Editor’s Note: Froma Harrop is on vacation. This is an updated version of a column that first appeared Dec. 28, 2003.
BY FROMA HARROP
The most wrong assumption in the sci-fi movie classic “2001: A Space Odyssey” was that technology would liberate humans from a life of hassle. Made 42 years ago, Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece shows 21st Century humankind going about its business in a leisurely fashion as machines do the bull work. A gentle Strauss waltz plays in the background.
Futurists of the past clearly thought that if machines could help humans do eight hours of work in six, people would have two more hours of free time. That didn’t happen. Instead, people started doing 10 hours of work in eight hours.
Humans were offered the gift of free time, and they turned it down. Many now plan their 24-hour day around how much computers will let them do.
The phenomenon of assignment overload goes well beyond work. After all, we multitask in our off-time, as well. We simultaneously watch TV, surf the web and talk on the phone. The technology lets us turn our cars into second homes and offices. It’s amazing, when you think of it, that states actually have to pass laws telling people not to text-message and drive at the same time.
Some of this speed-up could be the legacy of the two-job couple. The tranquil housekeeper of generations past has pretty much disappeared. No one’s home during the day to do the laundry, cooking and other household chores. So when breadwinners leave the job, they try to stuff all these domestic duties into their “free” time, again with the help of technology.
They call the folks while driving. They shop on the Internet for presents while waiting at the doctor’s office. Were it not for “time-saving” technology, they’d have no choice but to do less. And the more they can do, the faster they want to do it.
“Waiting has become an intolerable circumstance,” cultural critic David Shi has noted. “We get on an elevator and immediately rush to the close-door button for fear of waiting 10 seconds.” If the computer doesn’t download a Webpage in 15 seconds, we move on.
All this doesn’t seem to be making people very happy. An entire industry has grown around reducing stress. The popularity of yoga and meditation, which train people to become aware of the present moment, speaks of the need to combat the ill effects of jumping from thing to thing.
An elementary school in Silver Spring, MD, offers a stress management class for second-graders. Merchants do a brisk business in scented candles with alleged calming properties. Meanwhile, Americans gulp all varieties of legal and illegal drugs “to take the edge off.”
But doing one thing at a time is more than some people can take. Hence, power yoga, which purports to combine the meditative process with burning carbs.
Perhaps all this frenetic activity is itself a drug to drive off the demons of depression. Weaker family ties and friendships leave many vulnerable to loneliness. Television and the Web offer only the illusion of companionship.
The most famous scene in “2001: A Space Odyssey” shows a sassy computer named HAL 9000 turning into a crazy human-like “being.” He begs for his life as an astronaut removes his modules one by one. [The humans in the movie are the ones without emotion.]
When humans malfunction, we now use such machine-related terms as “flameout” and “overload.” Indeed, “multitasking” started out as a computer word, referring to the machine’s ability to run several programs at once.
Have soulless machines commandeered our waking hours without our consent – or have people chosen to let technology-driven busy-ness hide the pain of being human? That question is worth pondering.
– Froma Harrop’s columns appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer