6 Ways to Crank the World Back into Shape

MikeachimThe Everyday4 Comments

Fevered Mutterings v3 – October 5th, 2008.


Cranks will save the world.

Nothing to do with Jason Statham, thankfully. No – I’m actually talking about mechanical power. And it’s something I feel strongly about.


Labor-saving. Labour-saving. However you spell it, it’s become a curse.

The theory is great. We use technology to make our lives more efficient, allowing us to automate the dull tasks and concentrate on the important ones. However, more often it’s like this: we use technology to make our lives easier. But do we actually need our lives easier?

Human beings are not designed to just sit. We sit in all sorts of places: in cars, at work, in front of the TV. We sit because many technologies bring the world straight to our lap. That’s not a problem if you’re using the time saved to go away and do something else that keeps you in shape and engages your brain. But that’s not usually the case: we usually  spend the time doing more of the same activities that involve sitting down.

This has a lasting effect on our bodies (not helped by the poor nutritional content of many types of prepackaged food – another name for them being convenience food – as in “easier”). And since the mind is a part of the body, this has a profound effect on our brain. Depression, anxiety, mood-swings, bi-polarity disorders, attention deficit problems. All too often these are signs that our bodies and minds aren’t getting what they need.


So we need exercise. And that’s what many of us do, myself included. After work, we go to the gym, or run on a treadmill at home,  or pad round the block wearing lycra. The main reason isn’t fun – it’s to keep in shape. In perspective, this is bonkers: all day we enjoy labour-saving technologies at work and around the home, and in the evening we force ourselves through ‘artificial’ exercise routines to make up the difference. No wonder we never seem to have enough time. (Of course, on a Corporate level this makes twisted sense: it’s the employee who has to make up this physical shortfall in his or her own time).

The more industrially developed a society is, the more its inhabitants are encouraged to pursue energy-saving practices….without thinking about why they might want to do so.

Fact is, we’re biological machines. We need a certain amount of steady mechanical work throughout our day, or we start rusting, in all sorts of subtle ways.


Every one of these suggestions is not universally applicable. Every one is idealistic and relatively non-pragmatic. Every one needs a lot of work. (For example, if you’re in a wheelchair or if you can walk but your mobility is severely impaired, the last thing you want is more stairs. Not universal).

  • 1. Workplaces that require more effort to get around. Designers: instead of central hubs of elevators – use stairs. If people cannot use the stairs, give them a swipe-card to an elevator that keeps everyone else out. Turn stairwells not into shabby grey liminal places tacked on with an afterthought, but airy, spacious, panoramically windowed places to escape to when you need a break. Make them desirable.
  • 2. …and cities that are built to the same principle. Getting rid of escalators except in special swipe-card cases for those who need to use them. Rethinking walkways and pathways so they’re more fun and energetic. Putting subtle gradients everywhere, invisibly working out calves and ankles. More pedestrian bridges, please. More greenery to encourage us to walk around (and if designers and councils don’t do something, others will).


  • 3. We Earn Our Electricity. Imagine. Your activities create energy: you store this energy: it’s yours, to expend however you wish – to supplement a set ration of energy you’ve been allotted by your local council. It’s Draconian and distinctly anti-capitalist, but I think in half a century these kinds of desperate proposals will be on the table anyway. It’d be nice if we actually managed it with a bit of foresight. Your every movement has the potential to generate electricity, say, by dynamo (why haven’t whirring bike wheels and car wheels been widely tapped as battery-chargers?) or piezo-electrically (such as sensors under your carpet, converting your footsteps into current). There’s a universal personal battery standard – let’s call it the “PB” – and every small- to medium-sized household appliance has a socket for a PB. You generate electricity by going for a walk to the shop for a pint of milk, then you use that electricity to boil the water for your cup of tea. And so on. Devices like the HyMini (above) are a healthy step in the right direction.
  • 4. Following the last point – if we’re going to keep using gyms, let’s make them power-stations. Going on your treadmill for 45 minutes will generate power- and you have the option of using that generated power to pay off some of your gym bill (they can divert it straight into the energy they expend running the place), or you can “upload” it into your PB and go home. Right now, our energy-collecting technologies probably aren’t efficient enough to make this practical. But knowing our ingenuity, they soon will be. And if we can harvest useful electricity or savings when we go work out, it’s a powerful incentive to get a sweat on.


  • 5. Question The Easy Way. I don’t want to bring down the Labour government or the Republicans (no, wait) or capitalism or any component of the modern world. I’m about as political as Mr Bean. But if there’s one obvious thing wrong with how the world works, it’s this: trust. Unquestioning, blind trust. In particular, we trust advertisers too much. When we’re told that a product or service is “better”, we assume that it’s going to unquestionably improve our lives – and this makes logical sense, because it’s more efficient or it’s labour-saving or automated or very very clever-looking. However, if somebody is selling something to us, they’re almost certainly going to be focussed on making money – anything else is our problem. Not using their product correctly? Our problem. Fail to adjust our lifestyle accordingly for our own benefit? Our problem. Advertisers will be naturally inclined to try to sell the best-case scenario, how a product could improve a lifestyle, and leave realism out of the picture (as the saying goes, ‘they deal in dreams’). Their motives need to be questioned, all the time.

So it requires a change in attitude. Right now, we’re culturally hardwired to associate the word “saving” with the word “good”, every time……except for one example I can think of – the phrase “corner-cutting”. This negative term, which ostensibly means the same as “time/energy-saving”, suggests a bad job – of work detrimental to the final product. I’d argue there’s a lot of corner-cutting going on in today’s world, hidden but right out in the open. We’re being encouraged to cut corners everywhere.

And so:

  • 6. Neutralise The Hard Way. Turn ‘the hard way’ of doing things into a neutral thing, without a negative value attached, without being undesirable from the get-go. We should assess the benefits of doing things the hard way in exactly the same way we assess the benefits of doing things more easily. We may end up wanting to pick the tougher route. We may not. Just as long as we think about why we make the choices we make.  “Hard” does not equal “bad” (if it did, gyms would be positively Satanic).

Personally, I’m rather a fan of choosing the hard way to do things, by default. (This probably makes me Tiresome To Be Around, so apologies to everyone who knows me personally).

The hard way is where the adventure lies.

Explorers don’t take the easy route.

Images:  DeShark / StuffEyeSee / Jason Gulledge