The notion that mechanization and technology will bring us free time, so we can "enjoy" life, is as old as technology itself.
The use of farming animals to cut through fields spared humans much hard work. Romans used watermills to grind grain and lift water for irrigation. As we advance through history, the list goes on and on. The expectation has always been that as technology and the mechanization of labor grew in sophistication, humans would have more free time and, thus, more opportunities for leisure.
However, if we were to ask most people today if they feel they have more free time, the answer would be no. Despite all the machines and technology, people feel busier than ever. What went wrong?
For one thing, there is the question of growing demand. Even if technology and mechanization tend to optimize output, the increase in demand makes productivity gains feel inefficient. A growing world population with a growing appetite for resources continually challenges what new technology can do. As machines huff and puff away, people keep asking for more.
But there is another aspect to this question, related to the way we function. Imagine a future (which has been imagined countless times) when automation reaches a point where machines do cover most of the tasks we currently find ourselves busy with. Driving cars, writing memos, programming computers, fixing machines, working on farming fields, diagnosing patients, operating on patients. How intolerable would all this gained leisure be to our psyche? There is only so much enjoyment in watching TV, exercising, engaging with friends and family, etc.
At some point, we feel the urge to get busy — and we know we need to act on it. Work may not make us free (the horrible quote at the entrance of a few Nazi concentration camps), but it is an integral part of who we are. Be unproductive for an extended period of time and it's hard to shake off a feeling of worthlessness. (I'm staying away from forced or severely underpaid labor. Clearly, these are not the forms of work I mean.)
We are organizers, builders and tinkerers. The notion that technology would make us freer from work by buying us more leisure time goes against our nature. The premise seems wrong because work does bring a measure of enjoyment to most people. It's not all about the paycheck. When routine work is not fulfilling, we have hobbies, activities that keep us busy while bringing a measure of enjoyment.
Humans are a working species, as are ants and bees. Technology and automation will continue to free us from some of our tasks (including dangerous ones) but also will be partners in finding new ways to keep us busy. Computers may optimize many of our everyday activities, but we still sit in front of them for most of the day. To be free is, in a sense, to be able to choose to what we will commit our time.
Whatever our individual choices are, we seem to make sure we keep busy one way or another. Technology and automation may change our choices — but not our needs.
Marcelo Gleiser is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist — and professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is the co-founder of 13.7, a prolific author of papers and essays, and active promoter of science to the general public. His latest book is The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser.