Sunday, May 27, 2012

Technology's Broken Promises

Modern living in the electric age.

"Total Electric Living... where electricity does absolutely everything: heats, air conditions, cooks, preserves food, lights, entertains, encourages hobbies, makes it the easiest way ever for you and your family to be happier, healthier, to live fuller lives."
This quote from a Westinghouse brochure gets it half right. Yes electricity can heat, cool, cook, preserve food, light and entertain. However the last part about making it easier to be happier, healthier and lead fuller lives, I don't think so. Polls indicate that today people are less happy than they ever have been. We are not even healthier either. Though the average life expectancy has increased due in large part to technology, diseases like obesity as well as mental illness and anxiety disorders are increasing even more rapidly. If fuller lives means more filled with anxiety, stress and unhealthy eating habits then yes we do lead fuller lives.

Its often comical to look back at how people viewed the promise of technology in the early days of the technological boom. Its understandable that they thought that electrical appliances were going to make life so much better. After all many of these devices were going to free up our time from manual labor, giving us more leisure time to enjoy doing what we truly want with out lives. Now that would have made life better. Unfortunately the extra time freed from doing manual labor was spent doing other types of work.

The washing machine is a good example of a nice piece of technology that freed us from work that was time consuming and could be classified as drudgery. It along with the vacuum cleaner and dishwasher certainly gave house wives more time, but how was that times used? In general standards of cleanliness went up requiring just as much time to be spent on cleaning. No increase in leisure time there. In fact despite all the extra time freed up by technology making tasks easier throughout the home and economy, work weeks are longer, vacations shorter and in most households both husband and wife work outside the home. Today we actually have less leisure time than when the Westinghouse brochure was published. On the other hand we do have more material prosperity. Its as though as a society we have opted for more stuff rather than more time, or put another way we have become more materialistic, seeking to find fulfillment in the acquisition of stuff.

The poor choice of how to use this extra capacity created by the electronic world pictured in the brochure has lead to the time crunched, anxious, unhealthy lifestyle most people lead today. Really which is better: laborious household chores performed with family and home cooked meals or sitting hunched over a computer for 40+ hours per week, eating fast food and leaving our children to be raised by strangers. Is destroying our bodies with stress, bad food and bad posture really worth the McMansion and large screen TV? Are children really happier with all the toys and video games they could want, but little or no time to spend talking, bonding and being taught by their parents? The hard work we used to do as a part of daily life kept us fit and trim. Now we have to pay a gym to run in place and move metal plates up and down to keep healthy. As I have indicated before technology is a wondrous thing, but in the aggregate we are no better off, may be even worse off.

These facts leads me to the conclusion that technology per se is not the problem, but rather its how we choose to use it. After all technology at its core is just an enabler. It can enable us to do good things or it can enable us to do stupid or even evil things. It seems to me that the modern world we live in was created in large part by the unwise use of technology guided by a materialistic philosophy where we value things over people and progress over happiness. That's why I'd trade it all for a little house on the prairie where hard work, good food and a slower pace of life would be paradise by comparison.

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