Switching off

1 May|Mark Boyle

Agrarian revolutionary: Mark Boyle in the cabin he built with his bare hands

What happened when one man went tech free

I remember the moment it all began. I was in a remote rural pub having a pint with my friend and neighbour Paul Kingsnorth, discussing the finer points of the manifold evils of social media. At the time we were both using it to hawk our wares and all the other things modern writers have to do to look as if they’ve something terribly important to say about the world.

It was after the third pint, and much hot air, that we decided to quit and break the hearts of our billions of followers.

I woke up the next morning and deleted all of my social media accounts, which was unsurprisingly hard to do. But it felt good, and took the bite out of the hangover. But then I thought, why stop there? It’s not as though social media is the only thing since the early 1800s (and perhaps the advent of agriculture) that is wiping out life on earth and ruining everything decent about humanity. Right then, I looked over at the toaster, plugged into the wall of our farmhouse, and saw polar bears stranded on icebergs and flashes of an entire global network of manufactured ecological devastation explode before my eyes. I thought, “Ah come on, not the bloody toaster.” But the toaster, I decided, had to go too.

Before the week was out I had resolved to build a cabin made of straw bales and roundwood and earth, in which I would begin living without industrial technology. There would no running water, no fossil fuels, no clock, no electricity or any of the things it powers: the Internet, phone, washing machine, lightbulb or radio. I had no idea if unplugging myself from the machine world would mean I’d lose all touch with reality, or finally discover it. I’d soon find out.

That was three years ago. A lot has changed since. Back then I had bills to pay, so I woke up in the morning to an alarm clock in a desperate attempt to pay them. Now I no longer have bills. This morning I got woken by a blackbird, perched in the old beech tree that envelops the window above my bed. As the blue-black dawn of the full-moon sky crept in through the window, it allowed me to reflect on how much my life has changed over those years, which was useful as I’d promised Idler editor Tom Hodgkinson that I’d have an article written about it all by evening.

When I first decided to give up modern technology I assumed I’d never write again. I was told that publishers no longer accepted the hand-written manuscripts of DH Lawrence’s time, especially from people who were no DH Lawrence. Therefore my decision to start using less complex, more convivial tools was, I believed, a death knell to the only financial livelihood I had.

But none of it turned out to be true. The day before I quit modern technology, an editor who had read an article I had written for a newspaper, published earlier that day, asked if I wanted to write a book about my experiences. I’d no idea how it would work, if at all, but I told him I was interested. No longer having electricity, and thus laptops and Internet and copy-and-paste and the like, I was going to have to learn how to write by hand.

I’ve since discovered that hand-writing is not only an entirely different craft to machine-writing, but that it involves a whole new way of thinking. For the first time in my life I’m actually enjoying the process. My head doesn’t hurt from an afternoon with a pencil. My thinking has got slower. Just as carpenters always recommend measuring twice and cutting once, I’ve begun thinking twice and writing once.

Writing isn’t the only thing that has changed. Tom asked me to write about a day in my life, but no two days are the same, which is the only way I’d want it. Instead of doing one job and then paying for everything else to be done for me, as I did in the city, my life is now made up of a diverse range of jobs: producing (and drinking) cider; planting spuds; fishing for pike; writing letters; fetching spring water; skinning and butchering roadkill deer; hauling, sawing and chopping wood; washing in a lake or hot tub; drying herbs; making chicken coops; foraging salads and fruits; manuring vegetable beds; walking four-and-a-half miles to the pub every Tuesday; hand-washing clothes (not my favourite job) and emptying the compost toilet (surprisingly satisfying). And a hundred other small, simple things that make up a life which, contrary to popular romantic belief, is actually quite complex. But here’s the odd bit. Despite all of that, I find myself with much more time. Why? Because I no longer have to work 40 hours a week to pay everyone else to do all of that stuff for me.

This way of life is sweatier, muckier and bloodier than most people care to imagine. But it’s slower, more intimate. Having quit “clock-time” I’ve never slept better. There’s more diversity, less repetition. There’s no stress, no distractions from the raw ingredients of life, and no one to tell me what to do with my days. It has taught me to “be here now”. Mindfulness is no longer a spiritual luxury, but an economic necessity. It’s not always easy, but it’s the only life I want.

So the moral of the story is this: Don’t ever let anyone tell you that good decisions aren’t made in the pub when you’re supposed to be working.

Mark Boyle is the author of The Way Home: Tales from a Life without Technology (One World, £16.99). Buy a copy here

A longer version of this piece appears in Idler 66, May/June 2019. Mark Boyle will be discussing his tech-free life with Idler editor Tom Hodgkinson at the Idler Dinner on 10 June.