Better Off

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live without electricity? We’ve all had a taste of that when the power goes out temporarily, but imagine living day-to-day without electricity, as well as all those things in your life that rely on a steady supply of it: computers, televisions, game consoles, telephones, lights, refrigerators, clothes washers and dryers, fans, dishwashers, air-conditioners, thermostat-controlled furnaces, etc. What would your life be like? Would you have more or less time for leisure? And in the end, would you be happier?

This is what Eric Brende set out to discover for himself when he left his graduate school life at MIT and moved with his new wife to an agricultural community in the American heartland that even the Amish consider antiquated. The inhabitants of this community (who he dubs the “Minimites” due to their Mennonite religious tradition and minimal use of technology) practice a subsistance-farming lifestyle without the use of electricity or motors of any kind.

Brende and his wife lived with the Minimites for eighteen months, and he chronicles his experiences, as well as his more general thoughts on technology and culture, in his book Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology. Despite the absolute-sounding subtitle, neither Brende nor the Minimites reject technology altogether; as I have argued in previous posts, that would be impossible unless you artificially limit the definition of the word ‘technology’ to some arbitrary subset of devices. Instead, Brende set out to discover just how much technology was really needed to live a healthy and happy life. Ultimately, he wanted to discover “a balance between too much machinery and too little,” and a method for finding that balance in whatever circumstances he found himself in the future.

Throughout his adolescence, Brende had become increasingly disenchanted with modern technology, noting that many devices seemed to create more work than they actually saved. As Ruth Schwartz Cowan observed in her book More Work for Mother, so called “labor-saving” domestic appliances introduced in the 19th and 20th centuries often had the opposite effect; after adopting them, consumers typically found that they had even more work and less leisure time than before. For example, cast-iron stoves required more frequent cleaning and care than open-hearth fireplace cookware, and the new possibilities afforded by their separate ovens and cooking surfaces tended to raise expectations about the complexity of meals. Automatic clothes washers and dryers promised to reduce the burden of laundry, but the easy washing of cheap and plentiful cotton textiles just encouraged people to buy more pieces of clothing and wash them more frequently. In the end, we have lots of “labor-saving” and “time-saving” devices, but we seem to have more work and less time than ever before.

Brende observed this phenomenon himself as a teenager when he calculated out how much it would cost to buy and maintain the car he felt was necessary to get him to and from his minimum-wage job located on the other side of Topeka. He discovered that most of his earnings would be quickly consumed by his mode of transportation, leading to the disturbing conclusion that he was essentially working to pay for the machine necessary to get him to work. In many ways, it seemed like he was serving the car more than the car was serving him.

Brende’s description of his experiences amongst the Minimites is surprisingly frank, and typically devoid of naive Romanticism. Although there are times when he seems to gloss over what must have been truly arduous and monotonous work, he is also careful to describe in detail just how difficult and primitive this kind of lifestyle really is. He notes that it was especially difficult for him primarily because he did not grow up in it, and thus lacked the critical “know-how” that makes many tasks far easier. He relates how the men and young boys of the community often observed his herculean efforts at farming with a smirk, later explaining to him how the application of a simple technique, or use of a cleverly-designed tool, would produce the same results with far less work.

Stories like these highlight that the Minimites are not really averse to technology in principle; they are just exceedingly careful about adopting new technologies that might affect the community in ways that would undermine their social values. They use a wide array of tools and simple machines, and they often conduct controlled experiments with new technologies they are considering adopting. In other words, they are not anti-technological; they are just extremely reflective and purposeful about the kinds of devices they choose to adopt or reject.

During his eighteen months, Brende makes a number of observations, but the one that I found most interesting had to do with time. Subsistance farming requires daily work, but Brende noticed that this work actually accomplishes three things at the same time: the chore itself; the physical exercise that resulted from it; and the building of relationships with family and neighbors who labored alongside. In the typical urban lifestyle, we go to work in an office building to earn the money we need, then go to the gym to “work out” since our office job is not physically demanding, and then come home to spend a few hours of “quality time” with our families. Because we separate these activities into a linear progression, we end up with far less time than if they were merged together, as they typically were in a pre-Industrial lifestyle.

Of course, the Minimite community is not without its flaws, and Brende does not shy away from pointing them out, though he does so in a respectful manner. Families are ruled by authoritarian patriarchs. Gender roles are strictly enforced, and children’s interactions with the opposite sex are highly controlled. They believe that their church is the only true church, but it still suffers from the same kind of politics every church does. Not everyone in the community is really happy, and some choose to leave it during Brende’s stay.

Nevertheless, Brende’s description of the Minimite community is highly compelling, and he does a fantastic job of helping the reader imagine what it would be like to live with far less technology. Although you may not agree with conclusions, nor want to attempt a similar kind of experiment, you will find that it is difficult to just ignore or dismiss what he says. The value of this book is that it sparks your imagination, and forces you to reflect upon your own relationship with the technologies in your life.

I actually assign this book in my World History course, and I’ve noticed that my students tend to react to it in one of three ways. Some find the idea of such an experiment highly compelling, and are eager to try something like it in the future. Others are not interested in taking that deep of a plunge, but find that the book helps them better reflect on their own use of technology. But the final few have a highly-visceral negative reaction to the book, and proceed to critique it by pointing out the inconsistencies of the experiment, or the supposed naiveté of the author.

I find this last reaction to be the most intriguing. I suspect that their reaction has more to do with a subconscious feeling of being judged for their enjoyment of modern technology than any real substantive critique. Brende never claims that the Minimite lifestyle is consistent, nor that it is ideal—Brende’s mission was to find balance and a method he could use to achieve it regardless of the circumstances he encountered in the future. The Brendes also left the community at the end of the experiment and now live a more technology-filled life, albeit one that utilizes far less technology than the average American. Although he can sometimes come across in the book as overly prescriptive, I don’t think he desires to judge those who have found a way to have a healthy relationship with modern technology. Instead, he desires that everyone do the hard work of determining the minimal amount of technology they need in order to live a healthy and happy life.

So does this kind of experiment sound compelling to you?

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16 thoughts on “Better Off

  1. Tim Good (@Tim_Good)

    Better Off is one of my favourite books of the last number of years. One that I have come back to many times. It’s great that you are using it to teach with as well.
    Each summer when the heat hits and everyone is complaining, I think of the description in the book of him adjusting to heat without air conditioning.

    In answer to your question. I often wish I could live in the world described in Bettter Off.
    Thanks for the very good review.

    Reply
    1. David Stearns Post author

      And thanks for the comment! We don’t have much need for air conditioning here in Seattle (except maybe one or two days a year), so I haven’t been able to relate as well to that part of the book. Still, whenever I stay at a house or hotel that has air conditioning, it always feels strange to me, and I notice that I have a harder time adjusting to the heat/humidity when I go outside.

      Reply
  2. Christine

    The naive romanticized version of the experiment sounds compelling to me. As I’ve tried to care for my recurring back pain and feelings of stress and anxiety, I often lament that our bodies and brains are just not meant to live in the world that we live in. I have a few glorious fantasies about laboring outside next to loved ones (always in sunshine at a consistent 68 degrees). But I think I prefer things like eating Thai food one day and Mexican the next, or getting to travel/move cities while still keeping in touch with loved ones, or not having to stoke a fire at 3am to keep the house warm. I do appreciate the idea of experimenting with extreme opposites in order to decide how you personally want to live your life.

    Reply
    1. David Stearns Post author

      Ah yes, romantic visions of the pre-industrial life are always much better than the harsh realities of it! I’m with you–I’m way too much of a city boy to attempt such an experiment. Still, there’s something very appealing about all this. I’ve resolved to plant a garden in the spring and grow some vegetables. The extreme experiments help us dream about how we might want to change our own lives, and I think that’s how I’ll start.

      Reply
  3. Kathy Robbins

    I have often thought that my Great Grandmother probably was more organized and much happier than me. She washed clothes by hand, had to milk the cow, churn the butter, kill the chicken, etc. I am also happier with less, less, less. But I live with people who believe in more, more, more. So, there is a constant tension. The other thing that I noticed is that in an agrarian society, a family has to function as a team to survive: not all bad. Husbands and wives worked together. They didn’t go to separate jobs where they fell in love with the people of the opposite sex with whom they spent the most time: their coworkers. Kids were an asset, because they were farm hands. The list goes on. Sounds like a great book. I look forward to reading it. Thank you for sharing. I found you on the High Calling, btw.
    Blessings,
    Kathy

    Reply
    1. David Stearns Post author

      Thanks for the comment Kathy! When I teach about industrialization, I try to emphasize that shift from farm to factory—it fundamentally changes the social order in many different ways. Granted some of those changes can be seen as positive (more opportunities, independence, etc.) but of course others are not so great. Eric’s book does a great job of taking us back to a different way of life so we can see just how much has changed. Glad you found the blog and many thanks to The High Calling.

      Reply
  4. Michael Sacasas

    Great post. I hadn’t come across Better Off, but definitely sounds like a great read. I’m reminded of Albert Borgmann’s distinction between trouble we resist in principle and accept in practice and those we accept in principle and in practice. The trouble of working through the resistance offered by material reality provides enduring and meaningful forms of satisfaction that are lost to us when, following the logic of our devices, we consistently opt for the paths of least resistance and greatest efficiency.

    Blessings,
    Mike

    Reply
    1. David Stearns Post author

      Thanks for the comment Mike, and I enjoyed reading a bit of your blog this morning! Great stuff. I’ve added a link to it on my blogroll, and look forward to reading your posts.

      Reply
  5. coreyadam

    I feel like this issue touches on the deep issues of simplicity, at least in my own life. Tomorrow’s gadget is supposed to simplify our lives so that we can enjoy the core values of living (hard work, togetherness, wellness). I remember back when I was at a tech store trying to buy a Palm Pilot when they were “in” and I was inquiring about their features. The salesman said to me, “You know, it really comes down to discipline when planning a schedule, making a list, etc.” Why must we download an app on our phone that resembles a piece of paper and a pencil when we can just use a piece of paper and a pencil? Are we afraid of engaging fully with simplicity? Are our simplifying tools just means of avoiding hard work, togetherness, and wellness?

    Thanks for the post!
    Corey Gilchrist

    Reply
    1. David Stearns Post author

      And thanks for the comment Corey! And great questions. You’re right that we often make digital replacements for tasks that really don’t need to be digitized. Part of this must be a cultural expectation that the digitized version will just be “better” in some way. Progress, progress, progress!

      Reply
      1. Marcus Goodyear

        Your comment about “digital replacements” reminds me of some toys we saw yesterday. They were real life Legos and Megablocks and Knex based on video games. “Look, Dad!” the kids said, “You can build a REAL Mario Kart track with Knex!”

        They were so excited about the possibility that their games could be real.

  6. Marcus Goodyear

    I’m not sure I have the guts for this, David. And I’ve spent too much of my life trying to escape the legalism I grew up with.

    Still, lately I feel like technology is winning the battle for my heart and mind and I’m not sure what to do about it except continue struggling.

    Reply
    1. David Stearns Post author

      We all need to continue struggling to find balance and a healthy relationship with our human-built world. I find experiments like these to be helpful for teasing out what “must be so” and what “is so, but could be otherwise.” Lucky for us, Eric wrote about his experiment, so we don’t have to do it ourselves!

      Reply

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