July 28th, 2015 · 24 comments
The Wondrous Water Wheel
Writing in the first century B.C., Anitpater of Thessalonica made one of the first known references to the water wheel:
“Cease from grinding, ye women who toil at the mill; sleep late even if the crowing cocks announce the dawn. For Demeter has ordered the Nymphs to perform the work of your hands, and they, leaping down on the top of the wheel, turn its axle….we taste again the joys of the primitive life, learning to feast on the products of Demeter without labor.”
I recently encountered this quote in Lewis Mumford’s seminal 1934 book, Technics & Civilization. As Mumford points out (drawing some on Marx), the striking thing about Anitpater’s reference to the water wheel is how its beneficiaries responded: This tool reduced their labor, so they reinvested that time in non-labor activities (“sleep late even if the crowing cocks announce dawn”).
This is a point that Mumford makes elsewhere in the book: in many times and cultures (and especially in ancient Greece), there was a notion of the right amount of work to support your profession. Once you reached that level, you were expected to turn your remaining attention to other matters like food, play, politics, and the intellectual life.
If new tools helped you reach that level sooner, then you had that much more time to yourself.
Labor and Culture
This idea caught my attention for two reasons.
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July 8th, 2015 · 30 comments
The Curse of Process Inefficiency
A couple weeks ago, I posted some ideas about why we have such a love/hate relationship with e-mail. In this post, I want to return to the conversation with a thought on how we might improve matters.
I argue that a major problem with our current e-mail habits is interaction inefficiency.
In more detail, most e-mail threads are initiated with a specific goal in mind. For example, here are the goals associated with the last three e-mails I sent today before my work shutdown:
- Getting advice from my agent on a publishing question.
- Moving a meeting to deal with a scheduling conflict.
- Agreeing on the next steps of a project I’m working on with Scott Young.
If you study the transcripts of most e-mail threads, the back and forth messaging will reveal a highly inefficient process for accomplishing the thread’s goal.
There’s a simple explanation for this reality. When most people (myself included) check e-mail, we’re often optimizing the wrong metric: the speed with which you clear messages.
Boosting this metric feels good in the moment — as if you’re really accomplishing something — but the side effect is ambiguous and minimally useful message that cause the threads to persist much longer than necessary, devouring your time and attention along the way.
I’m as guilty of this as anyone. For example, look at this terrible reply to a meeting request that I actually sent not long ago:
I’m definitely game to catch up this week.
Ugh. As I sent the above I knew that in the interest of replying as quickly as possible, I probably tripled the number of messages required before this meeting came to fruition.
What’s the solution?
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