Nick Rosen |
 Brende and friend
Better off? The Brende family

John Locke, whose philosophy influenced the US Constitution, introduced the notion of individual rights and individual property to its pre-eminent place in Western political thought.

According to Eric Brende in his fascinating book Better Off Flipping the switch on Technology, Locke’s approach had the unintended consequence of raising property, and hence technology, to the same legal status as people, with rights and responsibilities of their own. As a result we have become enslaved by the technology we created.

Better Off : Flipping the Switch on TechnologyBuy the book from Amazon. Buy the UK edition here.

Logically this argument is flawed, but that does not matter since it is Brende’s intellectual journey we are interested in, rather than Locke’s. Whatever the reason, we have become enslaved by some aspects of our technological existence. Brendes course in the sociology of technology at MIT leads him on an experiment, to go live in a back-to-the earth religious movement in Maine and see how little technology he really needs to enjoy life to the full.

That was a decade ago. Fast forward to the present and Brende’s book, published recently, is receiving a good critical reception. To his credit, Brende himself is still living the off-grid life. He earns a living as a rickshaw driver in St Louis ( And he supplements these earnings by making soap which his wife sells in the local farmer’s market.

It matters not that the community he joins supplement their kerosene lamps with electric torches. Eric and Mary are not rabid environmentalists looking for purity, but two individuals searching for another way, for freedom from the slavery that chains us to jobs to pay for technology that merely allows us to work harder in some ways and become lazier in others.

His simple straightforward writing style is suited to the simple, whittled down life he proceeds to describe in the book, together with his new wife Mary. In the end, Brende’s quest seems more about going back in time to older technologies than actually about dispensing with technology altogether., And that may be no bad thing. The web site on which you are reading this article is not about dispensing with technology either, rather it is for people who want to free themselves from the tyranny of the grid  the grid of power and water, which leads us to depend on the grid of city streets and supermarket distribution chains, and many other grids.

Brende’s first lesson in intermediate technology is that he can generate electricity from the power of a stream that runs downhill. Ok, good, but that is not living without technology – it is living with different technology. The Ram that turned the power of the water into electrical power, eventually breaks, providing Brende with a handy moral to the story, but what if it hadn’t?

Next Brende discovers that once deprived of electricity, he can do without refrigeration, to keep his wife’s food fresh. She bakes a pumpkin pie like chiffon and Brende finds he can keep it sealed in water to stay fresh. At this point, and we are on page 64 by now, we learn a lesson of some value. This is when Brende begins to regain the skills of daily living that technology has taken away from us.

And that is the point. If you have ever wished you had time to get off your work treadmill and learn to know people better and just slow down a bit, you’ll find the low tech life he describes appealing. A self professed Catholic, Brende has still managed to instill in himself the Protestant work ethic that made the most of the pioneering spirit. He is right when he says that work is a social elixir, freeing the mind.

Brende’s vision narrows in the course of the book. He seems limited to farming and transport in his investigation of technology. As a reviewer on Amazon has pointed out, the only household technology discussed is the problem his wife has making him three meals a day exactly when he expects them because of a lack of refrigeration. (I started thinking of her as Poor Mary because of the way he introduces her: she was a woman he had taken on a couple of casual dates that he decided to call in desperation to come do his cooking when he was on crutches for a few days. He is never any more complimentary than that.) They apparently accepted the division of labor between men and women without question, so he probably had little idea of the adaptations she had to make. As unromantic as he seems, for some reason he keeps talking about their love life, which has absolutely nothing to do with the topic of the book.

Honest to a fault, Brende does nothing to cover up his own inadequacies as a human being. Towards the end of their projected 18 months in the Minimite community, Mr and Mrs Brende buy a house from one of the community who is moving away from the area. But this was not their way of buying into the scene they had joined. They researched it carefully and decided it was a steal. Next we lurch into a long story about one of the community who has become embittered because he once gave away his farm to a needy couple who never repaid him. One reads on expecting that Brende would reciprocate by handing over his new property. But the house is never mentioned again. The next thing we know Brende has decamped back to Boston, and thence to St Louis. So the house he bought must by now be some sort of weekender cottage, let out to vacationers from time to time. At that point one realizes that whatever the nature of his experiment, Brende has not really grown as a human through the year long experience.

After the book was published, Brende wrote this remarkably honest contribution to the MIT Alumni web site:

As MIT graduates go, I realize I am unusual. I run a rickshaw service in downtown St. Louis, where I live. I make soap at home, and my wife sells it at the local farmer’s market on Saturdays. We travel on foot or by bicycle to get the day’s errands done and tote our groceries in capacious, foldable rear bike-baskets, carting our children behind using “Trail-A- Bikes,” attachments that convert an adult bicycle into a tandem for a child.

Either one of my sons or myself mows our yard with a hand-powered cutting cylinder. My wife, assisted by our children, does the laundry using an old-fashioned, swing-handled washing tub. We don’t have a computer, television, or VCR, although we do listen to the radio and drive a car when the need arises (a 1983 Honda Accord). I will go to the library by bicycle, and use the Internet at times.

I recently returned from a three-week tour promoting a book I wrote about how we live and how much we learned after spending eighteen months in an Amish-style community. Press outlets, radio stations, bookstores, and the public hungrily ate up what I had to offer. The book is now in a third printing. Everyone was fascinated by the thought of something so radical, so singular, so counter-cultural. Many people admired my “bravery,” my “pioneering spirit,” my “self-control,” wondering how I or my wife or my children could endure such privation. Many called my ideas thought-provoking and although they weren’t ready to put them in practice just yet or so radically they would mull over the possibilities.

