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Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology First Edition Edition

4.0 out of 5 stars 114 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0060570040
ISBN-10: 0060570040
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

About a decade ago, Brende was pursuing a graduate degree at MIT by studying technology's influence on society, and he reached conclusions that disturbed both him and his faculty mentors. A chance encounter with a "black-hatted man" prompted Brende and his new wife to move to a religious, "Mennonite-type" community that in many respects makes the Amish seem worldly, where he hoped to pare his environment down to "a baseline of minimal machinery" that could sustain human comfort while allowing him to stay off the power grid. (Details about the community, which Brende dubs the "Minimites" in recognition of their austerity, are left intentionally vague so as to preserve their privacy.) The pervasive back-to-basics sentiment will surprise few familiar with others who work this vein, like Bill McKibben and Kirkpatrick Sale, but Brende's nostalgia for a simpler way of life is far from rabid. His rough prose honestly addresses how neighbors in his new community could graciously offer help yet warily view Brende as an intruder; Brende himself was particularly sensitive to perceived slights, and the radical lifestyle shift created a unique set of strains on his new marriage. Though the ending feels a bit rushed, his gentle case for simple living will easily resonate with the converted and may inspire skeptics to grapple more intimately with the issue.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School–An undergraduate course in the history of technology led Brende to enroll in a graduate program at M.I.T. that contemplated the social effects of machines on human life. He then decided to test his idea that the more advanced the machine, the bigger the downside, by moving to the country to farm and live cheaply without electricity for 18 months. This is not a back-to-the-land book on how to dig a root cellar; rather, it's the Brendes' experiences on the farm they rented. He and his wife soon discovered a natural rhythm to their lives that had been missing in Boston and that they both found deeply satisfying. It seemed as if they'd stay permanently, but when they got rid of the car in favor of a horse and buggy, it turned out that Brende's wife was allergic to horses. By this time, the experiment had confirmed the author's thinking about the harm technology does to humans and society and that machines are becoming our masters. His curiosity about how much he could transfer of what he had learned to the "outside" world, plus his wife's allergy, led them to move to another undisclosed location–a small town outside a Midwestern city–where they were able to live simply, albeit with electricity, and survive, even thrive, on odd jobs, bartering, and soap-making. Brende's close look at technology's generally unnoticed harmful effects is a welcome relief from the usual how-to-get-ahead-in-the-rat-race attitude. Thoughtful teens will find much to contemplate here.–Judy McAloon, Potomac Library, Prince William County, VA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; First Edition edition (August 3, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060570040
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060570040
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (114 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,138,259 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Other reviewers have summarized this book so I'll just make a few comments.

This book really draws you in and lets you share the life they live without technology. He minimizes discussions of theology, for which I was thankful. I am hoping to change my life in ways that will give me more time and mastery over my life rather than my modern life which in some ways has mastery over me. I love books which present an alternative way of living- I can learn from their mistakes and also pick out the best parts to put together to make a new life.

I also wanted to mention that I did not get the anti-woman impression that the other feminist reviewer did. I don't know that I call myself a feminist but I certainly am a woman who identifies with many of their beliefs. As far as I could tell he treated his wife with respect and I think that showed in the telling of the story. He made if clear that this adventure was something that he wanted more than she did, and that after the 18 months were over it would be her choice what to do next. When he mentioned Mary gabbing with the neighbors, he mentioned that he did too. In the previous paragraph for example, he had mentioned that he spent a half-hour every time he made a photocopy because he had to catch up on the news in town. In the section on childbirth, he just tries to balance the dangers of home birth (they had three midwives plus a doctor stopped by) with the dangers of hospital births (hospital infections, 1 out of 3 births in boston hospitals is by cesarean).

In summary, it's a wonderful book if you like books which let you explore someone else's life. If you are overwhelmed by how much you pay (in time and money) for technologies like car upkeep and power tools, you might even learn a thing or two.
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Format: Hardcover
If you're considering purchasing this book, keep in mind, it's quite brief. I would have liked more depth and detail with regards to the physical challenges of his 18 months with the "Minimites". I was reading this book in the hopes of actually learning something about living a low-tech lifestyle, but Eric chose to focus more on the emotional impact the lifestyle had on himself and his wife, and he spent a large part of the story giving brief portrayals of his neighbors in the community.

What Eric does provide is certainly not bad. I enjoyed the diversity of the neighborhood around him, and I did like the basic theme of the book - when people are brought together under the auspices of labor, a true sense of community is obtained and the work itself is all but forgotten. I just didn't feel that this short read (a very fast reading 256 pages) provided the depth I was looking for.
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Format: Hardcover
Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology is the story of how a young man and his wife embark upon a journey that at heart is straight out of Thoreau's Walden. Ostensibly, Mr. and Mrs. Brende are seeking a refuge, however temporary, from modernity. What they in fact are doing is more serious: they report back, they are sending us their findings--which is what Thoreau understood Emerson to be saying in his essay on "Self-Reliance": Leave the hurly-burly behind. Clear your head. Come back and tell us what the air is like. Life among the "Minimites" is Brende's addendum to what is by now something of a long-standing tradition (Letters From an American Farmer; Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; On the Road) in American Literature.

The idea that anyone today might have reservations about our over-reliance on technology is not itself new; others have been down this road before. But rarely has it been done with such grace and sensitivity. The story begins at MIT, where our narrator (Brende), while working toward his Ph.D., is trying to come to grips with a burgeoning realization that the indiscriminate use of technology exacts a price, and that for some people, that price--a dilution of what might be called the 'joy' we humans can feel when we work with our hands--is indeed a steep price to pay. In Better Off, Brende demonstrates, by putting the gloves on and doing the work himself (under the watchful and often wry eyes of his 'Minimite' friends and neighbors), that we have more control over the technological choices we make in life than most of us ever come to understand, and that there are things we can do to regain some of those old feelings we have lost at the hands of machines.

Better Off is exceedingly well-written.
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Format: Hardcover
Eric Brende's personal look at the impact of technology on the modern world is a book well worth reading (and just as important, readable). As a computer programmer and fan of all things science fiction, I found this book a necessary critique of the "Star Trek"-type attitude that technology is only an agent for good in the world.

But this is no dry, boring academic treatise. By writing about his actual life experiences living for 18 months in an Amish-like community, Brende allows us to enter the actual thought process of these people and their decision to forego technologies most of us believe are "essential". He takes us past our stereotypes to understand why they have made the decisions that, frankly, make them seem crazy to the outside world.

I initially went into this book assuming that Brende would believe that all technology was evil and destructive. But that is the surprise here: Brende does not think all technology should be rejected outright; instead, all technology should be thoughtfully judged for possible negative side-effects before embracing it whole-heartedly. He calls us to remember the unintended consequences of much of our technology. A case in point he mentions is the use of the telephone. In the community he lived in, there was debate on the use of the telephone after a woman was saved in childbirth after a midwife called a doctor. Everyone agreed that telephones could serve useful purposes (such as the midwife's use), but many worried that overuse of it led to idle chatter and a destruction of interpersonal social communications. Their decision was to continue to have phones available to the community, but not allow them for anything except emergency uses.
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