Thursday, April 16, 2009

How much techonology (and what kind) is enough?

As mentioned, I'm doing more reading than usual these days, as I spend time sitting and nursing our daughter on the couch. What a luxury to read like never before - as in the past I just haven't had the "time", or managed to make it the priority that it could be. How lucky to have a child teach us to slow down...

Currently I'm reading Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology by Eric Brende. Eric, who is a graduate student of MIT, asks the question "how much technology (and what kind) is enough?" He decides to embark on a real-life experiment, and with his partner goes to live for 18 months in an Amish community. Here they learn how to live without electricity, running water, how to garden, preserve for the winter, drive a horse & buggy, farm with a team of drafat horses, and birth their first child at home with a local midwife. It's an inspiring read, sprinkled liberally with philosophy, commentary on Thoreau, new urbanism, history of the industrial revoluation, and with plenty of ideas on how we can all reduce our dependence on technology, and probably come out feeling more relaxed, happy, resourceful, creative, valueing community connections, saving money - and having more time. He makes a remarkable observation about the quality of time - "and this explained not only why time moved more slowly but also why we had more of it, why we were able to relax and read the way we were doing right now: in the absensce of fast-paced gizmos, ringing phones, alarm clocks, television, radios, and cars, we could simply take our time. In being slower, time is more capacious. The event is only in the moment. By speeding through life with technology, you reduce what any given moment can hold. By slowing down, you expand it."

He gives an example of washing clothes in a handcrank wringer-washer - a task that only takes about 3 minutes per load (200 turns is one good washing they are told), uses minimal water and zero electricity. When I think of all the loads of cloth diapers we are washing these days and read our current electricity bill (which seemed excessively high this month, due to using grow lights for our hundreds of seedlings in the house, and all that laundry washing) I too wonder about the feasibility of more human-powered devices in our home. One friend we know designed an entire laundromat to be powered by bicycle, with customers pedalling to each wash their laundry load. Add a little cafe on the side and this would become the perfect community gathering place!

By no means does Eric conclude that we need to do away with all technology. In fact, he realizes the Amish use all kinds of technology (e.g. water pumps, Pioneed Maid woodstoves, handcrank washing machines, various implements and tools for farming), but that which uses minimal resources to make, can be easily fixed by the user (or is made to last), and is fit to its purpose. Interestingly, Eric and his partner end up moving to a small town where they can garden, barter for extra produce and eggs, get around without a car (he runs a rickshaw and makes soap for a living now), and live out their new homesteading skills as urban homesteaders. Seems like urban homesteading is a way to get the best of both worlds, and we are seeing more homesteaders like this all the time.

Several years after his "experimental" time living in the Amish community, Eric concludes his book and ends with these with wise words:
"There really is no end to the possible uses of technology, nor are there limits to finding a way around it; but in all cases it must serve our needs, not the reverse, and we must determine these needs before considering the needs for technology. The willingness and the wisdom to do so may be the hardest ingredients to come by in this frenetic age. Perhaps what is needed most of all, then, are conditions favourable to them: quiet around us, quiet inside us, quiet born of sustained meditation and introspection. We must set aside time for it...Only when we have met this last requisite, I suspect, will technology yield its power and become a helpful handservant. Mary and I still turn on the kerosene lamp and read by the fire on a cold winter's eve. By switching off the electric light, I think we see a bit better."

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