Use Fitness to Counteract Automation

The age of automation threatens to make more humans useless.

In November of 2017 my wife, Neely, and I nervously attended orientation at an adoption agency. We filed into our seats and attentively followed the day’s program, brimming with all the obvious questions:

“How long does it take?”

“How are we matched?”

“How often do matches fail?

“What does the birth-mother relationship usually look like?

“How do normal people pay for this?”

“Alright, already. Where are you keeping the babies?”

In November of 2017 my wife, Neely, and I nervously attended orientation at an adoption agency. We filed into our seats and attentively followed the day’s program, brimming with all the obvious questions:

“How long does it take?”

“How are we matched?”

“How often do matches fail?

“What does the birth-mother relationship usually look like?

“How do normal people pay for this?”

“Alright, already. Where are you keeping the babies?”

During one session we were taken through a history of adoption where they explained the old orphan trains that would load up orphans from northeast cities and take them from point to point throughout the Midwest allowing people at each stop to select a child or children.

When these trains came to their final destination in Fort Worth, Texas, there was typically nothing but babies left. Why babies? Because all along the way parents selected the strongest and most capable children.

At this time, children weren’t seen as bank account draining dependents who required constant coddling and shuttling about town, they were young-citizens chosen to reduce the household burden. More physical bodies meant more work could be done. People, children included, were useful for farming, building, sewing, cleaning, and contributing to the needs of daily survival.

Even in cities, kids worked. There was play and fun, but work was a natural part of life. If you were to take your leisure time and go to a bowling alley, you’d see a youth on a platform at the end of each lane. After you bowled, he’d hop off the platform, clear the pins that were knocked down and roll back your ball. After your second attempt, he’d quickly hop down and reset all the pins, stepping on the “pin bar” that rose spikes to help him align the pins.

These pinsetters were an essential component of the bowling experience until, in the late 1940s the automatic pinspotter was created, mitigating the need for human pin-setting or ball retrieval. While it is a relief for employers not to have to pay anyone for such menial work and for bowlers not to have to deal with slow setters, there is a cost to this progress.

Just as the steam engine replaced millions of railroad workers after John Henry proved it would kill a man to keep pace, each invention brings the immediate uselessness of formerly useful employees and their physical bodies—a challenge that will define ours and, especially our children’s lives.

Automation Isn’t New

This is the story of automation and it has been around as long as civilization. For most of human history, often called pre-history, humanity lived in nomadic hunter-gatherer societies where all were needed for the survival of the group. Everyone helped in food and water acquisition, shelter-building, defense, story-telling, fire-making, song, and story.

Some 10,000 years ago the Agricultural Revolution brought food surpluses that allowed thousands of former hunter-gathers to become unnecessary. But they didn’t. Inventions simply allowed for more human resources to be applied in new areas like building, military training, trading, and accounting. In fact, many people became even more useful. They became mathematicians, scientists, philosophers, artists, explorers, and inventors.

Often, these intellectual pursuits neglected the body, which then created a new need. Physical training and the development of physical culture sprung up in every great society in order to offset the costs of progress. This is why everyone from Socrates to Thomas Jefferson advocated devoting hours each day to physical training and play.

Today, our opulence has created a great need for the multi-billion-dollar fitness industry. Without modern technology, there would be no use for gym memberships, trainers, supplements, fitness articles, nutrition programs, fitness certifications, or any staples of the modern fitness landscape.

In the 18th and 19th century the Industrial Revolution transformed the human work landscape, again. Industrial era automation made millions of farmers obsolete right as there became a need for factory jobs. Waves moved to the cities, but the nature of work became far less fulfilling. Industrial work organized people on assembly lines doing repetitive tasks.

People no longer saw the beginning and end of their work. As cogs in the machine, their lives become regimented by the clock and often they didn’t even use the products they were assembling.

Again, progress came with costs but also opportunities. As predicted by the father of capitalism, Adam Smith, industrialized societies were killing the human spirit by subjecting them to the “mental mutilation” characteristic of mindless, purposeless work. Humans needed to feel connected and competent, not replaceable and mechanized.

This was a great need which people sought to fill with sports leagues, fitness gyms, wars, and, more constructively, education. Many factories employed lectors to read newspapers and books to workers and societies began crafting schools to cultivate the human mind and body. As of 2016, there were almost 3.5 million public school teachers in America—another need created by technology.

The Fears of Modern Automation

Today we’ve seen the age of automation rev into overdrive, again. Old experiences like heading to the video store or vacuuming are eradicated by another wave of smart machines. The unfortunate reality of modern automation is it allows for the growth of a useless class. We no longer are required to secure our own survival. The modern world allows us to engulf ourselves in comfort and mindless entertainment while consuming far more than we need and never having to move.

