Better Off?

Sep 22 2012

Yesterday, I finished reading Better Off by Eric Brende. It left me breathless and thoughtful, pacing the length of my hotel room.

It’s a book about living without electricity, and the destructive cycles of modern technological dependence. These books worry me in many ways. Usually, I just dislike their mindless tone, as though anything the author can’t personally comprehend is automatically suspect.

Fortunately, Brende is honest about his prejudices and thoughtful about technology. He chronicles the eighteen months he spent in a mostly Amish community, sprinkled with philosophical asides about machinery and the nature of work. He appreciates work without desiring it. Work’s not an end in itself, but it has value beyond its result.

One of Brende’s central beliefs: the more complex the machine, the more likely its full costs outweigh its value. Big tractors enable farmers to plant more acres, but their surplus is quickly consumed by the tractor’s initial and ongoing costs for fuel, repair, and insurance. Owning a computer requires the time to learn and update software besides the financial cost.

I know plenty of reasons to dismiss such arguments. I’ve also spent enough hours struggling with software to regret that lost time.

I’ve also been thinking about the life I want to lead, and the hours I want to spend. If I have a spare hour or two, do I really want to spend it scanning Google+ or watching something on NetFlix? Or would I rather be sipping a glass of sherry and reading a good book? Or ambling around town taking photos?

There are so many awesome low-tech activities I could be enjoying. Why not spend most of my time on those?

One response so far

  1. I think this is a false choice. 

    Do you want to spend time scanning G+? Depends. Are you getting something useful, interesting, or entertaining out of it? 

    You could just go wander around in “real space” aimlessly too and that would be about as productive as wandering around on the internet without purpose. 

    I know there’s a tendency to dismiss online/computer activities as a waste of time and honestly I hate that conception. I get 100% of my news online. I find things that I previously would have had to go to a library for online. I discover things that I likely NEVER would have discovered otherwise by browsing sites like MetaFilter and Reddit. 

    So, yeah, sipping cherry and photographing sounds nice. But they are not objectively better than activities that involve a keyboard and mouse.

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