It takes years to learn the kinds of social skills that you need to have in the real world while it takes two minutes to learn how to use smart phones. I think the formative years are critical for brain development and that technology use during these years stunts emotional growth and social skills. All kinds of studies over and over are showing this.
WCIT is the signature event of the World Information Technology & Services Alliance (WITSA), a consortium of information and communications technology (ICT) associations from 83 countries, representing 90% of the industry. During the 2019 WCIT held in Armenia this year, I had the pleasure of interviewing Eric Brende, author of Better Off Flipping the Switch on Technology.
Thank you for speaking with me! I would love to know if you had an aha moment that started you on your path to writing your book, Better Off Flipping the Switch on Technology?
Well, in my own life growing up, the seeds of discontent were sown in my early teens when my father, who is a doctor that wrote medical articles, wanted to make his writing go faster and easier. So he got one of the first word processors that ever came out — it was the size of a small wall safe! The reason he bought it was to save him time and trouble but he spent so much time with that thing, I almost never saw him again.
So he would disappear for hours. Because his new machine made it easier to do revisions, so he would spend an endless amount of time doing and redoing his articles. I think on a very deep level I felt like I’d been upstaged. It was a turning point for me; until that point, I was a die hard fan of Star Trek and I couldn’t wait for the future.
So fast forward to when I went to MIT, I went not only to learn how to do technology, but to really infiltrate the system. My opinion is that you can’t change the system unless you are part of the system.
So that’s what led me to my research on the Amish. I spent my a year and a half living with the Amish and being immersed in their lifestyle completely exceeded my expectations.
Did they know you were writing about them?
Yeah, but I agreed not to reveal their location or any specific names. I formed some very close relationships during my time their as people shared their personal lives with me, and there was even one villain in the story, but you’ll have to read my book to learn more about that. I really liked living with the Amish because I think they’re much more sophisticated than most people give them credit.
So you mentioned trying to infiltrate the system. Can you give me a couple of examples of how you accomplished this with your field work?
My main objective with living with and researching the Amish was to try to determine how much technology is really need to live a full life. I was basically questioning the very premise of modern technology, which is that we need tons of it and that there is never enough, and that you can always make life easier if you just add another gadget. My findings were surprising even to me. I found that even the Amish would have a more leisurely life if they use less technology than they do. I also found that there is a point of diminishing returns past a certain point.
In the Amish way of life, basic daily activities are sort of left in their natural state in that you use your own body to get the day’s work done, to move from point A to point B. You use your limbs for what they were designed to do. You walk. And these fingers we have, you use them in your manual work and exercise is part of your daily routine. During field work, you’ll be working with the team on the hay wagon or the threshing machine, so in addition to exercise, you’re experiencing a full social life.
On the hay wagon I worked on alongside the Amish, it was always discerning how somber and taciturn they always looked standing around me, while the experience of working on their team was really more like a cocktail party. Once the work got going, these brilliant people lost their inhibitions. We had really, lots of interesting conversations and so it was a very wonderful social experience.
Then you get the experience of nature in the outdoors and you throw in the fact that children are involved and what results is this multi-dimensional experience of work, socializing, education, and child rearing.
Do your kids use a lot of technology? Did you use a lot of technology raising them?
I raised three children. My first one was born there with the Amish. We didn’t waste any time, we were married two weeks before we joined them. We didn’t become members. We first rented this cottage from an Amish family that was holding it for their own children when they were old enough to use it. So here, I raised my three children without a car, without television, without internet, without microwaves. We did have a refrigerator. One of the reasons why I didn’t mind having a refrigerator is it compliments rather than competes with your own native functions. Our first summer there we actually lived without one. We didn’t have air conditioning and it was pretty hot there in the summer and so we couldn’t keep leftovers. You had to either eat it all out or basically throw it out because it wasn’t going to last till the next day.
If I was doing work, I would be doing the men’s work out in the fields. I really was just following the pattern and so was my wife — she didn’t the woman’s work. It was interesting to do the traditional Amish division of labor, we discussed it beforehand and it didn’t make sense to try to buck the system. So that’s how we did it.
Do you miss it? Do you miss that lifestyle?
I miss it a lot. The problem was over time, I mean, I don’t want to give away the plot of my story, but read the book to get the answer to this question.
But obviously we didn’t ultimately stay with them, but we really respected and missed many aspects of their lifestyle after we left the Amish. We ended up creating an alternative way of life that would work for us, and meet my criteria of technological simplicity.
Paradoxically, we found that one of the best places to live if you want to live like the Amish is in the middle of a walkable city. So, we chose to live in St. Louis, which is very walkable and very bikeable. In St. Louis, the cost of living is very low if you eliminate the kinds of costs that most people are saddled with. For example, we don’t have an automobile and we don’t have a mortgage because we saved up enough money to buy a house. We’ve been able to live with almost no income.
What brings you here to this tech conference in Armenia? The topics covered in this conference and the very nature of the conference itself seems to go against everything you believe in.
The conference organizers saw an article I wrote for the Wall Street Journal this past September, and then last winter an article of mine appeared on Techno Skeptic that caught their eye so they brought me here to play Devil’s Advocate.
So by raising your children with very little technological influence do you think that they will be better off?
Very much so. Although there is a bumpy transition starting college, but it’s short-lived. You know, it takes years to learn the kinds of social skills that you need to have in the real world while it takes two minutes to learn how to use smart phones. I think the formative years are critical for brain development and that technology use during these years stunts emotional growth and social skills. All kinds of studies over and over are showing this.
Thank you so much. I really appreciate your time.