ADDRESSES: Home—St. Louis, MO. Agent—c/o Author Mail, HarperCollins, 10 East 53rd St., 7th Floor, New York, NY 10022.
CAREER: Worked variously as a musician, rickshaw driver, and soapmaker.
AWARDS, HONORS: Citation of Excellence, National Science Foundation; graduate fellowship.
Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology (memoir), HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2004.
SIDELIGHTS: Eric Brende attended a graduate program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that studied the social effects of machines. The program got him thinking about society's overreliance on technology' after it ended, he and his wife left the Boston area and moved to a rural farming community where they could test Brende's theories about getting by without modern technology. He tells their story in Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology.
The community the Brendes joined was populated by families who lived without electricity and traveled by horse and buggy. The couple stayed for eighteen months, learning to farm and accomplish the various chores necessary to survive. They also discovered that rather than living a life of drudgery, they experienced the satisfaction of being part of a group, the members of which supported and worked with each other. As Brende told National Catholic Reporter contributor Rich Heffern that "in the end it saved time because you achieved so many things at once: the work, the exercise, the rich rewards of building community and friendships. The satisfactions so laborious to obtain in the technological society—bodily exercise, social ties, mental challenges—all blend together in a savory mix. It's very efficient." Brende calls this lifestyle "minimation" and calls the people in the community where they lived "Minimites." In order to protect their privacy, he does not identify the Minimites, and he said that they "didn't eliminate technology altogether but used it to meet ends they wanted to achieve. They take time to think deeply about alternatives, choices. They call this virtue gelassenheit, or self-surrender, and it flows directly from their Christian religious heritage."
In an interview with John Zmirak for GodSpy.com, Brende emphasized that in addition to the communal experience, "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." Brende said this "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."
Mary Brende had consented to the experiment because her husband agreed to let her choose how they would live when they were through. Mary embraced what she had learned from their experience, and they moved to an older section of St. Louis, where they garden and educate their three children through a Catholic home-schooling co-op. They have no televison, computer, or other technology they feel is unnecessary. They heat with wood, and Mary uses a hand-operated washing machine. They use a half-size refrigerator and own an older car, but they walk and bike as much as possible. The Brendes live on a very modest income generated from a variety of enterprises, including his soapmaking. They live frugally and enjoy a healthier lifestyle and more leisure time. In his book, Brende makes suggestions for reducing one's dependence on technology.
Judy McAloon wrote in School Library Journal that "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." Booklist contributor Gilbert Taylor felt that "this memorable story will warm the heart of anyone dreaming about an alternative, closer-to-the-land lifestyle."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Brende, Eric Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2004.
Booklist, July, 2004, Gilbert Taylor, review of Better Off, p. 1804.
Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 2004, review of Better Off, p. 611.
Library Journal, June 1, 2004, Wilda Williams, interview with Brende, p. 178.
National Catholic Reporter, September 17, 2004, Rich Heffern, review of Better Off, p. 17.
People, August 16, 2004, "Better Off" (interview), p. 53.
Publishers Weekly, May 24, 2004, review of Better Off, p. 52.
School Library Journal, November, 2004, Judy McAloon, review of Better Off, p. 178.
Science News, September 11, 2004, review of Better Off, p. 175.
GodSpy.com, http://www.godspy.com/ (November 1, 2004), John Zmirak, "The Simple Life Redux" (interview).