Eric Brende: How much technology do we need for a good and happy life?
The Amish would be better off without so many horses, says this "technoskeptic" MIT graduate, who has dedicated his career to examining the 360-degree effects of technology on human life and happiness.
Does blindly accepting new technologies into our lives really make us better off? It's a question we barely bother asking ourselves. We constantly accept and upgrade new gadgets and ways of doing things, fearful of being left behind by an age that's accelerating faster into the future than ever before.
At WCIT 2019 in Yerevan, Armenia, industry behemoths and thought leaders came together to discuss the looming threats and opportunities presented by the breaking wave of next-gen tech revolutions. And while there was a lot of soul-searching, and calls for a new ethics and incentive structure to make sure the next decades prioritize humans over capital, one voice stood out as unique.
Eric Brende will tell you he's a soap maker and rickshaw driver operating out of St. Louis. But he's also got three degrees – from MIT, Yale and Washburn – and a popular book on the shelves called Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology.
"I'm the token technoskeptic at this conference," Brende tells me when I ask how he managed to get a seat at this elevated table. "And I think that Armenia, as a country, is very traditional, and a lot of people here would probably agree with me on a lot of things I’m saying."
Brende first started questioning the value of technology as an early teen, when his dad got hold of a Brother word processor – one of the first on the market. The size of a wall safe, this machine promised to save time for his dad as he wrote articles for psychiatric journals.
"Once he got that device," says Brende, "I almost never saw him again. It sucked all his time. It wasn’t just the fact that it was hard to figure out, it was the very idea of being able to revise your articles so easily. So he just started endlessly revising them, he was fascinated with this device. And I felt upstaged, I felt like I’d been replaced. I resented that machine. At some deep level, I felt like at least some of the attention that should have been directed to me was lavished on this machine."
Brende carried that quiet resentment with him all the way to college at MIT, where he enrolled despite already considering himself a semi-luddite, with the aim of infiltrating the system instead of being consumed by it. He took the idea of "fieldwork" very literally, deciding to take his newly-married wife and go and work in a field with some local Mennonites. While not quite as extreme as the Amish, these followers of an American Christian sect take a very cautious approach to technology, evaluating its effect on people's lives in 360 degrees before deciding whether to bring it on board or not.
"My question when I went in was: how much technology does it really take to lead a full and leisurely life?" says Brende. "If the point of technology is to save us time and trouble, and give us more leisure, how much does it really take? By the end of my time there, my conclusion was: even less technology than the Amish, if you count horses as technology. They use horses as labor saving machines, but they use too many horses. They would have been better off looking after fewer horses; they would have had more free time, and they would’ve had a richer life."
The key, says Brende, is that old-school manual farm work is a wonderfully rounded activity that's richly layered with a whole bunch of benefits built in that modern folk need to go searching for outside hours.
Working on a threshing crew or a hay wagon, says Brende, "combines so many satisfying human functions in one operation. You’re getting some physical exercise, you’re making a living, you're getting a social experience. The Amish guys would really cut loose on the hay wagon. They seem very sombre and not talkative, but on the hay wagon it was like a cocktail party. I loved that. Plus, you’re experiencing nature and the outdoors.
"In modern life, all these things are compartmentalized and you have to do them as separate, self-conscious efforts. It ends up actually taking more time to do those all in separate places and times. By doing it all in one experience, not only are you getting a richer, deeper, fuller experience, you’re also saving a lot of time."
Family time is also wrapped into the model, because from the time the kids turn three, they start collecting eggs, and pick up more and more jobs as they grow. Without screens tugging their attention in a thousand directions, kids spend their time helping out, picking up "a thousand and one little bits of know-how" as they go and integrating in with adults instead of being segregated into their age groups at school. The concept of setting aside "quality time" with the kids becomes ridiculous – you're working meaningfully on tasks together all day.
This point stings me, as a father of two whose job renders both my kids as inconveniences to be shooed out of the room when "Daddy's working." My kids learn nothing from the work I do, and I'd wager many people are in the same situation.
It's not multi-tasking, he stresses. "Multi-tasking is our modern attempt to recover what our ancestors did - all those things that have been scattered by technology. The Amish don’t do multi-tasking, they have one task with many layers. Those layers are complementary and integrated."
Brende looks back at his time with the Mennonites extremely fondly, but the idea of staying forever was never a real possibility – Brende and his wife are Catholic, and that wasn't going to fly. So he set about taking the lessons he'd learned and finding ways to implement it in modern city life in St. Louis.
The Brendes raised their three kids without cars, cell phones, internet or television, with a refrigerator and electric lighting being among their few concessions to the modern age. Brende chose soapmaking and rickshaw driving as jobs that the whole family could work at together. They don't bring in huge money, but then you don't need huge money when you're not paying for cars, phones, cable subscriptions, gym memberships, daycare, expensive gadgets or any of the other trappings of modern life.
And crucially, Brende says his entire family enjoys significantly more truly unfettered leisure time, as well as closer relationships and a more satisfying life, as a result of this extremely careful approach to technology.
Our interview is cut short, as the entire WCIT conference center goes wild over the arrival of celebrity famous person Kim Kardashian, who's here to anoint her adoring audience with electrifying tales of her extraordinary business acumen such as the time she asked her 250 million-odd Twitter fans which shade of pink she should use on a new perfume packet.
Brende might be immune to the charms of technology, but he's not going to miss a chance to see a million-megawatt Kardashian in the flesh, even if he says he had to look her up at the library to have any idea who she was.
He disappears into the swirling crowd as a screaming fist-fight breaks out between journalists and Kim K's security detail over who's allowed to stand where when the Chosen One hits the stage.
It's a remarkably strange way to end a very thought-provoking chat. Perhaps Brende has pinpointed a key part of the malaise that seems to permeate this modern life our bodies and brains simply haven't evolved to thrive in.
Perhaps he's nailed down why so many people feel disconnected and drifting as the money-driven world powers its way toward an automated future where humans will be less and less useful, less and less valuable, less and less connected as they swap more and more time being embodied in the world for some digital replacement. Perhaps we're headed in the wrong direction – or at least, overdue for a thorough examination of just how well modern life is working for us.
Brende's book, Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology is available on Amazon.
Source: WCIT Yerevan 2019
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