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January 2022 Issue [Essay]

Routine Maintenance

Embracing habit in an automated world
Illustrations by Miriam Martincic

Illustrations by Miriam Martincic


Routine Maintenance

Embracing habit in an automated world

Of all the attempts to pinpoint the origin of modernity—an exercise of which modernity never tires—my favorite begins with medieval monks. According to this account, it was the Benedictines who came up with the idea that it was possible to do the same thing, at the same time, every day. Although time was still widely regarded as fluid and coterminous with eternity, the monastery was governed by the rhythms of that most modern instrument: the clock. The monks rose together, ate together, and prayed together, starting and stopping each task at the appointed canonical hour. In time, their obsession with order seeped into the world at large. The tradesmen and merchants in town heard the monastery bells ring out eight times a day and began to synchronize their daily tasks to their rhythm. The butcher picked up his cleaver at Prime and set it down for lunch at None. Clerks hustled to finish their work by Vespers. Time became currency, something that could be spent or saved, and people increasingly turned to machines to make life more efficient. By the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the religious impulse behind these regimens had been long forgotten. The monastery gave way to the factory. Ritual dissolved into routine.

This is, at any rate, the story that Lewis Mumford tells in his 1934 book Technics and Civilization, which argues that monasteries “helped to give human enterprise the regular collective beat and rhythm of the machine.” Contemporary medievalists have come to doubt this tidy account, but I have always liked the picture it paints, as though the life of that era were an enormous astronomical clock with its automaton figures (the friar, the cobbler, the weaver) clicking along their tracks to the same relentless metronome. I’ve thought of it more than once while plodding along my own daily course, rising at six to prepare the same breakfast every morning (oatmeal, coffee), leaving at seven to embark on the route I have walked for the past ten years, one that winds around the lake and is timed precisely (fifty minutes) so that I can sit down at my desk by eight. I work from home, so I have no co-workers or time card to register my punctuality—though I suppose you could look at my browsing history, which bears the record of a life so deeply routinized that even my screen time falls into a discernible pattern: the email log-in at the top of each hour, the thirty minutes allotted to social media during lunch.

Repetition is a component of all ascetic traditions, and I like to think that my own habits constitute something like a spiritual discipline. My nature bends toward listlessness and disorder. Resolving to do the same thing each day, at the same time, has given my life a center, insulating me from the siren song of novelty and distraction that has caused me so much unhappiness in the past. I live a monotonous life, which is not to say a tedious one. (I believe, with Rilke, that those who find life dull are not poet enough to call forth its riches.) And I imagine that these tightly circumscribed days are radiating, with each turn of the circle, into widening arcs, amounting to a life whose ties are deeper, whose direction is more certain.

But perhaps this is merely so much self-justification. It does not escape me that what I’ve been describing as a spiritual discipline bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the cruder ethos of “life hacking.” Perhaps I am no different from those data fetishists in Silicon Valley who refer to Benjamin Franklin as a “productivity master,” and speak of free time as a “release valve.” It is difficult today to avoid the thought that we are becoming as rigid and inflexible as the machines that structure our lives. The New York Times columnist Kevin Roose calls this process “machine drift,” arguing that it’s degrading our humanity and making us professionally obsolete. “For years, the conventional wisdom has been that if machines were the future, we needed to become more like machines ourselves,” he writes in his recent book Futureproof: 9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation. This wisdom, a relic of the Industrial Revolution, persists in our efforts to streamline and quantify our lives (tallying our steps, tracking our REM cycles), and is reinforced by our reliance on algorithms that corral us into making the same choices we’ve made in the past. The writer George Monbiot similarly considers repetition “dehumanizing,” arguing that schools, with their rigid lessons and classroom regimes, are senselessly preparing children for life in a nineteenth-century factory. “In the future, if you want a job, you must be as unlike a machine as possible,” he writes in the Guardian. In striving to be more efficient, these critics argue, we are ceding our true advantage over the artificial intelligence systems that are encroaching on so many lines of work. Instead of succumbing to repetitive habits, we should cultivate those qualities that make us most human—our flexibility and spontaneity, our ability to respond to surprises and learn new skills.

