Your Computer Versus The Cotton Gin

4 min read

Progress has always been a double-edged sword. Inventions intended to save us time and make our lives easier can have surprising downstream consequences.

Take, for example, Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, patented in 1794. This handy little gadget gave cotton growers a simple way to separate cotton fibers from cotton seeds, which previously had to be done, arduously, by hand. You’d think the slaves who did all that hand-separating would have cause to rejoice.

Actually, invention of the cotton gin was all Southern plantation owners needed to nearly quadruple cotton production between 1830 and 1850–and more than quadruple the number of slaves in America. The cotton gin made large-scale slavery in America not only possible, but necessary. Some labor-saving device, eh?

The “progress” we’ve seen in office automation over the last 30 years has been remarkable. There were no computers on

“With the new Cotton King 1800, you can more than quadruple your per-slave output.”

our desktops back in the early 1980s. There were no cell phones; remember, they were “car phones” before they were cell phones, and there were none of those, either. There were no fax machines and no e-mail. If you needed to get a document to a client across town, you called a courier service. Now fax machines are virtually obsolete and e-mail is for old people.

Once consequence of all this automation is that businesses need fewer people to do the same amount of work. Copywriters never used to have to produce error-free copy. We cut and pasted–literally–and marked up our copy by hand for a secretary to make perfect for the client. Today, we type our own clean copy and even do our own typesetting. This sort of progress has been good for employers and bad for secretaries and typesetters.

But has it really been good for the people who actually do the work? Twenty or thirty years ago, we did a fraction of the amount of work we do today. We spent weeks writing magazine ads; now, we’re lucky if we have hours. We turn out much more work in a shorter period of time than we ever did before, and “progress” is the reason. We can get more work done faster than ever with computers and mobile devices and instantaneous communications–and if we can, we must.

Mobile computing makes the situation even worse. On one hand, it seems to be a great thing that I can take all my work home with me in a lightweight, easy-to-carry notebook computer. I can connect with virtually anyone in the world, wirelessly, from anywhere, and send them not only documents but photos and videos and music, as well. I have the freedom to work when I want, where I want.

And here I am–at home at 5 a.m., working. I used to think it was great if I could get to the office by 7:30 to get a couple of things done before anybody knew where to find me. Now the work-related e-mail rolls in all night long–generated by colleagues who are working at home at midnight.

Your computer has not made your life freer and easier. It is not a great labor-saving device. It’s made it mandatory that you do four times the work in half the time–and because you can take your work anywhere, and it’s always with you, you can work all the time. So you pack more work into every minute and you work more.

This does not seem like progress to me. Too often, when we pack too much work into too little time, we don’t leave ourselves time to really think about the work we’re doing. There’s time to do the work, but no time to refine the idea. There’s time to grind out the deliverable, but no time to consider alternative approaches that might do the job faster/smarter/cheaper/better. There’s time to get the input, but no time to roll it around in your head.

The pace isn’t slowing, either: in fact, it’s accelerating. And paranoia about being left behind, even for a moment, can turn you into a social media zombie. Who knows how many tweets you’ll miss if you go offline for a couple of hours–or, god forbid, go to sleep? How many of you check your e-mail first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening? How many of you keep Facebook or chat windows open all day long? Can you sit through an hour-long meeting without pecking at your phone for messages?

A suggestion: have a screen-free day every once in a while. Go totally off the grid. Keep your computer off and your phone at home. Don’t react/respond/Facebook your whereabouts. Just breathe and think and take in the world around you, not so you can tweet about it, just to experience it. Our devices can make our lives easier–and make us slaves. Don’t forget, all appearances aside, that you are not your Twitter feed. Live a little.