tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Who's Better Off?

I read an interesting book recently called “Better Off” by Eric Brende, an MIT graduate who spends 18 months living in an Amish-like community. In the book, published in 2004, he chronicles his experience living without electricity, motors or telephones. He writes about growing pumpkins and sorghum without a tractor or chemical fertilizers, about the birth of their first child at home with the aid of a midwife, and about constructing buildings without power tools.

One of the things he learns from this experience is the way technology separates people. In his 19th century village, he found community with dozens of other people living the same way. Without electricity, motors and power tools, people are really dependent upon each other; they have to work together to survive. That kind of mutual dependence builds human relationships you don’t find in the modern world where electricity and 21st century conveniences make everyone self sufficient.

Brende first got the idea to try this experiment after realizing that many people work in order to afford a car, which they need chiefly to get to work. Brende is looking to escape this kind of self-perpetuating busyness. Even in his community of Minimites, as he calls them, he questions the use of horses, which require people to plant more crops in order to feed the horses. If they didn’t have to grow food for horses, they wouldn’t have as much work and they wouldn’t need horses in the first place.

The book spurred me to look at my own life and consider how I am spending my time. If you think about what Brende writes, you end up questioning whether one form of work is a better use of time than another form of work. This is an interesting question and I have no answers. I do think Brende is on to something, however, with his observation that some forms of work join people with others in communities, while other kinds of work separate people into isolation. Personally, I like community.

At the end of the book, Brende talks about how his life settles after the 18-month experiment. He lives in a neighborhood in St. Louis where he can walk just about everywhere, or use public transportation to get downtown. His wife homeschools their four children; they don’t have a television set, nor a computer.

As I was reading his experiences in the farming community, I thought I could never live like that. But where this experience took him was a life not much different from my own. I prefer hand tools to power tools, we don’t watch much television in my home, and I am blessed to live in a neighborhood where we can walk to many destinations. Public transportation in my neighborhood is good.

Although Brende’s memoir is categorized under “science and technology” I think the book is really about human relationships. Brende’s experiment is a search for the good life; he found an ability to connect with neighbors to be essential to that life. That has been my experience as well. Ultimately, I don’t think Brende has anything against technology, per say, but he proposes that it is always a good idea to consider the broader implication of implementing technology – whether that be a iPhone, diesel engine, or television set. I think that’s a decent proposition.

(Thanks to my good colleague Jackie for lending me the book.)

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