Those of us who work in “creative” fields should take comfort in these predictions. It’s true that my own livelihood as a freelance writer, adjunct instructor, and gig worker requires no small amount of agility, and that writing, even in light of recent advances in AI language modeling, is among the skills experts have long deemed safe from automation. But these writers are not merely giving professional advice. They are offering sweeping claims about what makes us human while denigrating consistency as an outdated survival skill. Each time I encounter this argument, it renews my fundamental ambivalence about habit, which seems to belong, as Mumford’s theory suggests, to that uncertain territory between the monastery and the machine. Is it possible in our age of advanced technology to recall the spiritual dimension of repetition? Or has it been conclusively subsumed into the deadening drumbeat of modern life?

There is, to be sure, a certain logic in describing habits as machinelike. The actions that are most familiar to us—walking, riding a bicycle, driving a car—are those that can be performed without conscious deliberation, as though we were “on autopilot.” Habit, it’s often said, is nature’s version of outsourcing, a way to off-load cognitive overhead to the rote movements of muscle memory and free up the mind to think about other things. At their most extreme, habits can slide into addictions and compulsions, patterns that resist our conscious efforts to break them. As the philosopher Clare Carlisle observes, it is this tendency to slip in and out of consciousness, transgressing the neat binaries of modern thought—activity and passivity, freedom and necessity, mind and body—that has made habit so troublesome for philosophers, raising uneasy questions about freedom and individual autonomy. Kant excluded habitual actions from moral philosophy, maintaining that the “thoughtless repetition of the same action” cannot be ethical because those actions are not freely chosen.

The notion that habits are mindless and mechanical flourished, unsurprisingly, during the Industrial Revolution. An 1855 article in Charles Dickens’s magazine Household Words calls routine “the automaton imitating the work of the living, thinking man,” a phrase that might well apply to Dickens’s characters, many of whom are prone to tics and compulsive sayings and are unable, even when a windfall of fortune comes their way, to abandon the telltale habits of their class. Nineteenth-century psychologists compared habit to the flywheel and stereotype printing, industrial technologies that yielded repetition without variation. Walter Pater, in his conclusion to The Renaissance, similarly compared habit to a stereotype, concluding that the habituated mind, which failed to make artistic discriminations, had succumbed to the mechanical regularity of modern production. For the American clergyman and reformer John Weiss, habits embodied the thoughtless precision of natural laws: “The more enslaved a man becomes by the original tendencies of his nature,” he wrote in 1870, “the more closely he imitates the mechanical life of all material objects.”

Still, the hope has persisted that the very machines that make life repetitive will one day liberate us from the daily grind. Marx believed machines had “the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labor,” arguing that so long as they were used for the right purposes and controlled by workers, they could disrupt the trend of specialization and allow people to become “totally developed” individuals. Oscar Wilde imagined a more utopian scenario, one in which machines performed all disagreeable work and humans were free to make art, read, and enjoy a life of leisure. “All unintellectual labor, all monotonous, dull labor, all labor that deals with dreadful things, and involves unpleasant conditions, must be done by machinery,” he wrote in his 1891 essay on socialism. It was only then that we’d be free from the “tyranny of habit” which reduced humans “to the level of a machine.”

Despite the pervasive view that habit is mechanistic, many thinkers have, like Mumford, perceived a spiritual motivation still lurking in the gears of modern routine. In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt, citing a study reporting that most German workers “prefer monotonous tasks,” suggests factory workers, like the early Christians, prefer repetitive manual labor because it requires little attention and allows for contemplation. (She quotes the German economist Karl Bücher: “rhythmic labor is highly spiritual labor.”) Max Weber argued that the Protestant work ethic—as exemplified by Franklin’s aphorisms about habits and self-regulation—was bound up with a quest for salvation, one whose otherworldly motivation had long ago been forgotten, sublimated into what he called “the technical and economic conditions of machine production.” The Reformation, Weber writes in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, “took rational Christian asceticism and its methodical habits out of the monasteries and placed them in the service of active life in the world.” The desire for regularity had itself become habitual, loosened from its animating religious incentives and perpetuated unthinkingly by the automatic operations of modern life. Weber found industrial society haunted by “the ghost of dead religious beliefs,” a phrase that echoes Henri Bergson’s definition of habit: “the fossilized residue of a spiritual activity.”

I have long sensed that residue myself, believing that there is something transcendent in the pleasures of repetition. During the early months of the pandemic, many people complained that lockdown had caused their lives to take on the unvarying déjà vu of the 1993 film Groundhog Day. But the movie can also be understood as a spiritual parable. Although the protagonist, Phil, initially believes that the time loop he’s stuck in is a curse, he eventually comes to accept his fate and harnesses its dreary circularity into a program of ethical refinement—learning new skills, perfecting his self-discipline, and honing his moral responses—until he has become the best possible version of himself. Critics from a number of different faiths have interpreted the story as a meditation on escaping the cycle of samsara, reaching enlightenment, or undergoing the Puritan order of conversion. Still, for all these mystical interpretations, the film appears to recognize that repetition is not always transcendent. In one scene, Phil, desperate for a way out of his predicament, asks two local men he’s drinking with in a bowling alley: “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?” One of the men replies, “That about sums it up for me.”

The fourth industrial revolution, like the previous three, has prompted anxiety that we are turning into machines, and has spurred a strain of rhetoric—debate would be too generous—about what makes us human. For the past two decades, this rhetoric has hinged on a definition of “routine” established in a 2003 paper by the economists David Autor, Frank Levy, and Richard Murnane, which has come to be known as the ALM hypothesis.

According to the paper, a task is considered routine if it can be reduced to a set of clearly defined rules that can be programmed into a machine. This includes manual tasks, such as moving a car windshield into place on an assembly line, as well as cognitive work like bookkeeping and accounting. The definition proves a bit confusing for those who take routine to mean simply actions that are performed frequently—which often cannot be explained in a series of clear steps, relying as they do on tacit knowledge. (In some cases, explanation can even interfere with the execution of such skills. Karl Popper, in his book Knowledge and the Body-Mind Problem, writes of how Adolf Busch was once asked by a fellow violinist how he played a passage of Beethoven’s violin concerto. Busch replied that it was very simple, but as he began the demonstration he found he could no longer play it.)

As the ALM hypothesis made its way into corporate and political rhetoric, “routine” frequently slipped into this more common usage, denoting tasks that are “repeatable,” as Barack Obama put it in a 2016 interview about the economic implications of AI. A survey of New York Times articles on automation from the past decade reveals that “routine” tasks include sales, reviewing legal documents, diagnosing medical conditions, grading student papers, teaching “facts and figures,” and many of the skills performed by home health aides, including cooking meals and helping patients out of bed. It is a term, in other words, whose vague parameters and sufficiently unsavory undertones make it ripe for reassuring an anxious workforce that only the most mundane responsibilities will be handed over to machines—“those tasks they probably didn’t want to do anyway,” according to the insurance giant American Fidelity, which introduced automation software to its employees with a campaign called Drop the Drudgery.

Among the automation evangelists—entrepreneurs, innovation consultants, “thought leaders”—such reassurances often slide into an emancipatory, if not utopian, register. Duncan Wardle, a former Disney executive, echoes the popular refrain that “the rise of robots will only make us more human,” as it will allow us to embrace our core strengths—intuition, curiosity, creativity, and imagination. The promise that automation will make us more authentically human is, as we’ve seen, an old one, but rarely has it reached such poetic heights as on the stages of ideas festivals and innovation conferences. Tim Leberecht, an author and entrepreneur whose TED talks have been viewed millions of times, argues that the automation of “linear, process-driven, monotonous” work will usher in a second Romantic movement, one that rebels against the logic of optimization and efficiency. Onstage in Dublin, backdropped by Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, Leberecht calls on employers to create a sense of “drama, intrigue, and romance” in the workplace, and seek employees that thrive on “inconsistency,” “serendipity,” and “emotional agility.”

The skills that experts deem most automation-proof—the capacity for “situational adaptability” and “novel and adaptive thinking”—are celebrated in the popular media under the more user-friendly synonyms “flexibility” and “spontaneity,” qualities that are at times given the status of moral virtues. In an economy where everyone is their own brand and where professional development frequently draws from the gospel of personal growth, the mandate to guard oneself against rigidity extends beyond the workplace, becoming a philosophy for how to live. Bethanie Maples, a senior product manager in Alphabet’s “moonshot” division, argues that remaining human in the age of AI will require us to become “more like babies and less like robots,” which is to say, free from unbending convictions and willing “to constantly reassess or even challenge our views of the universe.”

But even as workplace technologies promise to liberate us from routine, the tools we use in our private lives threaten to make us more rigid and habitual. This is particularly true of “lifestyle automation,” those apps and algorithms that have routinized our media consumption (not to mention intimate activities such as sleep, exercise, and sex) and that prompt us to take actions we’ve taken in the past, or buy products similar to those we’ve bought before. Social-media platforms rely on operant conditioning and other forms of psychological manipulation to habituate us to the unthinking cycle of cues and rewards (likes, notifications, retweets) characteristic of all addictive patterns. Roose recalls the moment he realized that his reliance on Gmail autoreplies, Netflix recommendations, and algorithmically curated news feeds was turning him into a person “with more fixed routines and patterns of thought, and an almost robotic predictability in my daily life.” He offers his readers a short quiz to determine whether they’ve become victims of machine drift: “Lately, have certain parts of your life felt a little . . . predictable?” he asks. “Have you caught yourself coasting on mental autopilot—saying the obvious things, repeating the same activities, going through the motions without any variety or serendipity—for weeks or months at a time?” For those who answer yes, he advises opting out of automated solutions and incorporating more “surprising” actions into one’s daily life (“Bring home flowers for no reason”).

