Can better apps save us from drudgery?

In five or ten years, says a noted software guru, we’ll have an app that “knows everything about us, can make obvious judgments without asking us, can follow up on and anticipate things, and do all the things that a good executive assistant would be doing.”

When this comes to pass, says Charles Simonyi, writing in a recent Atlantic Monthly, “we won’t have to do routine things and we can concentrate on our lives. We can concentrate on other people, on enjoying art and science, while the routine stuff will be done by software.”

In my Boomer brain, this app conjures up something like M.A.S.H’s Radar O’Reilly, the prescient private who was always bobbing up at Colonel Potter’s elbow and handing him whatever the colonel was about to ask him for (“Goddamn it, Radar, don’t do that! You make me nervous.”).

Yet I’m all for technology that makes daily life easier. Who isn’t?

I love my smartphone. I love Google and Skype and Dropbox and Pandora, and I’m making friends with Facebook, and I have a nodding acquaintance with Twitter. When Simonyi starts handing out his personal assistants, I’ll be first in line—even more if I can program mine to mow the lawn, weed the tomatoes, and wash the dog.

I’m skeptical, though, about his assumption that once we get rid of routine, repetitive, “boring” tasks, productive leisure will flourish like the green bay tree.

Here’s some history to ponder. When electric stoves, washing machines, and other household appliances burst on the American scene after World War II, they were hailed as the housewife’s salvation.

And they certainly saved her hours of labor. But what also happened was that standards of cleanliness and cuisine spiked. Suddenly, clean outfits and three-course dinners became the daily norm.

At the industrial level, labor-saving technology didn’t quite bring about a democratized leisure class. More often it boosted companies’ productivity at the expense of workers’ jobs.

I’m even more skeptical of the assumption that “routine” equals “boring.” I would not give up my washing machine, but I still like to wash my pantyhose by hand. I like the wispy fabric slithering soapily through my fingers. I like arraying the limp flat tubes on a fluffy towel like ghostly dancers’ legs, and rolling them and hanging them to dry.

I like the tactile intelligence that rises through my fingers when I knit or shell peas or pull weeds. I like the way my mind ceases its drunken-monkey chatter, and I settle, for a tiny precious moment, into groundedness, into relationship with real concrete material things.

When we all have an app to help us manage our lives—and I say bring it on—there will still be a need to wash stockings and shell peas. At least for me.

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