Why do we use time-saving devices to work longer?
Bertrand Russell’s vision of a four-hour day resonates today in another era of high unemployment
Always on: We are the ones making the choice, not the technology
The end of holidays means one thing for many people: reconnecting to technology. On goes the mobile phone and off goes the automated out-of-office reply as you return to work mode.
The paradox of innovation is that it purports to make our lives easier, but generally makes us work harder. The philosopher Bertrand Russell identified the phenomenon 80 years ago in his essay In Praise of Idleness. Advocating a four-hour day, he argued that we were failing to exploit the liberating power of technology due to a Victorian mindset that decreed that unless someone is labouring they are somehow in sin. “Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others.”
His advice resonates today in another era of high unemployment. We can use technology to remodel the labour market for good or ill. Whatever the outcome, we are making the choice, not the technology. So Russell stressed, and his view is endorsed by Joel Walmsley of University College Cork’s department of philosophy.
Dr Walmsley, who has a research interest in artificial intelligence, debates a path to today’s Russellian idea: The leisure time created by technology doesn’t have to be filled by more work.
To what extent do we control technology and to what extent does it control us?
“I recently observed a mother and daughter having a leisurely lunch together in a restaurant. Their conversation was repeatedly interrupted by whatever information was being offered up by their mobile phones: text messages, Facebook updates, Candy Crush games and whatnot.
“It’s tempting to say, ‘Oh, they’re being controlled by their technology’, but all that is really happening is that technology is providing a greater variety of ways for them to (mis)behave.
“Let’s be honest: we are still in charge, it’s just that, to the extent that technology is ever-present and entertaining, its apparent hold over us is simply due to lapses in concentration or good manners. So I think it would be a mistake to attribute agency to our technological developments in any literal way.”
By memorising things for me, is technology expanding my mind or contracting it?
“The idea of technologically extending or augmenting aspects of our biological make-up is nothing new. My cat is implanted with a microchip so that he can be scanned and returned if he’s lost. My grandfather had a pacemaker that helped regulate his heart
beat. So when we think about technology expanding our capacity for information processing, we ought to be thinking on a continuum with these kinds of familiar instances.
“The philosopher Andy Clark in his book Natural-Born Cyborgs outlines a number of cognitive technologies that permit this kind of outsourcing. Written language is probably the oldest: By writing a shopping list I can expand my own (unreliable) on-board memory capacity. Through the written word, I can evaluate arguments and ideas that are too complex for working memory alone. And now we’re living in a world where most of us carry always-on internet-ready devices that can instantaneously access more or less any piece of information you wish. So I suppose I’d say that yes, technology is expanding our minds, but this is something that’s been happening for a very long time.”