It's funny how some people appear briefly in your life, make a strong impression—and vanish. Then decades later, seemingly by chance, you run into them again. Maybe at a class reunion, an AA meeting in Mexico City—or maybe because their brilliantly eloquent book comes across the transom, and you say to yourself—"So THAT'S what he's been up to all these years!"
I knew Eric Brende as a freshman at Yale in 1982. I remember thinking that this tall Midwesterner had a soft-spoken charm and some very odd ideas. Even then, Eric Brende was developing his critique of the cult of technology and its effect on Western man. I wasn't exactly open to hearing his ideas—in fact, most of the time I was wearing a Sony Walkman, then the newest gadget, and pumping for Reagan to pour more billions into Star Wars.
Now, some 22 years later, after stints at the University of Kansas and M.I.T, and a conversion to Catholicism, Eric has written a fascinating account of his first-hand investigation of the limits of technology. No, he wasn't pushing them by cloning babies or sending spores into space; instead, he pushed back against technology, deciding to spend a year living as our ancestors all did—growing crops and harvesting them by hand, plowing fields with a horse, jarring fruit, singing and praying with a community of primitive Amish. After reading his account of this year, (Read GodSpy's excerpt from the book ), I just had to ask him: "What were you thinking?"
The social problems, the plague of depression, social disarray in our society—it’s all related to this takeover by technology.
GODSPY: You lived for a year with your wife among a community of low-tech, low-church Christians you called the Minimites. What did you learn from them about how community works in a pre-technological society, versus our own?
ERIC BRENDE: The very absence of technology is a catalyst for close bonds among neighbors, for several reasons simultaneously. In a real sense you depend upon your neighbor, especially in times of crisis, but also because the work is by its nature communal. People get together not just because they like each other, but because they need each other. There's a strong incentive not to sweat the small stuff.
There's another whole layer of more subtle dynamics at work. When you are working with your hands, or whatever limbs, out in the field, pretty soon that work becomes self-automating. It thereby frees up the mind for conversation. Meanwhile, the labor serves as a kind of musical undercurrent that gives a certain depth to the experience. It's like the difference between hearing a choir singing in unison, and one singing in harmonies, with basses at the bottom. That lower level of tonality gives so much depth to the sound. Likewise, shared manual labor gives that richness to conversation. It creates a kind of symphony of layered experiences. You're experiencing nature, hearing the birds, feeling the breeze, watching the clouds go by. Compare that to sitting virtually motionless at a video monitor watching two dimensions of reality, damaging your back and not getting any exercise for your heart, growing more socially isolated.
What first made you suspicious of technology as it's currently used? Was it something you read, or an experience you had? Because I knew you when you were, like, 18—and you were already talking about the drawbacks of high technology. I thought you were batty... Was there a "road to Damascus" moment?
I had a tremendous intellectual conversion experience when I took a couple of years off and studied at the Integrated Humanities Program at University of Kansas—which has since been dismantled, tragically. It was led by the famous professor John Senior—who served as my sponsor when I became a Catholic. He provided insights into the pitfalls of the machine society which had never dawned on me before. Most centrally, realization that if machines do everything for us, then what's left for us to do? What meaning do we have left? If we have machines to live life for us, then we don't have to live. Life eventually seems not worth the trouble of living. Have a machine do it—or spend life skimming off the frosting of experience, without including any of the substance. The social problems, the plague of depression, social disarray in our society—it's all related directly or indirectly to this takeover by technology. Ironically, our lives become less convenient as a result of our conveniences, since we're always trying to recover what technology took away from us.
What has it taken from us, and what are we trying to get back?
It falls into two main categories:
Physical exercise: Look at the car. Here's something we have to work many hours to pay for, maintain, fuel. Over a lifetime we spend more on our cars than on our houses. That money translates into work we have to do. Then we sit in this vehicle a couple of hours a day, and miss out on the exercise we would have gotten if we walked or biked. Then, on top of it all, we have to go to a gym, or jogging, to recover the exercise that we missed. Or else suffer terrible medical consequences. So if we'd simply done what came naturally in the first place—used our bodies to do work and to travel—we'd have avoided a whole chain of inter-related inconveniences.
What was most surprising was how much better it was than I’d expected.
Human social interaction: People are always talking about the need for quality time. Sitting in front of a PC, TV, or in a car, you're missing out on all the human interaction which comes from work that is social, and draws you into a human network of relationships. Now we have to artificially re-create all those things we lost—through online dating, chat rooms, and so on.
What was the most surprising discovery you made in your year-long excursion away from most technology?
How much better it was than I'd expected. I was philosophically predisposed to enjoy the experience, whereas my wife, Mary, was only doing it because I wanted to. What was wonderful was that she ended up liking the lifestyle even more than I. She was the most reluctant to leave.
I got 15 magazine articles written and published in my time in the country. I found the absence of technology liberated the intellect. It did help to have some good books to read, but I also enjoyed my repartee with the more thoughtful members of the Minimite community.
What spiritual lessons did you draw from the whole experience? Was there any way in which living this way brought you closer to Christ? If so, how?
The way of life we led was inherently contemplative. Since you're surrounded by nature, you're reminded constantly of the glory of God. Working with your hands fosters a contemplative spirit; everything seems to point to God. The harmony you find working with other people—harmonizing your differences—it's indescribable. Particularly for Catholics it should be a very appealing way of life, because what makes our faith different from most Protestant denominations is our awareness of the intimate connections between matter and spirit, body and mind. They're inextricable. We know that the body is not just a disposable receptacle for the spirit. The two are integrally interrelated. The whole way of life is sacramental—a physical embodiment of a spiritual reality. Relating to the real seasons of nature made the liturgical seasons more real and vivid to me. One thing I discovered: In the country, the summer is the busy time, and fall and winter are times of rest. In the city it's the opposite.
What are the things that keep most of us attached to our machines? For me, I'd say it's the fear of drudgery, and a sense of learned helplessness. I think of myself as able to do one or two things well—not including cleaning my apartment or cooking—and delegate everything else. What other factors have you identified?
You just said it beautifully, what accounts for a lot of that. If we're overspecialized, we're imbeciles when it comes to doing a lot of the basic tasks that people on a farm growing up learn to take for granted. The one challenge we faced in the community was not the sheer physical work, but learning all the different skills, knacks, pieces of know-how that go into living without technology. You do all the steps of planting, growing, preserving and cooking food, for instance—instead of popping freeze-dried meals into a microwave oven. If you don't learn the know-how, you're going to flounder. Luckily, we had solicitous neighbors.
So do you have any message for people whose family obligations keep them in the city or the suburbs?
You can liberate yourself by weaning away from technology in a number of ways. Try to live where you don't need a car. Don't watch TV—read a book. Those two things would go a very long way towards reducing people's dependency on machines. Even switching from TV to radio—which allows you to do something useful while you listen, creates more of a layered experience than falling into the void of television, which literally occupies your senses.
The whole way of life is sacramental—a physical embodiment of a spiritual reality.
What would you say to someone like me, who thinks: "Peeling potatoes, planting yams, spreading manure—sounds like mindnumbing work, maybe worse than sorting mail or faxing out press releases or whatever else we do in urban jobs." What positive experiences did you find lying at the heart of the kind of work we now shun?
First of all, our bodies are going to need some kind of exercise to stay healthy. Even our fingers—one of the reasons for carpal tunnel syndrome is that the computer keyboard doesn't offer enough resistance, unlike the old typewriters. Our fingers crave some kind of resistance. So do all our muscles.
As to drudgery—you might not realize this, but manual labor with repetition becomes self-automating. It has long been known that your body can learn to perform certain physical tasks and do them independently of the mind being aware of it. That can go up to very high order physical tasks, such as playing the piano. I did that for 6 years in a French restaurant. I would have long, complex philosophical conversations while still playing—my fingers did it, and I didn't even have to think about it.
Farm labor and home crafts work the same way. This makes for a wonderful economy of satisfaction. You can satisfy the body's physical needs, your emotional needs for human connection, and your intellectual needs all at once in a multilayered experience. You are literally saving time. That's the reason that people in the Minimite community work fewer hours per week than most people in office environments.
I found intellectual satisfaction even in the form of labor that was considered the most arduous, threshing—taking pitchforks and using them to hurl sheaves of wheat onto a horse-drawn wagon. We worked in teams of four to six crew members. The hard work was in heaving the wheat. I suffered heatstroke the first time I tried it. This sounds like just the kind of mind-stunting, backbreaking work that labor saving devices are supposed to be saving us. But once I got the knack of it and my body adjusted to the heat, I found that threshing was one of the best occasions for philosophical conversations with people.
You mention in the chapter we excerpted that you and your wife avoid artificial contraception. Have you had any feedback about that or any other theological issues from your many secular readers? Which came first—your doctrinal position on contraception, or your skepticism towards technology?
Actually I had that position on contraception before I became a Catholic. That's one of the things that drew me to the Church. Separating the physical consequences of sex from the pleasure is like inventing a pill that gives you the experience of eating, without putting on weight. Just think what that would do to human experience, how it would distort everything. The body has its own natural contraceptive, which is breast-feeding, which is healthier anyway.
I think there’s a real connection between the use of contraception and the proliferation of all our technology.
As to people's reactions... One self-avowed feminist reviewed my book on Amazon.com, and approved of it-except for things which contradicted her feminist orthodoxy. One of the things she mentioned was that passage on contraception. I had to work hard to find a way to put it in without sounding self-congratulatory about it.
Could you talk about the effects of contraception on family life since the 1960s? Do you see it as a microcosm of the impact technology has had on society? Does this flow from something like Descartes' ambition to use science to make man "the master and possessor of nature?"
I think there's a real connection between the use of contraception and the proliferation of all our technology. Henry Adams pointed out over 100 years ago in his autobiography, in the chapter "The Dynamo and the Virgin," that technological fecundity has supplanted natural fertility. We have seen a massive shift from the forces of nature to the forces of technology. Adams saw Mary as the epitome of natural fertility, and the dynamo of the infinite, immeasurable, potential of technology. So naturally the use of contraception would go hand in hand with the proliferation of technology. That's why the room that used to house the nursery in many people's homes now houses the computer.
What's your rule of thumb on when a piece of technology is worth using, and when it becomes more inhibiting than liberating?
The key thing is: Does it compete with my own native capabilities? Does it replace something that I'd be better off doing for myself? Today the kids and I biked all the way from the cathedral to the house—I took my 6, 8, and 11 year-old—four miles. They're all in good shape, and it was a wonderful family outing.
Another test: Does the cost in sheer dollars make it worth the output? This translates into extra work. Is there hidden work attached to the device. The car is the biggest example of that. The cost of buying, maintaining, and insuring cars over a lifetime typically exceeds the cost of a family's home.
How do you feel about the assertion that the Internet and e-mail have also helped create community—allowing many people to work from home, which could be anywhere, letting like-minded people meet up. Catholic internet dating has proven a life-line for many geographically or socially isolated people, for instance. Do these factors counterbalance the alienation, the spam, the porn..?
I would say that it all depends on your context. If you are already completely isolated because of technology, then sometimes it's true that the technological solution follows. So it might not be a good idea to abstain from the computer if your technological isolation suggests its use. If you're stuck, that might be what you have to do. But in the best of worlds, face-to-face interactions are infinitely superior to encountering disembodied bits of type on a screen. To the extent that you're sitting at a computer, you're missing out on the face-to-face, full-bodied interactions that are far preferable, far more human. Eventually you're going to suffer consequences for living this sort of life. You're going to feel it one way or another, probably as existential emptiness.
To paraphrase Marx, technology is providing the circuitry to hang itself.
How do feel about the fact that this interview is going into a completely "virtual" magazine?
First of all, I never say that technology is bad in itself, and I have no problem with using selective doses of technology in the larger cause of battling against it. To paraphrase Marx, technology is providing the circuitry to hang itself. You have to go where the people are. If you're addressing people addicted to technology you don't go to the Fiji Islands.