Eric Brende had a problem with technology. He thought a lot of modern technology was a bad thing, that it created more problems than it solved for humanity. This was ironic, since Eric was a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of You-Know-What. So Eric and his hastily-married wife Mary decided to move to an Amish-style community (Brende is very careful to protect the specific identity and location of the group he lived with) to live without electricity, running water, or most other modern conveniences for eighteen months and see how they liked that.Mostly, they liked it. They learned the joys and hardships of manual labour and the pleasures and difficulties of living in a community where everyone had to be dependent on their neighbours. After leaving that community, Eric and Mary remained committed to reducing technology’s impact on their lives as much as possible. Today they live in St. Louis, where they homeschool their kids, Eric drives a bicycle rickshaw for tourists and makes soap, and they generally try to live the “simple life.”
This memoir — reasonably well-written, though annoying in a few places where Brende tries to be cryptic or lofty or something — interested me as it dovetailed with some of my reading and thinking on simplicity, as triggered by some of the other books I’ve read during Lent. I want to live a simpler life, and I think North Americans will have to learn to live simpler lives if the whole human race is going to survive together into the twenty-first century. But I love technology, and I hate manual labour. I agree in theory with everything Brende says about how manual labour is good for the body and the spirit — but there is literally not one single kind of manual labour I enjoy or have any skill at. Well, maybe baking, but how far can you get on that? I can’t garden, can’t sew, hate to houseclean, won’t shovel snow, don’t even drive a nail if I have a husband around to do it. I am about as well-suited to Eric and Mary Brende’s lifestyle as I am to an unaided walk on Mars. Worst of all, I don’t even want to like these things, or learn to do them. I was made for the twenty-first century.
I can, if I think about it, think of all kinds of ways in which our family limits its use of technology for what we have decided is our own good. (No cable TV, no Playstation or other video-game systems, etc). But we are still pretty dependent upon our electronic gadgets (she says, typing a book review into her blog).
Further more, I am a typical twenty-first century North American in my independence — I do not like to rely on others; I am not (as I pointed out in another review) suited to living in community. Eric Brende stresses the importance of community in simpler living — when you do without technology, you have to rely more on others. Simpler living brings people together. And while I recognize that this is good in theory, I really don’t want to do it in practice.
Like Dorothy Day in The Long Loneliness, Brende is honest about the difficulties of community — the group he lived with is not portrayed as living an idyllic peaceful life; there are politics and dissent among these “simple” folk. In the end the Brendes choose not to stay with this group, but they do, as I said, maintain their commitment to simple living. Brende doesn’t recommend that everyone pull the plug on technology, only that we think long and hard about how much technology we need and how it affects us. The book leaves me with long, hard thoughts about how little technology I would be willing to get by with.