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Would We Be "Better Off" 
Without Technology?

Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology. By Eric Brende. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2004.

By Keith Akers and Kate Lawrence

NOTE: this review gives away several key aspects of the narrative of the nonfiction book "Better Off." While the main point of the book is not the narrative, if you donít want the sequence of events revealed, donít read this review until you read the book.

Better Off has a tantalizing premise. It is the answer to the question, "what would it be like to live without modern technology?" As a student at M. I. T., Eric Brende became a critic of modern technology. In response to a challenge by some of his college professors, he goes off for a year with his wife to an ultra-conservative, Amish-like Christian community which does not utilize electricity or modern machinery. They get rid of anything connected to "the grid" including electric stoves, phones, computers, automatic washing machines, and cars (for which they have "off-grid" equivalents). They grow their own food and trade labor and knowledge with others in the same community, affectionately called the "Minimites" (not their real name).

Better Off is a well-written account of Eric, Mary, and their eighteen months in an off-grid community. It raises a whole host of important issues. I like this book as a description of how it would feel for a modern technologically-oriented person to be immersed in a voluntarily primitive group, and I can recommend it on that basis.  It represents a truly creative approach to the whole question of our relationship to technology.

However, there are a number of problems with the book. Some of these are connected with the way the book was written, others are connected with how Brende elaborates on his ideas.  Our criticisms may seem to imply that we really don't think the book is worth reading, which is emphatically not the case.  It's a thought-provoking book, and we're responding with our own thoughts.  

These problems are: (1) confusion about the lessons to be drawn from the book, (2) no elaboration on the question of birth control, despite its central place in the narrative of the book, (3) relative absence of women from the story, (4) lack of awareness of the "factory farming" issue, and (5) confusion over the impact of one critically important technology, that of cars, on human relationships.

1. Lessons to be Drawn. The lessons which Brende draws for us at the end are completely unclear. What are we, the readers, to conclude from Better Off? Is he suggesting that we join the Minimites or a group like them? Apparently not. At the end of their adventure, they leave the "Minimites" and wind up in a major city operating a rickshaw business, a bed-and-breakfast, making soap, and raising three children. 

Brende now owns a car and a cell phone. He does not own a computer, but advertises on a web site and will use computers from time to time (for example, to check email). He does not own a television but will watch it when visiting friends and neighbors, treating it as a social occasion. He reads newspapers and periodicals and occasionally goes to the movies. He apparently feels no compunction about contributing to the population explosion (more about that in a moment).

Compared to the "pure" life he led with the Minimites, their current life paints a substantially different picture.  With the Minimites he really was cut off from the modern technological world. Now, he is fully integrated into that world, with a few minor adjustments such as rejection of watching TV ó at his own home, at least. It appears that he has rejected the alternative which the book presents (the Minimite community and lifestyle), but doesnít want to admit it. Now in itself thatís not a bad thing ó hey, we did a lot of crazier things when we were young. But what exactly are we supposed to conclude? Technology is good, bad, indifferent, or what? Itís not clear.

2. Birth control. His approach to birth control is puzzling at several levels. This is the major flaw with his presentation of the narrative -- we're left hanging as to what really is going on.  When we first meet Eric and his wife Mary, they are not yet married and share an interest in this Minimite community. He says of his relationship, "Our relationship had heated up well beyond the level of friendship . . . To live in close quarters with a group like this [the 'Minimites'], you had to be properly married. It would be premature to say, however, whether ours was a marriage of convenience."

All right, fair enough. But later,  Mary becomes pregnant -- a major turning point in the book. It emerges at a different point that they were apparently not practicing birth control.  He is Catholic and makes a comment that with breast-feeding, the babies seem to be pleasantly spaced at every two years.

What, precisely, are we to make of this?  Of course "young and foolish" is an obvious explanation. Itís not as if this is the first time in history that a young couple got married and then had children. But it seems that he still accepts a key part of their behavior: the rejection of the technology of birth control.

It sounds like they had no clear commitment to a permanent marriage when they started out and that nevertheless, they did not practice birth control. They then seem to be surprised when Mary becomes pregnant. Iím wondering what, precisely, they had in mind when they got married and what, precisely, they thought was going to happen? It sounds a bit indecent to ask, but by introducing their childbearing practices conspicuously into the book (and by attacking "technology") they have already made it part of their agenda for discussion.  It seems to us that if you're going to live with a different type of society, you'd postpone starting a family so as not to get so distracted by personal issues.

Is their (apparent) opposition to artificial birth control part of their opposition to technology in general? This is a tantalizing issue related to technology which weíd be very interested in knowing more about. But we are left hanging, not even knowing definitely whether they deliberately abstained from birth control. If they did, we do not know whether this practice was part of their anti-technology beliefs, part of their religious Catholic beliefs, or perhaps just something they did initially out of carelessness but which later they adopted as a conscious belief and practice.

And if they are opposed to birth control, what about the population explosion? Do they think that six billion people can practice the lifestyle they are currently engaging in, which evidently includes owning a car, owning a cell phone, eating meat, and continuing to increase the population indiscriminately? I canít believe that intelligent people still believe this sort of thing. I have news: this isn't possible, not even close. While Better Off thus has value as a psychological or social exercise of some sort, it canít be construed as a solution to the environmental crisis.

3. Lack of a female voice. There is a relative absence of women in the story. He seems to go into some detail about his own life "off the grid," but we hear very little about Mary or other women. (The exception, which we are glad he chose to talk about, is Maryís pregnancy and childbirth.) In fact, it is not clear exactly why Eric and Mary leave the Minimites; the whole subject is handled a bit vaguely, but it is evidently due to Maryís decision. So in spite of the fact that a key event in their experience involves Mary, we are left in the dark as to why this happened the way it did. The immediate occasion is Maryís allergy to horses, though he acknowledges that this in itself was not sufficient to cause them to leave.

Given everything else that weíve seen so far ó namely, his description of his relationship to Mary ó one wonders whether the relationships between or with the various women in the book gave rise to this decision. We can imagine Mary telling Eric as he writes his book, "if you put THAT in your book, Iím outta here!" ó and the book thus taking the shape that it does by weighing of various considerations of this nature. Whatever his intentions, the final result is a book which talks predominantly about males and their interaction with each other, and generally disregards women except in the discussion of Maryís pregnancy and childbirth.

4. Factory Farming. To their credit, Eric and Mary ó while they eat meat ó kill their own animals. Meat-eating does not involve technology per se (itís been going on for thousands of years), but factory farming is really different. I would have hoped that at the end, once they left the "Minimites," they would reject the technology of "factory farming," which would mean rejection of about 99% of meat and dairy products sold in the United States. If they did this, they didnít tell us.

5. Cars. I think Brende has missed the point regarding the impact of technology on human interaction. Has he read Kunstlerís The Geography of Nowhere and Home from Nowhere? It is the car which has most dramatically altered, we should say destroyed, traditional neighborhoods. 

They, and we, can of course today minimize the use of the car, but that does not give us back the neighborhood which has been destroyed by the predominant car culture. A few lucky individuals may manage to choose a home which is close to their place of work and stores where they do most of their shopping. The rest of us have no neighborhood in the traditional sense and have to drive to get anywhere.  It was striking, to us, that the first job Brende got after he left the Minimites was as a cab driver. 

So far as we're concerned, even without a car, and especially without a car, we are still miles distant from the nearest natural food store and most of our friends. We have to get into a car to do practically anything ó something which wasnít true a century ago. Our entire lives seem to revolve around the car and its needs. By comparison, the impact of washing machines, computers, and running water on our neighborhoods has been minimal. The one piece of technology most devastating to our social environment is the one piece of technology which, in the end, Eric and Mary have not been able to leave behind.

In short, Better Off is an stimulating book because of its description of radical off-grid living. But in terms of presenting solutions, it doesnít leave us with much ó and at least some of what it appears to offer is, in our opinion, dead wrong. In terms of "getting rid of technology," weíd like to see thoughtful people focus on getting rid of the two most destructive aspects of twentieth century technology: our car culture and factory-farmed meat. We can keep the birth control and automatic washing machines, thank you very much.