In our technology-obsessed culture, too much is almost enough. How much do we really need?
By Ryan McGreal
Published December 13, 2006
In his excellent and insightful book The End of Education (Vintage, 1996), Neil Postman posited what he called "the god of Technology":
in the sense that people believe technology works, that they rely on it, that it makes promises, that they are bereft when denied access to it, that they are delighted when they are in its presence, that for most people it works in mysterious ways, that they condemn people who speak against it, that they stand in awe of it, and that, in the born-again mode, they will alter their lifestyles, their schedules, their habits, and their relationships to accommodate it. If this be not a form of religious belief, what is?
A few years ago, an unlikely heretic decided to confront technology with a simple but radical question: "how much - or little - technology was needed"?
Eric Brende was a master's student at MIT - a veritable Holy Land of techno-evangelism - when a critique of technology he wrote for a course provoked an emotional response from his professor: "do you really want to eliminate laboursaving devices?"
That got him thinking. "Was there some baseline of minimal machinery needed for human convenience, comfort, and sociability - a line below which physical effort was to demanding and above which machines begin to create their own demands?"
He realized that the answer to this question lay not in the sleek, modernist halls of his college but in a real-life test. Better Off (HarperCollins, 2004) is the chronicle of that test.
Brende managed to contact a member of an Old Order community similar to the Amish (to protect their privacy he refers to them as "Minimites"), and he and his wife agreed to an experiment in simple living off the grid. They packed up their possessions, rented a farmhouse, and stepped into a different world.
What might have been a judgmental, jargon-laden screed turned out to be a gentle and charming reflection on the role technology plays in our lives.
For eighteen months, Brende and his wife learned how to tend garden, wash clothes, preserve foods, and get around with only their hands, their ingenuity, and those machines that did not depend on an external source of power.
They were helped along the way by their taciturn but kindly neighbours, who always managed to arrive at just the right time with a handy tool or a murmured suggestion.
As the Brendes slowly joined the community, they discovered that shared work went far beyond the strictly utilitarian value of "many hands making light work", and became its own source of conviviality. When work was this social, this enjoyable, they no longer sought an escape from it.
They also discovered that Old Order communities have not eschewed technology per se, but technology that replaces the energy of human labour with the energy of electricity or fuel. Their simple life was aided by myriad clever innovations that multiplied the power of human labour without rendering it obsolete.
The evidence was everywhere and inescapable: the cultivators, the buggies, the canning equipment, the countless other basic utensils and impements. Evidently technology itself was not taboo, only technologies that interfered with this plain sect's aims.
Brende writes that well-designed, skilfully used tools "add to the sense of physical effort a much finer satisfaction: the magisterial feeling that comes with wielding means precisely fitted to ends.
Here, perhaps, is the first of all lessons in the use of power, whether technological or physiological: trimming back the means until only the essential remain; weeding out obstructions, man-made or not, to our goals.
Better Off left me absolutely bristling with questions; and that's just about the highest compliment I can think to give to a book. For example:
What if our culture shifted the focus of research and development away from technologies that replace human effort and toward technologies that magnify human effort? I'm thinking here of the bicycle, a simple mechanism invented over a century ago that runs on human power and is the most energy-efficient vehicle on earth.
What other technologies that currently consume non-renewable energy and produce pollution and greenhouse gases could benefit from an innovative, human-powered redesign?
Do laboursaving devices actually save time? Of course, it depends on what "time" is being calculated. If an automatic dishwasher saves ten minutes, does that time go into recreation, socializing, and interacting, or does it go into a longer commute?
What would, say, a suburban home that adopted this principle look like? Bicycles for transport, push mowers and shears for landscaping (no more riding lawnmowers), no TV...
Not all the change has to be big and conspicuous. On a tip from a neighbour, I bought an antique cast-iron coffee grinder. It's quiet, easy to use (my four-year-old grinds my coffee in the morning), fast, and makes wonderful coffee.
It's only a small thing, and it won't tip the scales one way or the other, but it's a regular reminder to me that laboursaving devices take away the good as well as the bad of labour.
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