While hanging up my 24th black sock on the laundry line this morning, I began to suspect that humans may have underestimated the true cost of machines. Yes, they take energy and resources and make noise, but they save us time and energy, and that’s a good thing…isn’t it?
I’m not so sure anymore. It’s true that there are some days on which the weather doesn’t cooperate, or I just don’t have the energy or time to hang my clothes up to dry. It’s nice to have the option. And yet, I’m also discovering that the time it takes to get a load (or four if you’ve let things go a bit) up on the line isn’t time wasted. There’s something about repetitive, brainless activity that frees up the mind to explore and create. When my hands are occupied, my brain likes to compose letters, draft new scenes in the never finished novel, play around with recipe variations, ponder climate change problems, and — of course — write blog entries. In fact, that’s exactly where this entry came from.
I’m certainly not espousing going back to 100% manual labor. I just thought about what it would mean to wash all four loads of laundry by hand and shuddered. (Note to self: get rid of some clothing.) But I do think that freeing ourselves from most physical chores — whether it’s cooking a meal from scratch, walking to the store, weeding a garden by hand — comes at the price of thinking time. I’m not even sure that the time we save by using machines is really saved, when all it often means is more time to watch TV, shop, surf online, or do other things that don’t really make us happy. After all, it’s not like we’re likely to slam the door on the dryer and then go and spend the next hour thinking or connecting with ourselves and the world around us.
Maybe the true cost of machines is not their energy usage but the time and headspace we used to have to think. Maybe that’s part of how we got into this mess in the first place.