Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology

Better Off by Eric BrendeBetter Off (2005, Harper Perennial) is probably the most clever title of any technology book I’ve read.

The book is Eric Brende’s retelling of his 18 months living with a lo-tech Mennonite-like community as part of his graduate work in MIT’s STS Program which studies the influence of technology on society. What makes the book so fun is that its not an abstract work full of theories and technical terms, but instead tells a fascinating true story of a family’s attempt to draw closer together by turning off our super connected world.

The Technology

After finishing course work at MIT, Brende and his bride of just two weeks headed off to a community he dubbed the “Minimites” because of their choice to live with a back-to-basics lifestyle with very little technology. The forgo gas and electricity, meaning no air conditioning, lighting, refrigeration, or motor vehicles. They farm their own food, make their own soap, and ride horse-drawn wagons.

But rather than being afraid of technology or religiously opposed to it, the Minimites are composed of men and women who chose to leave their former high tech lives because they believed living with fewer devices would ultimately make them better off, allowing them to live more whole, complete, and fulfilled lives. Their theory, and one which Brende eventually adopted himself, is that all of our “time saving” devices do just the opposite of their design – instead of giving time, they take it away; instead of making life simpler, they make it more complex; instead of making us more human, they make us into machines.

The Community

In each chapter, Brende tells stories about new lo-tech activities like canning food and planting pumpkin seeds, and these experiences inevitably lead to encounters with members of the community who help him do things he couldn’t have done on his own.

It turns out that the most significant change in the Brende’s life was not which devices they accepted or rejected, but how the presence or absence to those devices brought them into deep contact with those around them. Instead of going through life as independent sojourners who drive around buying things from faceless stores, every part of their life is connected to a real person. Together, they built barns, harvested crops, and chose a new religious leader (though the book is not about faith in particular, it plays a big part in the community).

But life in the community wasn’t always pretty. Members were far from perfect and several episodes highlight the conflicts that can happen when people live in close quarters. Still, Brende does a masterful job of portraying how life lived together can be rich in ways those in the city separated by their devices and vehicles rarely experience.

The Rhythms

Brende often talks about how stripping down technologically allowed him and his wife to experience new rhythms of life. When they stopped using air conditioning to control the weather, electric lighting to control the time, and vehicles to control geography, they found that the natural world had rhythms that made them feel more alive and more human. Of course, not everything was easy – when he sold his car, he found that his wife was allergic to horses! He is also very candid about the difficulties that arise from not having things like refrigeration, and the marital conflicts that sometimes came out of those difficulties.

Brende with his family in the rickshaw he uses to ferry localsAfter the 18 months, Brende, his wife, and their new baby left the Minimite community to finish his degree in Boston. But after a little while in the city, they decided to find a small, unnamed city where they could model the low-tech, family oriented lifestyle they learned from the Minimites.

For example, they still use a hand-made, wooden washing machine to manually wash their clothes. “[The] electric one washes fewer clothes, takes a smaller load and takes longer,” boasts 11-year-old Hans, Brende’s eldest child (source). Today, Brende makes a living making soap and providing a rickshaw service for the locals.

The Lessons

One of my takeaways from the book was how the Minimites carefully considered the effect various technologies might have on their families and community. For example, they considered installing a community phone to use in emergencies and to contact friends outside their world. But they recognized that for all the good the phone might bring, its reach would have other negative effects. The phone would enable them to buy and sell goods from outside sources, increasing competition in their local businesses, forcing them work harder and longer, taking them away from their families and each other, and ultimately making life more complex.

Though I personally don’t plan to ever go as far as the Minimites, I do hope that I can lead my family to think through the unseen ways technology shapes my relationships. While new devices allow me to connect to great people “out there,” they might make me miss the people God has put right next to me.

Published by

John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

16 thoughts on “Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology”

  1. Sounds like an intriguing book. I visited a mennonite community while touring the northeast as a teen, and I was totally baffled by the choices of that community. However, it sounds like this book really makes you think about what the drawbacks to our technological society are. Obviously, human nature doesn’t change merely by changing our surroundings. Eschewing technology doesn’t automatically fix our selfish, angry, etc tendencies.

    1. Good thoughts bro. I appreciated how Brende didn’t try to paint picture of “once I pulled the plug, everything was perfect and everyone was nice.” There are several episodes that demonstrated just what you said about human selfishness. At the same time, his account of “life together” where families work together, buy and sell from one another, and go to church together was fascinating since it is so different from how I live my life.

  2. Sounds very interesting. I often wish I could/would put away the laptop/ipod/tv and spend more time unplugged.

    p.s. Is it ironic that I just downloaded the sample Kindle chapter to read on my ipod touch?

    1. Hilarious about the iPod.

      The trick for me seems to be that when I have a time-saving device (like an ereader that saves time in buying and finding books), I don’t use that freed up time to spend with family and friends. I fill it with more tech usage. Hopefully, Brende’s book can show us how to use our tools for what’s really important

  3. My wife and I have talked about living off in the wilderness or the countryside after graduation, so we could learn to live without our technological crutches.

    And when it comes to the unintended effects of a techie life, the worst for me is the feeling of unrest when there’s “nothing to do” – even though I’m home with my family, good friends next door, and we have plenty of unplugged forms of entertainment.

  4. Our family read this one a while ago and we still discuss it today. Funny that they had to give up the lifestyle because of his wife’s allergies! (Still don’t know how they missed that up until that point.)

    A lot of good thinking, and given the current economic climate – timely and wise.

  5. Hi John, I just came across your site from a friend’s Twitter link to your Bible technology piece. Lots of intriguing writing here! I have a lot of these same things on my mind…where does technology fit into the Kingdom of God?

    Thanks for writing, I’m adding you to my feeds.

  6. I read this book about two years ago and really enjoyed it. I was also reading ‘Deep Economy‘ by Bill McKibben and ‘Plenty‘ by Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon at the same time. ‘Deep Economy‘ is a must! The gospel connection to McKibben’s thesis is impossible to miss. ‘Plenty‘ is a lighter, more fun read. :-)

  7. John – I read this book right after it came out and like you loved the title. I found the book fascinating and it’s on my annual re-read list. I always loved his example of people working 8 hours a day at a desk to then rush off to the gym b/c they sat all day vs working in the garden or field and not needing separate exercise.

    I found it interesting too that the community they lived in was filled with people who had chosen as adults to make the life change, not people that had grown up Amish or Old Order Mennonite.

    However, I think you are right we need to heed his lessons about how we let technology shape our lives. I think that applies to all technology not just electronic tech. BTW inspired by him I tried using a non-powered push mower but it couldn’t cut my weedy grass :)

    Keep up the good work.

    1. I think I remember something like, “People don’t books anymore. They just want snippets and quotes.”

      Just kidding. I don’t remember any off hand, so I’d really recommend you read it.

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