a sort of obligato, a repetitive figure dull in itself, providing rhythmic accompaniment for the larger symphony of consciousness.”

In fact, Brende goes so far as to say that physical work is a “social elixir.” In the community in which his year-long experiment takes place, cooperative manual labor is what draws the group together for social occasions. It is also the element that gets everyone mixing comfortably once they have come together.

One added benefit of this arrangement: Very limited social anxiety. “Since the purpose of getting together [i]s not social,” Brende explains, “there [i]s no pressure to ‘like’ or be ‘liked.’”

Hmm. Westerners often have myriad social insecurities, but perhaps there is an obvious reason for this. We focus so much on social interaction itself that we scare away opportunities for camaraderie to arise spontaneously. Could be, no?

Don’t chuck technology altogether

Despite his reservations about technology, Brende is careful to clarify that the goal is not no technology. Viewing technology as an evil in itself is what he characterizes as the “beginner’s error.”

And in fact, the community of which Brende became a part is not opposed to technology in principle, as evidenced by the buggies, canning equipment, cultivators, and other simple equipment they use.

The end lesson for technology skeptics like me, I suppose, is that we ought to be wise to the demands of technology, recognizing that we must serve it even as it serves us—and yet we should still be astute enough to use those devices that truly further our aims.


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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

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