Technology and the Simple Life

Apparently, ballpoint pens don’t work in space because of the lack of gravity. It is said that NASA, troubled by this realization, spent many millions of dollars designing a ‘space pen’ that could function in the absence of gravity. The Russians used a pencil.

Whether or not this story is true, it raises interesting questions about how technology is used in modern society. Are we, like NASA, complicating life and wasting money on superfluous technology? To what extent could we, like the Russians, find much ‘simpler’ solutions to the problems we face? In particular, what role should technology play in living the simple life?

At first instance one may think that living simply is about doing without technology, but as is so often the case, the simple life is more complex. No simple liver, as far as I know, thinks that we should regress to a primitive existence and go back to living in caves without matches, penicillin, or the wheel, etc. But, in the 21st century, are there times when our lives could be improved by using less technology, not more? Or by using technology smarter?

On the other hand, there are technologies that are clearly a positive advancement and which no simple liver or anyone would want to do without. I just suggested matches, penicillin, and the wheel, as examples, but the list could go on and on. Life without any technology, we could imagine, would probably be ‘nasty, brutish, and short,’ to borrow a phrase from Thomas Hobbes. The question, then, is which technology is appropriate and how much is needed to live well?

To be sure, there is no ‘rule’ to follow, as such, that can tell us when technology is appropriate and when it is not; but here are five examples which it could be argued express the type of reasoning involved in living simply: (1) avoid using a clothes dryer when sunshine and a piece of string will do the same job; (2) avoid driving a car when a bicycle could be used for transport (and exercise); (3) avoid passively letting technology entertain and instead get creative; (4) don’t bother inventing a ‘space pen’ since a good old-fashioned pencil will work just fine; and (5) don’t build a multi-billion dollar desalination plant to solve a shortage problem that could be solved more effectively (and more cheaply) with water tanks, shorter showers, etc.

There is much, much more to say on the question of technology, and in future posts I hope to explore the issue further. But for now, let me leave you with some questions: What are your thoughts on technology and the simple life? What types of technology would the simple liver never want to give up? What modern technology could the simple liver easily do without? In particular, can you offer advice from your own experience on how to use technology well?

Your thoughts would be much appreciated.

For a short review of Thoreau’s views on Technology, click here.

4 Responses to “Technology and the Simple Life”

  1. Gill says:

    I refuse to have a microwave oven. If I want to reheat leftovers I place the bowl in my bamboo steamer and steam gently. I have very few kitchen gadgets except the ones I use a lot, a sharp knife, food processor, cast iron pot and pan etc.

    On a slightly different tangent, my love/hate with technology is around communications. I love my computer/internet connection and have acquiesced to having a mobile phone, but the trick is not feeling like you have to be available 24 hours a day to people. They’re just tools, not the master you’re enslaved to. Sarah Wilson wrote something in The Sunday Age this week that seemed to upset people – about not replying to email. Found it interesting how some felt outraged by this

  2. Simon says:

    An excellent article – thanks.

    I certainly take your point, but also believe that some technology can be the friend of simple livers.

    An amazon kindle reading device for example – it’s cheaper, smaller, and less resource consuming than traditional books. It doesn’t have that splendid new book smell, but we all have to make sacrifices 🙂

  3. Nish says:

    Constantly grappling with the technology question and simplicity… I see the obsessive and compulsive madness all around me – frantic poking at keypads to fire off text messages, the co-ordinated scramble to switch on mobile phones when the plane lands etc. Add this to the social disconnect when interaction opportunities are eliminated due to the pervasive use of headphones in public spaces and I fear for our sanity. I keep up a personal mental chant that the wise and modulated use of tech can be empowering (reading with the kindle example cited above, the use of smart phones to reprioritize or “time shift” certain tasks so that other time can be allocated to loved ones etc.) A stick can be used to beat others or it can be used to support one when moving forward…

  4. Simon Kerr says:

    Thanks Sam, and I agree with the sentiment. Technology, of course, is any form of material mediation between us and the world around. We humans have evolved and survived because we have invented technology; the club, spear, bow and arrow, horse saddle, wheel, water wheel, matches, irrigation canals, paper, printing press…

    So I fully agree that it is never really a choice about living without technology. Basically, that is not possible (a stick to pull out weeds is, technically, technology!) However, the choice we do have is how we live our lives and the role technology has in supporting or entrapping us. That takes wisdom to work out the answers for each of us.

    I do also think that technologies are never just neutral. Some argue that the only issue with particular forms of technology is how we use them. I don’t think this is the full story. Technologies also shape social relations. We are social beings and everything we do, our language, interactions, beliefs, all shape our social lives. This is inescapably and for good reason. As sociologists tend to argue, technology creates ‘new selves’, reshape our identities, those internal visions of who we are.

    The trick (and the choice we have) is to be mindful of all this and be aware and alive to the ways our technologies shape our lives. Then, and only then, are we in a position to make choices; yes or no, useful or not, empowering or entrapping. Many decisions, but that is the human way; we at least get to make them.

    Finally, a really (really) cool TED talk on building houses from recyclably material, with some nice references to Nietzsche and Sartre. It reminded me of your article!

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