Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology

In our technology-obsessed culture, too much is almost enough. How much do we really need?

By Ryan McGreal
Published December 13, 2006

In his excellent and insightful book The End of Education (Vintage, 1996), Neil Postman posited what he called "the god of Technology":

in the sense that people believe technology works, that they rely on it, that it makes promises, that they are bereft when denied access to it, that they are delighted when they are in its presence, that for most people it works in mysterious ways, that they condemn people who speak against it, that they stand in awe of it, and that, in the born-again mode, they will alter their lifestyles, their schedules, their habits, and their relationships to accommodate it. If this be not a form of religious belief, what is?

A few years ago, an unlikely heretic decided to confront technology with a simple but radical question: "how much - or little - technology was needed"?

Eric Brende was a master's student at MIT - a veritable Holy Land of techno-evangelism - when a critique of technology he wrote for a course provoked an emotional response from his professor: "do you really want to eliminate laboursaving devices?"

That got him thinking. "Was there some baseline of minimal machinery needed for human convenience, comfort, and sociability - a line below which physical effort was to demanding and above which machines begin to create their own demands?"

He realized that the answer to this question lay not in the sleek, modernist halls of his college but in a real-life test. Better Off (HarperCollins, 2004) is the chronicle of that test.

Brende managed to contact a member of an Old Order community similar to the Amish (to protect their privacy he refers to them as "Minimites"), and he and his wife agreed to an experiment in simple living off the grid. They packed up their possessions, rented a farmhouse, and stepped into a different world.

Convivial Work

What might have been a judgmental, jargon-laden screed turned out to be a gentle and charming reflection on the role technology plays in our lives.

For eighteen months, Brende and his wife learned how to tend garden, wash clothes, preserve foods, and get around with only their hands, their ingenuity, and those machines that did not depend on an external source of power.

They were helped along the way by their taciturn but kindly neighbours, who always managed to arrive at just the right time with a handy tool or a murmured suggestion.

As the Brendes slowly joined the community, they discovered that shared work went far beyond the strictly utilitarian value of "many hands making light work", and became its own source of conviviality. When work was this social, this enjoyable, they no longer sought an escape from it.

They also discovered that Old Order communities have not eschewed technology per se, but technology that replaces the energy of human labour with the energy of electricity or fuel. Their simple life was aided by myriad clever innovations that multiplied the power of human labour without rendering it obsolete.

The evidence was everywhere and inescapable: the cultivators, the buggies, the canning equipment, the countless other basic utensils and impements. Evidently technology itself was not taboo, only technologies that interfered with this plain sect's aims.

Brende writes that well-designed, skilfully used tools "add to the sense of physical effort a much finer satisfaction: the magisterial feeling that comes with wielding means precisely fitted to ends.

Here, perhaps, is the first of all lessons in the use of power, whether technological or physiological: trimming back the means until only the essential remain; weeding out obstructions, man-made or not, to our goals.

Human Powered Machines

Better Off left me absolutely bristling with questions; and that's just about the highest compliment I can think to give to a book. For example:

Not all the change has to be big and conspicuous. On a tip from a neighbour, I bought an antique cast-iron coffee grinder. It's quiet, easy to use (my four-year-old grinds my coffee in the morning), fast, and makes wonderful coffee.

It's only a small thing, and it won't tip the scales one way or the other, but it's a regular reminder to me that laboursaving devices take away the good as well as the bad of labour.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By adrian (registered) | Posted December 14, 2006 at 08:04:33

Sounds like a fascinating book. Although I'm not ready to drop all non-human powered technology just yet (how do the 'Minimites' heat their houses and light them at night?) your question "What other technologies that currently consume non-renewable energy and produce pollution and greenhouse gases could benefit from an innovative, human-powered redesign?" is thought-provoking.

A lot of powered kitchen tools can be replaced with simple, human-powered ones, and no innovation is required. There is almost nothing a food processor can do that can't be achieved using a good chef's knife: chopping, slicing, dicing, mincing. Only the puree eludes the knife, and that can be achieved with other means as well.

Not only does the knife replace this powered tool, it is also far easier to clean and thus uses minimal amounts of water (and takes less time, too).

The powered mixer can be replaced with the masher or the whisk, depending on whether you're making mashed potatoes or whipped cream. Spices that come pre-ground (like pepper) can be purchased whole and ground using a mortar and pestle, which also improves the flavour significantly.

By far the most ridiculous offender when it comes to unnecessarily powered kitchen tools is the electric knife. Like the electric toothbrush, the very existence of the electric knife is an utter mystery to me. There is nothing quite as tacky as sitting at a beautiful Thanksgiving or Christmas spread while someone hacks away at the turkey with one of these mini hedge clippers.

In the same vein of ludicrous inventions, consider the treadmill. This device uses large amounts of power simply to simulate the act of walking. One does not need to be innovative to imagine an alternative that would be better for the planet.

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By adam (anonymous) | Posted December 15, 2006 at 11:24:41

I think a lot of people have had similar thoughts to the ones that caused Brende to write this book. The idea of pulling back the reigns on technology has appeared in many movie and book themes. Fight Club comes to mind, although it is a very male take on the subject. I think in many ways technology has lessened the quality of life for many people, but I think it is in a very abstract way.

The affect technology has on many people tends to be a loss of self worth. More than ever people question themselves and their role in the world of man. I question my own role every day, since I work in a very "Office Work" environment. It seems to me that the hole left from self worth has been increasingly filled with owning technology. People buy things to make them feel better and the amount of stuff they have helps them determine theur worth.

I am not a Marxist, but there is a subtle truth to a lot of what Marx believed. However, I believe we live in a very dynamic period in the history of the human race, we have only been using non-human or animal powered machines for 200 hundred years or so and only in large quatities for 100years. Truely we are only beginning to learn how we can best utilize our technology to do what it was originally intended for: Make things easier so we have more time to be happy.

Personally I enjoy technology and I beleive I am able to derive my self worth from family and friends, so I will ever support the pursuit of greater technology and increasing its use in society.

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By David (anonymous) | Posted December 25, 2006 at 15:16:22

The wheel was (is?) technology, and certainly better than dragging your stuff. But it is agreeable that much of the technology today are inventions which tear at the social fabric - perhaps a sidebar to this story. Someone walking with an iPod stuck in their ear means they aren't socializing - they are off in their own world. Computers and web shopping have done the same thing. But technology also tends to mean "stuff" - more stuff to buy and more stuff to own. Perhaps it is just me, but I get a strange biological warm-and-fuzzy feedback as I turn away from the dumpster where something previously coveted has been tossed-out - things tend to own you, not the other way around. I believe that bio-feedback is the body rejoicing at the act of being free of stuff. The question really gets back to what is important in life. The technologies necessary for life were invented long ago - farming, etc. I don't believe today's technologies make life better - just different - and accumulating more things and debts to go with them can't be good.

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