Simple Living and Labor-Saving Devices

In the comments section of our our post on dishwasher-safe products, there was an interesting debate on the merits of hand washing dishes. Some readers were surprised by the amount of thought and effort we seem to expend trying to avoid hand washing cookware.

I am an advocate of technology in the service of simple living. There is physical clutter in our lives, and there is time clutter. Often, judicious use of technology can help us tame the latter.

The Shakers, known for their focus on simplicity in all aspects of life, believed labor was sacred. To that end, they developed numerous labor-saving devices:

  • metal pen nibs
  • the flat broom
  • a prototype washing machine
  • the circular saw
  • waterproof and wrinkle-free cloth
  • a metal chimney cap that blocked rain

In fact, the Canterbury community in New Hampshire owned one of the first cars in the state. They also embraced the use of electricity long before their non-Shaker neighbors.

Good technology has the capacity to simplify our lives and empower us. It reduces time clutter. The arrivals of the washing machine and the electric iron were landmark events in the history of women’s liberation. By reducing the amount of time women spent on chores, they increased the amount of time women could spend on other activities.

By contrast, it’s easy to see that bad technology just gets in the way. We are seduced by the false promises of a food dehydrator. In the end, we are not only parted from our money, but we are left with a colony of unused unitaskers multiplying in the recesses of our kitchen cabinets. From the very beginning, you didn’t have a chance  — by the time you bought the seemingly innocuous wannabe waffle-maker, the war was already lost.

Simple living is about clearing away the obstacles in our lives, including the unwanted tasks. We can only do this if we are honest with ourselves about whether that labor-saving device really justifies the space it consumes.


This post was originally published in May 2007.

6 Comments for “Simple Living and Labor-Saving Devices”

  1. posted by betsey Biggs on

    I must say, I think that this varies from person to person. And it also varies according to the chore which is being “saved.” For instance, I honestly enjoy washing dishes. For me it is a meditative, end-of-the-day time. (Okay, I might be exaggerating a hair, but you get the idea!) Personally, I like having time to do something repetitive and fairly mindless, because it gives me a chance to sit and think. This is a great quote from Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nat Hanh:

    On the other hand, I despise vacuuming and have been eyeing the Roomba! To each her own…!

  2. posted by Kirk on

    I noticed that the link to the dishwasher-safe post doesn’t include many of the comments.

    As for simple living, I’m sure there were plenty of Shakers who said “Metal pen nibs?! Bah! My quill works fine!” (or whatever they used)…

    As Betsey notes, to each their own. But it is fun to hear different people’s versions of ‘simple’.

  3. posted by Kirk on

    Some other considerations:
    – does your labor savior require electricity?
    – will your labor savior eventually need repair or to be replaced?
    These add expense and time.

    For instance… the other day I was lusting after the Dymo postage printer so I wouldn’t need to visit the PO. Then I realized, for my use, it would be better/cheaper to buy an analog postage scale and the appropriate stamps. No electricity and no computer, which fits better into my life goals (…he types at his computer).

  4. posted by Anonymous on

    Maybe some of the comments were deleted as a means of uncluttering

  5. posted by Raf on

    I agree with the sentiment of technology being an aid, not a hindrance to simple living, or in my view, efficiency.

    I’m in the field of Medicine, and through my med school years, I carried a Palm as a combination datebook, addressbook, and “2nd brain” where I’d store helpful notes, mnemonics, and medicine-related programs & calculators.

    During my last year, I bought a Treo 650, which I thought was the Be-All-And-End-All. Here was everything I was using combined with a cellphone so that I could get that much more done.

    Well, here I am 2 years later. My Treo now functions solely as a cellphone, addressbook, and occassionally as a Digital Camera. I have since gone back to my high school and college days and am using a paper-day planner/notebook.

    Admittedly, it’s more upscale than the stuff I used then. I now carry around a Moleskine Reporter that I hand crafted into a day-planner, calendar, & notebook. It’s much easier & quicker for me to enter & to review data. And it just looks much more professional than using my Treo, since entering data into the Treo might be mistaken for me just text-messaging. And God forbid I end up losing battery power, which is impossible with the Moleskine.

  6. posted by Jerry Brito on

    Betsey, Kirk: Check out the Unclutterer Manifesto that kicked off this blog. It describes our philosophy about simple living. For us, simple living is about avoiding stress, having more time to do the things you enjoy, and generally being happy. If doing dishes makes you happy, go right ahead. If saving electricity makes you happy. Be our guest. It’s about personal choice. Some of us choose to use dishwashers and Roombas. If that makes us happy and saves us time, then that’s great, too. We just hope to be a source for information to help folks make those personal choices.

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