Saturday 25 May 2019

What really happens when you live off-grid? Donegal man (39) packs it all in

As tech giants face growing distrust and calls for a duty of care, Hasan Chowdhury meets the man who's done away with it all

Back to basics: Mark Boyle has decided to do away with modernity in all its guises at his home in Galway.
Photo: Michael Dillon
Back to basics: Mark Boyle has decided to do away with modernity in all its guises at his home in Galway. Photo: Michael Dillon

Hasan Chowdhury

It was only a matter of time before Mark Boyle decided to pack it all in.

Known as the "moneyless man" after embarking on a three-year experiment to live without cash in 2008, the 39-year-old from Donegal wanted to go further, and asked himself what else he could expunge. The answer quickly became obvious: technology.

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On his smallholding in County Galway, Boyle decided to do away with modernity in all its guises. Not just screens - computers, smartphones, the internet - but gas, electricity and running water, too, in his quest for a simpler life.

He announced his decision via "an email to friends to tell them 'I'm going off tech, I'm going off social media'," he recalls - the irony of doing so using the very thing he was giving up was not lost on him. But he knew the only address his friends and contacts had for him was a digital one, and needed to give them a postcode so they could write letters. At that point, "I realised none of them probably knew where I lived... or even what part of the country I was in."

Boyle may have gone to extremes, but many of us will recognise the urge to strip away technology to rediscover real, rather than virtual, contact with nature and other people. He is part of the "techlash" that is gathering steam as the digitisation of our lives takes hold.

Some have swapped their smartphones for "dumb" ones (without an internet connection) in order to strip things back; others, concerned by how closely tethered they are to their gadgets, are unplugging (briefly...) at meditation retreats, or through daily mindfulness exercises.

Mark Boyle’s new book, ‘The Way Home’
Mark Boyle’s new book, ‘The Way Home’

The ubiquity - and, quite frankly, convenience - of technology makes it impossible for most of us to give up forever. But for Boyle, abstinence is logical. His split with convention began with his cashless experiment over a decade ago, which he makes sound easy: food could be foraged, commutes could be cycled, and a compost loo was perfectly sufficient. He has lived sparingly ever since, spending only tiny sums and learning to make the most of very little.

We meet to discuss his new book, The Way Home: Tales from a Life Without Technology, and Boyle is, perhaps unsurprisingly, unnerved: the heaving traffic, both automotive and human, are a far cry from the quiet of the rolling green fields of Knockmoyle, where he has lived since 2013.

Since going tech-free in December 2016, mornings have involved collecting fire wood and water from a spring, 100 yards from a cabin. His days can often involve walks in search of "berries, leaves, clarity". With a thick black beard and padded lumberjack shirt, his attire is just as suitable for his usual rural climes as it is the trendy cafe where we meet.

Yet unlike those around us, tapping on their phones, Boyle has no device on which to even tell the time: he is up at the break of dawn, and sleeps when darkness falls. There are limits to his experiment: he reads books, so his ban apparently doesn't extend to Gutenberg's printing press. But his perception of the world is altogether different without incessant updates: he hasn't heard the major news headlines ("was Cambridge Analytica a firm?") nor of cultural phenomena. When I ask if he knows what Fortnite is, he shakes his head.

This world may seem a mystery to him, but his yearnings are perhaps less strange to us. Much of his anti-tech sentiment feels familiar: that we rack up thousands of online friends yet feel lonely, that likes and comments boost mood, yet young people struggle to feel good about themselves. And the world's most valuable companies draw on technology that reads, distils and processes our every move.

"Technology really pulls you out of the present," he laments with a look at those around us, devices in hand.

Some celebrate that fact, including those seeking to create entirely virtual worlds through augmented reality. But we should not be so quick to blur the lines between man and machine, Boyle says, adding that this will only cloud awareness of our impact on the world we actually inhabit.

"If you deconstruct, say, a mobile phone, there's plastics, copper, PVC, minerals. They require factory systems [to process], which requires roads to connect factory systems to suburbs. There's always a social impact... but we're protected from seeing [that]."

His lifestyle choice, then, is at least partly political - but has come at a cost. His long-term relationship broke down after his former partner, herself a lover of the natural world, decided it was too much to live apart from the rest of society. Boyle wondered whether he would be able to meet someone new - where's a man to find love in the middle of a field?

But he has since found romance, meeting his current girlfriend at a talk he delivered. They've been together for five months and, currently in the "early stages" of their relationship, they are finding common ground in the pleasures of the simple life. She has yet to move in with him and experience the day-to-day distance from modernity; at present, she gets a taste fortnightly. It's a transition, he admits, but he's confident she'll come around, given that she is a "low tech user".

He jokes that he "probably wouldn't do well" if he subjected himself to the superficiality of today's online dating scene. "If she'd seen me on Tinder, she probably would have swiped... whichever way you swipe if you're not interested."

To ensure regular socialising, Boyle has persuaded a friend to stick religiously to a weekly evening meeting at the pub. It can only be missed, he says, if something major gets in the way, "like if your mum dies or if your leg is broken". Last-minute cancellations won't do in Boyle's tech-free lifestyle.

His parents live 200km away and he does occasionally feel cut off, he admits, though appreciates sending and receiving letters that are considered, rather than hastily dashed-off messages online. But "on my Mum's birthday, my natural reaction was to ring - and I couldn't do that," he says. "I sent her a letter, but you have to remember in advance... and hope it's not at the weekend."

His existence is not for everyone - Boyle knows that the measures he has taken are "extreme" - though that does not mean he plans to bend.

"If anything," he says wistfully, "I want to get even more minimal." What that looks like, he is as yet unsure. But his steely resolve and appetite for abstinence mean, surely, that he will succeed in whatever he excises next.

Irish Independent

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