When was the last time you did something productive? Something truly creative, or useful, or industrious? Something that connected your hands and body with your brain and soul?
Back in 1973, a British economist named E.F. Schumacher actually set about to estimate how much of the average person’s time was spent in production. His educated guess was about 3.5 percent of each 24 hours. The other 96.5 percent, he said, was spent in “sleeping, eating, watching television, doing jobs that are not directly productive, or just killing time ...” Schumacher pinpointed modern technologies as the main killer of productive work, and predicted that further technological development would reduce real productive work to nearly zero. He lamented this imbalance between production and consumption and considered it damaging, destructive and unwise for the human race, saying: “Modern technology has deprived man of the kind of work he enjoys most, creative, useful work with hands and brains, and given him plenty of work of a fragmented kind, most of which he does not enjoy at all.” Forty-six years on, I do not think Schumacher would be surprised to find the situation has not improved. But neither he nor anyone else could have predicted the heyday of modernity’s favorite consumer platform — social media.
Personally, I love to debate and talk, and argue and talk, and read and talk, and well, talk. Storytelling (and arguing) is in my blood going back generations. It’s why I’m a writer today. But it also leads me into an embarrassing amount of time spent on social media. I could take a walk, or I could discuss political and social issues with someone halfway around the world. I could bake a cake, or I could just read a blog about baking a cake. I could do laundry, or I could debate with someone who is Wrong On The Internet. Social media platforms are the number one killer of my productive time, and judging from the immense, all-ages popularity of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and others, I’m hardly alone.
There isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with talk, debate, discussion, reading or social media. But seen in the light of Schumacher’s insistence that it is productive work that makes us the happiest and healthiest as a society, it is a bit alarming to note that Facebook users, for example, spend a total of 950 million hours on the platform each day, equivalent to about 40 minutes per user.
Social media isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, nor is political debate, seeing that we are headed into an election year. Like the novel, the newspaper, radio and TV before it, it has been enshrined as a form of popular entertainment and consumption, in addition to its value as a communication method and news source. It’s here to stay. But how, then, do we balance all this consumption with the productive and creative work our souls need?
I propose an experiment: For the next week, I pledge to spend one hour engaging in productive work for every hour spent in social media consumption. For the purposes of this challenge, “productive work” will be anything that engages body, mind and soul to make a product or work toward its completion. This could include gardening, cooking, writing, welding, knitting, cleaning house, cutting hair, mowing the lawn, brewing beer or coloring with my daughter. It does not include TV, video games, movies, dining out, reading, watching sporting events, or any other passive work. I will use my cell phone settings to track my social media usage, and I will record that time and each productive activity in which I take part. I will report back with my findings in a week or two.
Productive work is not a highest good. People have value and dignity even if they are not useful, nor industrious, nor creative nor good at doing really anything in particular. But when it comes to earthly health and happiness, I’m with Schumacher. Creative, useful work will save us.