The Convivial Society: Vol. 4, No. 8
This was such an evocative piece and articulated a concern I've circled but haven't been able to nail down for some time. I hope it's not too indulgent to share three bits of stories that your piece brought to the surface for me.
As part of my research, I discussed time and attention with developers of an AI tool used for calendar management. One of the developers was adamant that scheduling is a chore on which humans should not waste their time. But when I talked to people who used these technologies, they remarked they missed the little details they would learn dealing with the trivialities of scheduling. They might learn that a colleague had to pick up a child from school or had a sick pet. In removing the chore, they also lost opportunities to learn about others. I hadn't thought of this loss from the lens of care, but I see the stakes of these types of losses articulated so compellingly here.
When pushed to its logical end, efficiency and outsourcing the "chores" of one's life to machines or others means you are missing life itself. The most glaring instance of this I've heard is from a nanny, who told me that she had to rate the daughters on a scale of 1-7 stars each time she watched them. Each star was worth 3 minutes of time with their dad at the end of the day, resulting in 21 minutes of time with their only parent (if they were good). The reason? Time optimization. Saving time for what?
And last, "fidelity to daily tasks" reminds me of a poem about the chores of art -- ("Artists at Work" by Marilyn McEntyre). In losing our most mundane tasks to automation to "save" our attention for complex ones, I would imagine our effort at artistry will suffer. I pasted an excerpt below.
The craftsman who made the rose window at Chartres
rose one morning in the dead of winter,
shivered into what layers of wool he owned,
and went to his bench to boil molten lead.
This was not the day to cut the glass or dye it,
lift it to the sun to see the colors dance
along the walls, or catch one‘s breath
at peacock shades of blue: only, today,
to lay hot lead in careful lines, circles,
wiping and trimming, making
a perfect space for light.
"I think the implicit answer is always something like 'to enjoy the goods and services of consumer capitalism' as if this was our highest calling as human beings, that which would bring us true happiness and satisfaction. But it is never quite put this way, nor do we put it this way to ourselves."
It occurs to me that the very logic of modern economics is implicated here. "Work" is understood as intrinsically undesirable, something you only do because someone is paying you and you can use that money to fulfil your desires (or needs) through consumption. Within this logic, the possibility of *desirable* work - work that might be fulfilling - is hidden from view.
Nine years ago, I was driving down the highway on my 90-minute commute to my academic job, and realized I was obsessively thinking about the purchase of new bed sheets. A quick series of further thoughts lead me to the epiphany that I was in fact George F. Babbitt, that titular Sinclair Lewis character who figures in the 1922 novel which is as scathing a critique of US Capitalist Materialism as any – a novel which I’d loved so much that, as a theatre artist, I’d adapted it several times into performance pieces. Yet, lo and behold, here I was, blind to the fact that my life was no less bound up in meaningless acquisition as his! From that moment, I began experiencing my life as my own, giving myself permission to prioritize what was genuinely meaningful to me, and so the refusals began – including the resignation of my academic position, homeschooling my son and countless other smaller choices to turn off the tv, grow food, bake bread, knit hats and not replace dishwashers when they break. This last was somehow the most striking for our family, perhaps because of the dishwasher’s iconic time-saving device status. But the thinking I get done over those dishes, let me tell you! (not to mention a surprising amount of gratitude for the dishes themselves, the simple sense of accomplishment when they’re all clean, etc.)
Now, in my work, I deploy my skills more directly in my community, prioritizing working with individuals most in need, and I seek connection (with other people, yes, but also with nature, with my physical environment - a home, for example, requires care - with myself, making time for contemplation), not the culturally prescribed description of success, which, in the end, is just about a lot of stuff (negatively impacting the sustainability of life on the planet). Although my ego may not be as gratified as if I were reporting to work on Broadway (as many peers have gone on to do!), my sense of groundedness and well-being stands in striking contrast – and, because I’m so clear about my own priorities, their “success” does not engender the same biting jealousy as it might have done were I to still be striving in that same system. I have come, in fact, to be wary (circumspect) of the stories that get produced under that system’s auspices. Thank you so much for the thought, care and elegance of this beautiful post, which speaks so directly to the massive shift I have undertaken in my own life.
Wendell Berry has a good principle here, "time saved" should be spent in the same place in which it is saved. Thus, time saved mowing a lawn with a lawn mower should be spent improving the lawn in other ways, time saved cleaning the house should be spent on making the house beautiful (or convivial).
This has great ramifications for sustainability and farming (the focus on Berry's essay Horse Drawn Tools and the Doctrine of Labour Saving) For example, activities that improve/protect nature/biodiversity on the farm (and bring marginal gains to overall farm productivity) can be undertaken when a farmer saves time using a tool. These activities may only bring marginal gains to productivity, but bring great gains too overall sustainability. But as these activities take an inordinate amount of time and energy, they are often left undone by those farmers who put a premium on convenience.
