Thursday, February 03, 2005

Technology and the Human Condition

At the behest of my good friend Steve, I've began reading Better Off by Eric Brende. The full title is "Better Off: flipping the switch on technology", and is available as an ebook from HarperCollins.

I am almost exactly 50% done reading the book, so I have not yet formed a definitive opinion, but I thought it would make for an interesting entry for Philosophy and Religion. I did a Google search and found this excerpt and two interviews here and here, which I have not read for fear of ruining any surprises.

The story so far is as follows: Eric Brende grew up with the gnawing suspicion that society did not integrate well with technology. A chance encounter with an Amish-looking man opened the door to an existential experiment to live without technology. Eric and his newlywed wife have joined a community that minimizes the use of technology. They are conducting this real life experiment of living without electricity and motors for 18 months, at which point they would choose their next step.

The community have Amish and thus Mennonite roots, but is comprised of others who simply seek to reduce the negative effects of technology upon their lives. Brende calls them "Minimites," referring to their Mennonite roots and technological minimalism.

It appears that Minimites limit the use of devices to maximize their lifestyle. They eschew electricity and motors, so no cars, no refrigerators, no electric lights... you may think you get the idea, but Brende would tell you that you have no idea how much your life is pervaded by technology.

It seems that Brende is discovering that man was never meant to live with this much technology. Ostensively, technology is supposed to help make life more efficient and reduce labor. Brende contends that technology can be too much of a good thing; it can cut man off from the positive effects of physical labor. Technology can also isolate us, from each other and from the circadian rhythm of the world.

It is not that Brende is saying technology is evil, just over-used. That being said, I doubt he would be in favor of slight-used electricity or motorized equipment. There appears to be an underlying belief that the development and production of such technology ultimately harms us.

I'll explore some other aspects tomorrow, but for now I would like to express a positive impact the book has had on me. Better Off has got me thinking about the near-ubiquity of technology. I'm a geek, and I love gadgets. I use them primarily as storage for reference and for memories I cherish. But I do not watch TV, I do not surf the Internet at night and rarely on weekends, and I tend to buy technology to better my life, such as air purifiers.

So, how much is too much? I would say that maintaining your stuff should never take more than a small fraction of your week. Brende would say that society feeds the need to work to pay for the car so that you can work and shop... ad nauseam.

A lot of this technological interference reduces socializing and human interaction. That seems to be a big one for Brende. He noted that technology allows us to filter out the contact we don't want; between email, caller ID and commuting to and from work, Brende makes a case that we are not living better because of technology.

Similarly, though, how little is too little? I haven't pondered this nearly as much. Perhaps I'll have more to offer after I finish the book.

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