Friday, September 26, 2014

Better Off: Manual Labor

For a number of years I worked at RoleModel Software under Ken Auer. Ken had a little presentation he would do at a whiteboard to explain his vision for the business. I must have seen it dozens of times. He would begin by drawing a big box labeled Now, and inside it he would draw a bunch of rectangles inside the box with labels like Work, Family, Entertainment, Education, Fitness, and Spiritual. The relative sizes of these rectangles represented his estimation of how average Americans spend their time, so Entertainment and Work dominated the area, while Spiritual was shoved over into one corner with a little question mark next to it.
Then he drew another picture called Then and it had the same set of rectangles in different sizes, but now they were all overlapping with each other. He wanted RoleModel to look more like the Then box rather than the Now box. I bought into this vision then, and in a lot of ways I still do. The problem was that I never saw it come to fruition.
Reading Better Off has helped me understand more clearly why it didn’t work out. There are certain qualities to manual labor that make a more integrated life more possible. Brende ultimately argues that technology does not save time so much as it cuts time into pieces. A given job may take half as long with mechanization, but it also displaces other aspects of the activity that would have been possible if it was performed manually, such that the total effect on our free time is no improvement.
The most obvious example is the issue of fitness. Farm work provides a baseline of physical exercise as a built-in. If we opt for technologized desk work, we have to make substantial time outside of work for exercise, or else resign ourselves to the health effects of inactivity. The time required for exercise will often conflict with other demands on our time, such as family and community relationships, spiritual disciplines, etc.
But exercise isn’t even the real benefit of manual labor. Our bodies and minds seem to be designed for repetitive physical tasks. Once we get the hang of it, we can divert our attention to other matters. Brende finds that work becomes a social occasion. He converses with his wife while working in their garden. He gets to know the other men in the community while bartering labor. Even if one does not have a companion, manual work creates space to reflect, to plan, to pray. I always loved raking leaves for this reason.
(I should note that Ken did create opportunities for manual labor on the peripheries of the business and that I never participated in them. I wonder now how my experience there would have been different if I had.)
At the end of the book Brende talks about his life after leaving the Minimite community, and the decisions he and his wife have made about how much technology to have in their lives. One of the most interesting bits was his thoughts on using power tools. He doesn’t own any but he sometimes borrows them from his neighbors. One downside to power tools is that they are loud, which is unpleasant and will tend to get in the way of conversation. Another thing is that they are almost always more dangerous than equivalent hand tools, which makes it more of a problem to have people around you when you are working (especially young children). He does his lawn maintenance using a reel mower and hedge shears.
She said multitasking is a myth
You ain't doin' anything good just everything awful
(Propaganda, Be Present)
What all this makes me think is that there is a line between body and soul that is made for multi-tasking. The point is not that we can’t do two things at once, but that we need to make wise choices about what kinds of things can be done at the same time. If our lives do not include any kind of physical work then multi-tasking can only mean trying to do multiple things at once with our minds and senses. From checking Twitter while having a conversation, to texting while driving, this seems to almost always be a bad idea. (It also seems to mostly happen around screens.) But our physical bodies are just sitting there (literally sitting) like an underutilized resource. “Man found alive with two legs.” I wonder what we could use them for.

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