Eric Brende, SM ‘92, came to MIT’s Science, Technology, and Society program with a simple but subversive question: how much technology do we really need to live well? He found his answer, though not in the echoing hallways of the Infinite Corridor. After two years at MIT, Brende took his research to the field. He and his wife, Mary, spent 18 months living without electricity or running water on a farm in a Mennonite community, searching for the balance between too much technology and too little. With unabashed optimism, Brende recounts their experience in his book Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology.
The transition from high-tech, fast-paced Cambridge to a low-tech, pastoral farming community proved to be more liberating than limiting for the two visitors. The longing for air-conditioned summers and centrally heated winters vanished in cool summer breezes and the warmth of fireplaces; their car, which they used only a handful of times, usually caused more trouble than it was worth; and after bracing himself for the physical stresses and strains of manual labor, Brende was delighted to find that, by the grace of a setting sun and a nonexistent commute, a hard day’s work on the farm rarely lasted longer than a day at the office. Early on in his stay, Brende learned that he had more of one thing on the farm than he ever had in the city: leisure time.
Brende’s research into the unplugged life continued long after the completion of his master’s thesis. Returning to Cambridge after living on the farm, he drove a cab for several years and often conversed with his passengers about his experience. “It seemed that the more high tech the job the person had, the more wistfully they talked about the way of life I was describing,” he says. “I think a lot of people have the yearning to wean themselves from all these technological barnacles.”
Brende wasn’t always so skeptical and technology-averse. He was once a science fiction aficionado who gave up wrestling in the eighth grade because Star Trek coincided with practice. He became wary of technology, he says, “when my father got a word processor and spent so much time with that device that I almost never saw him again.” Brende had arrived at one of the fundamental criticisms of modernity: that time- and labor-saving devices prove neither time- nor labor-saving.
Brende has been successful at creating a pastoral, low-tech life for himself, even in an urban environment. He and his family now live in downtown St. Louis, with electricity and with running water, but without a television, computer, or electric washing machine. He makes soap and drives a bicycle rickshaw on weekends for a living; his kids are home-schooled and have attention spans undiminished by television and video games; and he says his wife actually looks forward to doing the laundry with the hand-powered machine. It’s an aerobic workout that comes with a bonus: clean clothes.
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