A few days ago The Guardian published a short little piece from Mark Boyle, a man who has decided to turn his back on modern technology and live completely off the grid. He's living in a cabin built in a very traditional manner without phone, electricity, or even running water. In his own words, using nothing "requiring the copper-mining, oil-rigging, plastics-manufacturing essential to the production of a single toaster or solar photovoltaic system." If Mr. Boyle can live the life he chooses without any of today's modern conveniences, then I hope he finds the happiness he seeks. He is not the first person to have an "I Quit Technology" published in the paper, and he certainly won't be the last. What I often wonder, though, is why so many of the people who decide to walk away from modern conveniences think of today's tools in such a negative manner and why so many do so on their own rather than join a community of like-minded individuals.
I decided to eschew complex technology for two reasons. The first was that I found myself happier away from screens and the relentless communication they generate, and instead living intimately with my locale. The second, more important, was the realisation that technology destroys, in more ways than one.
The quote above is something that I've heard a lot over the last 20-odd years as computers and the Internet has become more a part of everyday life, and the people who say it tend to think of these tools in a very binary manner. Either we use absolutely everything a piece of glass and plastic has to offer, or we use nothing at all. There doesn't seem to be a middle ground.
In the grand scheme of things, I agree with the idea that people can be happier away from the relentless communication that is enabled by always connected notebooks and smart phones, which is why just about every notification on my computer and phone is disabled. I don't need to have a bunch of apps vying for my attention, nor do I feel the need to be completely up-to-date all the time. Doing so is exhausting and ultimately pointless if you don't make a living writing for gossip sites. For this reason people can get my attention with a direct phone call, an email to a specific address, or a message on Skype. Otherwise, I'll see the message when I see the message. After doing this for social services and RSS feeds some five years ago, my general mood improved and I started being more present and offline while out and about in the world.
As for Mark's "realisation that technology destroys", I fail to see how this is even remotely accurate. Technology couldn't care less whether it's used creatively or destructively, for good or for evil, to help or to hinder. The tools that we create — and technology is a catch-all term for every tool we've created — simply enable humans to accomplish the goals they set out to do. This isn't to say that all technology is inherently beneficial or the best use of resources, but how often does humanity make the most of anything? We are an incredibly wasteful species with the tendency to destroy wonderful creations for our own purposes. Making a sweeping statement like "technology destroys" is no different than saying "men kill". It's a poor rationalization of a far more complex concept.
Reading through Mark's reasoning behind the "technology destroys" statement, I get the feeling that he's more disgusted with consumerism than technology. He's disappointed with the way people interact more with glowing screens than each other. I feel much the same way, as our excessive consumerism and isolationism does have a very clear impact on the world, but I wouldn't dream of turning my back on everything just because I'm upset with how other people use the tools I was once openly mocked for developing. Instead, I can try to lead by example and encourage better technology recycling and offline interaction habits. Unplugging from the world is no different than sticking our heads in the sand, so to speak. It makes absolutely no difference in the grand scheme of other people's lives.
One Needn't Go It Alone
I'm sure we've all wanted to get away from it all at one time or another, perhaps escaping to a tropical atoll in the middle of the Pacific like Tom Hanks in Castaway. Living completely off the land and eking out a simple life without the endless distractions that make up so much of our day. While this can sound attractive at times, it sets us up for failure in a pretty big way. The world has been tamed in many ways, but it's still a hostile place for those who are under-prepared or over-confident. Going it alone and living off the grid can leave a person or family susceptible to an awful lot. This raises another question I've had for people choosing to reject modern technology and live like our ancestors: Why not really live like those who came before us and join an Amish community?
While it doesn't happen very often, people are more than welcome to join the Amish community so long as they commit themselves to following the Ordnung. Wikipedia does a great job of explaining it:
The rules of the church, the Ordnung, must be observed by every member and cover most aspects of day-to-day living, including prohibitions or limitations on the use of power-line electricity, telephones, and automobiles, as well as regulations on clothing. […] As present-day Anabaptists, Amish church members practice nonresistance and will not perform any type of military service. The Amish value rural life, manual labor and humility, all under the auspices of living what they interpret to be God's word.
So, be a true member of the church, be an active member of the community, follow the rules, and be a shining example of humility. In exchange you get to be part of something bigger than a single person could possibly be alone, and you get to contribute towards something worthwhile. While some Amish affiliations will permit limited use of technology, some outright reject the vast majority of it, as the chart below shows.
Being an island unto one's self seems awfully selfish and more wasteful than being part of a community. The great thing about the Amish is that, even if you choose to not join their religion and live life the way they do, they'll gladly let you join in many of the community events so long as you're civil.
To What End Will One Go?
The last question I usually have for people who want to reject tech is whether they'll reject modern science, too. Modern technology is ultimately the result of modern science. We couldn't have any of our digital tools without a deep understanding of physics, and we couldn't have the plethora of plastics and alloys we use without a solid grasp of a lot of different fields. Rejecting technology may as well be the rejection of modern science and, if that's the case, at what point will one draw the line to say "any science from after this time in human history is not for me"?
At the end of the day, everybody is free to make their choices. So long as nobody is hurt as a consequence, my opinion of these choices is neither here nor there. I do wonder whether extreme decisions are made without a complete understanding of what one is rebelling against, though. Technology can be used for good. Technology can bring communities of people together in unique and wonderful ways. Technology can help extend our lifespan. Technology can ensure our food is clean and safe. Technology can provide for us a toilet that doesn't smell like a porta-potty after a week at Burning Man.
Ultimately, the problem isn't the technology. It's how we decide to use it, and how we decide to perceive others who use it differently.