Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology by Eric Brende

This book came at a perfect time for me. You see, I’ve been a little obsessed lately with the idea of living on a self-sustainable farm. I like city life, but I miss wide open spaces. I want to be able to garden and raise animals and be as reliant on myself and the food I can grow. This is something that I’d like to do sometime in the future, but right now, I’m content to read about other people making the plunge, like Eric Brende and his wife.

Eric Brende is a highly educated man (he has degrees from three universities, including MIT) who, one day, realized that he was relying too much on technology and it was actually hindering his life instead of helping it. To complete his graduate work, he decided to join a Mennonite-like community in an undisclosed location for 18 months to see what it was like and if people who lived without technology really are better off. He married his girlfriend and rented a small cottage in a closed-off, modern technology-free town.

Let’s get this out of the way: Eric Brende is opinionated and he can come across as bit of an ass. Though he brings it up once or twice, he rarely addresses how the community felt about him being an outsider studying their actions. He invaded their life to learn about self-sustainability, but also to finish his graduate work. He began the project with the intention of writing a book and it seemed a little disingenuous. I wonder how many of the people he lived with really knew what he was doing? Do they know he’s written a book about them and their lives? Does it matter? He’s self-righteous and not shy about blaming all our modern troubles on television, the internet and cars in that order.

Here’s the thing: I don’t think those opinions are necessarily radical or offensive. They’re not, but he presents them in such a way that they are indisputable. TV is always damaging. Nothing good can come of the internet. Your car will kill you, or at the very least, make you die faster. He never acknowledges the good that can come out of having a television, the internet, and cars. Good television shows are as engrossing, stimulating, and interesting as a well-written novel. The internet is a wealthy source of community and education. While I understand that stress from driving can make your blood pressure rise (trust me, I’ve commuted in two of the worst cities for commuting… I get it), it’s also good to have a car around sometimes.

Ignoring his opinions about everything from religion to technology to relationships to gender roles, I thoroughly enjoyed Better Off. I was intrigued by the “Minimite” culture and I was interested in learning about their relationship with technology and outsiders. Their community is strict about a lot of things, but it was kind of hard to figure out some of their reasoning. They disapproved of bicycles, but I never really understood why. My favorite parts of this book were actually the parts when Brende described how he and his wife survived without technology. The physiological changes were fascinating, including adjustments to extreme temperatures in the summer and the natural circadian rhythm that occurs when you don’t rely on electrical lights. I loved his descriptions of simple household tasks, like canning and farming and barn raising. The community that develops when you rely on each other was also fascinating to witness, though I’m not entirely sure how closely Brende really got to the members of the community or how accurate his descriptions really were.

Better Off is lucky. I’m fascinated by this topic right now, so I’m being rather lenient; I’m not sure I would have liked this book much at all if I hadn’t been so intrigued by its subject matter. Apart from Brende’s absolute stance on technology, the storytelling and writing is clunky and confusing throughout most of this book. When Brende is on, he’s on, but his narrative felt strung together and disconnected. It was chronological, but other than that not very coherently organized. It was difficult to keep the people straight and I was sometimes confused by the narrative. I often felt like I had missed something, but I would go back and reread and find I had read everything there. One thing that bothered me the most was the way he discussed his wife. I’m sure they have a very loving relationship, but it would feel like he would forget he had a wife for dozens of pages and then his editor would remind him to talk about her a little bit. She was definitely secondary in this story and I would have liked to see a little bit more of her perspective throughout.

I wonder how much of what they learned during those 18 months applies to their lives now. They talk about their current lives a little bit, but not much. They don’t have a television. They do have a car, they just don’t drive it very often. They do have electricity. They make their own soap. Brende drives a rickshaw. Over all, I think Better Off succeeds in taking the whole quest/goal memoir to a new level. It’s very difficult to join Mennonite/Amish/Anabaptist communities with any kind of success and Brende did it, more or less respectfully. Whether or not I agreed with him on all of his opinions, he certainly practiced what he preached for those 18 months and it made for an interesting, if not a terribly well-written, memoir.