a few thoughts on lagging behind technology

A woodchuck popped her head out of a hole on the border of my yard and watched a tractor plow the field next door. The farmer was greedy this year cutting into the narrow rough along the edge where the ground hog had been retreating for the last few years. If the critter could hold out for a month or so, she would be belly deep in alfalfa for the rest of the summer. But overall, she was finding it more and more difficult to tell when ‘THEY’ would eventually win for good.

There is a self-service computer in the entry way to our local Secretary of State designed to automate annual license plate renewal. Not unlike the self-serve check-out booth next to the librarian. Or the ATM outside the Credit Union. Or the I-Pass lane next to the tollbooth attendant. Do these workers all wonder when ‘THEY’ will eventually win and plow over their jobs? In the meantime, throwback customers try to hang on, to enjoy it while it lasts and appreciate the occasional effort to remind them that others see them as people and not machine-surrogates. Like the white-haired man ahead of me who said to the clerk after having his license photo taken, “I had my hair dyed, just for this photo-op.” He was rewarded with a warm chuckle and smile at the recognition that there was a human being behind the official forms and rubber stamps lined up along the counter.

I also wonder if simple-taskers have a love/hate relationship with their jobs. There definitely is something to love about a non-challenging, repetitive job. Our primitive ancestors had to fetch wood and carry water every day and, like kids piddling in a swimming pool, have accidentally left that survival trait in our gene pool. Thankfully, our forebears also passed on the drive to innovate, to invent the wheel, design tools, tame fire and animals. Current technology favors the thinkers over the hunter-gatherers. The work force tends toward cerebration not perspiration. But there still is a demand for non-thinking, lost-in-the-rhythm-of-task, labor. Not everyone likes to ponder, to tax the brain… ‘just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.’ There is an ever-present siren call to mindlessly drift on a sea of gentle exertion.

Not all of us have the mental capacity nor the inclination to be challenged by problems, to resolve conflicts, to apply bodies of knowledge and tradition to variable situations. It’s easier to just punch in, tune out, and punch out after eight hours. The hospital I worked at conducted an annual employee satisfaction survey. Of all the staffers, the laundry personnel consistently scored highest: piles of dirty sheets in the morning…racks full of fresh linens by quitting time. I used to wonder if the ICU nurses, laser-focused though intense eight-hour shifts on monitoring and medicating critically ill patients, went home and did the family laundry to relax.

There is also something to hate about non-challenging jobs especially when the task can be brain numbingly stultifying. I think of the two college summers I worked at a golf course. My main duty was flattening ball marks on eighteen greens. The first few days were hell, not because the work was so physically demanding but because it was so intellectually undemanding. I had stepped off a treadmill of group projects, assigned readings, term papers and final exams into a cerebral sand trap.  The hours dragged at first. A week or two later not so much. By the end of the summer my shifts flew by, my mind cruising on auto-pilot over la-la land.  But then there was the jarring transition back to the world of words and ideas, taxonomies and equations.

Perhaps hobbies are an attempt to spice high-stress, mentally-taxing jobs with a dash of lullaby work, a tablespoon of fiber for the soul. Take running, for instance, till endorphins kick in. Or the soothing rhythms of sanding a coffee table or stitching a quilt where the hand-eye mantra of somatic action helps to free-associate, problem solve, ventilate or, preferably, not think at all.

There seems to be less and less call for mindless busy-work. Technology has made elevator operators obsolete. Drones may yet replace delivery men the way personal computers have cut into typing pools. It’s not just nostalgia for those kinds of jobs that is problematic, it’s the fact that so many people are unable or unwilling to adapt to the demands of high tech, professional careers. They are like deer watching a bulldozer clear their range and pave their ever-diminishing domain. So, when we see a human being engaged in a simple job that could be replaced by a machine in the near future…for example a cashier in a grocery store, one lane over from self-check-out stations…we should enjoy it while it lasts and not be afraid to break into the work-trance with a welcome recognition and celebration of the person inside the job. Like the time a cashier automatically asked if I wanted the receipt in the bag while she carelessly swung a bag of batteries toward me. “Be careful,” I said, “you may be accused of assault and battery.”

“That could bring multiple charges,” she replied, eyes flashing.

There’s a human in there and she didn’t mind being noticed.



3 thoughts on “Groundhogs and Tollbooths

  1. Thought-provoking…so I remembered the time a homeless guy tried to give me $5. You made me think I should write about that sometime


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