Labor Saving VS Saving Labor
Homer's Uncle Ulysses was what we would now refer to as an "early adopter" -- he loved nothing more than a new gadget. And in a classic twist of irony, his labor saving donut maker ends up requiring the labor of nearly the whole town to find a missing diamond bracelet baked into one of the donuts.
This was a classic sort of cute Luddite story that popped up during the 1960s and 70s in response to the explosion of devices that came out of the post WWII design boom -- how the newest labor saving devices really didn't save anything. But if there was any real complaint, it didn't stand up too long, and soon, we found ourselves in the 70s and 80s, replacing our physical labor with digital labor, labor in far away countries, and a sedentary lifestyle worthy of the lotus eaters.
What are we really designing machines for? It's a hard question, and an individual question, but one answer that all designers have in common is "the user". So what is we said that maybe the user wants some work to do for once? And what if there were other, very pressing motives to look into.
Labor saving has always been a trade off between man-power and just plain power: You can either take the energy out of people, or take it out of something else, like oil. Labor was originally saved, because we didn't have enough of it. Originally, there were just barely enough mothers, aunts, and grandmothers knitting and weaving to produce the cloth that everyone else needed to make clothing. Plus, we had too much energy without anything to do with it. Additionally, electricity and oil have been much harder workers, for much less money, than human hands.
In order to sell more of that surplus energy, in the early part of the 20th century, German energy company AEG approached Peter Bherens, and asked him to make electrical appliances which could be used during the day to smooth out energy usage by adding a bridge between morning toast making and nighttime light use.
From then on, device after device was converted from man-powered production and running to electricity, oil, and gas. Fords went from a human production line to a leaner and leaner system with fewer and fewer people.
Similarly, by trading away human-powered manufacturing, which trades high material and energy use for high labor and time use, we have arrived at products like the average laptop, which according to John Thackara in "In The Bubble" take tens of thousands of times their own weight in materials to manufacture.
All this seems backward; We no longer have a shortage of people -- 6.5 billion compared with the 2.5 billion in 1950 -- which was our reason for labor saving in the first place. Additionally, because of all our people, we do have stronger limitations on our physical resources -- Europe, for example recently discovered that it is using many more than one Europe worth of resources, and it's estimated that world energy and material use passed one whole earth worth of resources around 1988.
Having said all that, we're writing this on a computer, in a room in the United States, which uses twice as many resources per person as Western Europe, and 6 times more than African nations. And we'd like to keep the lifestyle we've got. So we're not advocating going back to weaving sticks in large groups or anything.
But we do have a lot of people who need jobs, and it's only going to get worse as things get more efficient. Why can't design be about really helping people; We don't need less labor. We need more of it. Maybe next time you're designing a product, instead of thinking about saving money by going leaner on the production, you can think in terms of how many people your product will give jobs.
We're making these products to sell in stores, sure, but we're also part of a world economy, and the way things are going, our skimping is killing it.
Copyright 2004-2006 Dominic Muren and IDFuel Team