Monday, January 23, 2012

Some Costs of Convenience

Modern mobility encourages a broad and shallow familiarity with places.  Just as frequent over-watering of desert plants encourages shallow roots, our ability to flit from place to place as whim directs can leave us so dislocated that our metaphorical roots, the structures that commit us to places in all their particularity, atrophy and weaken.  As with so many forms of technological progress, the revolution in mobility comes with both benefits and costs.  Our ancestors struggled mightily to cross mountain ranges that today serve as little more than scenic backdrops for our destination-focused travels.  They do very little to test our mettle or force our attention to what is present.  This great convenience permits us to see far more of the globe that our ancestors ever dreamed.  It is instructive to consider the costs and benefits of any comfortable, time-saving new technology in terms of effort, because effort is not just something to avoid.  It is also one of the prime factors of learning, along with aptitude.  If our learning is the product of our aptitude times our effort, it follows that labor-saving advances reduce our opportunities to learn in direct proportion to the amount of effort they save us.

It is difficult to criticize labor-saving convenience.  There is some real truth in arguments that distinguish between "dumb" labor and forms of effort that are seen to be more inherently edifying.  To establish a spectrum between dumb and edifying forms of effort, let's say that using a hammer to make gravel out of rocks is dumb.  And let's say that long hours in the laboratory in pursuit of a cure for childhood leukemia is inherently edifying.  The degree of coercion under which the worker labors may also affect the calculus.  Using a hammer to make some gravel because you want to is probably more edifying than making the same amount of gravel, using the same technology, because you are being whipped.  However, no criticism of dumb labor and its conditions can be complete without considering the interior state of the laborer.  Looking only at the product, the hardness of the work, and the replace-ability of the worker by a machine [or by other, distant, unknown workers] fails to address the fact that all work transforms the worker.  All work is done with more or less awareness and intention, which are not just the mental states of the laborer at work, but the mental states of the retreatant in meditation, the devotee in prayer, and the artist in his or her constant struggle.  Just as sitting quietly can be lazy or focused, just as the recitation of a prayer can be rote or worshipful, and just as not all the artist's struggles are productive, so not all laborers rebel at the work or wish it done or become unreflective brutes.  In fact, among the common experiences of laborers is a sense of solidarity with other laborers in a knowledge that is theirs alone.  A kind of wisdom, about the strengths and weaknesses of the body, about a job well done, about endurance and pacing and fortitude, and about the travails of others may be uniquely available to those who earn their bread by the sweat of their brows.

It follows that effort avoided is wisdom lost.  This complicates the usual calculus of labor-saving. Understandably, given the choice, we will choose to avoid dumb labor and spend our time doing what we perceive to be inherently edifying, or at least fun.  But if we are forced to consider what convenience costs us, we may well choose to eschew some kinds of convenience for the sake of learning lessons that not all moderns are required to learn.  The entire Romantic era of Western history was deeply driven by a sense that modern convenience comes at a cost.  Whereas their Enlightenment forebears tended to see labor as the unfortunate cost required to attain a product or other benefit, the Romantics began to suspect that a great inheritance of wisdom and insight were dying, at least among the educated and wealthy.  Today's appreciation for outdoor adventure, travel, sports, self-improvement, rigorous hobbies, and the like arose in large part out of the Romantic sense that comforts insulate us from hardship and nature, and that the culture is losing the wisdom that comes from exposure, hardiness, stoic endurance, and uncomplaining toughness.  A comment on my last post briefly addresses this topic.  I'd like to expand upon roro's implied comparison between commodified food and food that we hunt, gather, and farm.

The Mormon settlers in Utah knew something of the travails of travel that modern travelers do not.  Not even a Christmas Eve in an airport with a screaming toddler, waiting for an overbooked flight to Salt Lake City, can impart the wisdom the settlers learned as they raced against the seasons to the edge of exhaustion through unfamiliar and hostile territory.  Likewise, hunting, gathering, and farming to eat require a depth of experience that contains uncommon wisdom.  We meet our ancestors on the hunt, in the woods, and in the furrow.  That is where they lived.  As I've outlined above, their, our, labor is what's required to uncover the treasure of experience.  But always, in procuring food the old way, and in so many other labors, the work itself is not the only teacher.  The other great teacher terrifies us so deeply that our entire culture of comfort is dedicated to its eradication.  We refer to it only in the negative: uncertainty.  The hunt is always uncertain.  The hunter's skill counts for something.  But chance, or fate, is the overwhelming presence on the hunt, so overwhelming, in fact, that many hunting cultures ritualize the humiliation of the successful shooter.  He [almost always he, but not anymore] may not be allowed to eat till the end of the meal, or he may get the worst cut of meat.  He may even be the brunt of ritualized mockery, or not be allowed to claim his success.  Hubris was not permitted.  Uncertainty is what makes the universe mysterious, and therefor compelling.  It is central to human nature that we will direct ourselves into uncertainty because what we need is there.  The revered shamans went out and came back with a light to shine into the uncertainty, which was always, at least metaphorically, in the wild.  The wild was full of treasure and nourishment, and monsters.  Equally, farmers have always planted in hope, and harvested in gratitude.  For farmers, nothing is guaranteed but labor.  We save seed, break ground, weed, beat off the pests, and hope for rain, but always the lean years follow the fat.  Labor like this teaches humility and deep reverence.  If your summer's unremitting effort can end in a minute of hail, you are unlikely to boast or tolerate arrogance.  Farmers tend to see arrogance as a form of stupidity, or of callow inexperience.  It is terrifying to be uncertain about food.  Here I need to observe that the perception of certainty, as, for example, that there will always be more steak in the supermarket, is delusional.  Certainty does not exist.  Only the perception of certainty exists, and the fuel for this delusion is comfort.  The ease with which we drive to the store and buy the steak fuels our sense that everything will continue as it is, that all is well.  This partly accounts for the willfulness with which most people deny the horrific and precarious state of our food supply: their sense of certainty, their faith in continuity, maybe even the flavor of their other faiths, relational and religious, depends upon the delusion of food security.  It is not overreaching, I believe, to say that hunting, gathering, and farming your own food bolsters you against delusion and clears your eyes to the world as it is, in all its ever-changing sublimity.


  1. This essay resonates through me in waves, but from it one idea has startled me entirely: "It is central to human nature that we will direct ourselves into uncertainty because what we need is there." I do this, but I assumed I was nuts. I thought that striving to be better was due to deep-seeded insecurities, but it appears that it is actually due to courage, a willingness to enter the unknown, the uncertain, for the sake of growing. That wasn't obvious to me.

    Likewise with food, it has struck me as we have stiven to grow virtually everything we eat (well, except bananas - so far) with some success, what would we do if our crops failed. Would we suddenly compromise our standards for what we are willing to put in our mouths? Or would we tighten our belts? We don't know - yet. But yes, I meet my ancestors in the furrows. I really do. Thanks for pointing that out.

    I could read this essay over and over and still pull wisdom from it. In fact, I will.

  2. I love the idea of edifying labor. For my whole life I've craved building things, or creating things, mostly with wood. So far I have limited experience with it, largely because there really is no need. I WILL do it someday when we're not living in student housing anymore. That craving is not going to go away!

    Thanks for another thought provoking post.