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    Better Off

    November 3, 2009 by Brandy Vencel

    Better Off:
    Flipping the Switch on Technology

    Well, I finally completed this book! This is one of many books that had the unfortunate experience of being put on the back burner when Si became ill back in May. Before that time, we had read it off and on together, and then put it down to read a short but delightful book, Reforming Marriage.

    When I was ready to read it again, Si had already moved on to greener pastures. However, I am trying to discipline myself to finish most of the books I start, especially the ones that are worth finishing. I would hate to think that reading a dozen books at a time really means that I never actually read a book. So, when I received Umberto Eco’s Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, I gave myself the challenge of finishing at least two books before beginning this new one.

    And the first book I finished is Better Off, which was definitely worth completing! In fact, I was tempted to read it all over in light of the leisure conversation because that is one of author Eric Brende’s themes, but I didn’t notice it before, not being attuned to the subject.

    Short Summary

    Brende’s book is a summary of his time spent living among an Amish-like subgroup he has dubbed the Minimites {to protect their identity}. He discusses his trials {like learning to live without air conditioning} and his triumphs {like actually turning a profit on a tiny farm}. He gives insight into the way groups like the Amish work. He explains how eschewing certain technologies can not only be helpful, but even profitable. He explains how smaller is better.

    I was already convinced that groups like the Amish really work…because they do, and we all know it. I didn’t completely understand how or why, and this book answered some of those questions in detail. One thing that was reaffirmed to me is the idea that debt prevents us from being able to live such a life. The Amish take a hard line against debt. Usury in any form is not allowed. They do, according to the need, lend money to each other, but they do it freely, meaning that no interest is ever charged.

    Brende and his wife Mary and their son Hans {who was born during their time with the Minimites} end up moving on. Part of this is due to the fact that they are Catholic, unable to truly worship alongside the Anabaptist Minimites. The tipping point, interestingly enough, was that his wife Mary ended up being allergic to horses, unable to ride alongside him in their carriage.

    The Brendes do, however, take their “principles” with them. In fact, in their new community, he is accused of “not having a job” because he doesn’t work within the Industrial economy. However, they make it just fine. In fact, he states that he doesn’t make much money because they do not have much use for it. This, of course, is possible because one of the principles they brought with them was a commitment to living debt-free.

    A Smattering of Quotes

    At the end of the book, Brende gets a little more outspoken about his opinions, which is delightful. One of my favorite parts was when Brende visits Elizabethtown College near Lancaster, Pennsylvania to hear some lectures on the Amish by academics who turn out to be feminists with no appreciation for the merits of hierarchical cultures. Brende, an MIT graduate, expected to find the day relaxing, but instead:

    I sat in disbelief as two scholars, back to back, cleverly applied feminist interpretative canons to the Old Order, liberally sprinkling such terms as “gender” {a socially constructed “sex”}, “patriarch,” and “male order.” The case was plausible on the surface: Amish men enjoyed nominal leadership roles while women may not even speak at church councils {although they may withdraw assent by not participating in communion}; furthermore, there is a strict delineation of “male” and “female” tasks on the farmstead; finally, men are considered the heads of the households. The Amish appeared a lingering bastion of codified male domination. Thus in the feminist scholars’ eyes, it was no surprise that from time to time Amish women, to varyingly covert degrees, had resisted.

    But I was fit to be tied. Neither of these scholars had actually lived with an Old Order people. I raised my hand. “You have actually made an excellent case to advance your points”–I was actually granting more than I should have here–“but have you given any attention to the opposite thesis?” {Eyebrows arch in consternation.} “Namely, that never was there a society in which female, or womanly, values so dominated? Nurturing the land and the crops, deferring to the wishes of others, not having to get one’s own way? And because they live on farms, women make an important economic contribution to the home, well recognized by the community. I have spent a year living with the ‘Amish,’ and when men work in women’s departments, women tell men what to do–“

    Brende also had some words worth pondering. For instance, his time with the Minimites was research he was doing for MIT. Therefore, he spent massive amounts of time journaling his experiences. Near the end, he learned

    there was a way that reporting on the events–if I weren’t careful–might intrude upon those very events. Heisenberg’s assertion–that measurement can change the nature of the measured–was still in force.

