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The simple life

Spurning cellphone, electricity, and SUV, an MIT graduate spends a year in a sustainable farming community

Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology
By Eric Brende
HarperCollins, 233 pp., illustrated, $24.95

For many of us, technology is the ever-present annoyance that we love to hate. While many would say that life is much easier due to the explosion of time- and labor-saving devices, it is undeniable that cellphones and automobiles are sources of irritation and stress. Some would even say that our quality of life has suffered because of these inventions. Who among us has not threatened to simplify his or her life by cutting back on the very gadgets that were supposed to make it easier? In ''Better Off," Eric Brende tells the story of a year spent with his wife, Mary, investigating the notion that technology has gone too far and is now taking more away from the pursuit of happiness than it is contributing.

The thesis is not unique. For centuries writers and thinkers have been bemoaning the technology-driven loss of contact with the earth and other humans. The idea that technology dehumanizes us is nothing new to scholars and many children of the 1960s. But many who pound out a living in office cubicles or spend hours in gridlocked traffic have not had time to consider that all that new ''stuff" they are buying to make life easier is making them crazy. Once we are in the machine it is hard to judge its effects on our lives. It could be said that we are so busy serving our machines that we don't have the time to think. I recommend spending a few hours of your valuable time reading ''Better Off." It will give you a new perspective on your life and will be time well spent.

The Brendes -- newly wed, freshly graduated, and bravely idealistic -- decide to spend the first year of their married life in a low-tech Midwest community built on the Mennonite model. Brende calls its members Minimites because their credo seems to be to cut things back to their essence. For 12 months the Brendes give up internal combustion engines, electricity, and all the nifty conveniences such technology makes possible.

They live as many of our ancestors lived in the 19th and early 20th centuries -- as simple, sustainable farmers, close to the land, and close to community. For those of you whose lives are not remote from land, or who remember outhouses, the eternal war between mankind and weeds, or the joy of things as simple as cooling off on a summer day by natural means, the innocence and enthusiasm of this young couple will make you smile.

But when the social benefits of shared physical labor are compared with the stress of solitary labor performed mostly via the ''work" of electrons on a screen, you will find yourself scratching your head, wondering if these renegade Minimites might have a point. Brende argues effectively that humans are built to work together and that doing so in this day and age is ''to regenerate the human community. Manual labor craves collaboration. As the Minimites put it, 'Many hands make work light.' " While the communal labor described in ''Better Off" makes work light in more ways than one, it is not an abstraction. It is sweaty, integral, and real.

Brende, who is a Yale and MIT graduate, makes no pretense to impartiality. He believes that many modern conveniences do not make life more convenient and, in fact, complicate our existence to the point of inconvenience. His bias toward a belief that much of our beloved technology creates an estrangement from our families and neighbors is strong and unapologetic throughout the book. His year spent in a community of like-minded folks in America's midsection is not really an experiment, because Brende seems to have already drawn his conclusions from the academic life he is leaving. The year described in the book is more like checking a hypothesis reasoned from books and theory originally made famous in this country by men like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir.

For the Brendes, the hypothesis checks out. Throughout a year of hoeing weeds, canning vegetables, communal construction projects, and even the birth of their child with the help of a midwife, their resolve seldom flags. Though they do eventually move on from the community they embrace in the book, it is clear that their experience ends with overwhelmingly positive feelings toward a life of limited technology. So positive, if fact, that we learn in the last, well-reasoned, and passionate chapter that they continue to live a low-impact life filled with physical labor and a wholesome sense of community. The last update on their lives is that the Brendes are running an inexpensive bed and breakfast for cyclists and that Eric ferries customers through an unnamed small town in a pedal-driven rickshaw.

There are times when ''Better Off" threatens to swing in the direction of counterculture rant, but it never does. It is a good story well told. The fact that there is conviction of thought behind the words makes it even easier to read and relish. If ''Better Off" doesn't make you examine your life, you may be too far gone already. But if you are still in a state of mind that will allow you to listen to what Brende has to say, you should consider this quote: ''Technology undoubtedly has, and will always have, some role in making life easier or better, so one shouldn't exclude it. But the role is supplemental. Technology serves us, not we technology."

Dan O'Brien is the author of ''Buffalo for the Broken Heart: Restoring Life to a Black Hills Ranch."

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