I read the other day that the word "robot" came into English from the Czech for "work", which really anyone with half a brain who's studied a Slavic language ought to have guessed years ago. That group does not include me, I'm sorry to say and, given that I have studied a Slavic language, there is only one conclusion to be drawn, I guess.
Instead of drawing that conclusion, however, I prefer to believe that my brain, all half of it, has been preoccupied with more important things. Rather than worrying about the provenance of the word "robot", I've been busy with worrying about the automatisation - or robotification, if you like - of just about every form of employment once undertaken by those of us who are not geniuses.
I admit to a certain level of hypocrisy in this matter. The truth is I have been known to find myself worrying about the loss of unskilled jobs because of automation, while simultaneously enjoying the simple autonomy of using the automated cash registers now available at so many supermarkets. Mind you, my worries about the future of unskilled employment at these moments are usually interrupted by exclamations from the automated machine I'm using. These generally lead to idle speculation about whether a chick lit novel called Unexpected Item in the Bagging Area about a woman who gets pregnant without meaning to would be a success.
But I digress. While replacing people with things is clearly going to have some pretty horrendous consequences in the job market, the thing about the process that bothers me most is the way in which it is whittling away the opportunities for idle chat between strangers. As Kurt Vonnegut pointed out beautifully, the most pleasant moments in life are often to be found in the inconsequential interchanges we have while faffing about doing apparently unexciting chores.
I was reminded of this just yesterday while staring out of my front window, (an activity I am quite fond of, especially when the alternative is persuading myself to write a chick lit novel called Unexpected Item in the Bagging Area about a woman who becomes pregnant without meaning to [no, I'm not serious and yes, do by all means take the idea if it appeals to you]). On the opposite side of the street there was a man cutting his hedge. To my amazement, this man was using a pair of hand-held clippers.
Amazement might seem a strong reaction to this sight, but, until now I'd understood that where gardening and Belgium intersect automation is the name of the game. Even though every house on our street has hedge plants and other scraps of gardeny type stuff, I have never once before - in almost a year of living here - seen anyone deploying a garden tool that doesn't have a motor. The gardening world of Brussels appeared until yesterday to consist exclusively of men driving around town with trailers full of noisy machines. In return for hefty payments, they would hurtle toward your dwelling, eager to deploy their chainsaws and leaf blowers and buzzcutters and handheld missile launchers and - well, perhaps not the latter, providing you pay your bills on time. As a result, the noise on the street is not deafening but it is often maddening.
But back to the point. There I was, at the window, staring in open surprise at this extraordinary being, a man who didn't seem to care about saving himself labour, who didn't invest his masculinity in horsepower and loud sound, a man who preferred a slow, elegant approach, a man who valued the importance of artistry in his work. As I watched, I saw him clip for a bit; brush away what he'd clipped; lower his shears and stand back to get an idea of the effect he'd created; and then return to the task, refining what he'd done before. He seemed to be enjoying himself. He appeared to be taking pride in the process and in the result.
And even better still was what happened next. Along came one of the neighbours, returning home from a walk with her tubby labradors. She waved as she approached the man and then stopped and engaged him in conversation. He clipped and talked, she watched and responded, he stood back and looked at the hedge, while answering something she'd asked him, she pointed out a bit he'd missed and agreed with his reply. He worked and they chatted - they did both things at the same time!
This was so civilised and pleasant. In the presence of the normal gardeners, the woman with the fat labradors would have been scuttling from the gate to the front door, desperate to escape the unpleasant buzzing. There would have been no opportunity for conversation, no friendliness, no chance for one of the fat labradors to find a scrap of something that might be edible there in the gutter, no pointless easygoing interlude where for a moment both people had a sense of being connected.
What I saw there, between my neighbour and the pre-mechanised gardener was a small green leaf of community emerging.
But the men with the automated shears and leaf blowers will be back soon, ready to nip it in the bud.