Friday, June 22, 2012

The Futurists Lied To You

Chapter 72
For those of you who haven't been paying attention, we're well into the first quarter of the twenty-first century. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we've been told how much easier our future was going to be. Books, magazine articles, and lavish displays at dozens of World's Fairs have assured us that the future was going to be one of push-button ease and luxury. The newest and most ingenious time and labor saving devices were going to save us hours of tedium each and every day in the next fifty years. Well, the "next fifty years" came and went, then came and went again, several times. We're well beyond the year 2000, darn it. The future is here, now. We're living smack in the middle of why aren't we living like the futurists claimed we were going to by now?
We should be saving so much time with our time-saving stuff that we'd be living in Utopia, where the largest problem we have is figuring out what to do with all of our free time. So why do we as a collective society work more than ever, with less free time than ever, and multitask our way into endless, stressful, thankless toil? You hardly see anyone who truly enjoys themselves on their down-time anymore -- nose down, buried in cell phones, texting away, pushing the next contract, making the next connection, constantly, always working. You'd think we had fewer hours in a day than ever before.

The futurists got it wrong, for one simple reason: they underestimated the power of human nature. For humans are stupid; yes, stupid and greedy. Instead of enjoying our newfound leisure hours, we pack the extra time with more work. Life in centuries past forced us to relax from time to time: for example, when the sun went down, you stopped working, because you couldn't see. Time saving devices have not given us more free time: they've taken away what free time we had, and filled it with a twenty-four-hour work cycle that follows us wherever we go. And stupid and greedy humans that we are, we will work ourselves to exhaustion -- because we can. It's a never-ending pursuit of more money, to buy more stuff, with even less time to enjoy the stuff we have.

Lest you think you have stumbled upon a socio-economic essay; no, this is still about dressing like an adult, and here's my point: dressing properly is dismissed by many otherwise intelligent men, because it is a "waste of time." Busy men, that are too busy to put on a shirt, tie a necktie, go shopping for a decent pair of shoes, or have their suits made by a tailor. Busy men, who can only be bothered to wear the same childrens' clothing day after day, unless the occasion calls for a formless, shapeless sack suit bought off-the-rack, sight unseen, from a warehouse of identical bland suits.

Balderdash, I say! It is high time you freed yourself from the endless speeding treadmill of labor-saving-devices, and let those same devices actually save you some time. Start living in the future you deserve; the future that you should have been living all along. Like the frog in the kettle who allows himself to be slowly par-boiled, you are unaware of the cumulative effect of a hundred years of innovations that, instead of freeing your life, pack your life ever tighter around you.

For thousands of years of modern human history, we'd done things pretty much the same way. Only in the last few decades of the last hundred years has our way of life profoundly changed. The power of steam multiplied our ability to produce work a thousandfold. Then a century later, the power of electricity increased our breadth of communication a thousandfold. And now, another century later, the power of the Internet, fueled by electricity driven by steam, has increased our breadth of knowledge a thousandfold. It's easy, too easy, to assume that the world we have created for ourselves in the past five years is indispensable, that our lives would be unlivable without the constant lifeline of communication and electrons that connect us.

Strip the layers of invention away from the things you take for granted, and discover how much leisure time you really have. You awake in the morning, and it is chilly, so you turn on your electric furnace, and within seconds warm air is blasting out of your register vents all over the house. You've already saved time: it would have taken a good ten minutes to pad down to your freezing basement to manually shovel coal into your furnace from the scuttle, and then you have to wait for your radiators to boil. That radiator system is itself a time-saving device: you'd save a good half-hour in not having to crack anthracite and carry it in buckets to your fire grates, revive the ashen embers from the previous evening, and repeat for every room in the house. And coal grates saved time; for a fireplace demands you split and carry wood, arrange the tinder, and light and care for the fire, for each fireplace, which can easily take an hour if your wood is even slightly damp. So there you are -- as soon as you awaken, you have freed as much as an hour of your schedule. Consider that an electric furnace is completely maintenance-free, and doesn't require polishing and cleaning of soot and ash, and several more hours are saved every week.

Next, you eat breakfast. Mister Coffee (or that most sublime of British inventions, the Teasmade) has your cuppa ready for you, and your English breakfast is out of the refrigerator and ready in a flash thanks to your microwave oven and stovetop. You then put the dishes in an automatic dishwasher. And just like that, you've freed up another hour, without having to stoke the ovens, prep the meal, and clean up afterward.

Then you turn your attention to hygiene. You hop in a shower, soap up in steamy water, and you're done, saving you the trouble of drawing a bath, heating water on the stove, or filling a wash-basin. The benefits of internal plumbing alone save at least fifteen minutes, and an electric shave saves you ten minutes of stropping your straight razor and whipping up lather.

So what about all this I'm-too-busy talk now, Mister Big Shot? You've barely rolled out of bed, and you have compressed a morning routine that would have taken an hour or two into a mere twenty minutes. Enjoy your leisure time. Don't try to pack more stuff in -- use the time that you've actually saved, by not cracking coal and stoking your oven. Read a book, take a stroll, or more importantly, put some extra time, effort, and thought into dressing for the day.

This is just the tip of the metaphorical iceberg. You can go through your entire day and find all sorts of "lost time" that is simply squeezed out and re-filled by all the modern stuff. You perhaps take for granted that you have a car that starts instantly and takes you effortlessly along broad concrete byways? Consider the half-hour you save every time you turn the key, by not having to pack grease cups, top off oil and water, lubricate the valvetrain, prime the cylinders, and crank the engine. Think of the time you save by driving at 60 MPH on smooth roads, instead of 25 MPH on plank roads and rutted wagon trails. And then add another half-hour of free time simply by not having to vulcanize a rubber patch on the side of the road to repair the inevitable blowout. Even as slow and cantankerous as they may seem today, the earliest automobiles were a blazing time improvement over the time it took to tack and saddle Ol' Gray, and were much faster than a horse, even at full gallop. For thousands of years, life moved at a walking pace. Remember that the next time you're in line at the airport: you're not wasting half an hour in line -- you're saving two weeks.

Going to send a text? Email? Phone call? We take instant communication for granted -- enjoy the time it saves you. Try waiting for a clear party line, then getting an operator to connect you. Still, that was a massive time-saver compared to walking down to the Western Union office to have a telegram tapped out and delivered hours later. And that was lightning fast compared to a letter, that may take weeks to reach its recipient.

But it's the Internet that has changed the world. There's an entire generation now that can't conceive that a scant couple of decades ago, if you wanted to learn something, you went to the library and spent hours poring over card catalogs, and miles of shelves of the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature. If you were lucky, you found a lead, and if you were very lucky, the library would have it available. Otherwise, you just didn't discover what you wanted to learn. Having the entire repository of the planet's knowledge at your very fingertips IS The Future. Too bad we chose to use it for LOLcats.

Don't get me wrong; I love the Internet, and all the labor-saving devices that we have at our disposal. I'm not one of those guys that wants to live a retro-Edwardian gas-lit lifestyle. The Internet makes this blog possible, after all. A weekly missive like this one, read the world over, would be impossible otherwise, especially with a complete accessible backlog of previous weeks' installments. Otherwise, Dress Like A Grownup! would probably be a mimeographed zine, run off and distributed once a month, which would take many extra hours a week. Mimeographing would certainly be a time-saver over devoting my life to cutting copperplate engravures, typesetting, printing flyers, and mailing them out, which would take the better part of a week -- unless I got a deal with the weekly newspaper, which might sell me space, but only for local readership.

So when you get home after work and turn on the lights, think of the time you've just saved over lighting a gas mantle, which saved time over lighting an oil lamp, which saved time over lighting candles. It's a century-long piggyback of inventions that were unthinkable in the mid-nineteenth century.
The "Electrical Servants" of the turn of the last century do more to save our time than anything else in the history of modern man. Embrace the mid-century wonder of machines that do your work for you...but don't use them as an excuse to pack in more work. Live the Future as it should be lived. Work in moderation, enjoy the fruits of your labor, let the machines do the work that you would have had to do otherwise, and bask in the leisure time that you will find surrounds you. If you are unsure what work is being saved that men of the last century had to do with their bare hands, use the Internet and look up some history.

Before long, you will find time for many sartorial pursuits that you may have previously thought you were far too "busy" for. Victorian gentlemen were ridiculed for having time to change clothes several times per day...but you may notice that when you take true advantage of your "time-saving devices," you have more leisure time than Victorian gentlemen ever did. Time for careful dressing in the morning, certainly. But also time to get fitted for a new pair of good shoes, and find a tailor to alter your clothes. Time to expand your wardrobe to fit your new leisure pursuits. Now that we're into the torrid heat of summer, it's a fine time to attune your wardrobe for outdoor vs. air-conditioned activities, and change accordingly throughout your day. Perhaps most importantly, you have time to change clothes and sit down for a proper dinner with your family. Even time to spend in the evening with a smoking jacket and a good book, before changing into a dressing gown for bed.

Remember, one EMP will make it all go take advantage of the benefits of electricity while it lasts. Our modern future-wonderful life is built entirely on an increasingly fragile card-house framework of delicate electronics to support our communications, transportation, and services -- and if anything happens to that card house, we would find ourselves instantly plunged into a pre-Industrial nightmare. And on that cheery thought, I shall leave you until next week!

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