October 18, 2014

Technology as Taskmaster

"Nothing works around here," Dan told me when I called him into lunch. He was frustrated because the lawn mower wouldn't start, and neither would his pick-up truck. The homemade coulter on his walk-behind tractor wasn't working correctly, the blade on the sickle mower needs replacing, and the chainsaw chain needed sharpening. Then there's the ever increasing pile of "junk", including a broken down tiller and a backyard leaf mulcher we'd like to sell, except the pull cord pulled off. On top of that, our washer, dryer, and electric summer stove are all on their last legs, as is the drip coffee pot.

I am reading an interesting book. I won it in Carolyn's giveaway at Krazo Acres, Better Off: Flipping The Switch on Technology. Two People One Year Zero Wattsby Eric Brende. He and his wife rented a home in the middle of an Amish-like community in order to experience life without modern technology. The book is the story of their experiences, thoughts, observations, and what they learned. He makes several noteworthy points.

One is how technology, with its promise of making our lives easier and more leisurely by saving us time, money, and work, has so come to dominate our modern lifestyles, that we are completely dependent upon it. It dictates what we do, when we do, and how we do it. We are helpless without it. He gave the example of a new cash register. Employees could not sell simple products because they didn't know how to operate it. Finally someone figured out they could calculate tax with pen and paper, and make change by hand.

This example relates to another point he makes, that as technology increases, human knowledge and skill decrease. I can only nod my head in agreement. We humans think we are so smart and advanced because we have computers, smart phones, and the internet. Yet who among us, of our own skill and knowledge, can fix a computer when it crashes? Or build a computer from scratch? We have more information, but less knowledge and less ability.

I figured out a long time ago that my so-called time saving kitchen devices were often more trouble to get out, set up, use, and clean up, than I thought worth it. So much quicker and easier to use a simple hand tool. While I can't deny that our walk-behind tractor and sickle mower have been truly useful tools for getting work accomplished, I must also acknowledge that they require a lot of time, work, and money to maintain.

It is difficult to criticize technology without being accused of going backward, or of being an isolationist. I know other homesteaders can relate. Another point made in this book is that, in fact, it is technology which isolates people. Agrarianism necessitates working together and fosters a sense of true human relationship and community. The community must come together to accomplish meaningful work. Our technology has taught us to focus on machines rather than people: we talk to cell phones or computer screens rather than face to face with real people. Our get-togethers focus on a presentation of entertainment rather than one another or on accomplishing a goal.

Those statements are somewhat generalized, of course, as is my next one. That it seems many modern day folks view technology as an all or nothing entity: either we have to embrace it all, or we're seen as rejecting it all. Rejecting part of it is viewed as rejecting all of it. I don't understand this thinking. Aren't we humans intelligent enough to pick and choose the level of technology which suits our personal needs and lifestyle? If I want to be actively involved in the processes of meeting our basic needs, why does that make me backward?

The wheel was a technological innovation at one time, as was the horse drawn plow and the steam locomotive. Those of us who desire a more hands-on, less technologically complicated lifestyle do so because we do not want to be totally dependent upon it. We do not want to lose the knowledge and skills which enable us to be independent. We do not want to spend all our time and money maintaining machines. We do not want our lives to revolve around them. We do not want to serve the machines, we want them to serve us.

It seems that the more time our technology saves us, the more frantic modern life becomes. All around me I see folks in a hurry and irritated because they aren't getting there fast enough. I've realized that if I don't want to live this way, I must learn a different way of looking at life. I need different, simpler goals. I must learn to be content with "less" by focusing more on doing rather than having. It necessitates slowing down and not doing everything at a breakneck speed. My progress is slower, but if my goal is a simpler lifestyle, then that's how it should be.

I can't say I've mastered any of this, I'm a work in progress. It helps to not have television and especially television advertising in my face. It helps to just take it a day at a time. It helps to not have much money. And especially it helps to know like-minded people through the internet, which, in light of what I'm saying, seems an odd thing to say. But that goes back to what I've been trying to say along, that technology should be a tool rather than a taskmaster.

What do you think?


Michelle said...

I think this is one of the main reasons I love blogging; I 'meet' people like you who inspire and challenge me, who make me say "Amen"!

cumbrian said...

My thoughts exactly, machines and computers have taken over just about everything.

Farmer Barb said...

I cut trees with a hand saw. Sheep mow my lawn. Gardening without chemicals is a personal choice. When we had a hurricane induced power outage for two weeks, our children learned about candles for light and heating water in the fireplace. People insult without even knowing it when they give me a compliment with a qualifier. "When the end of the world comes, I want to be sitting next to YOU!" Oh, really, where do you want to be the rest of the time? I love having a direct connection to the elements of my life. The advent of the computer has been many things. No one thing is all good or all bad. Water is a perfect example. Too much and you have a flood. Not enough and you have a drought. It allows us to live and it can cause us to die. I need a certain amount of technology yes, but I don't need ALL of it ALL the time. Setting personal boundaries is what keeps the peace.

Theresa said...

Oh I agree that technology is double edged sword, but I am not sure it isolates us any more than living on a farm back in the day and driving the wagon and team of horses in once a month for supplies was any more isolating. It also has allowed us to gather vast sources of information to say grow/raise something more efficiently, get the news of the world, look up a stat and self publish a book and market it. How nice we can expound the evils of something while utilizing it!
Look at all the wonderful finds you've gotten through Craigslist. And I can say maintaining a car is cheaper and easier than maintaining horses, hands down. And lets face it, the Amish have some pretty clever work arounds for their goods. Some of the biggest puppy mills in the USA are Amish run. Just another cash crop.

Leigh said...

Michelle, I agree. I learn so much from other bloggers and those who comment on blogs.

Cumbrain, now if only we can get a little portion of it back!

Barb, well said and excellent illustration. I agree that it's about setting personal boundaries, assuming we can figure out what they are, because they won't be the same for all folks. I think that's one of the biggest challenges to being free from technology as a taskmaster.

Theresa, some folks do love their gizmos and gadgets, and if they don't mind being dependent upon them, they have that right. Since I'm a hands-on person, I like a more hands-on approach.

Technology of itself is not evil; I just don't want my life to revolve around it. Like all other good tools, we should understand how to use it and when, along with the freedom to make that choice.

I don't think, however, that isolation automatically comes with the rural way of life. For the pioneers, perhaps, but even those areas settled quickly. Every rural area has a vibrant rural community. The key is not minding being alone as the task or project warrants. :)

Anonymous said...

Oh I can so relate to what you are saying Leigh! After my issues with the mower, which we bought to help us, many times it just seemed to be more work than it was worth. And the fact that most of our outdoor tools need gas, and when money is tight, they can't be used...it's a vicious cycle lol.
I agree though, that technology has it's place. I don't know what I would do without my internet to research, and to connect with wonderful people like you!


Woolly Bits said...

yes, I agree - we all have to make our personal choices! I can live without a washing machine, I have done so often enough - but I admit that I prefer to spend my time on something else than washing everything by hand. on the other hand I can live without a mobile phone, I do so - and I will continue to do so out of choice! I try not to judge others for their choices, and I think I (or you for that matter:) should be allowed the same. it's just difficult at times to live with the results of my choice, when they don't work out as planned:) my head knows that I shouldn't go off the rocker, when the computer has hiccups - and I am sure I could live without it again, but right at the moment where it doesn't work and I had plans with it - it drives me crazy! so I guess that means, I haven't mastered the simple life style either, but I am working on it:)

Renee Nefe said...

We are beginning to feel like Dan also. Yesterday the microwave wouldn't work (I know how you feel about them). We just replaced the furnace and had the humidifier fixed (and it still isn't right). When the furnace was fixed it messed up the hot water heater which meant we needed a new regulator (hubby is kicking himself because he hired a plumber and could have done it himself!) It seems we're on the "What's Next?" mode all the time. I really wish that I could find products that were built to last instead of for the dump.

Mom at home said...

Some of the replacement parts are made so cheaply that one in particular has to be changed every year--starter rope on tiller. The quality of material is so poor it cannot last a season.

We put a stop to some of our technology use we were spending time on. It was addicting and wasted too much time. Now my family has to tell me the latest family gossip because I'm not reading it online. My oldest asked me to get a smart phone so she could text me and I said just call me instead:)
I love watching your progress on your farm:)

Matt said...

You know, I try to limit my time with computers, etc, etc, etc. I think they take away from valuable family time. I am all for making our lives better, but I think sometimes that things have gone too far with our addiction to all things technological.

Leigh said...

Stephanie, I think one has to live with the frustration to really understand it! I sometimes wonder why I'm buying so many gasoline powered tools, but know that they are useful for the time being. I'm hoping that as we learn, we can use natural alternatives, like pigs for tilling or natural ground covers instead of lawn (or weeds in our case. )

Bettina, I think when things break is when we get a true idea of how much they impact our lives. I think about the computer, especially, and all that having it entails. I recognize that I spend too much time on it; visiting other blogs, LOL

Renee, seems like we can never get away from the "What's next"!

Mom at home, good point, and another reason why I get discouraged with our consumer system. When the bottom line is profit, the result is what we have now.

Matt, you raise the point that motivated Eric Brende in the first place, i.e. has technology solved more problems, or created more problems? Sounds like you're striving for a good balance.

Anonymous said...

When we moved here my husband bought a tiny tractor (same size as a ride on mower) with a mowing deck. We all love Trevor but he has spent most of his time not working. We've had so many things go wrong over the last 2 years. On the bright side, since we've moved our 1/2 acre of trees and grass has been changed to a 1/2 acre with trees across the creek and little remaining grass and what we do have we can easily use a push mower to maintain plus the whipper snipper and much of that remaining grass is discovering the world of sheet mulch and veggie beds above it anyway. :) Work smarter, not harder. :) The grassthat will remain will be easily maintained and mown by letting the chooks out to scratch (once they're fenced off properly form veggie gardens that is).
I totally agree with technology in its place. I want to be the master of it, not it the master of me. We have a Thermomix in which we cook on warmer days but it gets used rarely in winter as we have the wood stove/oven and that works just fine. We have a fridge and freezer but I'm looking long and hard at food preservation without using them. Root cellar? Fermented foods?
I figure I want to be in a position to have many of our creature comforts and modern conveniences without reliance on electricity or batteries if/when they become unavailable. :)

Chris said...

One enormous problem with technology dependence is our ability to feel "helpless" when they aren't working. Once upon a time, when you owned a horse and cart, you knew how to tend the horse, as well as the cart and when well maintained, lasted a great many years.

When we buy into technology today, we buy into dependency, and someone else fixing our tools for us. A car nowadays requires a general maintenance mechanic, an auto electrician and in my experience, separate specialists for the wheels, brakes and gearbox. General mechanics are too overrun to take the time needed to properly fix the specialist areas.

I've been debating whether I should buy a rasping file to sharpen my tools by hand, or an electric driven sharpening stone. I know the latter would sharpen everything quickly, but then I would become dependent on it and when it breaks, I'd be back to square-one. A rasping file could potentially last a lifetime though.

I also think the health benefits of doing things manually, are terribly underrated. When we move daily, we maintain our strength and mental faculties, because as we age, we most certainly start losing it.

Every neighbour who has ever seen our retaining walls, or heard of our plans to dig swales by hand, they shake their heads and say something like, "that's why we use heavy machinery". They claim it would take them all day, and I heartily agree - it does take a lot more time when moving dirt by hand. It's taken us "years" in fact.

But the health benefits we've derived are enormous. I'm sure we seem terribly backwards, but I hope to be avoiding specialist help to fix me when I brake down from lack of movement or exercising my hand-brain coordination.

Cozy Thyme Cottage said...

It does seem like technology has made our lives more complicated. On the other hand I sure do love certain things! I have that book, "Better Off" by Eric Brende and read it years ago. Maybe I had better read it again. Nancy

Carolyn said...

I'm glad you're enjoying the book. During and after reading it, there were so many things that I looked at differently. And this post sums it up perfectly. Makes me want to give up everything.....well, not everything :)

Sandy Livesay said...


This book you won sounds like a great read.

I agree with you, Americans depend on their toys, and electronics to get them by. If we lose access to electric......let's just say we get hit with an EMP. American's wouldn't know what to do. Many haven't prepared or gone back to using their hands and manual appliances or tools. They wouldn't know what to do.

Leigh said...

Jessie, you think like I do, use tools and equipment that help, but work on alternatives in the meantime. I think (for us anyway) it's also important to learn to live without. My fridge and freezer are the two I ponder the most. To keep foods fresh longer, but also to keep pantry moths out! The moths destroy a lot left on the pantry shelves, grains, beans, and dehydrated foods. I would probably have to learn to accept the higher losses if we ever had to do with out refrigeration.

Chris, I think that sense of helplessness is a motivator for Dan. Nothing frustrates him more than not being able to fix something himself. He points out that machines have gotten so complicated with their computer components, that even the "experts" now can't diagnose. So instead of replacing a part, an entire unit has to be bought and replaced. More expensive for the consumer, and a larger piece of junk to clutter the land fills.

And I so agree about being healthier by doing more manually. The irony of buying all sorts of labor saving devices, and then buying a membership to a fitness club is not lost on me. LOL

Nancy, definitely more complicated, although if everything is working it seems great! Very interesting book, just the kind I like to read. Actually have picked up a few low tech tidbits to make some of our jobs a bit easier.

Carolyn, I'm very much enjoying the book. Good giveaway!

Sandy, I think most folks assume the government will jump in and fix everything. This is another unfortunate dependency, i.e. thinking government can save us from all problems. Too many actual natural disasters have shown us the fallacy of this thinking. Even at it's best government is a human agency, subject to communications, logistics, transportation, and manpower problems. Unfortunately politics keeps government from being and doing its best.

Doug Pitcher said...

I struggle with this. I work from home on the computer so am online all day. I like having tools that help but they really don't save work they just make it so I can do more work. We have tried to include play time on our list of things to do each day as it's hard on family relations if we just work and don't play with the kids. I've stopped Facebook mostly as it's just a time waster for me. I like being able to Google how to stuff.

Lana said...

I don't like extra appliances either...they just take up space and take more energy to use than is needed with an old-fashioned approach.


Kris said...

I did without a lot when I was younger, stronger and healthier. Now looking down at 70, it would be impossible for me to live alone in my own home without certain tools, appliances and technology. I use what I need sparingly. The alternative? The alternative would have been living in an extended family where different ages could and did contribute at different levels. Technology has fragmented/substituted family groups. The economy demands that we all live apart from each other so we can each consume as much as possible. Why sell one of anything when people can be indoctrinated into thinking they all want/need/must have one of their own? What follows is fragmentation, disassociation and debt. For some of us - little alternative if you have no family. Pity.

Leigh said...

Doug, I think those of us who don't want our lives revolving around technology are always questioning our use of it. I think you have made an excellent choice about family time. Also FB. I have a page for my book which I'm barely able to update once a day. So many homesteaders are constantly updating; I don't know where they find the time! Our homesteading is a full time and a half job. :)

Lana, good point. My washer and dryer on on their last legs and I wonder about replacing them. The dryer only gets used in rainy weather, but it's nice to have then. Still, I doubt I could afford a new one. Even if I could the new ones seem to break down a lot. Maybe they really aren't worth that.

Kris, excellent points and I think you're hitting the nail on the head when you mention extended family (and community) and the resulting fragmentation. That's another point Brende's book emphasizes.

Theresa mentioned the Amish in her comment and what technology has done to them. They are slowly being pushed out of their preferred profession of farming by the industrialization of agriculture. Thanks to technology it's now big business, and that excludes the common folk. The Amish are now forced out into the consumer market with means they likely wouldn't resort to if they could make a living at farming. I think it's the same for all of us.

Even so, I think they have one of the best models for community, by virtue of being family oriented and relying on friends and family because they are so low tech. As you say, however, that doesn't help those of us who have no family or community support system.

Unknown said...


I really enjoyed this post. Having just returned from my cabin (I have 40 remote acres I inherited that I can't convince the wife to move to) I can really relate to the quiet life. I didn't want to leave this morning. It is so peaceful without the hum of electricity, and the roar of nearby traffic.


tpals said...

Funny that I was just relishing the latest gadget in my kitchen...an apple peeler/corer/slicer. What took ages with a paring knife now takes seconds. Of course, it's not electric so not as silly as some gadgets.

That said; I understand your post. While I love having a washing machine, I haven't used a dryer in years. Cell phones are certainly convenient; my family mostly communicates by texting, yet none of us have smart phones.

Unknown said...

Well, you can skip a new clothes dryer! I hand dry my clothes on a rack, indors, - in winter clothes dry lickety-split, and even on humid summer days they take an extra day only. Or you can hang them outdoors in summer, as you have the space to do this....