Labor-Saving Devices

Dillon grips the wheelbarrow’s wooden handles and starts to wheel away.

“Too fast” I tell him.

He ignores me and continues apace.

And, then it happens.

The wheel falls off, the front brace does a kamikaze-dive into the turf, and the wheelbarrow comes to a jarring stop. However, he does not. His forward momentum continues unabated until he doubles over the steel tray with an “Oof!”.

Oh, the simple pleasure in life!

So, yeah, our wheelbarrow is broken.

I could fix it.

But, I wont.

It works just fine.

Beyond reminding Dillon that I’m usually right, it does what I want it to do

It introduces imbalance and unpredictability into my work life. At any second, the wheel may fall off. So, it encourages me to attend to the task at hand. It prompts me to listen. There’s a particular sound that the wheel makes right before its axel slips. It also slows me down and asks me to consider not only the desired outcome of my efforts but also the process. It tells me to be mindful of the trips in between. It reminds me that sometimes you have to work with the tools you’ve got to get the job done.

It brings to mind the millions of people (possibly billions) who do manual labor for a living. They do it all day. Wake up the next and do it again. And then again. And then again. They grasp the tools they have and get to work. They do the hard things, dangerous things that I can and have bought my way out of having to do. Unlike me, some (many) do not have ready access to an air-conditioned home, clean water and low-cost pain relievers. Knowing this and feeling how exhausted my body is after just a weekend of working in the yard humbles me.

It spurs me to think about our pursuit of labor-saving devices as a species. Since the very beginning, when we were bending low to pick berries and furtively stalking wild animals, we sought out ways to save on and/or augment the efforts of our labor. We successively invented better and better tools. We invented farming. We ushered in the industrial revolution, mass production, Taylorism and more. Our pursuit of labor-saving devices has provide unprecedented material comfort for billions. However, there’s an underbelly to this pursuit. In our effort to not have to do what we wanted done, we enslaved other humans. We captured wild animals, domesticated them and turned them into beasts of burden. We’ve enacted governmental policies (at all levels) to keep some among us poor and with so few opportunities that they have no other choice than to do the hard things those in power no longer wanted to do themselves. And, we’re still doing these things.

It remorselessly interrogates my life-style. As a full-on participant in a highly specialized market-based economy, I do not collaborate with the natural world in providing food, water, clothing and shelter for myself and the ones I love. I buy those things from others. I’m not self-sufficient. I’ll never know the true cost of this. I suspect that it’s spiritually significant.

It asks me to peer into the future of work. And, when I do, I see more and more labor-saving devices (algorithms, automation, robots and machines) replacing all manner of manual labor. And, I wonder, how am I supposed to prepare my son for a future where less and less will be asked of him physically? Is a world without manual labor better? Will he no longer need to know how to put in a day’s worth of labor? Will he no longer need to know how to sweat? Will these things still be valuable? I think they are valuable. But, that’s most likely because I was taught how to do those things. I want him to have respect for this kind of work. I want him to know that he can do it. I just don’t know whether or not those things will be valued by society any more.

I don’t fix my broken wheelbarrow because I want to be reminded of all of these things. And, I want him to be suspicious of labor-saving devices.

I am.

The ease, comfort and efficiency that comes along with their pursuit is not free. Yes, unlike the majority of the men and women in my family, his body will not be broken by manual labor. His knees, neck and back will not wear away before any grandkids may come his way. But, what about his spirit?

The body needs to work. Right?

When he wants something done but is unwilling to do it himself, who will he ask to do the work? Why them and not him?

I walk over to him. Lift up the wheelbarrow and pound the axel back into place with a nearby rock.

He wheels away.

More slowly this time.


If you enjoyed this blog, you may enjoy my This is the Work newsletter.

Thanks. – shawn


Other Posts from the “Manual Labor” Series:


PS Here’s a reply from Mark Herring to this post that’s really special:

Hello Dr. H, 

I thoroughly enjoyed your most recent blog post, “Labor Saving Devices” and I had some thoughts on it that I would like to share with you.
On the one hand, when I was reading this piece, I was internally screaming “Fix the wheelbarrow and then oil it for good measure.” Working maintenance in parks, I’ve been taught  “take care of the equipment that takes care of you,” whether this means greasing the lawnmowers once a week or sharpening lopers. However, given that everyone doesn’t always practice this motto combined with non-existent maintenance budgets, means that time and time again I’ve had to use crappy and broken equipment. And boy this can be frustrating/make the job harder, so much so that I often just use my own personal tools instead of the park’s. It can really suck not having the right tool for the right job while, also presenting the possibility for costly mistakes.

At the same time, I understand exactly your mindset in not fixing the wheelbarrow. It makes it so you have to be intentional in your use of it. This is good, as intentionality is in such short supply these days, in our modern culture of consumerism. Instead of just becoming another throwaway labor saving device, your wheelbarrow is truly your wheelbarrow. You know all of it quirks. Judging from your blog it seems it truly has to become an extension of your body to actually use it.

I understand this. Often, instead of using a drill or an impact, I prefer to use a basic screwdriver even when it takes a whole lot longer.  I could care less about the longer time it takes to get the job done here. I love using screwdrivers, as for whatever reason I get such unexplainable joy from loosening or tightening screws by hand. Nine times out of ten I reach for exactly one screwdriver, my $2 4 in 1 screwdriver from Harbor Freight. After two years of it being in my work pants pocket, and almost daily use, the grippy part of the handle is almost completely gone. But in spite of its price tag, it still keeps on going. I have a lot of other screwdrivers, but again this is always the one I reach for first. When it finally does break, I will at the very least salvage the still working pieces of it.

Recently, I found myself contemplating buying another multi-tool to keep exclusively in my kayaking dry bag. This new multi-tool would save me the “effort” of opening my car emergency kit, taking out my back-up multitool, putting it in my drybag, and then putting it back after my paddle. All of this takes like a minute when combined with getting all of my other kayak gear together.  Add on to this the fact that this multi-tool is my back-up one, and just sits in my car incase I’m without my leatherman, or when don’t want to risk damaging/dropping my leatherman into the bay. So, when taking all this into account it would be pretty ludicrous for me to buy a 3rd multitool. Yet, I did come pretty close to buying another one.

There are so many labor saving devices nowadays that I laugh at for being frivolous. (Cough cough the electric can opener cough cough) But, even as I try to be intentional in every object that I own and understanding that more stuff does not equal happiness nor does it always equal, labor saving. In fact it often creates more work. As previously mentioned, I own a lot of screwdrivers, so many that I now debate which screwdriver I’m going to use before doing a job so that I’m using all of them and justifying owning them, even though I know I just want to use my $2 one. I definitely could get rid of 2/3 of these screwdrivers and probably and get more labor savings out of not owning them. When thinking about this, I realize I too am becoming more and more suspicious of labor saving devices, especially since, I’ve noticed when you get one device, particularly when it comes to tools, you end up getting more that go with it. (You buy one powertool only to realize you need another)

So, I guess in conclusion, as with everything, it comes down to utility. As you are well aware, an object’s utility is whatever its user wants it to be. And it is very clear that in the case of your wheelbarrow, you get far more utility from it being broken then you would if you were to fix it. And I totally understand that.

Thanks for the great blog. – Mark

Here’s a blog from Mark in regarding the love some of us have for our tools: