Shank: I happen to be reading “Farmer Boy” by Laura Ingalls Wilder to my daughter while I was also reading “The Glass Cage,” and I was struck by a scene in which Almanzo, the farmer boy of the title, asks his dad why they slowly thresh the crops by hand on stormy days in winter, rather than hiring the threshing machine that would finish the job quickly. His dad says, “All it saves is time, son. And what good is time, with nothing to do? You want to sit and twiddle your thumbs, all these stormy winter days?” This book is set in the 1800s, when it was possible for a family farmer to make that kind of quality-of-life-over-efficiency choice. Is it possible to make such a choice in the modern world?
Carr: That’s a lovely passage – I wish I’d been aware of it while writing the book. It would have served well as an epigraph. It gets to the heart of one of my central arguments: that technology in general and automation in particular shape our experience of life and hence our sense of engagement and fulfillment. We’re often too quick to believe that if we’re “freed up” from hard work, we’ll enjoy life more, but the opposite often turns out be true. When things become too easy for us, we become self-absorbed and anxious. True freedom comes from accomplishing hard things, from being busy at some meaningful task in the real world. As I write in the book, “Automation often frees us from that which makes us feel free.” I do think that, for economic and employment reasons, it’s becoming harder for people to resist labor-saving technology. At the same time, though, we’re seeing young people getting involved in small-scale agriculture and various handicrafts, often using more traditional, less automated tools. So all is not lost. Resistance is not futile.
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