The Cultured Animal recently tuned in to the always fascinating Australia Talks program on ABC Radio National. For those who don’t know the station, it’s nerd radio, and will fill your brain with wonderful things. (I may be harbouring secret ambitions to replace our number one crush Phillip Adams when he eventually … Well, let’s just say he’s not getting any younger.) For those who don’t know Australia Talks, it’s probably the only talkback program you should ever subject your ears to (because even Biggsy is still a left-wing bigot).
On this particular night the program focused on Australia’s growing service economy, fuelled by the time-poor among us who work so much we can’t clean our own bathrooms. Even if we did have the time, when it comes to doing, say, some of the Mr Fixit things around the house (or vehicle), many of us no longer have the necessary know-how that previous generations did.
It may be easy to view these trends as an indication of how sad we’ve become as a society, and I’m inclined to agree with one listener who commented that it’s a sorry state of affairs indeed if parents no longer have time to spend with their children. (Although this is surely opening up a can of worms, possibly feminist worms, and I don’t want them crawling all over me, so let’s just agree to leave the can shut for now, okay? Good.) It may be equally easy to view any loss of Mr Fixit or or Miss Needle-and-Thread skills as an indication that we are becoming stupider. Or lazier, in the case of outsourcing some of the more thrilling ‘chores’, such as cooking or cleaning.
I’ve put chores here in inverted commas because, as some listeners argued, mundane tasks can sometimes be therapeutic. Nothing like scrubbing the caked-on grime off the ol’ oven to get you feeling really at peace with the world. But these everyday tasks may also provide a more profound function: that of reconnecting us to our biological imperative for survival.
The Survival Scale
We have always remained, as human beings, connected to this survival instinct to some degree or another. Else, we would simply cease to live (or cease to be human). And by degrees I mean, for example, the degree between hunting down a wild boar, ripping it to shreds with a pair of overdeveloped incisors and then wearing its skin during winter; versus, say, buying some Chinese takeaway after a hard slog along Chapel Street foraging for bargain Ugg boots.
And such are the luxuries of contemporary civilisation*, many of us now have the freedom to choose just how far along this scale we might park our arses. Yet that place will probably never be static. You might weed your dear little garlic plants with your bare hands of a morning; download Cowboys and Aliens onto your laptop and tweet about it over a glass of imported Shiraz come evening. You know, mashing things up a bit. It’s all about the mash.
Your cherry-picking of life on the Survivor’s Scale may be deeply personal and conscious, as the retiree who embarks on a mission to free themselves of their worldly possessions and migrate to Costa Rica; or it may be altogether less thought-out, as the tech-savvy Gen Y who ensconces themselves in as much social media as possible through no other cause than an overabundance of time and a sneaking addiction.
Stop the Hysteria!
Viewing the growing trends in outsourcing of areas of our personal, day-to-lives as some kind of debased, immoral reflection on civilisation is really quite absurd when you consider that humans have been getting machines and other humans to do things for us for a very, very long time. Mechanisation and outsourcing merely represent more indirect routes to achieving the same end that we once might have pursued autonomously (ie. our biological imperative), but hinged onto the complex processes of civilisation. Any further developments in this direction, aided by our world of rapidly advancing technological gadgetry, are simply the next steps in the perpetual project of civilisation.
If we choose to live our lives towards the end of the scale, which will move ever further from its original, hands-on-the-dirty-dishes benchmark, the sacrifice may indeed be that we personally lose some skills, and that we distance ourselves, intentionally or otherwise, from that base survival instinct. But we also gain a whole bunch of other skills (even if those skills actually lie in the capabilities of our digital tools, rather than in our own personal ingenuity). My Nanna has probably never even seen the Internet, let alone dreamt what she could do with it.
New Skills for a New World
If our digital revolution is a cultural revolution on par with the impacts following the arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press, what amazing new roads might we travel down? There’s plenty of hoo-ha about how the Internet is making us stupider, mutilating our attention spans and whatnot; but what about the boon for lateral thinking it might create? It’s so easy to follow a train of thought in so many directions and, with a little discipline from distraction, who knows what truths these new tools may allow us to uncover.
An extension of the Internet’s function as a brilliant tool for making lateral connections is its ability to connect us with other people, all over the world. We know it’s good at this because of the unstoppable rise of social media. Plus these days people are just as likely to seek a personal online review of a product or place rather than some officially produced document. Are we beginning to trust each other more?
The more we connect, the better we may be able to understand each other, and, hopefully, not bomb each other. We may be able to use our new tools to move towards a more positive, global, social consciousness. Perhaps we are closer to the cosmopolitan dream than we thought.**
*Yep, this is me being Affluent-Countries-of-the-World-Unite!-centric again. Soz.
**I’m well aware that I’m coming to rash, starry-eyed and barely-referenced conclusions here, and that there might be a particularly large hole in my argument regarding the role of social media in e.g. the recent riots in England; but due to time constraints I’m going to leave the argument wildly unsupported. Contest at your will. But not without checking out what Jeremy Rifkin has to say first.