You may ask, then, "Should nothing be automated?" I didn't say that! I've only suggested that we avoid deluding ourselves about automation freeing us for higher things. Have we in fact been enjoying such a release? Any investigation of the matter will reveal that the machine's pull is most naturally downward. It's hard to relate to a machine except by becoming machine-like in some part of ourselves.
When we yield ourselves to automatisms, we become sleepwalkers. But if instead they serve as foils for our own increased wakefulness, then they will have performed a high service. After all, downward forces, too, can be essential to our health. We couldn't walk upright without the force of gravity to work against, and our muscles would atrophy without the effort.
It is, I think, inescapable that we should automate many things and there are many pleasures to be had in achieving this. When I said above that an automating mentality will not find any clear stopping place, I did not mean to imply that there should be such a stopping place certainly not in any absolute sense.
Everything is potentially automatable in the restricted sense I have indicated, and pretending there is a natural stopping place only encourages the kind of mindless automation that is the real problem. What is crucial is for us to be aware of what we're doing and to find within ourselves the necessary compensations. We have to struggle ever more determinedly to hold on to the realities and meanings our automated abstractions were originally derived from. That is, we must learn to bring the abstractions alive again through a strengthened inner activity a tough challenge when the machine continually invites us to let go of our own activity and accept the task in reduced terms!
The limits of our compensatory capacities will always suggest wise stopping places, if we are willing to attend to those limits. But not absolute stopping places; they will shift as our capacities grow.
Are we currently setting the bounds of automation wisely? You tell me. Has the accounting software and the remarkable automation of global financial transactions been countered by our resolve to impose our own conscious meanings upon those transactions? Or, rather, does the entire financial system function more and more like a machine, merely computing an abstract bottom line?
Well, if you're looking at the dominant institutions, I imagine your answer will be pessimistic. But perhaps the most important developments for the future are the less conspicuous ones for example, the alternative food and health systems, the growing interest in product labeling, the investing-with-a-conscience movement. What's essential in these is the determination to restore the automated abstraction for example, the nutrient in the processed food, the number in the accountant's spreadsheet to the meaningful context it was originally ripped out of.
I suppose the sum of the matter is that the restoration of human context entails a gesture exactly opposite to the one expressed in "if it can be automated, it should be." It's more like "if it can be re-enfleshed, it should be." This rule seems to me healthier than the purely negative call to "stop automation and technical innovation." To focus merely on stopping automation is already to have accepted that the machine, rather than our own journey of self-transformation, is the decisive shaper of our future. Yes, we urgently need to find the right place for our machines, but we can do so only by finding the right place for ourselves.
As long as these two movements to automate and to re-enflesh are held in balance, we're probably okay. We should automate only where we can, out of our inner resources, re-enliven. For example, we should substitute written notes and email for face-to-face-exchanges only so far as we have learned the higher and more demanding art of revivifying the written word so that it reveals the other person as deeply as possible and gives us something of his presence.
We have many such arts to deepen, and I suppose we can thank the ubiquitous technology pushers for that extreme imbalance so easily reminding us of our own necessary work, without which all solutions become destructive.