The Rube Goldberg Defense

2 min

Taylor Winchell says technology has made tasks simpler and work more productive, but it hasn’t made them more rewarding.

A Rube Goldberg machine is designed to perform a simple task in an over-complicated, impractical manner, its origins traced to the mind of Mr. Rube Goldberg, who drew humorous cartoons of these unnecessary contraptions.

While Mr. Goldberg spent much of his life in New York, he was born in San Francisco and received an engineering degree in 1903 from UC Berkeley. He worked as an engineer for the six months before becoming a sports columnist for the Chronicle and later a cartoonist in New York.

Mr. Goldberg died in 1970, but I wonder what this Bay Area native—who dreamed up the unnecessarily complicated—might think of Silicon Valley’s ever-increasing pace toward optimization and productivity.

We have reached the inevitable: the modern job is often in front of the computer for most—if not all—of the day, and time at home is spent scrolling phones and watching shows , often at the same time. It’s become hauntingly normal to spend 10 to 12 hours per day looking at a screen.

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The world has undoubtedly become more productive, safe, educated, prosperous, and healthy than it’s ever been; all the while, attention spans have gone out the window, human to human interaction is becoming increasingly difficult, and mental health issues are on the rise. Something feels simply wrong about all of this.

But there is no turning back, so it seems that our best defense might be to carry a Rube Goldberg cartoon around with us: a reminder that there is always a less optimized, more complicated – and maybe more rewarding – way to complete a task. Cooking is more complicated than ordering take out; walking is more complicated than a car service; traveling is more complicated than staying home; having a conversation is more complicated than texting; reading a book is more complicated than watching a show; thinking is more complicated than not; and with all of today’s stimulation, doing nothing is often more complicated than anything else.

With a Perspective, I’m Taylor Winchell.

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Taylor Winchell is a water resources scientist living in El Cerrito.

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