It is difficult to argue with such wholesome advice. Still, I remain skeptical of this veneration of flexibility, if only because it is often serving other ends. The French philosopher Catherine Malabou points out that flexibility and reactivity, which have been corporate watchwords since the Nineties, are by no means politically neutral, validating as they do an “economy of flexibility” that thrives on technological disruption and requires a supple workforce capable of responding to fluctuations in the market and adapting to reconceptualized job descriptions. Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, argues that companies wishing to remain viable in such a climate need to be “optimized for innovation or flexibility.” This means holding on to their “maverick” employees, those who think outside the box and respond rapidly to change, though it also involves eradicating corporate policies and provisions intended to regulate the workplace. Hastings advises entrepreneurs to start by “ripping pages from the employee handbook. Travel policies, expense policies, vacation policies—these can all go.” In some cases, the automation evangelists suggest, bizarrely, that stable employment is itself a form of drudgery. As Kai-Fu Lee, the former president of Google China, noted in 2020, “By freeing us from the routine, and allowing us to find meaning in our lives beyond repetitive work and repetitive paychecks, AI may free us to rediscover what made us human in the first place.” But what worker has ever complained of repetitive paychecks?

The idea that digital technologies can free us from rigorous routines is true to the extent that they have made work arrangements more flexible, enabling the rise of remote work, gig work, and “outcome-based” management, trends that have allowed many employees to choose their own schedules and work partly or wholly from home. As welcome as these developments may be for some, they nevertheless clearly privilege the interests of corporations, which have seized on the opportunity to do away with employee benefits, stable contracts, and other safety nets. The rhetoric of flexibility, in other words, despite its existential promise to make us more human, frequently undergirds policies that make the lives of workers more precarious. And it’s far from clear that all workers welcome the liberation from routine work. In many cases, people are left structuring each day from scratch, becoming responsible for a host of decisions that were once codified into the rhythms of the workplace.

To some extent, my own habits are a response to the nebulous shape my days have taken as a gig worker in the so-called passion economy, a vocation that often appears to be built on nothing more solid than desire, will, and cloud computing. (I have used the term “flexible” so many times in scheduling messages to editors and clients that it appears regularly in my autocomplete suggestions.) When there is no time clock marking the start and end of the workday, no clear frontier between home and office, each hour becomes subject to negotiation, each task a battleground of the will. The effort required to resist the twin temptations of procrastination and overwork quickly depletes one’s reservoir of motivation. A regimented life, I’ve learned, is the only way to avoid the spell of noonday dithering, the infinite black hole of Google, the nap that will be paid for with a manic all-nighter.

In fact, for all the hand-wringing about machine drift, current technologies share little with the bleak imagery of industrialization that the self-appointed automation experts so often invoke. If machines once ordered life around the uncompromising efficiency of the clock, digital technologies have dissolved the structure of the workweek and further collapsed the distinctions between public and private life. The internet is not a place of order but a boundless abyss that erases the contours of individual hours, swallows entire days, and inundates our lives with a vague sense of possibility never quite realized, leaving us, in the end, with that low-grade spiritual exhaustion for which “decision fatigue” seems too weak a term.

The Stoics called this feeling stultitia—“fickleness and boredom and a continual shifting of purpose,” as Seneca put it. It describes the never-ending hunger for novelty; the inability to stick to commitments; the will’s imprisonment by competing desires. St. Benedict describes something along these lines in his Rule, denouncing itinerant monks who “never settle down, and are slaves to their own wills and gross appetites.” It is the same problem that William James identifies when he writes, in The Principles of Psychology, of the miserable person for whom

nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation.

