Monday, April 25, 2005

Book Review: "Better Off : Flipping the Switch on Technology"

A funny thing happened when I went to the local library to look for "Better Off : Flipping the Switch on Technology," by Eric Brende -- the computerized card catalog database was inaccessible. I guess the situation was more ironic than funny. Either way, it had me longing for those arrays of oak drawers filled with index cards.

Eventually the librarian was able to look it up and put it on hold for me, not without remarking on the irony of the situation.

I don't usually go to the library to look for books. Instead, I look for what I want online and go just to pick it up. But I was there with my daughter and decided to take a look-see.

I first read "Better Off" a few months ago. My wife had checked it out accidentally, thinking it was something else. Then she gave it to me to read.

The main idea behind the book is that technology places a barrier between a person and the outcome of his effort. When that barrier is removed, the person finds meaning and even euphoria in his labor. A minor point is that any time that's saved by using labor-saving devices is either wasted or is spent in maintaining (or paying for) the technology that saved you the time.

After absorbing numerous books that poke fun at technology, I enjoyed reading one that when so far as to do something about it. The author turns his back on it and lives for eighteen months in an "Amish-like" community. (I sometimes wonder if he thought about subtitling it "Flipping the Bird on Technology.") The fact that he wrote about his experience made me want to write about my experiences with technology. So reading the book partly inspired me to create this blog.

But this book left me puzzled, so I decided to re-read it. I hardly ever re-read a book after only a few months. But I can't help thinking that the author was suffering from burn-out from his graduate studies and thesis work. As well, just before completing his program, he was involved in an accident that was severe enough to leave him temporarily debilitated. This, too, I believe explains his romance with (and eventual marriage to) his live-in caretaker.

The other reason I wanted to re-read it because I came across a study[1] recently that seemed to suggest that such conditions as ADHD and autism were non-existent among the "native" Amish. But the only commentary on youth is that their courtship is scripted and predictable. And with the exception of one child who was born with a genetic disease, there seems to be no need for medical care.

He seems to suggest that people would be better off with the lifestyle he chose. But the people he lived with relied on products that were made with the help of modern technology. Such products include the metal in their gardening tools, for example. Watch steel-workers and miners leave for the farm and wave goodbye to your ability to work the soil.

So he flips the technology switch off, but keeps it within reach for when it's needed.

[1] The Age of Autism: The Amish anomaly, by Dan Olmsted.

1 comment:

Tirsden Frozenrayn said...

Interesting on the Amish bit. Their gene pools are probably closed, so if the autism gene wasn't there or was "weeded" out early on, that might explain it. Also, with the new theory that pollution causes or triggers autism, the Amish would get a whole lot less of that than the rest of us.