Reading Reflection: Better Off Flipping the Switch on Technology

As an MIT alum, Eric Brende understands how technology can be used on a daily basis in order to influence society and promote efficiency. As a man who went “off the grid” for a year living in a town where the people living in the town would consider the Amish as advanced, Eric Brende discovers how to survive independent of technology often taken for granted. Brende’s novel, Better off Flipping the Switch on Technology, explores now technology can positively and negatively affect an individual’s life.

Experienced vs Inexperienced

When Eric and his wife first move to the “unplugged” town, they are inexperienced in terms of not using technology and going “off the grid”. Their new lifestyle drastically changes how they learn how to perform everyday tasks such as cooking (since they do not own a refrigerator and must learn how to cook food that can be preserved for long amounts of time), obtaining drinkable water/washing dishes/doing laundry (since there is no running water), and farming as a means to earn a living and eat since there isn’t a nearby grocery store nearby. Instead of searching how to do something online and receiving an answer instantaneously, Eric and his wife learn through trial and error and by receiving advice and knowledge from experience of the locals. While performing a task without the use constant use of technology often takes longer and may seem tedious, Brende views these tasks as insightful and rewarding since tasks are now dependent on the human rather than on technology.

Viewpoints on Technology

Throughout the novel, the author describes this certain period in his life as a way for him to step away from the use of technology since he feels as if it is controlling his life. The author generally focuses on the negative aspects of technology rather than the positive. Such negative aspects of technology include: how technology isolates you from every day interaction with people, how you spend so much time with technology it’s almost as if you’re in a daze (driving hours to get to work), and how you become so dependent on technology you never recognize that certain tasks can be done without technology.

While the author constantly explains negative aspects of technology, he rarely focuses on how technology can be beneficial. For instance, with technology, it has become easier to connect with people that you’ve lost communication with faster (ex: Facebook over writing letters). However, messaging a person on social media instead of contacting a person by writing a letter is deemed less personal by society. Additionally, farming (what Brende spent many hours during the day completing while “unplugged”) can be done much more efficiently using technology. By spending less time farming during the day with the use of technology, Brende could have had more leisure time to relax and “have fun”. Throughout the novel, Brende mentions how people can live without luxuries such as heating, indoor plumbing, and electricity but fails to focus on how much easier an individual’s living arrangements becomes with the use of technology. By not having to worry about trivial things such as washing dishes without running water, individuals have more time to complete other tasks rather than attacking tasks that can be completed quicker with the use of technology.

Machines vs Tools

In the community that the author is living in for a year, locals only use the “technology” that was used by people as described in The Bible. They generally refuse to use technology present today. However, why is it acceptable for the people in the community to use the technology from the past rather than the technology of the present? The main distinction between the two was that the technology of the past are considered to be “tools” rather than “machines”. Brende describes the difference by deciding that people dependent on machines, “besides often depriving their uses of skills and physical exercise, they created new and artificial demands – for fuel, space, money and time. These in turn crowded out other important human pursuits, like involvement in family and community, or even the process of thinking itself. The very act of accepting the machine was becoming automatic.” Tools were considered an object that would be used to help perform a certain task whereas machines were objects that were used to perform a task quicker without understanding how to perform the actual task.

Communication Without the Use of Technology

The people in the town the author and his wife live in work as an interdependent community. Overall, people within the community interact with each other in order for all of them to be successful (helping with farming, building, and bringing food to each other). They often use “working” as a time for people to talk to each other about topics ranging from trivial gossip to insightful commentary about personal beliefs. The author uses this time in order to reflect on how the lack of technology affects his performance on everyday tasks and gain experiences from his more knowledgeable neighbors in order to become successful by learning farming and living tricks and cooking tips in order to accomplish tasks quicker or easier.

Relevance to Technology on the Trail

Reading about Eric Brende’s experiences and insights through “flipping the switch on technology” is highly relevant to Technology on the Trail. Not unlike the people from the community that Brende and his wife lived in, many hikers view technology as a taboo concept use excessively. For Technology on the Trail, it is important to research specifically what people determine as useful and unnecessary to bring on the Trail. Additionally, it is important to research and discover how to promote the use of technology on the trail without hindering a hiker’s natural experience on the trail. Not unlike Eric Brende learning how to farm, cook, and live without technology, I am interested in exploring if there is a way for technology to be used in order to share the experiences of a seasoned hiker in order to benefit less-experienced hikers on and off the trail.

Reading Reflection: She Walks These Hills (Today) – Follow Up

She Walks These Hills: Past vs Present

Considering that She Walks These Hills was published in 1994, how would the novel be different if it was written in the present? How would the roles of each character be affected with society’s dependence on technology today? Would the trail be different? How would the local community spread their information?

Where would Hank be Today?

The biggest character difference between (1994 and 2017) would be Hank. In the novel, he is a radio host and was the glue that spread information and invited communication. While the radio is still an important way to spread information, is it still as impactful as it was back then? What other types of technology are able to connect to people today? What is today’s “radio”?

People today are more on-the-go and spend more time on their laptops or their phones. Many people listen to the radio on their commute to work. However, that is becoming less common since the introduction to technology such as Bluetooth in cars. People would rather listen to their own music, free of commercials, instead of listening to the radio. Often, people get their information through news websites, internet blogs, Facebook, etc. Based on the sometimes relevant/mostly irrelevant information that Hank talks about in the novel, from gossip to trying to prove the innocence of an escaped convict, Hank would most likely be an internet blogger. Unlike Radio Hank, Blogger Hank wouldn’t be able to have as much personal contact with his audience. Radio Hank had frequent people calling in to tell him information or discuss a certain topic. In contrast, Blogger Hank wouldn’t have people as many people trying to tell in information immediately. Rather, Hank would merely be writing about a certain topic, allowing viewers to be able to write their own post on their opinions/thoughts. This is drastically different in the sense that not everyone would be receiving the same information since not every single person reading Hank’s blogs would be reading all the comments written by the viewers – including Hank himself.

Where would Jeremy be Today?

Jeremy would still be too unexperienced to be traveling through the Appalachian trail since he still would have been a first-time hiker. However, the items he brings along with him for his journey may be different. Instead of books, Jeremy would probably bring his iPad/laptop which contain the books that he wants for his journey in addition to being able to finding time to write about his journey on his laptop. Since the Jeremy in the novel brought everything imaginable with him on the trail to cover all possible scenarios, he would probably have his phone containing hiking apps and digital maps of the Appalachian Trail. Instead of having to drop all of his items during his trip because of weight, Jeremy would have to leave his items because they got wet from the weather or because he couldn’t find a place to charge his electronics in the case that his portable chargers ran out of battery.

Where would Harm be Today?

Harm’s character wouldn’t be much different than the character he was in the novel. Since he was an escaped convict, he would still have to travel through the Appalachian Trail without supplies, unless he found a way to obtain supplies along his journey. Additionally, since he was serving time for approximately 30 years before he escaped, he would not be as aware of the changes in technology while he was in prison. Harm of the past would still be the same as Harm of the present since he would still be using instinct, knowledge of the land, experience as a hiker, and luck to reach his destination. The only difference with Harm’s journey would be if the Appalachian Trail were to drastically change from his time in prison.

How Would the Town Communicate Today?

In the novel, the community’s main sources of spreading information was through speaking with each other in person, listening to the radio, and occasionally using the landline telephone. Individuals spent more time talking to each other in person and spreading gossip/information. As mentioned in the novel, when trying to research information on Harm, Hank found it more beneficial to obtain information by speaking with people rather than looking at old newspapers/articles.

As a small and close-knit community that was generally technologically unadvanced, communication with others in the town today would still have a focus on face-to-face contact but would also find more time communicating with each other through online medians (text messaging, phone calls, Facebook posts, email, etc.). People would still listen to the radio but they would not be listening or calling in as frequently as they did in the past. The radio would be used more for listening to music, weather/traffic reports, and the occasional gossip rather than the main source of information on important local gossip/news on people/current events surrounding the community. The radio would be used more for impartial, informative, and sometimes entertainment purposes while personal contact or communicating online would be used in order to spread “important” information to each other.

The Trail Today

With people viewing their cell phones as a necessary item, many hikers (day and thru) bring their cell phones with them on the trail. While there are more marked trails than there were in the past, people also use the GPS on their phones to tell them where they are. Additionally, more thru-hikers (hikers that hike the entire Appalachian Trail in one season) are bringing other technology such as laptops or tablets along their journey to blog or as a source of entertainment.

With society today becoming more dependent on technology than they were 10 years ago, the types of items that people deem “unnecessary” have also changed. While a solar shower can still be determined as superfluous on the trail, many hikers have changed their opinions on bringing a cell phone on the trail. Today, the cell phone can be used simply for calling family members to ensure them that they are safe, finding upcoming rest areas, determining how much further away a hiker is from a certain destination, or even for ordering pizza. The most important thing to consider now that technology on the trail has become more frequent in recent years is to determine and decide what is unnecessary on the trail and what can be considered as beneficial for a hiker (novice and experienced).

Reading Reflection: She Walks These Hills

Julia with a copy of McCrumb’s book.

With ancestry members dating back a hundred years ago as circuit preachers in North Carolina’s Smokey Mountains, author Sharyn McCrumb has inherited her ancestors’ love for the mountains has extended to the Appalachian Mountains. The nature of the Appalachians and its surrounding community is clearly shown through her fictional novel, She Walks These Hills. The novel not only depicts the juxtaposition of past and present and inexperienced hikers from experienced hikers on the Appalachian Trail but also the Trail’s lasting effect on nearby communities.

Viewpoints of the Trail, Novice and Experienced

As the novel shifts viewpoints, we are able to experience varying perspectives of the Appalachian trail. First time hiker and historian, Jeremy Cobb is backpacking through the Appalachian Trail in hopes of understanding the journey of Katie Wyler, a woman back in 1779 who was kidnapped by the local Indian Tribe but escaped and traveled through the mountains to get back home. Jeremy views the trail as parts that are necessary in order for him to reach his final destination.

Besides his unfortunate experiences with the weather and lack of survival knowledge for the wild, Jeremy simply tracks his progress through the mountains as a scholar, quantifying distances and describing his location based on map locations. In the beginning of his hike, his focus towards reaching his goal is shown with his descriptions of where he needs to walk such as,

The Bridge leading to the Iron Mountain Trail was within sight of the road, giving him a feeling of trail mastery that was perhaps unwarranted, but was reassuring nonetheless.” 

This gives insight on how individuals might have changed their perspective while on the trail; to go hiking to reach a destination with an end goal and not to hike simply for the pure enjoyment of it.

In contrast to the first-time hiker, Harm Sorely, an escaped convict with memory loss, travels the Appalachian Trail with a destination in mind but often becoming distracted by the changes in wildlife he observes in addition to forgetting what he was doing moments before. His description of the trail can be described as that of a man returning home after a long period of absence. Unlike Jeremy, Harm is unafraid of possible challenges that he could encounter and simply relies on his knowledgeable experiences from the past and luck from God. As an escaped convict, he has no map or supplies and simply uses instinct and general intuition as to where he needs to walk to get back home.

Harm is described as the last true renegade of his time, where he simply didn’t commit crimes as an act of malice but more as a form of entertainment or justice. He represents the way the Appalachian was in the past: primitive and uncivilized but also displays an area of familiarity and refuge for those willing to encounter it. As he travels through the trail, he travels as a hiker of the past: without maps or superfluous amounts of supplies. On the other hand, Jeremy represents the present as he walks through the Trail with maps, books, solar showers, tons of canned foods and more.

Inexperienced vs Experienced Hikers

Through the various journeys of the different characters, we are able to view and observe the difference between an experienced and inexperienced hiker.

Jeremy, a scholar who has never hiked before, enters the Trail ambitious. He views himself as, “an educated man, planning to hike in a “wilderness” dotted with villages”. For his journey, he initially carries

a wool blanket; candy bars; a water purification kit; a camp stove and extra fuel; some used paperbacks; and field guides to birds, flowers, minerals, and reptiles so that he could better understand his journey”.

By the end of the novel, he has either discarded or lost all of his items and is in such a poor physical condition that he is almost unable to walk and in need of medical assistance.

Since Harm escaped from the prison he was in, Harm entered the trail empty-handed. However, as a country native, he was able to successfully survive his journey without facing many of the hardships that Jeremy faced. His walk through the trail is seen as a calming and dazed (since he can’t remember anything in the present) experience. He takes his journey one step at a time, often relying on his knowledge of the Trail and God to supply him with what he needs. Somehow, even with his jaded memory he is able to successfully reach his destination as if it were a stroll in the park instead of a hike through the Appalachian Trail.

With the juxtaposition of an inexperienced and experienced hiker, it makes us reflect on what’s important when hiking: supplies or experience. This can be relevant for Technology on the Trail as there can be a combination of the two which can be used to enhance the experience of the hiker while not hindering the hiker’s connection with nature.

Effect on Community

Since She Walks These Hills was published in 1994, certain aspects of the novel have changed significantly. The most distinct difference is the way people communicated and spread information with each other. Unlike today, where people can easily communicate with each other by email, text, phone, or social media, the town in which the novel takes place communicates primarily through word of mouth, stories, and by hearing information on the radio.

Information is spread through the whole community by listening to the radio host, Hank the Yank. As Hank the Yank is investigating the escape of Harm, he tries to gain information about the escaped convict. While he attempts to research the topic by going to the library and looking at old newspaper articles, the best information he receives is through hearing the local gossip and the stories that the locals tell him when the call in. He realizes this while he is talking to a librarian worker when the worker tells Hank,

See, in small towns people don’t find things out from reading the newspaper… Gossip takes care of most of the local news long before the paper comes out, and certain topics never make it into print at all”.

This take on communication is relevant to Technology on the Trail since it reconsiders how to allow people to communicate on the Trail. While maps and GPS will help a hiker reach their destination, could they also gain information from local/experienced hikers to find a quicker/less dangerous route to reach their destination?

Overall, Sharon McCrumb’s novel, She Walks These Hills, was an insightful novel. Not only did it have a great story comprised of a bunch of separate stories that merged and connected at the very end, but it also made me realize that in order for Technology on the Trail to be successful, it must find a way to seamlessly merge technology with experience in order to help and enhance a hiker’s journey through the wilderness.