Yesterday my house lost power for seven hours. As someone who works on a computer from home, this had an obvious impact on my schedule. But I was amazed at how much of an impact this had on me – I kept thinking of non-work-related things to do, but I kept realizing I couldn’t do them without power. “I think I’ll pay the bills…oops, that is on the computer.” “I’ll fix that leak in the washer…oops, the washer is in a room in the basement with no windows, so I can’t see what I am doing.” Electricity runs through almost everything I do. If I’m not careful, I may soon end up looking like this.
My experience without power reminded me of a book I read a few years ago, Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology by Eric Brende. A graduate student studying technology’s impact on society, Brende decided to spend a year (with his new wife) living with a strict Amish community which didn’t use any electricity. He chronicles how these people live without what we would consider essentials, and in the end, he decides that in many ways, they are “better off”.
Most people think that the Amish simply reject all technology. This is not the case. The underlying rule for Amish communities is that they do not accept new technology blindly. Instead, as a community they evaluate each new technology and determine if it will have a positive or negative impact on their community. Each Amish community makes this decision on their own, and thus you will have a wide variety of acceptance of technologies between communities. The community Brende joined for a year took a very strict line: no electricity at all. This means no appliances, no telephones, and of course no television or internet. Brende discovers that the absence of many of these modern conveniences actually leads to a strengthening of community bonds. Without a telephone (or email or text messages or facebook, etc.), people were actually more connected to each other, not less. This is because they would spend time in each other’s physical company, instead of just having “drive-by” contact with the people they knew. Furthermore, without entertainment options like televisions to occupy their time, they spent more time doing things with other people for recreation. In other words, they put people above things. (Likewise, without a TV to tell them that they could only be happy as a sex-crazed New Yorker, they were completely content with their choices in life).
I do not necessarily agree with all the specific decisions that Amish communities make in regard to technology – although I strongly support their right to make those choices. But I came away from reading Better Off with the conviction that each family should consciously make their own decisions about what technology they will embrace in their particular situations. We are not all required to have televisions or cell phones or even computers to be happy. None of those things are needed for sainthood, the epitome of happiness. If any technology is hindering our ability to draw closer to God, our family or others, then it simply not worth it. We would be better off without it.