Friday, August 03, 2012

Friday Reading Assignment: Better Off

When my mother gave me Plain Girl by Virginia Sorensen--my first exposure to the Amish--I was enchanted to learn that people in the modern world continued to emulate the lifestyle of people from the past.  I love my washing machine and my computer, but the simpler life has its attractions.

In Better Off by Eric Brende, he and his wife, Mary move to a community in which the residents reject modern technology for religious reasons.  We're told that the residents are not really Amish, but it sounds like they would at least appear to be Amish to those of us who don't know any better.

Immediately, Brende learns that the ways of this community are not about endless drudgery.  They have their own clever ways to achieve efficiency and to make hard work easier--a water power pump, for example, to bring running water into the house.  In other words, this isn't the story of two city folk (Brende was a grad student at MIT before undertaking this adventure) who fail in the face of hard work.  Instead, they find that they have more leisure time--because work, leisure, and social activities are all intertwined, rather than separated into compartments as they are in our world.

Brende is not condemning technology.  He's making the point that we should control the machines, rather than machines controlling us.  If you think about it, labor saving devices do suck up much of our time.  Take the car:  How much time do you spend searching for a parking space?  Sitting in traffic?  Waiting in line at the gas pump?  Taking care of the little maintenance tasks: inspections, oil changes, tire rotations? Meanwhile, the very fact that we have cars means that people live far from where they work and spend, in some cases, two to three hours a day commuting.  If I were to drive my car to work, I'd have to purchase a parking pass, drive past my office to the employee lot, then wait for a shuttle bus to take me from the parking lot to work.  It's actually faster to walk the whole way. 

Why should we let our gadgets control us?  We recently decided to homeschool our daughter (at her request) and one big reason that I acquiesced to her request is the policy at Charlottesville High School that embraces new technology (tabletgate) and refuses to acknowledge that there can be any downside to giving our kids constant electronic distraction in the classroom.

The Brende's reduced use of technology led to reduced cost of living and less need for a high-pressure job.  They didn't settle permanently in the no-machines community, but they do maintain a low-tech life, and report great satisfaction in their lifestyle.


  1. I don't carry a cell phone. I have one, with a pay-as-you-go plan for the few times I find myself needing to make a phone call, mostly when I'm on a roadtrip. I don't know what the number actually is and I just learned how to answer it without my 10 year old helping me.

    Technology and keeping in touch is great, but do we really have to do ALL THE TIME?

    Our last mini-vacation was totally spoiled by the fact that my husband ended up working via his iphone thanks to an emergency after the derecho. His boss actually pointed out that our next mini-vacation in a few weeks should be a proper vacation. I'm totally hiding his phone for the week.

  2. How will you homeschool? Don't you and your husband both work full time? I'm just curious.

  3. SC, this was kind of a last minute decision. We're still going through the admissions process with the community college, but it looks like my daughter will take pre-calculus, physics, and German at the community college, which has a pretty big population of homeschooled students. I'll teach her English and History at home, using the guidance of The Well-Trained Mind. I think she's going to study psychology as an elective. She'll have to work independently and I'll check her work in the evening.

  4. Simplify, simplify. Laoch is correct.

    I'm fighting a losing battle to keep the devil's iPads out of our school. Computers have a place, but they can overwhelm real learning...AND I'm actually the Head of Computing in our school.