Book Reviews by Heidi Boudro

Better Off

Reviewed by Heidi Boudro

Eric Brende, a recent graduate of an interdisciplinary program ("Science, Technology, and Society") at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, moves to an Amish-like farming community and records his experiences in Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology.

To hide the location of the community and protect the identities of its members, Brende calls this group "Minimites." The "Minimites," composed of people from various Amish and Mennonite groups, along with a few outsiders, prohibit all motors as well as electricity and telephones. Stricter than the Amish or Mennonites, their lifestyle may be the nearest possible to that of the nineteenth century.

Brende and his young wife, Mary, who shares Brende's philosophical and practical reservations about technology, farm for eighteen months among the "Minimites" and have a first baby while living there. They have no electricity and only an outdoor pump for water. Yet they come close to deciding to stay in the community permanently.

Skill and clever equipment design replace electricity and motors. Also, as the Amish frequently say, "Many hands make work light." Brende writes about the unexpected enjoyment of repetitive work in groups; he calls the phenomenon the "self-automation of manual labor," in which socializing and conversation replace all awareness of repetitive work.

He also finds an unexpected amount of relaxation and leisure. "In true leisure there is mastery," he writes. "If the enemy of self-direction was passion and impulse, its ally was quiet repose, mindfulness, perceptivity."

I was particularly interested in the description of individual "Minimites" and their interactions. I know almost nothing about the Amish and would have liked more general background than Brende provides, but I did get a sense of the personal restraint needed to live in a cooperative small community. The most interesting passages concern the conflicts in the community despite all efforts to eradicate conflict.

What most impresses Brende is the thoughtfulness about modern technology in this religiously-inspired community. The "Minimites" analyze the purpose of their lifestyle to consciously decide which technologies they choose to adopt. Brende concludes that making thoughtful decisions on utilizing technology, instead of mindlessly adopting it, is in the end the most rational approach. "Technology serves us, not we it," he writes.

Copyright © 2006 by Heidi Boudro