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Business Book Club: ‘Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology’ by Eric Brende

A life without tech? Why would one do such a thing?

This month’s review, Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology by Eric Brende, may appear to be blasphemous when included in these pages. After all, Residential Systems celebrates the adoption of numerous technologies designed to enhance the lives of those who elect to take advantage of them. Questioning the voracity of these modern innovations could be misconstrued as a criticism of the industry I have spent my life promoting.

Then again, my entire purpose in reviewing and recommending various books in these monthly installments is to, in some small way, expose readers to unique points of view. This volume certainly has the potential to do just that.

Eric Brende was a graduate student at MIT when he began to question whether technological advancements such as computers, cell phones, tablets, flat panel televisions, and other similar items were having a net positive or negative affect on individuals and society as a whole. Having watched these developments become ingrained into our lives over time, he was looking for a way to effectively examine the question.

The experiences from his youth played heavily into his thought process. He remembered how the new dishwasher did not seem to reduce the pile of dishes. In fact, the pile seemed higher than ever. His father bought one of the first word processers in hopes of making him more efficient as a writer. Unfortunately, the ability to easily revise his work led to increasingly more revisions and eventually a great deal more time spent on work and less with the family.

On a particular vacation in the Midwest, Brende met an Amish man and asked him several questions about his lifestyle. He was intrigued by the peace and satisfaction the man expressed in his daily labors and his personal relationships. This got the mental gears turning and he developed a plan.

Brende decided to explore the possibility of living in such a society for an extended period of time to examine life there first-hand. He refers to the group as “Minnimites” so as not to identify them by name or location, as notoriety is not something they necessarily appreciate. He moved into a home in the community with his wife and began to acclimate.

Some of the smallest conveniences were quickly apparent in their absence. Refrigeration was one of them. Not that there wasn’t plenty of food available, but it required cooking from scratch using fresh ingredients. This was something to which neither Brende nor his wife were accustomed. Fortunately, the daughters and mother next door were excellent cooks and had even written a cookbook to sell to the tourists. A gift of the book to the new couple was a welcome manual for what was to become a life-changing culinary experience.

The rest of the book is a description of the numerous experiences Brende and his wife underwent over the next year and a half. As you can imagine, some were challenging while others were revelatory. They learned to plant, cultivate, and harvest, as well as to make various items to sell so they could purchase what they couldn’t grow themselves.

They also were welcomed into the social aspects of the community. Without modern entertainment, the interaction with other members of the group was a diversion that also built bonds between them. There were social events that were directly tied to farm life such as barn raisings and the annual threshing of grain. These activities where major life events for the community and looked forward to with great anticipation.

Brende remarked on the lack of multi-tasking. These people concentrated on one task at a time, but the task had many layers and complexities. Learning to focus on a particular endeavor was refreshing, as the quality of the work was more important than the number of projects accomplished.

There were moments in the reading of this book where I was transported. Brende describes a summer day where he and his wife spent eight hours thinning beans. Sitting across the row from each other, performing an incredibly mundane task, left plenty of time for deep conversation. Finishing for the day and heading back to the house, they washed up and made a delicious home-cooked dinner. Afterward, they relaxed on the couch looking out over the fields as the sun set and dusk slowly turned to night. The chorus of frogs and crickets provided the soundtrack to the sparkle of lightning bugs rising from the grass. A hard day’s work rewarded with the peace that can only be found in the satisfaction of personal, physical accomplishment.

Please understand, I am not suggesting that you cut the technological cord and return to the dark ages. I only know that this book prompted me to look carefully at my existence and consider the balance, or lack thereof, that I currently experience. In this world that spins at light-speed, it might be a good idea to pause, reflect, and consider your options.

Check out all the titles in Dave Donald’s Business Book Club.