As a child, I remember being fascinated by my grandparents’ stories of how life was in the “olden days”. I couldn’t imagine how they could get excited about tuning in to radio programs on Saturday night.
I love to play this game with my kids, where we imagine the present, from the perspective of the future. Things that we take for granted as “normal” today will seem as antiquated as a woodstove, when we relay stories of our lives to our great grandchildren. It’s fun to look around and imagine how life will change:
“Really, great grandma, you had to stand outside in the cold wind to pump smelly, flammable liquid gasoline into your car?” (Yes, Joey, and if I drove a lot, sometimes we’d have to fill up several times in a week. When I was little, people used to smoke cigarettes as they filled up. So many people smoked, that cars actually came with ashtrays and cigarette lighters as standard features. Seat belts were entirely optional. When cell phones were invented, there were many accidents, because drivers back then actually had to pay attention and steer, and brake! We could sit in the car for hours and hours to get somewhere)
“Your phone was connected to your house with a wire? You had to sit in one spot to talk to someone?” (Yes, Joey. When I was a teenager, I would sit on the floor in the corner of the dining room for hours. And we had to share a phone with the neighbours, so if I was talking to my friend, the neighbours had to wait for their turn. And there was no voicemail!)
“People sat at a desk all day long?” (Yes, they did. We didn’t know how dangerous sitting was until 2015! And then things really started to change.)
“People dragged bags of garbage from their houses to the street, and then trucks came around and lifted these heavy bags into a truck? Every week?” (Yes, it was common for these bags to weigh 20 kg or more, and each house could put as much as they wanted out every week.)
“You used paper to send messages to people in other cities?” (Yes, Joey, and it would take weeks for a letter to get from Canada to my penpal in England.)
“You can’t be serious? Everyone, even kids, knew how to make words on an input device with the letters all scrambled in pattern you call “QWERTY”?” (Yes, but not everyone was good at it. Some people used only two fingers, and lots of people had neck pain from looking at the keyboard.)
“Kids had to go to a place called “school” five days a week, on a big yellow “bus”?” (Yes, we didn’t have virtual reality school like you have now. My dad, your great, great grandpa, had to walk to school. He used to insist that he had to walk uphill for an hour to get to school, up to his knees in snow. He claimed it was uphill both ways! When I was a child, there were no computers in class. The teachers taught what was called “cursive writing” so that we could take notes faster than printing with a pen and paper. We had to memorize our multiplication tables up to 12 times 12.)
A while ago, I watched a TED talk by Tony Faddel who talked about innovation, and how we don’t notice everyday inconveniences. Faddel used the stickers on apples as an example. Does it strike you as odd that you have to peel off a sticker before you can eat a piece of fruit from the supermarket? No, it doesn’t. You’re used to it. As ergonomists, we often encounter situations or job demands that shock us, because we are not habituated to them. When we ask, “Why do you have to do this?” the answer is all too often, “I don’t know. We’ve always done it that way.”
When you walk around your workplace, I challenge you to look for tasks that are awkward, heavy, or repetitive. Look for tasks that take (waste!) a lot of time. Look for mistakes that people make over and over, especially when they are first learning a job. We’ve often heard that “necessity is the mother of invention”. But perhaps it’s more than that….perhaps we have to “notice” before we can even see that there’s a need. Faddel urges us to “look broader” (take a step back and look at the steps before and after), to “look closer” (focus on the tiny details, see if you can simplify), and to “think younger” (see the world as if for the first time). These tips serve us well when we are faced with an “ergo” issue.
I’d love to add to my “Joey” list (and I think I have lots of time to do so, before any great grandchildren arrive on the scene!) What activities from your daily life will surely change in 30 years?