As smart homes and curbside pick-up become the norm, three terrifying anxieties loom. First, we are developing a world where life doesn’t require any movement. Second, as these machines become even smarter and more ubiquitous our growing useless class will continue to expand until it is the majority.

And, finally, our technology is creating such endless convenience and individually tempting entertainment that the lobotomized masses will happily accept their uselessness and float on into a Wall-E-esque dystopia—propelled through life in a chair, leashed to a screen, as machines anticipate our every want and mitigate any need for physical effort.

“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact, they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It’s time for that to end.”

–Sebastian Junger

These fears are not unwarranted, particularly when we consider the cultural transformation that followed smartphone ubiquity and the disinterest in independence characterizing our youngest generation, aptly named iGen. With the inevitability of even more addictive entertainment and concepts such as universal basic income looming, it seems likely that many people will choose a life of mindless voyeurism.

Life has never been easier, more full of temptation, or more conducive to avoiding responsibility. Unfortunately, while serving impulses is always more pleasurable and enticing in the moment, it feeds the uselessness most crippling to the human spirit. This is why obesity, anxiety, depression, suicide, and drug overdoses are at all-time highs, with no foreseeable end to the upward climb.

Yet this highlights the obvious—there is tremendous human need waiting to be filled. Despite our technology, and often because of it, new needs are being developed constantly, and many of them are only able to be filled by humans and tech-free natural experience.

“In effect, humans have dragged a body with a long hominid history into an overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, competitive, inequitable, and socially-isolating environment with dire consequences.”

–Sebastian Junger

Let’s look at that concept of usefulness. What has made humanity useful throughout history? We were useful in that we provided goods and services for other people. Look around you. The world is full of problems. Big problems and, rather than evaporating with technological innovation, they seem to be multiplying.

Clearly, as many people can be useful as want to be! To be useful, to solve problems. As the author, Mark Manson clarifies, we all have problems. Happiness comes from finding better problems and solving them.

We Can’t Ignore Our Needs

Right now the greatest needs of humanity are to transcend the noise and temptation and begin cultivating a meaningful life that honors their bio-evolutionary human needs.

What are these needs?

Tony Robbins contends that the most essential needs of the human spirit are growth and contribution. Sebastian Junger, takes an anthropological view, determining that humans need competency (which requires constant growth), connection (which can be found by contributing your competency), and authenticity. This last need seems especially untapped in this world of curated social media posturing and especially well-suited for humans.

Humans need to belong to a tribe. They need challenging experiences that force them to shed their mask and depend on one another. They need play, flow, and projects where they lose themselves in a sense of flow. When examining the rise of CrossFit, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, calisthenics, gymnastics, and niche gyms like Chicago Primal, it is clear that people are coming for the fitness, but staying for the connection and authenticity it taps.

Fitness and education are especially well-positioned to meet these growing needs. Sure, technology will continue to help assist fitness goals, but as the proliferation of poor health proves, the human component is what is most important. No Peloton bike will hold someone accountable, make them laugh while they train, or introduce them to new styles and modalities. The treadmill won’t suggest an amazing book or invite you over for a barbecue after.

“Leisure without study is death—a tomb for the living person.”

— Seneca

To review:

  1. Uselessness is death to the human spirit.
  2. Modern technology entices many people into useless/meaningless lives to their own detriment.
  3. Humans can’t become useless unless we decide to be, because we need each other.

The foremost emphasis for parents and educators entering the future must be highlighting the needs of the human spirit and creating an environment that orients people towards the more fulfilling, less impulse-driven, pursuits.

We cannot become useless unless we are complicit in that uselessness. As the historical record shows, new technology always creates new needs. Each invention frees humans to determine a more fulfilling purpose. Technology may allow us to choose not to engage in actually living, but that is a choice and, while easier, it will be a path to self-destruction. If at any point we want to find meaning, there are an infinite number of needs that can create purpose in our lives.

Now more than ever humanity’s needs are not being met. This is a tremendous opportunity for anyone seeking to find a sense of meaning and purpose that brings fulfillment. Technology might render us unnecessary to secure our own physical survival, but more than ever we need each other to ensure the survival of the human spirit. The possibilities are endless.

Life is too short to be normal.

This Week’s Mission

Come up with skills to learn and have the family learn. We were meant to always have new challenges. Learn to juggle, to do a handstand, to use the kettlebell, or to play the harmonica. For even more effectiveness, go take lessons.

Learn from other people who can share their own experience and offer a sense of community in your development. You could learn to salsa, to play tennis, or startup with Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Don’t be paralyzed by the number of choices. Pick one and commit.

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