The Time Machine

sometimes old solutions are best


This post is adapted from my new book, The Minimalist Tool Kit: Habits and Strategies to Help You Find Freedom and Happiness with Less (paid link).



I just spent nine hours in front of my computer.  Again.  I took only three short breaks, and spent maybe ten minutes outside.  I even ate lunch at my desk.


I know this isn't healthy, but still it happens much too often.  Maybe it does for you too.  And many of our kids are still distance learning, which also requires them to spend hours a day in front of a computer.


This is not how I spent my days when I was in my 20's or 30's.  Even when I was working as a secretary/bookkeeper, I didn't spend nine hours nonstop bent over my ledgers or in front of a typewriter.  I was up and down from my desk all day long, doing other tasks.  I physically went to a file room, or to the copier, or to deliver a message or the mail.  I usually took a walk and ate my lunch outside.


In my lifetime and before, technology has been celebrated as the revolution that would improve the world.  "Better Living Through Science" and so on.  And I certainly use technology.  I don't publish my blog on parchment, after all, and I don't keep cool in August heat by means of a servant wielding a palm branch.


But as we keep breaking boundaries and changing the way things work, sometimes we lose sight of the fact that some of the best (and healthiest) solutions are low tech.


Let me use what I think is an urban myth to illustrate.


It was the 1960's, and NASA was having trouble coming up with a reliable replacement for the pen.  You see, in space, with no gravity and no air pressure, pens don't work very well, which is bad news for astronauts who need to keep a log or do some calculations.  Millions of dollars went into research to develop a zero-gravity pen.


The Russians, faced with the same problem in their space program, used a pencil.


What's the lesson?  Sometimes the best solution is the easy one.  Sometimes we complicate the problem by looking for a new, high tech solution.  Sometimes, when we're busy using our smart phones to look up yet another piece of trivia (simply because we can), we forget to pay attention and think.  We tend to fall for the new-fangled, designed-for-a-problem-we-didn't-really-have gadget, instead of simply using the tools that worked in the past and still work just fine.


I'm reminded of people my age or older who swear they can't get by without their ________ (fill in the blank with your favorite piece of modern technology), even though they lived the majority of their lives perfectly well in the pre-smart house, pre-Internet world.  How did we ever manage to live productive, independent adult lives in the olden days?


Our kids are growing up even more shackled to the latest-and-supposedly-greatest tech than we are, and it might be good to take a step back to a less mechanized way of life before we hook everyone up to virtual everything.


I'm thankful for many modern technologies, but there are always consequences to our desire for ever more speed and convenience.  Those consequences too often include uncounted tons of plastic waste and toxic electronic waste.  They include dissatisfaction with last year's technology and the constant pursuit of the next big thing.  They include a skewed work/home balance and an unhealthy tendency to substitute virtual activity for physical activity in the real world.  And they include a lot less connection and intimacy with families, friends, neighbors, and communities.


Is it possible in this modern world to live with less technology?  Maybe what we actually need is a time machine.



5 Low(er) Tech Activities


1.  Go camping.

Okay, maybe it's not quite warm enough to think about camping.  But I can do camping activities, such as:

  • cook and/or eat outside (or simply enjoy a cup of coffee on the porch)
  • hike to a local beauty spot
  • watch and listen for birds and other signs of the changing seasons
  • observe a sunset
  • stargaze

2.  Use human power.
Before machines pervaded our lives, most of us were in better shape physically.  I don't need a gym to:
  • leave the car in the garage and walk, bike, or take a bus to my destination
  • skip the elevator and use the stairs
  • pull weeds, sweep the sidewalk, plant a tree or some seeds
  • wash the car with a bucket of suds and some elbow grease (or at least clean the windows)
  • forgo appliances that chop vegetables, shred cheese, or knead dough

3.  Play without electricity.
For entertainment, I can turn off the computer and put away my phone while I:
  • break out the board games or jigsaw puzzles
  • look through old photo albums
  • get creative with the millions of pieces of Lego in my grandson's room
  • knit, crochet, draw, paint, bead, etc.
  • read a book

4.  Reduce waste and emissions.
Our parents and grandparents learned to be comfortable and meet their needs without a lot of technologies we take for granted.  Here are lower-tech replacements.
  • take advantage of daylight by sleeping and rising earlier
  • hang clothes to dry
  • use an electric fan rather than air conditioning
  • quit bottled water and soda and make sun tea instead
  • ditch paper towels and napkins and buy or make reusable alternatives

5.  Make connections low tech.
Telephones have been around for a long time, but with tangling cords and expensive long-distance costs, I didn't used to spend hours on the phone every day.  Instead I can:
  • ban phones at mealtime and share a conversation
  • remove alerts and check email, phone messages, and social media only twice per day
  • meet my neighbors or join a community group
  • hand write a letter
  • snuggle with a partner, pet, or child (or all of them at once)



A few days spent in a lifestyle that was normal 40 or 50 years ago really isn't the hardship we might imagine.  In fact, we might really enjoy a slower, less mechanized way of life.  Bring on the time machine!



 Photo by Thom Milkovic on Unsplash

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