Photo by Igor Ovsyannykov on Unsplash

Technology is downright wonderful. I never cease to be amazed by the things a personal computer can do, or the things that are available to me on the internet. We live in a very charmed era. We have never had it so good!

Or have we?

The fast pace of progress has blessed us with new ways of doing our work, and new ways, even, of defining work. Although technology does eliminate jobs, doesn’t it also create as many or more new jobs as it eliminates?

Unfortunately, there is an uncomfortable latency between the elimination of work and the creation of new work, and society has learned that progress comes in fits and starts, sometimes in quantum leaps, but never in smooth, well-planned transitions.

Our economic system has developed the ability to accommodate this latency at a macro level, but at a micro level it can be tragic. The displaced ditch digger who does not have the skills to become a mechanic for the power trencher that replaced him, suffers real economic hardship until he can acquire the training to move into that new position.

The moral dilemma here, is not that technology replaces or rearranges jobs, but that it does so sporadically, if not randomly, with no plan or consideration for the side effects. Technological improvements make economic sense because they enable efficiency and productivity. But productivity comes at a price.

All of the great “labor saving” inventions of the twentieth century had the effect of eliminating menial drudgery so that people could do their manual chores much quicker. Sewing machines, washing machines, automatic dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, tractors, combines, and many more efficiency aids were designed to convert manual labor into automated or powered tasks. This power and automation was supposed to leave their beneficiaries much more time to enjoy life and pursue “enrichment.” We were all supposed to have more leisure time to contemplate art, read good literature, pursue athletic endeavors…

In more recent times, the advent of calculators, computers, cell phones, PDAs, and other productivity aids have made workers in the Information Age more efficient. These electronic advances were enthusiastically embraced because they bore the promise and the lure of more free time to pursue individual enrichment, much like the electrical or mechanical devices did several decades earlier.

But are we enriched? Do we have more leisure time?

Back in the ’60s a noted efficiency expert famously predicted that if advances in “labor saving” devices continued at its present pace, by the end of the century, the average work week would be less than thirty hours a week and that the average weekly salary would be significantly higher. His prediction foretold of a Utopia in which we were all destined to become better off and not have to work as hard.

Do you see any more leisure time now than you did ten, twenty, or thirty years ago? Chances are you have much less. Why?

It seems to be human nature that when we eliminate menial tasks, we find other tasks, not leisure pursuits, to fill our time. Free time never increases. Competition now dictates that we multi-task and that we work in places that were never considered workplaces before: on an airplane, in a car talking on a cell phone, in a hotel, at home at night, or even on a vacation! We are all working more, not less, than our parents did. We are filling our “leisure” time with more work!

Because we see an opportunity to use time that has been freed up to “get ahead” we now go to extraordinary lengths to maximize our ability to work. People do this because it is their nature, and companies institutionalize it. It is now the norm and the expectation.

It’s no wonder that there is a palpable undercurrent in our society to “get back to basics” or return to simpler times. Labor saving devices rarely do “save” labor and multi-tasking is not the Holy Grail of success. Both are simply insidious deceptions which enslave us and rob us of our leisure.

Am I a Luddite? Perhaps.

Do I advocate doing away with technology? No.

But I do believe that we as a society need to awaken to the reality of technological progress and its chimeric promises. In many ways we are much better off than we were fifty years ago. In other, equally important ways, we are much worse off. Can we find a way to reap the physical and economic benefits without suffering the lifestyle and emotional detriments? I hope so. At any rate, we must try to put the brakes on the trend of sacrificing lifestyle and leisure for the blind pursuit of labor and loot.

Man is so made that he can only find relaxation from one kind of labor by taking up another. — Anatole France