Ah, the future… during the 1950’s and 60’s the world experienced quantum leaps in productivity and technology and based on those advances, it became very popular to make predictions about where we’d be in the 2000’s. From jetpacks to robots, the future seemed like it was going to be incredibly… well, futuristic! Looking at our current state, I think that there are some things that our predecessors would be impressed with, but for the most part I think they’d be bitterly disappointed; I know I am.
As Brian Hayes states in “Automation on the Job”, John Maynard Keynes was way off the mark with regards to his prediction that automation would endow us with a 15-hour workweek, and that our biggest challenge would be finding new and creative ways to spend the plethora of “idle hours”. There’s no denying that we have made enormous leaps and bounds in the areas of automation and technology, but somehow we’ve managed to eschew the heaps of leisure time that was supposed to accompany this phenomenon. Why is that?
I found the answer somewhere between Hayes’ insights and a comedy routine that I heard on Pandora today, performed by Patton Oswalt. Hayes assertion is that we more or less need the structure of the 40-hour workweek and faced with the option of enjoying leisure time or cranking out some extra hours so that we can buy all the stuff that we are tempted with today, we’ll choose the working option and the new flat screen TV. Oswalt’s routine was based on the new “robots” that have replaced the cashiers at his local grocery store. He, of course is talking about those scanning sensors that allow one to check out on their own, replacing the cashier and the bagger. His point, is that we have now become the both the consumer and the employee, which is unbelievably ironic.
One of the reasons that we have less leisure time than expected, is that we have replaced an uncountable number of people with technology and made ourselves the operators. Hayes backs this up by using travel agents as an example. We used to call a travel agent and have them search for the best times and fares, but now thanks to the Internet, we have now become our own travel agents, which I personally find to be exhaustive and time consuming. I can’t think of any trip I’ve taken in the past five years that didn’t involve hours of searching routes, fares and times, often running into frustrating and fruitless dead ends.
To answer the question of why are we so stressed in this new and automated future, I believe its because we are now doing the work of the multitude of service employees that were removed as a result of the automation; it’s a self-serve society. It turns out the joke’s on us, we didn’t liberate ourselves, we’ve hyper-employed ourselves. Now, get back to work! Your vacation isn’t going to book itself!