How Work Became Leisure

Rachel Maines is a visiting scientist in the Cornell University School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Her principal research interests lie in the history of technology, especially issues relating to technology and the body, such as sexuality, medicine, technological risk, and injury epidemiology. She is the author of three books: "The Technology of Orgasm: 'Hysteria,' Vibrators, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction" (1999), "Asbestos and Fire: Technological Tradeoffs and the Body at Risk" (2005), and her most recent, "Hedonizing Technologies: Pathways to Pleasure in Hobbies and Leisure," published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2009.

  • Transcript


Question: Is sex a formerly functional activity that has become recreational?

Rachel Maines: Oh yes, definitely, yes. And I think that's a very good bridge, thank you. That's a good transition into it, because, you know, you read about medieval sex, for example, and a lot of it is very businesslike, it's in the dark, people still have part of their clothes on, it's not warm enough in the room, you can't take all your clothes off, and so, and sex toys, too, they're a function of leisure and industrialization, of prosperity. These are, they have to do with prosperity. And all of these other hedonizing technologies, in fact, if I remember correctly, the book opens with a discussion of sex as a sort of hedonized activity that, it's like gourmet cooking. You know, I just was in whole foods a little while ago and, you know, nobody has to cook any more that if you have enough money, you don't have to cook. And even if you don't have a whole lot of money, you still won't have to cook. If you could stand eating in McDonalds, you know, and things like that, okay.

In the industrial democracies, you don't have to cook. And you're prosperous enough. But people, there are now a whole lot of people who cook just because they like to, like my husband and me. You know, we like to, we have all these, you know, all clad pans hanging in our kitchen and my idea of a remedy for seasonal affective disorder, you know, when it's gloomy, in upstate New York, it's often very gloomy, especially this time of year when it gets dark early. So get like a pork shoulder and braise it in herbs and saffron and wine and all this stuff all day, so the whole house smells great all day long. And that's the kind of thing people do when a technology becomes hedonized, when you don't have to do it, then you have the, you can step back from it and say, "Now, how could I have fun with this?" And that's what's happening with hunting, fishing, needlework, cake decorating, which used to be something that only professionals did after World War II, it became a hobby for housewives. And now, not just housewives but house husbands, too. Why not? And there's all these other things.

In fact, I learned when I was writing that book, it's the most fun I ever had writing a book, that, every time I think, okay, I'm going to finish this manuscript, I'm going to send it to Hopkins, you know, and I was, "Oh, just one more, I just have to have," it's like eating potato chips, "I've just got to do one more," "Oh, I've just learned about," you know, like boating is another example. I can't remember what they all are, but there's a whole bunch of them in there, leatherworking is one of them. And there's a literature of all of them, I had a lot of fun with that.

Question: Do work activities become fun precisely when they become optional?

Rachel Maines: Yes. And particularly the ones that also became obsolete for production purposes, like knitting socks, like, you know, absolutely nobody, almost anywhere in the world, has to knit socks, very few people now live in such remote areas that they have to knit their own socks, you know? And it's usually much more cost effective just to go out and buy a pair. In fact, the yarn to make yourself a pair of handmade wool socks cost about five times as much as a pair of socks does, right? Even a pair of good ones. But if you like to knit socks, you know, then, you know, what's wrong with that, right? Can't do any harm knitting socks. That's an example.

But there's a bunch of others that are like that. Printmaking. It used to be that lithography was used by professionals, in fact, Collier's Magazine, you've probably seen those old covers, those are lithograph. But when lithography became obsolete as a production printing technology, the artisans seized on it and said, "Oh, wow," and then you have things like, what's it called? The Tamarind Workshop, which is a famous, historical, it's a printmaking workshop and there are all these famous artists who got involved in it. So that's another example. Throwing pots, making ceramics, once it became, buying hand thrown pots is something you do if you have a lot of money, you don't just, you know, it's not like Roman times where you have, all the pots were hand thrown. But the people who like to do it use the technology that they pick. Sometimes they pick high tech, sometimes they want to operate with a foot pedal, sometimes they want it electrically powered. That's the other thing, is that you get to vote, as it were, with your dollars, on what technology you're going to use. It isn't a question of what's efficient, because efficiency doesn't matter, right? Nobody cares. Whatever gives you the most pleasure, that's why I call it hedonizing technology.

Recorded on December 14, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen