From Wednesday, I’m going to live without my laptop, internet, phone, washing machine or television. I want my life back. I want my soul back. – Mark Boyle
I’ll never know how many people liked this article, shared it or found it irrelevant, anti-progressive or ironic. Nor will I get to read comments about my personal hygiene, or suggesting that a luddite like me needs to embrace industrialism. And that is no bad thing, for the moment writing becomes a popularity contest – rewarding sensationalism, groupthink and deceit over honest exploration of complex matters – people and places lose, and those who need to be held to account win. Win, that is, for a shortsighted moment.
The reason I won’t see any web reaction is because I live in a cabin – built with spruce, oak, hands, straw, Douglas fir, stubbornness, earth and knees – without electricity or so-called modern conveniences (I’ve never found doing the work to buy and maintain them particularly convenient).
From Wednesday, I’m rejecting the world of complex technology entirely. That means no laptop, no internet, no phone, no washing machine, no tapped water, no gas, no fridge, no television or electronic music; no anything requiring the copper-mining, oil-rigging, plastics-manufacturing essential to the production of a single toaster or solar photovoltaic system.
Having already rejected these industrial-scale, complex technologies, I intend to move fully towards what is pejoratively called primitive technology. Insofar as engaging with civilisation allows, I’m also trying to resist the modern domination of what Jay Griffiths, in Pip Pip, calls clock time – and failing daily.
That probably sounds like I’ve given up a lot of stuff. But while I intend to be clear and honest about the difficulties involved over the coming months, especially in the digital age, I’m just as fascinated in exploring what lessons about life – myself, society, the natural world – I might learn; perhaps things my cyborg-mind cannot yet imagine. That was my experience of living without money for three fine years.
Rejecting technologies that my generation considers to be the basic necessities of life wasn’t done on a thoughtless whim. I already miss not being able to pick up the phone and talk to my parents. Writing is different, my pencil unaided by both copy-and-paste and the easy delete, two word-processing functions reflective of a generic, transient and whimsical culture; and it has been a while since the media and publishing worlds worked by snail mail.
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.
It destroys our relationship with the natural world. It first separates us from nature, while simultaneously converting life into the cash that oils consumerist society. Not only does it enable us to destroy habitat efficiently, over time this separation has led us to valuing the natural world less, meaning we protect and care for it less. By way of this vicious technological cycle, we are consciously causing the sixth mass extinction of species.
Technology destroys places. Aside from the oceans, rivers, topsoil, forests, mountains and meadows, it helps us massacre and pollute with ever-improving precision and speed, its complex set of cogs quickly spreads us out all over the world, safe in the knowledge that we can stay in touch with loved ones via technologies that offer what is really only a toxic substitute for real connection and time together. It is badly injuring, perhaps fatally, rural communities, luring their youth into industrial and financial centres – cities – whose existence is premised, as the American writer and environmentalist Wendell Berry said, on the devastation of some other far-flung place, which consumers don’t have to look at thanks to the out-of-sight, out-of-mind distance afforded by technology.
When I walk to the spring to collect water in the morning I meet neighbours and we talk. Yes, it takes time, something I found frustrating at first, but slowness only became a bad thing when time became money. Walking four miles to the post office to send my letters takes time too, but it ties me to people and place in a way that sitting in my bedroom on my own, writing endless emails, could never do.
Technology destroys people. We’re already cyborgs (pacemakers, hearing aids) of a sort, and are well on our way to the type of Big Brother dystopia of the techno-utopians. And look at the state of us. Our toxic, sedentary lifestyles are causing industrial-scale afflictions of cancer, mental illness, obesity, heart disease, auto-immune disorders and food intolerances, along with those slow killers, loneliness, clock-watching and meaninglessness. We seem to spend more time watching porn than we do making love, relationships are breaking down because we stare into screens instead of eyes, while social media are making us antisocial.
Living without complex technology has its own difficulties, especially for people like me who were never initiated into those ways. But already I much prefer it. Instead of making a living to pay bills, I make living my life. Contrary to expectation, my biggest issue is not being bored, but how to do all the things I’d love to do. Of course hand-washing your clothes can be a pain sometimes, but that minor inconvenience is hardly worth destroying the natural world over.
Well-intentioned friends often try to convince me to go off-grid, but in using batteries, electrical cables and photovoltaic panels (as I once did), I would still be connected, by a peculiar sort of invisible cable, to the global network of quarries, factories, courtrooms, mines, financial institutions, bureaucracies, armies, transport networks and workers needed to produce such things. They also ask me to stay on social media to speak out about the technology issue, but I say I’m denouncing complex technology simply by renouncing it. My culture made a Faustian pact, on my behalf, with those devilish tyrants Speed, Numbers, Homogeneity, Efficiency and Schedules, and now I’m telling the devil I want my soul back.
My life has its fair share of irony, and it can look hypocritical. Despite originally writing these words (a technology) with a pencil (a technology) in a hand-crafted cabin (a technology), the irony of this being an online blog is not lost on me. That is my compromise for now, for if you want to contribute to a healthier society, compromise can be a healthy thing if you know your boundaries. Being a hypocrite is always my highest ideal, as it means I’ve set higher standards for myself to strive for than I’m achieving at any one moment.
We know that, at the very least, some technologies are harming our natural world, our societies and, ultimately, ourselves. Therefore we can recognise the need to reject some technologies. If we’re to avoid technological extremism we’re going to have to draw a line in the sand somewhere. I’ve drawn mine, and I will only move it in the direction of my home.