Neither Seneca, Benedict, nor James would have denied that spontaneity is essential to our humanity. But in order to achieve tranquility, this first nature had to be supplemented with a “second nature,” the long-standing epithet for habit often attributed to Aristotle. Rather than understanding habit as mechanistic, these earlier thinkers saw repetition as a means of naturalizing a behavior such that it approaches the fluidity of instinct. Thomas Aquinas wrote that habit “makes the doing of something our own, as if natural to us, so to speak, and therefore pleasurable.” For Aristotle, habit was an aid in the quest for the virtuous life, a way of unifying the will and directing it, through practice, toward what is good. While base people, Aristotle writes in Nicomachean Ethics, “are at variance with themselves and have appetite for one thing and wish for another,” the virtuous person “remains consistent in his judgment, and he desires the same objects with every part of his soul.”

This is the quiet miracle of repetition: its ability to not only make actions easier over time, but also change one’s desires, bringing the cravings of the flesh in line with the aspirations of the spirit (or as James puts it, making “our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy”). It is a miracle well known to the religious convert who comes to look forward to the once-dreaded rite of confession, or the new parent who becomes acclimated to a lack of sleep, or the Twitter addict who realizes a few months after deleting the app that he can no longer recall the enthralling drama of the feed. Félix Ravaisson, the vitalist philosopher whose Of Habit remains one of the most in-depth treatises on the phenomenon, deems habit a form of grace, one that allows humans, who are burdened with consciousness and will, to take part in the spontaneity of the natural world. Far from its present techno-utopian associations with whimsy and serendipity, spontaneity to Ravaisson refers to actions that are so ingrained they no longer feel like a choice. The person who is steeped in the virtue of generosity will find that she is incapable of being ungenerous, just as salmon are incapable of refusing the chemical cues that spur them upstream to spawn. When an action becomes second nature, the initial desire for goodness “forgets itself” and “draws near to the holiness of innocence.”

For contemporary critics of habit, this understanding of freedom—the ability to consistently choose the good, or to act routinely in accordance with one’s highest nature—would be largely unrecognizable. According to the most zealous advocates of automation, true freedom requires gradually eliminating necessity from our daily lives by rendering work and labor superfluous, leaving our schedules open for limitless choice and novelty. This is the scenario that Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, proposed in his well-publicized 2021 article “Moore’s Law for Everything.” In the next decade, Altman speculates, AI, which is already making inroads into nonroutine work, will read legal documents, offer medical advice, do assembly-line work, and perhaps serve as “companions.” In the years after that, it will make scientific discoveries and do essentially all of the work that currently constitutes human employment. AI companies will become so astronomically wealthy they’ll be able to bankroll a universal basic income for all citizens, a system that will create “a virtuous circle of societal wealth.” Everything from food to video games will be so cheap that people will be able to buy whatever they want, without having to labor for long hours. If we get bored from not working, we can always make up new jobs, and “we will have incredible freedom to be creative about what they are,” he writes. “The future can be almost unimaginably great.”

If Altman’s future is “unimaginably” great, perhaps that’s because it’s almost impossible to picture oneself happy there, much as it’s hopeless to envision contentment in heaven. I find it difficult to read about such scenarios without experiencing that creeping agitation that so often ruins vacations and holiday weekends, days when the structure of life dissolves and the liberty to spontaneously follow one’s whims is overshadowed by an unnameable dread. In a 1934 essay, Simone Weil expressed a similar skepticism that an “unconditional surrender to caprice” could succeed in making us happy. She was responding specifically to the utopian ideal—one she attributes somewhat controversially to Marx—that technology would one day liberate us from toil, a scenario in which “the ancient curse of work would be lifted.” Weil was naturally skeptical of this vision, not only because she believed routine work to be inescapable, but because she believed human nature to be ill-equipped to handle unqualified freedom, which would leave us at the mercy of our own desires. “The efforts that are the result of pure whim,” she writes, “do not form for a man a means of controlling his own whims,” an observation that echoes Seneca, Benedict, and James on the paradoxical way in which absolute freedom can become enslaving.

Weil offers a more useful conception of freedom, one that is particularly relevant to contemporary conversations about work and automation. Freedom, she argues, is not merely the absence of necessity; rather, it involves achieving the right balance between thought and action. The reason so much modern work feels like drudgery is not because it’s repetitive, but because it’s mystifying. The division of labor means that we don’t always understand the ultimate consequences of our work, and the use of machines, whose methodologies remain opaque, estranges us even further from these final objectives. She acknowledges that it would be impossible to retain conscious thought and deliberation through every step of modern production. In fact, she notes that we outsource thought all the time to the rote movements of the body, through the development of habits. Technology is an extension of that process, and can, like private habits, make our lives more efficient. But its usefulness begins to wane as it becomes more complex, transcending human thought and understanding. After a well-understood methodology is surrendered to mechanical processes,

one is thus presented with the strange spectacle of machines in which the method has become so perfectly crystallized in metal that it seems as though it is they which do the thinking, and it is the men who serve them who are reduced to the condition of automata.

