I had planned to write about feeling overwhelmed by tasks and projects despite my evolving ability to say no (a skill everyone should hone). Then I thought about how much I am able to accomplish every day and began wondering why I don’t feel more overwhelmed, what with three careers (author, birth doula, and marketing consultant), volunteer activities, and family and personal commitments. How do I manage it?
Maybe the same way you do. In a word: templates.
I use e-mail templates for many situations: sending contracts to clients, responding to inquiries about the Nursing Mothers Counsel, and following up with prospects. I use Microsoft Word templates for creating various kinds of documents. I use newsletter templates for e-mail marketing in Emma (which I use with my clients) and MailChimp (which I use as an author).
Templates are life rafts for the overcommitted. Just assemble, address, and send—little thought required and much time saved. Why reinvent the wheel each time you have to send a piece of correspondence that is essentially the same as hundreds of others?
But if so much of my daily activity consists of simply assembling components I’ve already created, what does that make me?
In a word (or two): a robot.
This conundrum is articulated perfectly in a 2012 Wired article titled “Better Than Human: Why Robots Will—and Must—Take Our Jobs” by Kevin Kelly. “When robots and automation do our most basic work, making it relatively easy for us to be fed, clothed, and sheltered, then we are free to ask, ‘What are humans for?’”
This question may induce a certain level existential anxiety. Yet I find the idea of technology taking over routine aspects of my work life quite appealing. We are at a relatively primitive stage of office automation, which arguably began with the invention of the typewriter. I create templates, but still must store them, hunt for them, open them, modify them, address them, and check them over. Far too much of my time goes toward managing interactions and responses in ways that are ripe for robotic takeover.
The unevolved state of automation is not for lack of trying by technologists. Siri’s inventors, for example, recognize her limitations and have undertaken to build a more responsive digital persona that learns as it goes. I look forward to a day when a personal digital assistant is truly that—rather than a shrunken computer with a clumsy interface and a tendency to misunderstand my intentions.
Not everyone is so sanguine about where automation is headed. The video below from C.G.P. Grey takes a darker long-term view, comparing humans today to the horses of the early automobile age—blithely unaware that new technology would eventually render them (no pun intended) unemployable. Artificial creativity, anyone?
What do you think? Do you fear being usurped by robots or welcome the freedom that might come from having the time to contemplate what humans are for?
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For an up-to-the-minute conversation on the state of automation, see Reddit’s Automate stream. Or, for an in-depth look, see The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, by Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAffee.