On the suggestion of Maggie who reads this blog, I recently read The Way Home: Tales from a life without technology by Mark Boyle. Those of you in the UK may recognize Boyle as the Moneyless Man when he made an attempt a number of years ago to live for an entire year without money. In The Way Home he gives up technology.
Of course giving up technology is a tricky thing because where do you draw the line? Everything made is a kind of technology after all. Boyle chose to draw the line to exclude all digital technology, anything powered by electricity or fossil fuels, and anything made of plastic. In addition, he attempts to reuse, salvage, and scavenge as much as he can. So, for instance, the lumber for the small house he built came from scrap boards at a nearby farm and the rafters were trees cut from the woods.
When he embarked on the project, The Guardian got wind of it and asked him to publish a regular column for their website, which created a special problem. Boyle would only write on paper with a pencil and could only send in his columns by post. He could not reply to comments to his articles online or be otherwise engaged with his audience unless he received things in the mail. I’m not sure why he couldn’t use a manual typewriter or at the least a fountain pen, but as I mentioned before, it is difficult to draw a line—why one thing but not another?
When he decided to turn everything into a book, he was forced to borrow a computer to type up his manuscript. He considered paying someone to type it up for him but decided that paying someone to do what he wouldn’t was not an ethical choice.
I enjoyed the book in spite of its many flaws. While it ostensibly takes place over the course of a year, Boyle at this point has lived his off grid no tech existence for nearly ten years. And so he makes many of the things he does sound really easy and no big deal. Coming upon a still warm deer that had been killed by a car, he takes it back to his cabin and butchers it while marveling over how he used to be a vegan and animal rights activist but this dead deer represents food that will nourish him and keep him alive. How did he know about butchering? And of course he saved the skin and knew exactly how to use the brains to tan it. None of this is something you easily learn how to do after only a few months.
He owns the smallholding in Ireland on which he lives. How did he acquire this? No idea. He seems to know his neighbors from the start, has friends who have smallholdings or houses in the area whom he meets at a pub every week or so. He also has the use of a horse and buggy/wagon but does not go into any kind of detail about it. He walks most places, but also bikes. Sometimes he leaves his house to go visit his parents or his girlfriend’s family in distant towns and to get there he hitchhikes, which, if you are giving up technology, seems rather like a cheat for travel. He doesn’t own a car but he not once seems to have any qualms about riding in the cars and trucks of strangers. I found this odd since at one point he is talking about doing maintenance on his bike and worrying about the technology of the bicycle and how it is dependent on industrialized processes.
What I wanted and didn’t get was the struggle to live a low/no tech life, the trial and error of learning new skills and ways of being in a developed western culture that looks upon such a way of life as backwards. Nor did I get much in the way of explanations about why he found this kind of living satisfying. He tells the reader over and over again that it is, but the manner in which he says it is unsatisfying because we have to believe what he says instead of being shown it. There is also a lack of emotion even when emotional things happen like when his girlfriend, whom he thought he would marry one day, leaves him.
What I did enjoy about the book is the reaction of people to his chosen way of living. When he tells his friends and family and other people, they just don’t understand how anyone can do it or would want to. It’s like when I tell people I don’t have a television and the look of wonder that elicits, only for Boyle it is magnified since when I say I can stream video on my computer people relax and feel much better about my lack of TV. Boyle doesn’t even have a computer. And I laughed when a hurricane blew through and everyone lost power, and his neighbors, who obviously didn’t know he lived without electricity, kept asking if his power was back on yet.
I also enjoyed that Boyle wove in the history of the area around his smallholding, the farms and early settlements, the effects of industrialization and urbanization, and the ways digital technology and cheap and easy to get online things are destroying local culture—why go to the local pub for a pint when you can buy more and cheaper beer online and have it delivered? Or why go to the pub to listen to mediocre local musicians when you can stream the top 40 songs on your phone from the comfort of your own sofa?
Why indeed. Boyle makes clear how technology and our current way of life is destroying rural communities and asks us to consider if we are really willing to lose them. He writes at the beginning of the book
Throughout most of my life, for reasons that made perfect sense, I chose money and machines, unconsciously choosing to live without the things which they replaced. The question concerning each of us then, one we all too seldom ask ourselves, is what are we prepared to lose, and what do we want to gain, as we fumble our way through our short, precious lives?
Because technology of any kind has trade-offs. And as we rush after the new and shiny, are seduced by sexy products with big promises that may or may not be real, we don’t stop to think about what we might be losing in exchange and whether it is worth it. I mean, is it really a good idea to delegate the reading of bedtime stories to Alexa so mom and dad get an extra few minutes to check their email or load the dishwasher? We are told progress is good, that all this tech is progress, so therefore all this tech is good. Boyle says that people often warned him to not romanticize the past, but he rightly warns, we should be equally as careful to not romanticize the future.