And yet, now that I’ve lived like this for almost twelve years, I must ask who is really being brave, radical, or extreme? Is it I? Or is it the people who marvel at me? Compared with the vast majority of earthlings down through history, I am hardly deprived. I use generous amounts of technology. For all my “austerity,” I still benefit from major historic advances like sanitary water, vaccines, plentiful food supplies (shipped in from the countryside by high-speed vehicles), many mass-manufactured goods, and select forms of automation, such as electric fans, a small refrigerator, a dehumidifier in my basement, a digital piano, and, as mentioned, sometimes a car and a computer. And with this degree of usage, I enjoy a balanced life, blending family with work, and leave ample leisure to write books and articles, play music, and visit relatives. Because our costs are so low, even though I make hardly anything, I have enough disposable income to dine out fairly often and take my wife to the movies or a show. We can’t afford to live in a ritzy neighborhood, but our inexpensive urban setting is compact, walkable, and architecturally pleasing.

Compared to the world’s silent majority, I am markedly better off, even pampered, and I don’t consider myself radical or extreme in my practices. It is the Americans around me. I am merely wading in technology. They are drowning in it, dog-paddling to keep their heads above water. If a certain amount of something is good, it does not follow that lots of it is. King Midas tried a famous alchemical experiment, and we know what happened: he learned that too much of a good thing is not a good thing.

Today, in my eyes, most of our personal and economic activities, our hustle and bustle, our coming and going, spring from the need to undo or counteract the effects of a tidal wave of technology.

In the workplace, technology is an economic weapon necessary to keep even with the competition, namely other technological advances. Few are particularly thrilled at the technology itself. As skilled workers become obsolete, they are replaced as if they were machine parts. The constant turnover in jobs creates social instability and expensive retraining programs which, as President Bush accurately points out, are the keys to success in the changing global economy, but which also consume vast amounts of time, effort, and money, while undermining family life and neighbordhoods. Bush bragged in a presidential debate that during his term he increased the education budget by forty-nine percent, and did so mostly for the sake of the economy. The extravagant cost, of course, can only be borne by us in the form of taxes or tuition, and we must work that much harder.

In our communities, a mass-migration has been under way for decades, from urban cores and inner suburbs to outer rings, spawning fabulous public works projects unparalleled in world history monumental freeway interchanges, parking lots, malls together with a burgeoning population of motorcars, which from 1969 to 1995 alone in the United States multiplied six times faster than the human population. All those transportation costs alone total to one sixth of our nation’s annual income. And all for what?

Largely to escape the effects of cars themselves, together with other obnoxious technologies the cumulative noise, pollution, congestion, and menace accompanying a rapidly expanding artificial environment. Human beings, understandably seek out safety and serenity in a world of turbulence. But the more they try to escape from that maelstrom, the worse it gets. For the only means of escape from cars appears to be cars.

Building new houses instead of restoring old ones, traveling hours each day in a vehicle, paying for the sundry other technologies all this takes money which translates into human labor, probably the better part of the workday for most Americans. But there is another sort of costly compensation that technology foments. When it goes too far, it often does for us something we’d be better off doing ourselves. It encroaches on our own vital human functions, and when it does, we must go back and regain them. We must dog-paddle lest the upsurge in technology close over our very human identity. Dog-paddling, the improvised struggle for self-recovery, is quite taxing, and creates a multiplicity of flailing motions from what once was a single integrated experience.

Too much technology deprives us of needed physical activity. Hence the unique, modern oddity: the self-imposed exercise regimen. After sitting motionless all day, people jog around the block. They drive to the gym. They mount treadmills. They create work for themselves to make up for the work their labor-savers saved them. It has gotten to the point where some people perform hand-squeezing routines since computer keyboards do not offer the physical resistance they need and can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome. (Also, studies show that, for the sake of one’s lower back, it is better to work as a longshoreman than in an office.) As ridiculous as these compensations may appear, shrinking away from remedial physical exercise brings even worse consequences. One triple-bypass operation costs at least $100,000 and, besides being horrific in itself, raises everyone’s insurance premiums, forcing us back on the technological treadmill for another round of penance.

Television and computers reduce face-to-face human interactions with similar results: the quest to create “quality time” with family and friends. Nobody ever used this phrase before technology became so dominant. Now time is so short that most parents carry around vague feelings of guilt over how little of it they spend with their children, so they must manufacture opportunities for it. When time permits. The inability to spend enough time with loved ones is a dark cloud hanging over everyone’s head. Yet in a world of time-saving devices, everyone complains there’s not enough time.

Multimedia devices also erode and atrophy human mental powers and skills, like reading and, perhaps because these are even harder to recover or even identify, these losses can contribute to a vague sense of uselessness which our antidepressants have not been able to cure. If technology is all but living our lives for us, why live at all?

I agree that becoming technologically deprived can be a danger but it is not I who is at risk. In a world superabundant in gadgets and gizmos, the richest among us are those who have mastered the delicate art of thinning out the excess, making way for the expression of their full humanity. If anything, I may still have some thinning to do.

As for the rest of you: Will the real extremists please stand up? Living without so much technology may be less radical than you think. It certainly is a lot easier.

Buy our book - OFF THE GRID - a tour of American off-grid places and people written by Nick Rosen, editor of the web site

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