As the population of our planet increases, so does the quantity of goods and services provided. According to a recent article in “The Economist”, 28% of all human years lived (cumulative by all people) since 1 AD were lived in the twentieth century. 23% of everything produced by all of humanity since the birth of Christ has been produced in the first ten years of the 21st century. Exponential growth in the Gross Domestic Product of all nations has been driven by and continues to drive the ratcheted ever upward productivity of nations, competitive businesses and individuals. But at a cost, and a cost we have yet to understand or adjust to.
Could the inventor of the telegraph, which revolutionized communication and required specialized operators, have envisioned the average modern home’s ability to instantly transmit for pennies and a few hours’ worth of learning not just text, but pictures, videos and sound? The telegraph ended the jobs of thousands of message carriers and created fewer new ones. Laser printers and copiers and fax machines displaced jobs as well as typewriters and carbon paper. Now paperless offices and scanners and direct to e file record keeping will cut more jobs and render more skills to history with coopers and wheelwrights and stenographers. The ease of spreadsheets with multiple “what ifs?” eliminated thousands, if not millions, of the jobs of financial analysts and bookkeepers. Very few futurists even attempt to foretell the coming effects of artificial intelligence and well programmed robots.
At each turn of the ratchet of productivity, fewer people are called upon to do more for far less expense per transaction. But at a cost, and a cost we have yet to understand or adjust to.
I review (however cursorily), respond to, delete or file over 60 emails a day on average – some days many more. Emails are layered on top of dozens of phone calls (landline and cell), text messages, a profusion of meetings and nearly constant interruption by folks just walking into or by my office. I am not unusual and work in a primarily blue collar industry that by definition will always remain local to a great degree (construction and construction related products). What primarily white collar, international business associates deal with is, I would assume, more intense. Amongst the communications from customers, coworkers, bosses, subordinates, suppliers, sub contractors, architects and engineers is the obligation to produce the work fed by the communication – the reports, analysis, planning, new bids, and successful results.
We have become by necessity what is now a wan and enervated boast at the coffee pot as we replenish our caffeine levels – harried and frantic multi-taskers for ten or more hours a day, plus a couple of more on the phone to and from our workplace. We are called upon to sustain the attention span of squirrels and survive on the ability to jump from branch to branch and acorn to acorn with alacrity and agility.
Yet the brain study scientists caution us that the human mind cannot strictly focus on more than one task or thought at a time. Our own experience confirms that. So while we scan (or even write) emails and hold a phone conversation, only one of these tasks gets adequate attention, or for that matter, any attention. We’ve all had the admonition of someone (occasionally wives, who know us so well) asking us impatiently, “are you on the computer?” while talking to us on the phone. We sometimes forget things that are important and remember things that are not.
We drink from a severed water main, constantly adjusting our intake to seek equilibrium somewhere between dying of thirst and drowning in the torrent. Our productivity has a cost, and we have not yet understood it or adjusted to it. Our jobs, if we let ourselves sink, become as C.S. Lewis once wrote, “dust, grit, thirst and itch”.
Lest we despair, I offer the following: if what we are doing is what we truly are called to do at this time in our lives, then we do others and ourselves a disservice by complaining about the unavoidable reality of that vocation. We seek to value what we are called to do, and if we are doing it to the best of our ability and occasionally with joy, then we bring to each day some gratitude, kindness and a desire to end the day with a bit more wisdom than we began it.
Quote from the theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, later modified as the Serenity Prayer of the 12 Step Programs of AA:
“Lord, grant to us the serenity of mind to accept that which cannot be changed; courage to change that which can be changed, and wisdom to know the one from the other. “