Book Review: Better Off

As most of us continue to add more and more technology to our lives a few important questions arise: Is technology enhancing our lives or degrading them? How much technology is too much and how much is not enough? How does one find the appropriate balance of technology? In his book, Better Off, Eric Brende explores these questions in ample detail. Brende holds degrees from Yale, Washburn University, and MIT and is a modern day Thoreau of sorts. Unlike most of us, Brende is in a unique position to answer the questions I posed; he’s more than just an armchair philosopher of technology. What I mean by that is that Brende has practical experience with the power of technological subtraction. He has actually conducted an experiment where he lived off the grid for 18 months. Better Off is the telling account of what he learned during that experience.

I certainly don’t agree with everything that Brende had to say, particularly some of the religious overtones; however, he hit the nail on the head when it comes to some of the technological ills that plague modern society.

We embrace technology in the name of efficiency, but to what avail? So we can drive to gyms in order to walk on treadmills? In my opinion, many so-called technological efficiencies are really hindrances to human flourishing. Adam Smith wrote about similar applications of this principle back in the 18th century, although he was probably not the first person to come to such a realization either. No where are technological ills more prevalent than in the modern American food system. Again, this is all done in the name of efficiency and it’s costing us our health.

As I turned the pages, I was continually reminded of “The Fisherman’s Parable.” Oftentimes it seems that all this technology has us running in circles. Perhaps we wouldn’t have to “work” so hard to put food on the table, pay for cars and insurance, pay for gym memberships, pay for unnecessary medical procedures, etc. if we cut out some of these technological ills.

This book reenforced a strong held belief of mine: health and well-being are largely subtractive. Brende obviously took it to the extreme by growing all of his own food and riding his bike or walking everywhere, but I think there are important lessons that can be learned from him. I’m not interested in living entirely off the grid, but I am interested in continuing to ruminate over the following questions: Is all of this technology making our lives any easier? Are we any more fulfilled? And most importantly, are we any happier?  Brende has some interesting answers that are worth considering.

[click the following for and copies of the book]


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