More and more tasks become incomprehensible to the worker. (One thinks of Alfred North Whitehead’s remark: “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.”) If one follows this trajectory to its logical end, Weil argues, the result would be a society that functions “without a single human being understanding anything at all about what he was doing.”

It is hard not to feel that this is the kind of society we are rapidly becoming. Many of the AI systems being incorporated into institutions, government agencies, and corporations are black-box models, relying on mathematical calculations so complex that it’s impossible to know how they reach a particular decision, prediction, or recommendation. These models currently aid judges in sentencing decisions, determine which neighborhoods are patrolled by police departments, and recommend which loan applications should be approved. These technologies account for quantities of data no human can process. But for all their superior abilities, they have not managed to avoid the kinds of patterns to which humans are prone. Recidivism-assessment models assign higher risk scores to black defendants; recruitment algorithms rate women as less desirable than men for technical jobs. Because these algorithmic decisions are informed by historical data—which loans have been approved in the past, which crimes have been subject to harsh sentencing—they tend to reinforce historical biases, a problem the journalist Cade Metz compares to “children picking up bad habits from their parents.”

Defenders of these technologies often reply that human decisions are just as unthinking: we, too, often function on autopilot; we, too, get stuck in feedback loops, making the same decisions we’ve made in the past, not realizing that we are spurred by simple familiarity. But even the most ingrained human behaviors are accompanied by sensations that prompt us to pause and recalibrate when something goes wrong—a truth well known to anyone who has caught themselves driving home to a previous residence or gagging on the hemorrhoid cream they’ve mistaken for toothpaste. Ravaisson calls habit the “moving middle term,” a disposition that slides along the continuum between rote mechanism and reflective freedom. Weil, who similarly saw habit as a continuum, believed that we should strive to remain on the reflective side of that spectrum. The Stoics advised nightly meditation, so as to judge the virtue of the actions they’d taken that day, and Charles Sanders Peirce, the father of pragmatism, noted that in cases where habits have begun to work against a person’s interests, “reflection upon the state of the case will overcome these habits, and he ought to allow reflection its full weight.” It is this connection to thought that allows habits to remain fluid and flexible in a way that machines are not. Habits are bound up with the brain’s plasticity, a term James describes as “a structure weak enough to yield to an influence, but strong enough not to yield all at once.” Unlike algorithms, which lock in patterns and remain beyond our understanding, habits allow us to negotiate a livable equilibrium between thought and action, maintaining, as Weil puts it, “a certain balance between the mind and the object to which it is being applied.”

Late last spring, my husband convinced me to abandon my routine. It was a cloudy but unusually warm afternoon at the tail end of May. His academic term had just ended, and, flush with the sense of possibility that characterizes the early weeks of summer, he suggested walking in the arboretum. I was reluctant to go, thinking only of the ripple effects it would have on my week—the work that would have to be postponed, the calls that would require rescheduling. But in the end, I agreed. The grass was still wet, and we walked for a while in silence, down a corridor of dogwood, idly looking at plaques affixed to the trees. Most of the trees were still in bloom, shedding white petals on grass that was a bright, astonished green. It had been raining all week, and it was the first time in days I’d spent more than a few moments outdoors. “Isn’t it nice to do something different?” my husband said. He was right. It was quiet at that time of day, and we had the park largely to ourselves. I had forgotten this place existed, so close to our apartment. As we approached the edge of the woods, the sun came through the clouds, casting shadows on the grass and briefly illuminating the flowering trees, like paper lanterns. My mind, too, felt remarkably bright and clear. With sudden conviction, I turned to him and said, “We should do this every day.”

It wasn’t until he broke into laughter that I realized what I’d said—and had to laugh at myself. I thought of Bergson’s phrase from his essay on the comic: “something mechanical encrusted on the living.” We laugh at the sight of humans who have succumbed to mechanical thoughtlessness, Bergson claimed, because it touches on the ever-present modern anxiety that we are becoming machines. Laughter serves as a social corrective—a warning of the dangers of becoming too rigid and a reminder that we can always find our way back to a more elastic state. The patterns we establish for our lives are, after all, not hardwired or set in stone. They are able to bend, and, when needed, break.

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May 2018

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