    We apply this concept to education, right? We say that standardized tests are evil from the devil immoral questionable precisely because of their effect on what is taught. But I have also considered this in other areas, and become increasingly careful about the use of, for instance, my camera with the children. I have often felt that as much as I wanted to “capture” precious times, the act of capturing them somehow tainted the moment, as if I wiped off a bit of the magic with the click of my camera.

    Brende turns the modern conception of old-fashioned farm life–and how much work must be done, on its head. I don’t know about you, but I always considered farm work to be much more time-consuming than modern office-type work. Brende, however, says not so! He describes, for instance, a day of threshing, in which only four hours of actual work is done. Because of the use of horses and other low-tech or non-tech machinery, there is lull after enjoyable lull where the men engage in actual community together. He speaks of these lulls:

    The work was heavy and the day long, yes. But there was something pleasantly haphazard about the scheduling; there were lulls. Lulls waiting between wagonloads. Lulls caused by lack of coordination of the persons overseeing, if anyone was overseeing. Lulls for eating and drinking. Lulls here, lulls there. If I hadn’t been alert to the question, these gaps could easily have been overloooked. The lulls did not constitute mere empty time; conversation, for instance, often continued unabated when the work stopped. Lulls were part of the natural flow of human activity and rhythm. They were a testimony to genuine human leisure.

    Brende speaks of Minimites as being not so much anti-technology as having technology in its proper place. He claims that, for folks like us, technology is less of a tool and more of a master:

    [T]here was surely an objective side of the human experience with technology {or its lack}, and technologists would gladly tell us so. One of the most exacting of them was the early twentieth-century efficiency expert Frederick Taylor, father of “scientific management.” Wielding a stopwatch, he would measure the time it took a worker to perform a given task, such as shoveling dirt. Then he would analyze the task, breaking it down into segments, eliminating any unnecessary motions and replacing them with more efficient ones. The task was now standardized. Using Taylor’s findings, a manager could instruct an employee how to shovel dirt in one perfect, unvarying patter, as if he were a robot, and reprimand him if he deviated to the slightest degree. Taylorism thence became one of the most slavish forms of technological servility…

    It was…my feeling that the norms of efficiency should take their cue from human beings, not from machines or abstract models conceived by narrow-thinking engineers. In fact, it seemed to me that the inversion of the relationship between human and machine was bad party because it was inefficient–it subjected people to outlandish inconveniences and indignities as they struggled to meet the needs of pieces of equipment.

    Book: Suggested

    I would not say that everyone needs to read this book. However, if you have read other books, such as Postman’s Technopoly, it is worth it to explore the possibility of living outside the technopoly which everywhere reigns.

    Incidentally, Brende has also found home-educating to be central to keeping technology in its place. Here, I do agree.

    Possibly Related Posts:
    Better Off: Review Introduction
    Better Off: Education, Literacy, and the Speed of Life
    Better Off: Idolatry

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  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts November 4, 2009 at 6:33 am

    Dawn! Yes! I understand completely concerning the effect on memory.

    You reminded me of something in Technopoly, so I looked it up. In the first chapter, Postman relays Plato’s story about King Thamus in his work Phaedrus. Thamus actually questioned the invention of writing for the same reason! Thamus said:

    Those who acquire [the ability to write] will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources.

    Postman cited this not as a reason to eschew writing, but as an example that technology is usually inspired by one desire, but has unforseen and unpredictable consequences. Postman held up King Thamus as a wise king who understood that technology was dynamic and culture-forming, not to be taken lightly.

    I connect with this because, as I have moved away from the camera, I often journal some of these “memories.” Interestingly enough, both Postman and Brende were saying the same about writing as you said about photographing!

  • Reply dawn November 4, 2009 at 3:30 am

    That does sound like an interesting book.

    You say, “I have often felt that as much as I wanted to “capture” precious times, the act of capturing them somehow tainted the moment, as if I wiped off a bit of the magic with the click of my camera.”

    I’ve been thinking recently about this (a very little). I often snap pictures to remember, but is relying on photographs actually hindering my memory? I’m not exercising my mind in remembering the moments myself, I have to go through photo albums/computer files/etc. to remember events. I wonder if that’s part of it.

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