Better 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.
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.
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.
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.
After 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.
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.