A television ad features a man firing bursts of water from a garden hose onto the windshield of his car. A woman - somewhat blurred, presumably his wife - appears in the background. He steals a furtive, shamefaced glance at her. She turns away, more disgusted than angry. As soon as she's out of sight, he starts up the obsessive squirting again.
At first, I thought the man was washing his car, but the intermittent bursts made no sense. At last a printed message appeared to solve the mystery. The car comes equipped with new, miracle rain-activated windshield wipers. The man with the hose was engaging in the guilty, infantile pleasure of simulating rain to turn his wipers on.
A cloud of doom came over me. Does this ad represent the destiny of man, "noble in reason, infinite in faculty?" Is this what we came down from the trees, stood erect on two feet and developed opposable thumbs for? Why, a chimpanzee would soon become bored with the wiper game. Can you imagine a nightcrawler or a nematode passing its precious time in this fashion? And yet the man in the ad finds squirting water at his car entertaining, even titillating. Surely, the designation "homo sapiens" is undeserved.
But there's another, more disturbing implication of this ad - our slavish dependence on labor-saving devices is reaching the danger point. There was a time when human beings could chop down forests all day without breaking into a sweat. Today, we spend good money to avoid turning on the wipers manually. Rolling up our car windows by hand has become intolerable. Public toilets flush automatically to spare us the grueling effort.
I suppose if you tallied up the labor saved by these technological triumphs that over a lifetime a significant reservoir of energy could be put to some higher use. But what? Operating the remote control on the television set?
What will become of us when the exertion required to turn the windshield wipers, flip a light switch or turn a key in a lock is sufficient to fatigue us? Will we have the strength to fight off an attack from a carnivorous rodent or a predatory insect intent on devouring us? Will our miraculous hands and fingers eventually atrophy and fall off?
A roller tool is advertised in a kitchen catalogue for $35 that permits you to chop parsley without the labor of using a knife. A battery-powered gadget called Stir Chef rotates multiple paddles so that you don't have to contend with the backbreaking tedium of stirring. A pair of herb-snipping scissors with five matching blades permits you to accomplish in a single snip the work that would require five snips with conventional scissors.
Soon they may offer a motorized masticator that will puree our meals so that we won't have to waste our energy chewing. Is life without effort our vision of progress? Good heavens, man. Barack Obama is calling on you to change the world and your idea of purpose is to trick your windshield wipers to go on. At least you could sally forth and tilt at some windmills.
Infatuation with electronic toys usurps our time, alters our behavior, changes us into a different kind of being. We've lost connection with nature due to our obsession with being "plugged in." Pulling out the cell phone has become as reflexive as breathing. A quiet moment for introspection has become intolerable. People used to go into the wilderness to find themselves. Today, global positioning devices deprive us of the sometimes instructive experience of getting lost. The day may not be far off when we're unable to find our way home from the shopping mall without a GPS.
Some people today have more intimate relationships with characters on television shows than with real human beings. A recent study found that robotic dogs were just as effective as real dogs in relieving loneliness of nursing home residents.
Has virtual reality become more appealing to us than life itself?
I know what you're saying: Get off your high horse. Lighten up. But I refuse to be written off as a crank or a curmudgeon. Don't tell me I'm lacking in recreational skills. I know about taking time to smell the roses. I've spent many an idyllic hour sitting in a lounge chair making the garage doors go up and down with my hand-held remote control. My battery-powered R2D2 keeps me company and responds to 40 commands. I don't have to lift a finger. You couldn't ask for a more loyal friend.