Shadow Work and the Age of the Machine

The New York Times recently reported on an interesting concept called ‘shadow work’, the unpaid duties we fulfill every day. Going beyond the obvious (such as child care and household chores), the article’s author, Craig Lambert pointed to the real reason we’re all so exhausted. We complete more tasks today than ever before.

And I’m not just talking about email or iPhone usage, but also about mundane things such as the self-check out function at most any grocery store.

At the risk of sounding nostaglic (and, tangently, pathetic), I would like to reminisce for just one moment. It used to be you had a bag boy who would roll your groceries out to the car for you. No more. You may have a bag boy (or girl) in the US, but those things never really existed in Germany, where I live. In fact, in addition to bagging the groceries yourself, here you have to even coin-operate the shopping cart, resulting in your having to push the thing back into its slot to retrieve the coin you put into it. It prevents car dings. It preserves order. And it’s an athletic event every time I food shop.

Now there’s something lovely and slow about bringing your own bag. Really, there is. But let’s look at a few other examples, such as the gas station. As Craig suggests, gas stations used to be called service stations because you had, well, service. The guy in the red jumpsuit and clipboard would ask what kind of gas you wanted, pumped it, then managed the payment. Now you can swipe, pump and drive without talking to a soul.

It feels lifeless. And robotic. And 1984-ish. Only it’s 2011.

If we opt to stand in the check out line (in Germany, you have no choice but to do that, besides at IKEA, which has its own brand of do-it-yourself flair), we are often tempted to check our smartphones while waiting to see what in the world we missed in the 18 minutes we food-shopped. I do it. I know some of you do it too.

By day’s end, it’s no wonder we’re so exhausted. All that DIYing can put a strain on one’s sensibilities. We all need each other and helping others is a great way to connect and feel part of something greater than ourselves. So the next time you’re tempted to push the 15 items or less limit to check out faster, seek human connection instead. Smile. And the cashier might just smile back. The machine won’t. Guaranteed.

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