Friday, January 13, 2012

Dream time

Express Staff Writer

I've been waiting all my life for labor-saving robots to come along and streamline my life, attending to necessary tasks like work while allowing me to become the slacker I was born to be.

It all began when I first held a Texas Instruments calculator in fourth grade. I punched a few buttons and the machine magically performed calculations that would have taken me God knows how long in kid minutes to figure out with a pencil and paper.

I turned my back on actually doing mathematics forever, because I simply could not compete. Surely it was only a matter of time before my pals and I would be fishing, climbing trees and playing pinball all day while gadgets took care of grown-up things like jobs.

Well, things didn't turn out exactly as I had planned. Now I work like most people under deadlines, racing around to cover appointments and produce, produce, produce. Even in the age of instant communication, there seems to be less and less time to perform the required tasks in a day.

How have we let this happen? Why does the search for optimum efficiency remain out of reach, like a task of Sisyphus? And what do we lose by not instead slowing down?

The demands to increase efficiency at work are necessary to reach bottom lines and beat out competition, but perhaps the panic to get things done on time is drawing us away from more important, game-changing innovations in human knowledge.

It's a great irony that bright ideas, the kind that transform human societies, often come during states of reverie and reflection, while lying in bed or taking a shower or a walk. They come any place away from the pen or keyboard, where those ideas would most readily be recorded and put to use.

Take Greek scholar Archimedes, who exclaimed "Eureka!" when he stepped into a bath and noticed that the water level rose, seeing in an instant how volumes of irregular objects could be measured, a previously intractable problem.

Of course, the reason that innovations in thought and marvelous new inventions don't always serve to reduce human suffering is because our economic systems are built upon competition, rather than cooperation. If the U.S. blinks, China or some other country will surely surpass us in economic and perhaps military superiority.

This is the kind of fear that keeps us running like hamsters to keep our jobs, and not taking the time to dream, perhaps of a better world.

Pico Iyer, writing last week a New York Times article, "The Joy of Quiet," quoted Henry David Thoreau as saying, "The man whose horse trots a mile in a minute does not carry the most important messages."

The ever-present distractions that have come along with the Information Age are another reason that we feel anxious, despite our mastery of information and communication.

Even half a century ago, Marshall McLuhan, who came closer than most to seeing what was coming, warned, "When things come at you very fast, naturally you lose touch with yourself," Iyer wrote.

McLuhan must have foreseen the deluge of new information that comes at us all day long as we stare at our little screens, the kind of information that leaves us overstimulated, but underwhelmed.

Iyer wrote that on average, people look at websites for 10 seconds or less. Catching someone by the eyeballs long enough to tell even the briefest tale, however important, has become less and less likely.

The central paradox of the machines that have made our lives so much brighter, quicker, longer and healthier is that they cannot teach us how to make the best use of them; the information revolution came without an instruction manual, wrote Iyer.

Tony Evans:

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