Have you read Michael Ende's "Momo"? At first glance, it appears to be a light fantasy story aimed at children, but the more I reflect upon it after encountering it in the autumn of 2020, the more I realize it is a deep critique of what you have laid out here- a critique of the idea that we can "save time" for some unknown future date by working incredibly hard now, by streamlining everything, by valuing efficiency over all else, and by sacrificing the moments of presence that come from simply being in the midst of a task, from enjoying that task and not thinking of escaping to somewhere else, and from enjoying the people around us while we do what we do. It's a novel that emphasizes the immense importance of play, imagination, and listening. Not a day goes by where I don't reflect upon its heart, its wisdom, and its call to attention. I am trying to live up to its values.
"If the point is to care and to love and to keep faith, then what is to be gained by outsourcing or eliminating the very ways we may be called upon to do so? "
These are words I will turn over in my head for a while. Thank you.
LMS's post was indeed beautiful and instructive. As I cannot add to it I will take a tangent. Hundreds of emails is not only bad for our souls it is bad for our mental health. Writing all these emails involves much attention shifting, in addition to repeated abstracting, planning and executing. All of this and many more tasks are the job of the amazing human prefrontal cortex (PFC). Selective attention, shifting, planning, perspective taking and things in between are all PFC functions. These two lobes behind our foreheads are vastly more advanced than in our closest primate cousins and are much more responsible for our modern societies than any other brain centers.
It does have a few liabilities though. 1) Unlike other brain areas the PFC actually fatigues. You can order your arm to rise till it weakens or you fall asleep but your motor cortex will never fail you. Keep using your PFC and it will. 2) Not only does it fatigue, but it also fails to function when the owner becomes stressed. The functions mentioned above are not stress related systems. The common example would be the' inability to think of important questions while nervous and at the doctor or in some crisis. 3) All major imaging studies of the brain in the nueroscience of psychiatric disease show failure or dysfunction of the PFC. This effect can be reproduced in lab animals bred to show psychiatric symptoms and merely infused with caffeine. Professor Amy Arnsten, neuroscientist at Yale and expert in PFC function states, "If we call it mental illness, it's because it involves the PFC."
It would take a much longer post to state the importance of this. The PFC makes us human as much or more than language. It is integral to most things we do in modern society. Not just using technology, but planning and choosing: foods, jobs, entertainment, childrearing techniques, personal fitness, how and if to worship, etc,. Briefly put, with the loss of tradition we have loss all modeling for these things and must reinvent the wheel again and again. This is easier with Google, and that is my point. But in each case we must research, learn, test, choose, and likely relearn in two years.
Ever increasing levels of mental illness, distress and unhappiness are not as surprising from this perspective. Young people who are most exposed to the rush of modern life, suffer the most in these effects.
Having the type of plan that LMS suggests is the challenge of the next phase of our development as a culture.
When I was a younger mother homeschooling five children, with several outside responsibilities, and friends, a husband, etc. etc., I used to think often about Time Management -- of course! Because it seemed that if I were just more Efficient (now I hate that word) I could do a little more, take on a few more jobs and friends, keep the house cleaner. Over the last ten years or so I have slowed down enough to notice that Efficiency is not one of the virtues. I am truly learning to "waste time" by just *being*. It is such a joy.
Recently I've been reading Ian McGilchrist, and what he explains syncs with a dozen other writers (including you) who have helped me move into this more human and peaceful state. Here is one excerpt from The Master and His Emissary:
"When we deal with a machine, there are three things we want to know: how much it can do, how fast it can do it, and with what degree of precision. These qualities summarise what distinguishes a good machine from a bad one: it is more productive, faster and more precise than a less good one. However, changes in scale, speed and precision in the real world all change the quality of the experience, and the ways in which we interact with one another: increasing them no longer gives a clearly positive outcome – it can even be very damaging. In human affairs, increasing the amount or extent of something, or the speed with which something happens, or the inflexible precision with which it is conceived or applied, can actually destroy. But since the left hemisphere is the hemisphere of What, quantity would be the only criterion that it would understand."
Thank you so much for this piece; I am sending it far and wide.
“The tyranny of tiny tasks” reminds me of what Sarah Marshall of You’re Wrong About described as “the egg-beater effect.” After the egg beater was invented, it’s not like all the people who were manually whipping up eggs before were suddenly liberated from that task. No, now they had to produce soufflés, which weren’t “a thing” before the invention.
Similarly, Ruth Cowan’s book, More Work for Mother, details how devices sold as “time-saving” for housewives actually increased the amount of labor expected from women at home.
I think a lot about your question, “What precisely are we saving time to do?” And my favorite example of both the implicit answer you suggest AND its opposite being harnessed in marketing is the project management app ClickUp. ClickUp simultaneously says it will say you one day of work per week AND that using ClickUp will allow you to get more done. It gets the benefit of implying there will be more time for leisure, while also benefitting from the stated claim that you’ll fill time-saved with more work.
I'm currently reading Jenny Odell's book Saving Time and what you've written here resonates with the central thesis of that book. Also with Walter Brueggemann's assertion that sabbath is resistance.
I take issue with the idea of "being productive" and "efficiency". Or maybe it's not that I take issue with it, I wonder what it means. Most of my particular frustrations with work in the modern era have to do with my being somewhat tied to a desk, and particularly to a computer, from 8:00 - 4:00, five days a week. Working in the administrative assistant end of academia, I have a set list of things to do. I could, I suppose, focus more exclusively on office tasks while I am here, (as opposed to, say, reading and responding to "The Convivial Society"), but those tasks would simply be busy work. I suspect, but I cannot prove, that the advent of computers in the workspace has not made anything more efficient or more productive, and in many cases I suspect it is less so. So, I don't see the march of technology creating any more productivity or efficiency. Perhaps, there was a time period around the industrial revolution, when cotton mills spilled out vastly more cloth, and so on, but the revolutions we have had in processing and delivering information does not seem to relate to productivity in the same way, and as for efficiency, there is always Thoreau's well known quote about the telegraph. When I consider it, I cannot say that my cell phone is any more efficient or productive than my old rotary phone, (and I still prefer to dial a number while I still have a phone that is capable of dialing). Our composting toilets take more work than our old water toilets, but our tomato plants are oh so much happier, and I don't have to drive around in search of compost. The bicycle takes longer, but it is infinitely more enjoyable than driving our old car around. Besides, if the bicycle suffers some mechanical failure, I can just load it on to the rack on the city bus, or push it home. With the car, I pretty much have to call a tow truck. I do see that technology does, as Ellul points out, pretty much drive itself. I do have trouble understanding why we generally, as a species, (and even myself), fall for it. At fifty-seven, I've lived in the bridge age between analogue and digital. I cannot say that the personal computer has made my life any better or easier, (or more productive or efficient), yet I own one. I remember when cell phones basically became a mainstream consumer thing, I thought they would be a fad that would quickly fade. "Having a phone at home where people can annoy you is bad enough," I remember thinking, "who would want to carry one around with them?" Yet now, I do own one. I usually feel like I do not use it often enough to justify paying for it, but for some reason, I find it hard simply to abandon it. I do use the GPS from time to time. When I travel, I do use it as a phone. Alright - I'll end there, given the growing sense I have that my comment is not traveling toward a neat conclusion. I guess my question is "What is this productivity of which you speak?"
Consistently brings me back to Romano Guardini's work on "play" with respect to liturgy: he firmly believed that trying to give everything in liturgy (which I think one can fairly extend to all of life) a *point* ended up undermining the far more important point that not everything need be externally justified. Some things were meaningful *in and of themselves* and trying to "help" them "matter" ended up impoverishing them instead.
I'm very struck by the idea that a faulty concept of liberation is "convincing us to see the stuff of everyday life and ordinary relationships as obstacles in search of an elusive higher purpose—Creativity, Diversion, Wellness, Self-actualization, whatever". I only *started* ticking those creativity etc. boxes when I had children and was forced to sacrifice many efficiencies in the name of being patient and kind to my offspring, and giving them opportunities to follow my activities - making cake batter with a spoon instead of a stand mixer being a very crude example.
I do worry that there is a certain mental load involved in working out which technologies to accept and which to reject. Most people aren't in a position to look an apparent gift horse in the mouth. Also, I think accusations of being a Luddite puts the onus on a non-adopter to justify their failure to embrace the technology.
I have at least three school related apps for news and updates, for example, and I don't feel like being the one who pipes up and asks for a separate email.
I reread this note by wonderful Henry Miller yesterday, “On how one orients himself to the moment depends the failure or fruitfulness of it.” As you're implying, LMS, modern life demands we orient ourselves to b.s. a lot of time. Then the task is to orient ourselves to look at our investment in b.s. in real time - if we're quick enough to catch ourselves that is.
Ya busted open the dam here, dude. Bravo.
Others have said this, but I will repeat it. Just read Wendell Berry. His entire oeuvre speaks of this orientation to our lives. Fidelity and faith extra important.
I was struck by the assertion that effort is a benchmark of care ... and how therefore making things easy is equivalent to making care elusive.
Another thought on all of this -- can we get a take on the subtle cultural mythologies that are at play and constitute ENABLING conditions for what is going on? For instance, WHY would people accept the dematerialization and commodification of human needs for relationship and connection? This seems like the same answer underlying why "efficient function" and "convenience", "easyness", "lack of friction" as a value constellation starts to dominate, when it hollows things out and creates emotional pain. Specifically, the mythology of DEFERRED FULFILLMENT as a kind of virtue that will eventually be compensated by some kind of future good and even an imagined redemption or epiphany. In other words a Calvinistic theme -- WORK NOW, HEAVEN LATER. And it becomes a kind of virtue or is otherwise valorized.
And of course, "care" doesn't go away as a human need, but it is commoditized in ways that benefit capital, like, various kinds of self care, fetish relationships to value and quality expressed through consumption choices.
I feel it would be of benefit to see how those unmet "shadow" needs emerge as motivation for all kinds of otherwise puzzling personal and collective behavior patterns, which are recast as "coping". When the coping doesn't actually help, but has instead a hidden side effect of increasing the pain, then, that is the hallmark of a behavioral addiction process.
Frictionless and "more" and "faster" are not our way home in these dynamics.