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  • Speeding Toward Meaninglessness

    Why Time-saving Devices Don't Save Time

    Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)

    Social commentators have for decades been telling us that time-saving devices don't really save time. Not that many of us need to hear it. Who does not know from direct experience that the technological mastery of time somehow translates into the increasing PRESSURE of time?

    No one has put the case more vividly than Helena Norberg-Hodge, in a book called "Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh." A linguist, she has studied the high Himalayan culture of Ladakh for two decades, watching its transition from an isolated, "primitive" -- and remarkably joyful -- society to a society under westernized development.

    One of Norberg-Hodge's Ladakhi friends told her: "I can't understand it. My sister in the capital, she now has all these things that do the work faster. She just buys her clothes in a shop, she has a jeep, a telephone, a gas cooker. All of these things save so much time, and yet when I go to visit her, she doesn't have the time to talk to me."

    But does this mean you and I can save time by giving up, say, our automatic washing machines? The answer is "no," so long as everything else remains the same.

    However, everything else would not remain the same. If we were to begin washing our clothes by hand, other conditions of our lives would also tend to change, including our choice of clothes to buy. And if many people made similar choices, the entire texture and pattern of modern life would slowly be transformed.

    This is easier to see by looking at what actually occurred with the arrival of the washing machine. There was, first off, the need to earn the money to pay for the machine. And for the electricity or gas. And for the automatic water delivery and disposal systems. And now also for the various environmental damages resulting from the machine's manufacture, the production of energy to run it, and the discharge of its detergents.

    But that is not all. The washing machine changes the sort of clothes we buy, preparing the way for new fabrics requiring special care. It modifies standards of whiteness, of sterility, of neatness and social presentability. It encourages additional washings at the slightest whim. It requires a significant chunk of floor space in the home, accounting for a slice of the mortgage.

    There is no end to such outward-rippling effects. For example, the washing machine's manufacture depends upon everything from large-scale mining to a sophisticated infrastructure for long-distance transport -- which contribute, among other things, to the time-consuming geographical sprawl of our lives.

    You see, then, that this appliance presents itself as a labor-saving device only when we look at it "atomistically" and do not consider the larger pattern. Unfortunately, our society's failure to reckon with pattern remains deeply ingrained despite our various flirtations with holism, organicism, and the rest.

    But there is a still deeper problem underlying our passion for "time- saving" or "labor-saving" devices. These phrases imply on their faces that time and labor are enemies to be vanquished. Activities we wish to "save" ourselves from are activities we have already pronounced meaningless.

    So our growing collection of labor-saving devices testifies to a growing alienation from almost every function of life on earth. Everything is to be gotten through as quickly as possible. Unsurprisingly, an ever more efficient race through an ever more meaningless landscape begins to feel oppressive rather than liberating.

    Norberg-Hodge, describing her experience in Ladakh, captures how the confused search for meaning within a "labor-saving" culture leads to contradiction:

    "Tourists see people carrying loads on their backs and walking long distances over high mountain passes and say, `How terrible; what a life of drudgery.' They forget that they have traveled thousands of miles and spent thousands of dollars for the pleasure of walking through the same mountains with heavy backpacks."

    She adds,

    "They also forget how much their bodies suffer from lack of use at home. During working hours they get no exercise, so they spend their free time trying to make up for it. Some will even drive to a health club -- across a polluted city in rush hour -- to sit in a basement, pedaling a bicycle that does not go anywhere. And they actually pay for the privilege."

    I own a washing machine. I also own an increasingly troubled conscience in the presence of the question, "What would society be like if each of us began to take responsibility for his own participation in the overall pattern?"

    The question is not so odd. We have already been forced to begin thinking of ecological balances as intricate, interweaving patterns that cannot be grasped atomistically. Surely any human culture -- including our modern, technologized culture -- must be approached with a similar mindset.

    Taking responsibility, however, cannot mean, in the first instance, declaring for or against machines, which are as much symptom as cause of lost meaning. A harmonious pattern of life can be woven only with threads of meaning. These threads cannot be legislated, nor can they be created with a machine-destroying sledgehammer. We discover meaning only within ourselves and within a living world.

    When we do discover it, the consequences for the machinery around us will, I'm convinced, be apocalyptic. But our final judgment upon technology cannot usefully be trumpeted; it must be the quiet statement of lives infused with the qualities of time embraced rather than time fled. To live one's life in the deeply considered, present moment is to find the mastery and proper use of every mechanical impulse.

    I, for one, can declare that it is not easy.

    Permission is granted for noncommercial redistribution of this article.

    Steve Talbott :: Speeding Toward Meaninglessness :: http://netfuture.org/meditations/speedup.html

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