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I was a geeky kid in a few ways. One of those ways was my insatiable appetite for science fiction. It’s called “sci-fi” today because people are lazy and can’t be bothered to pronounce three syllables when two will get the job done. But when I was a kid <cue the squeaking rocking chair, the light spring breeze and the cool glass of lemonade on the porch>, we said “science fiction”…and we LIKED it!

I was also geeky with machinery. My dad was a tool and die mechanic (machinist) and a maintenance man in an industrial plant. (Coincidentally enough, I pretty much ended up doing the same thing but much later and that’s not we’re talking about right now so DROP IT!) He was also what you might call a post-modern conservationist. That is, he hated to see something thrown away. I don’t mean garbage, I mean good stuff like ignitron tubes, lathes, conveyor belt stands, high voltage transformers – ya know, good stuff. He built a big workshop behind our house and proceeded to fill it to the brim with “good stuff”.  This is where I played. This is where I was built.

I remember going to Disney Land (or World, I dunno – the one in Florida. I was young. Don’t judge). We went to EPCOT and walked through that thing where it showed how the house of tomorrow would be. It was like walking through a slide show of Popular Science magazine covers. All the video phones and talking houses and robots going around folding underwear made a guy wonder, “If everything is done on it’s own, what are people going to do?”

BSW_HouseofFuture

Of course, the helpful recorded voice coming from the heavily guarded paper cone speaker at the displays would claim people would have much more time for recreational pursuits and family time lost in relaxed entertainment. My pre-teen mind called “Bullshit” on that concept right off the bat. I didn’t know why at the time, but something didn’t add up. It would take a few years to put that particular square peg in its corresponding hole and thus began my journey in life of not just doubting conventional wisdom, but being actively hostile toward it.

I was a lazy kid, I own that. But it worked out for me. I married my love of science fiction with my access to more machinery than the average kid had and I decided I liked the concept of robots doing things for me. If not actual anthropomorphic androids, then at least some type of automated system to perform simple or menial tasks. As I sit here right now, one thing blazes through the years like a 2 megawatt laser and that is; the phrase that used to make my heart race more than anything was “remote control”. Caveat – I mean in my PRE-adolescent years it was “remote control”, after adolescence, it still pulled a really tight second to “You show me yours and I’ll show you mine”, so in truth, it lasted longer. And don’t say you weren’t thinking along those lines – pervert.

So, anyway, I used to build things. I’d wire things up and see what damage they would do. I learned two important things doing this: Planning makes all the difference and The Law of Unintended Consequences. I would dream up all sorts of amazing contraptions and systems of contraptions. Kind of a Rube Goldberg without using so many animals. I would dream up these things and then think how much easier life would be with the ability to turn the lights on or off while still in bed. Or push a button on the night stand and breakfast gets cooked before you get up. Or something to feed the dog on a regular schedule automatically, or better yet, by REMOTE CONTROL! Whew, I feel flush.

In these dreams, I’d think about how if I didn’t have to get up to do something, I could stay in bed or watch TV or something like that. It all boils down to my desire to project my will across time and space in order to be lazy. Funny thing is, I would spend days working on a set of wires and actuators to turn my bedroom light on from my bed. The resulting time savings of a successful deployment would never add up to a significant fraction of the invested time. When Sir Edmund Hillary was asked why he climbed Mt. Everest, he said, “Because it’s there.” Word up, Ed. That resonated with me. Some things you do just because you want to do it. My point is, I knew even then that my contraptions weren’t, in the final accounting, saving me anytime but it was just cool to do it. And I knew if I ever did actually come up with something to save time, I’d filled that saved time with doing something else.

Back to EPCOT. They claimed that when we were in a position to have all the things we used to do in 1975 done for us by technology, there would be nothing left to do but watch TV or play in the yard. Even today, I hear people lament that with all the technology we have that is supposed to save us time, we have a more hurried lifestyle today than we ever have. “Why is that?” they cry like a babe into the storm. I chuckle to myself and offer and explanation – but never unbidden, “Want me to tell you why?” I say. When they don’t offer me the opportunity to perform a physical impossibility with myself and random objects at hand, I try to relate things to the past and present simultaneously.

I have a friend who is looking for a dress. She has a wedding to attend. She is looking for just the right dress so she isn’t exactly stopping by Wal Mart on the way home from work to pick something off the rack. She’s SHOPPING. A couple of her friends have offered suggestions of places to look. “There is a dress shop in Kennesaw (about 70 miles northwest of here) and a really cute one in Athens (about 30 miles east of here) and you might find something at Ga. Mall (about 25 miles north of here) but probably not cause they don’t have ANYTHING cute. But a couple of places in Atlanta (35 miles west of here) are worth checking out but you HAVE to check out that shop in Alpharetta (about 40 miles north-northwest of here) cause it’s so CUTE!!”

dress shop

Now my friend could have a house that shakes itself out every morning and a car that gets its own gas and a dog that feeds himself and a robot that does all the laundry and cooking and she is still going to be rushed to death over the next couple of weeks just finding a dress, assuming she tries all these suggestions. Get in the “wayback” machine and let’s go back about 70 years. Would a rational person even know about dress shops spread over 5000 square miles much less consider visiting them? No. They had to make do with what was within six or eight miles.

Do you, or someone you know work over 20 miles from home? Yeah, probably. 100 years ago, if you had to walk or ride a horse, would you work 20 miles from home? 10 miles? Five? Probably not. Five miles then would take as long to get to as 50 now, and don’t even talk about the rainy days. So give a guy a pickup truck in 1909 and he could save a lot of time getting to work and going to the General Store to get supplies and all. But in 1909 it was a big deal if you had ever been out of the state you live in. Both my brothers, in disparately different lines of work, probably average five to ten states a WEEK in their jobs. With the microwave ovens and computer banking and movies on demand, do you think they have inordinate amounts of time to kick back with the family at a play or playing checkers? Not so much.

To wrap this whole thing up in a nice little package, When someone asks you why we have even less time to do stuff we want to today than we did “back then”, you’ll know, it’s because if you give us a minute, we’ll take an hour. Give me a little time to do just one more thing, and I’ll do two. That time is saved, yeah, but we can’t wait to fill it up. This technology doesn’t just give us more time, it gives us more time to do other stuff. And we do. And THAT’S where the time goes.

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