Commentary
1:16 pm
Tue April 22, 2014

Carl Wernicke: Human Efficiency & Natural Relaxation

Credit IHMC

One of the happiest research findings in my lifetime was the discovery that, contrary to popular belief, most animals in the wild spend more time relaxing than working. The vision of animals on a round-the-clock quest for food turned out to be wrong. And we learned that some animals seem as inclined as humans to engage in social interaction, including play.

This was brought to mind by a recent NPR report on how technology is improving the efficiency of UPS drivers. The upside is that fewer drivers can deliver more packages, they are delivered faster, the drivers are paid more, and it consumes less energy. Drivers can make 120 deliveries a day, compared to 90 a few years ago.

But driving this efficiency boom is a Big Brother-like surveillance. The company electronically records almost everything its drivers do: how often, and how far, they back the truck up, how quickly they start the engine and buckle the seatbelt after closing the door, how long it takes to deliver the package after exiting the vehicle. I’m sure they know who takes 2 extra minutes for lunch.

Several years ago a veteran driver told me this was coming. Being a UPS driver has always been a coveted job, and he told me that he was well paid. But he also said something I hear more and more from people of my generation: I’m glad I’m old. This is a remarkable statement in a culture that makes a fetish of youth.

But I know where he’s coming from. I spent some of my newspaper years as a sportswriter, one of the coolest jobs in journalism if you don’t mind traveling. Covering games out of town could mean spending a lot of time in airplanes and hotels. But once you filed your story, it was all downtime. Watch TV in the room, read or watch a movie on the plane, enjoy a meal or a beer with other writers. During the game you focused on shaping the story you would write afterward.

Today, sportswriters are expected to tweet and text before, during and after the game, file constant web updates, post on Facebook, answer email from the hotel, work on your laptop on the plane, and take video and photos in addition to writing a game story. Downtime has turned into worktime.

And that’s true for so many professions. Vacations today can simply mean going to the beach or the mountains, instead of your office, to monitor your electronic choke collar.

France recently passed legislation protecting workers from having to answer emails or texts after hours, and some enlightened companies are voluntarily installing rules to that effect. They want efficient employees, not burned-out, resentful drones.

Maybe younger people, having grown up enmeshed in the electronic web, handle this better than my generation. But I worry when I hear many of the same complaints coming from young people who feel trapped within a system they feel powerless to change, and which demands their obeisance.

I don’t mean to sound like a doomsayer, holding nothing but dread for the future. Technology has its pluses. But before upcoming generations become mind-melded to the virtual world, they should be careful not to lose their connection to the natural one. There’s much to be gained from the life lessons nature freely offers us.