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Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology

Two early problems with this book: the author admits early on that he changed some of the identifying details and all the character names in this book to protect the anonymity of the people involved, and, it was written in 1992 even though it was published just recently. As a result, this tale of an academic intellectual going “back to the land” to see what life is like without the intrusion of technology reads a little like a fairy tale [who are these people? how much did he change?] and a little quaint [1992 was before most of us had a constant mainline in to the Internet, how would this be different now?]

Like many people who are or were drawn into the back to the land movement, Brende has trouble with the frenetic pace of the American society that he lives in. He enters a graduate program at MIT and discovers, surprise!, that his professors don’t share his skepticism about the wonders of technology. The reader may wonder if brende would have gotten a more favorable reception at some institution of higher learning that didn’t have the word Technology in its title.

In any case, a chance meeting with an Amishlike man at a bus stop leads into an 18 month sojourn at the man’s community. Brende takes care to say this this man and his community are NOT Amish or Mennonite, but seem to be a gathering of folks that live in line with similar low- or no-technology teachings and a very strong church. Brende quickly marries his girlfriend and away they go to live without technology....

Many of the realizations that the author has throughout this book are not really that astonishing if you have spent any time at all living in a rural area. Work isn’t as hard if you have a lot of people doing it as a community. Life has a slower pace without technology. Cars interfere withe the way we interact with the natural world. When you don’t use electric lighting you are more keenly aware of the changing of the seasons. Along the way Brende and his wife make friends in the community, have a child and buy a house intending to stay when all of the sudden the discover that his wife is allergic to horses and so they need to leave which they quickly do. In the course of writing up his observations, Brende also tries to start some sort of a project at the house they bought with students as a simple living experiment and it seems to not go anywhere. They eventually sell the house and move to a small community in St. Louis where they run a small B&B, and he works as a soapmaker and a rickshaw driver to support their growing family. They now live a partial back to the land lifestyle and the author’s blurb is clear to state that the author only has an email account at the behest of his publisher.

This book is a fun read but it irked me. I think I have some sort of trouble with the back to the land movement’s converts' seeming superiority over people who live a life full of technological interactions and car driving. Maybe I’m just sensitive because that’s the way I live and I still feel that I have an appreciation for nature and a healthy distrust for labor saving tools. This book seems to be written for people who live lives sadly entangled with technology and who see now way out. Brende is a role model and explains the choices he makes in a “this isn’t crazy” way which I think is helpful. He’s also an anti-tech zealot and can’t help tossing in the occasional barb or righteous poke at people who use telephones, watch TV, drive cars [even though they have one they use on occasion] or use email. It’s the best of both worlds because he’s smart enough to be able to justify his usage of these technologies [how was the book printed?] while at the same time ranting against them. The people in the community he visited are still there, and still making do without, not just dipping their toes in in the subculture tourism way that Brende seems to.