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. “


Filed under Culture views

3 responses to “PRODUCTivity

  1. In response to the email about the unfortunate General Burnside, Jim Gerrity sends along this email. Apparently Mass was as capable as RI of sending less than competent Civil War generals to the Union Army. Good stuff, enjoy..

    On a different note you might also want to troll the depths of Civil War heroes with a glimpse at our own General Benjamin Butler. His was the unfortunate task of being governor of newly conquered New Orleans (this occurred very early in the war – 1862 I think). A bastion of secessionists, the women of the town dumped chamber pots, garbage, and any other poop they could conceive of on passing Union soldiers on the streets below. General Butler passed “general Order # ?” which stated that any woman of New Orleans who by act word or deed showed disrespect to any soldiers of the United States would be viewed as “a woman of the town plying her avocation and treated appropriately.” This statutorily created class of whores caused a howl amongst the residents….but the abuse stopped.

    His order created a cottage industry within the city as artisans sold chamber pots and spittoons with General Butler’s portrait within. He also garnered the local nickname of “Spoons” as he was accused of pocketing silverware at every captured location. History does not dwell on the accuracy of this accusation, but as in most areas, where there was smoke there was fire.

    Butler lived in Gloucester (Annisquam) after the war and became Governor of Massachusetts and a leader ultimately in the U.S. House of representatives. While he was an absolutely awful general he was a damn good politician and believer in equal rights (did much for Irish immigrants and appointed Clara Barton to head a woman’s reformatory hearing of her heroic service to the wounded of the Civil War.

    How bad a general was he? He was relieved for not taking a fort in North Carolina. Due to his political positioning he was able to have a review of this by a House Committee in Washington. He brought charts and graphs which proved that the fort was impregnable and only an idiot would even attempt to storm this mighty fortress. On the third day of the hearing…Whoops!… the fort fell to an assault promulgated by his successor (picked by Grant). The hearing was dissolved without comment.
    George Plympton was his great grandson; Butler now buried in Lowell, Ma.


  2. Gabriel Parquette

    and it gets worse with each generation. along with my work-related communications, I immerse myself in a sea of personal communication and recreational, electronic distraction: texts, tweets, facebook status updates, video games, streaming movies, etc.. to the point where I’ve been physically unable to even read this post until today. where will we be in another 10 years? another point: I think the further we progress, the more specialized each person’s role becomes with regards to his place in the machine. an individual today need only a very small skill set to survive as compared to an individual 200 years ago who needed to be skilled in a wide variety of things that were not provided by the system. as this trend grows and spreads around the entire world, humanity is placed in a very precarious position. imagine if the machine broke down.


  3. Great comment, Gabe.

    Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
    T. S. Eliot


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