Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology:
A Book Review
One of the books that started me on my journey of gradual minimalism is Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology, by Eric Brende. If you know anything about this book, that might sound a little funny.
The author of Better Off didn’t change his life gradually. Instead, he and his wife, Mary, moved to a Mennonite-type community and gave up most modern technology for a year and a half.
“Machines…crowded out other important human pursuits…even the process of thinking….”
Better Off details Eric and Mary’s adventures in living off the grid with what Eric calls the “Minimites,” a group “joined by one converging aim: to reclaim their lives from machines.”
During the time Eric and Mary lived with the Minimites, they kept their car, but lived without electricity and running water.
They used buckets of cold water pumped from the cistern as a “refrigerator,” had their own chickens and milk cow, and grew food, both for their own use and to sell.
Mary operated her sewing machine with a foot treadle, and Eric learned to drive a horse-drawn cultipacker. They used a kerosene-powered stove and a hand-cranked washing machine.
“Physical work…provided a special social elixir.”
While some of the descriptions of life without modern technology are fascinating, my favorite parts of Better Off talk about how living with less technology impacts relationships.
The thing I had remembered most from my first reading of the book was the quiet evenings the author spent with his wife. I was drawn to the idea of sitting together, without TV or music, enjoying each other’s company, talking and reading.
Eric describes listening to crickets, owls and silence in the evenings, “lulled into a contemplative mood by the quiet ebb and flow of sound.”
Because of reading Better Off a few years ago, I decided to try to make time every evening for quiet time with my husband. Most nights, we manage to spend at least half an hour alone. When the weather’s nice, we talk on the porch swing, watching the hummingbirds at the feeder.
When I reread the book this month, I focused more on how the Minimite community combines work, leisure and friendship.
“You’d forget you were working and get caught up in the camaraderie, the sense of lightened effort….Work folded into fun and disappeared.”
We’ve all seen or read about how the Amish and Mennonites come together to work, such as in barn raisings. Most of us have probably had a similar experience on a smaller scale, perhaps helping friends move or going berry picking with family.
When we do, we feel good about the sense of community, the accomplishment, even the sore muscles. All blend into one joyful experience.
Why we don’t we do this more often? It’s so easy to make chores easier and more fun by doing them with others.
Living in St. Louis
It’s a bit confusing to find at the end of the book that Eric and Mary chose to have electricity and a cell phone in their new lives and to live in St. Louis, since in Better Off, Eric says things like:
- “And in the short time I’d been here, I was beginning to see evidence that a world without modern technology need not be any harder. It might well be easier. And more fun.”
- “My quest to discover how little technology was actually needed for actual human comfort and leisure was now over, and I believe I had an answer: no more than the Minimites used.”
Although Eric tries to bring it all together in the epilogue, and he believes his family has carefully chosen their technologies, a more thorough explanation would have helped.
I would have liked Better Off to spend more time on Mary’s views and experiences. I didn’t feel that I got to know how she really felt and what the Minimite lifestyle was like for her.
I also wish the book would have included more details about Minimite women.
“By speeding through life with technology, you reduce what any given moment can hold. By slowing down, you expand it.”
Overall, Better Off is an enjoyable read that has inspired me to live with a quieter, more peaceful life, with more participation in the community.
We have plenty of modern conveniences at my house. Not only do we have electricity and running water, but we have TV, computers and MP3 players. Although I enjoy having them, I’ve learned not to let technology take over my life.
To me, it’s fine to watch a little TV or waste a few minutes surfing the web for silly cat photos. But each day, my husband and I set aside time just to talk.
We eat meals as a family and require our teenager to interact with people and animals instead of spending all his leisure time on video games. We often spend time in nature on the weekends, hiking, canoeing or snowshoeing.
“The music of the crickets was one thing, but the silence was everything, all-enveloping. It was almost disorienting. In the twilight, you had the feeling the room was slowly spinning. When the vertigo passed, the silence fostered a calm deeper than any sound.”
If you can, this evening spend some time outside or with your windows open, enjoying the sounds – and silences – of nature.
What do you do to keep technology from taking over? Please share in the comments or contact me.