Reviewed by Adam DeVille
Questions about technology and community have been longstanding preoccupations of mine. I just recently finished a book published in 2004 that narrates a winsome journey of a young couple from Yale and MIT who ended up living with, and largely like, Amish for a year: Eric Brende, Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology (Harper Perrenial, 2005) The author ends with a few suggestions on how to live with technology, and to live with less technology. For those Eastern and other Christians interested in this kind of life, a life that seems at heart more monastic than most of us lead, you will find this an interesting book – very descriptive, and helpfully non-prescriptive.
I read this book in one afternoon, and it is charmingly written, not least because it is free from any sanctimonious preaching or hectoring. It documents a fascinating year living among the Amish, and an increasing sense of wanting to do that permanently. But in the end several insurmountable hurdles presented themselves and Eric and his wife Mary left. But they carried with them many lessons from the “Minimites,” as they called their low-tech neighbors, which they continue to live out today in a suburb of St. Louis. The neighborhood near St. Louis where they have settled seems to follow the pattern for flourishing outlined by Jane Jacobs in her landmark book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (University of Chicago Press, 1987) Here many things are within walking or cycling distance, and this is something I wish we would see in more large cities.
I read Jacobs’ book as an undergraduate in an introductory course on ethics. At first, I couldn’t figure out what the heck the professor, Kenneth Melchin, was doing by having us read a book about urban planning in an ethics course taught by a theology department.
We also read another equally baffling choice, viz., Eric Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics (Vintage, 1992) most of which I didn’t understand at the time, but which has come back to me more and more over the years, not least its memorable notion of the “immantization of the eschaton.” Both books not only taught valuable lessons in themselves, but their selection in an ethics course was a piece of pedagogical brilliance: they helped me overcome once and for all what Alasdair MacIntyre sees as one of the most pernicious traps of modernity: the blindness we have to moral questions, which are in fact shot through all of life, and not discreetly delimited into tight departments. Ever since, I have answered in the affirmative MacIntyre’s question “Does Applied Ethics Rest Upon a Mistake?”