The nature of labor-saving devices

Posted May 16, 2010, at 6:22 p.m.

A few weeks ago when I was speculating about whether my car is alive or not, I was just joking. Pretty much. The car is not alive in the way we think of trees, cats, crows, spiders, amoebas and humans as being “alive.” The car pesters me with buzz alarms, mystery engine lights and unwanted locking because it is a multitasking labor-saving device.

In a previous lifetime when I used to be a college teacher, a topic the students raised in virtually every class was: Things We Shouldn’t Have to Do. For example, every group contained members who took it for granted that Students Should Not Have to Attend Class. Some argued that Students Should Not Have to Read the Whole Book. Others thought Students Should Not Have to Take Final Exams. Students Should Not Have to Write Too Many Papers in One Semester (“too many” being defined at the discretion of those seeking to write the fewest papers). Students Should Not Have to Cite Sources. Students Should Not Have to Meet Deadlines. Students Should Not Have to Type Papers (this was in the old days, before computers made handwriting seem like the hard work). When I taught online classes, a startling number of students assumed that Students Should Not Have to Follow Conventions of Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation in Online Postings, and reminded me of this fact of nature.

In classrooms, we settled most of these issues by directly discussing the overall topic, Things We Shouldn’t Have to Do. In most discussions, it was quickly revealed that — school aside — hardly anybody seems to believe they should have to do anything.

Like, you shouldn’t have to crank windows up and down when the car can do it for you. Or, you shouldn’t have to walk from the dorms a quarter-mile up the hill to the classrooms when you can drive. Or, you shouldn’t have to slice bread. Or, you shouldn’t have to remember anything because computers store it all for you.

In fact, the world is full of things you don’t have to do any more. Someone already has invented, or is in the process of inventing, a labor-saving device for practically everything humans do, starting with the first lawn mowers in the 18th century up to trains, planes, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, chain saws and computers, which are the ultimate labor-saving device that one day will think and interact for you, and to some extent already do.

While writing this (actually, typing on a keyboard), I heard a computer-generated voice from a doctor’s office leave detailed HAL 9000-sounding directions on the answering machine. Success! — nobody had to talk to anybody. Some years ago when I was learning to design my online classes, the information technology guy enthusiastically explained to us that online classes are superior to classrooms because online, students do not have to interact directly with annoying classmates or testy professors. I am not exaggerating, but merely summarizing his point. Presumably, he would have been saved a lot of trouble if we were not there in his office, either.

Not only should we not have to speak directly to each other, or lock our own car doors, or read maps, or turn the ignition key, but eventually computers might relieve us of responsibility for any activity, including brain activity. You could just lie there and do nothing while everything, including thinking, is done for you. It will be great!

At this point I usually noted for the students that this final fantasy of 100 percent saved labor would be kind of redundant, really, because nature already has a permanent solution to the whole problem of having to do things. A state of complete doing nothing, in which all activity has ceased — including responsiveness, memory, consciousness and brain activity, down to the unconscious depths of the brain stem — makes up the Harvard Medical School Committee’s definition of death. Perfect, natural, unwrinkled state of not doing anything.

What dreams may come while in this state could be a thought to trouble your mind’s eye, if it’s not asleep, but that mental activity could lead to what is known demotically as “thinking too much.” There were students, as I recall, who unwittingly put more mental energy into avoiding the assignment than they would have put into just doing it. I’m offering no judgment on this, but merely summarizing the exact irony of it.

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