As the great German theologian Josef Pieper argued, for most of history philosophers and theologians treated overwork as a moral failing. The Stoic philosopher Seneca, for example, made a distinction between leisure and idleness; and importantly, people who were “out of breath for no purpose, always busy about nothing” were, in Seneca’s view, guilty of the worst kind of idleness. Because it occupies our time and feels like accomplishment, but actually produces very little and gives us little opportunity to learn about ourselves, this kind of busyness was to be avoided. As Pieper put it, in this vision leisure “is not a Sunday afternoon idyll, but the preserve of freedom, of education and culture, and of that undiminished humanity which views the world as a whole.” This is not to say that work was something to be avoided. Stoics like Seneca saw work as essential, as one of the things that made life meaningful. But in order to become our best selves, they argued, it was also necessary to take the time to reflect on our lives and choices — and that required both time and an “inward calm” that let us see ourselves and the world clearly.
Posts tagged work
So, will there still be enough jobs for everyone a few decades from now? Anybody who fears mass unemployment underestimates capitalism’s extraordinary ability to generate new bullshit jobs. If we want to really reap the rewards of the huge technological advances made in recent decades (and of the advancing robots), then we need to radically rethink our definition of “work.”
“Most people who work in tech – 99% – don’t want to look at the implications of what they are doing. They just want to hit their milestones and that’s it.” But there’s no turning back. The internet is here to stay and will continue to profoundly change societies and the workplace. “If the internet stopped one day, can you imagine the chaos? What would we call that scenario? It’s called 1995 – that’s how far we’ve come.”
Badiou notes that the positive programme of Inventing the Future is organised around three points — full automation, universal basic income, and a “post-work” society — and that the first two of these points are really dependent on the third (automation as the means, UBI as the necessary consequence). He therefore addresses his critique to this nexus of ideas
Death and change are essential to growth and evolution. The bird has to leave the nest. New trees spring up in the forest where old trees decay. A species only acquires adaptive traits with new generations. The old must make space for the new; anything else is stagnation. This is especially true of purposeful work. Because you’re there for more than just a job, achieving the larger mission in the future can require the end of something in the present.
It was puzzling. I remembered the suggestion that they were outsourcing the email responses to call centers in the Philippines, but these emails were coming from someone not only familiar with construction administration, but with this specific project. That meant the only possible explanation was that they had some artificial intelligence software learn the project inside out by reading my email and automatically generating responses.
The allure of the doctrine of time management is that, one day, everything might finally be under control. Yet work in the modern economy is notable for its limitlessness. And if the stream of incoming emails is endless, Inbox Zero can never bring liberation: you’re still Sisyphus, rolling his boulder up that hill for all eternity – you’re just rolling it slightly faster. Two years after his Google talk, Mann released a rambling and slightly manic online video in which he announced that he had signed a contract for an Inbox Zero book. But his career as a productivity guru had begun to stir an inner conflict. “I started making pretty good money from it” – from speaking and consulting – “but I also started to feel terrible,” he told me earlier this year. “This topic of productivity induces the worst kind of procrastination, because it feels like you’re doing work, but I was producing stuff that had the express purpose of saying to people, ‘Look, come and see how to do your work, rather than doing your work!’” The book missed its publication date. Fans started asking questions. Then, after two more years, Mann published a self-lacerating essay in which he abruptly announced that he was jettisoning the project. It was the 3,000-word howl of a man who had suddenly grasped the irony of missing morning after morning with his three-year-old daughter because he was “typing bullshit that I hoped would please my book editor” about how to use time well. He was guilty, he declared, of “abandoning [my] priorities to write about priorities … I’ve unintentionally ignored my own counsel to never let your hard work fuck up the good things.” He hinted that he might write a different kind of book instead – a book about stuff that really mattered – but it never appeared. “I’m mostly out of the productivity racket these days,” Mann told me. “If you’re just using efficiency to jam more and more stuff into your day … well, how would you ever know that that’s working?”
Certainly this crisis makes us ask: what comes after work? What would you do without your job as the external discipline that organises your waking life – as the social imperative that gets you up and on your way to the factory, the office, the store, the warehouse, the restaurant, wherever you work and, no matter how much you hate it, keeps you coming back? What would you do if you didn’t have to work to receive an income? And what would society and civilisation be like if we didn’t have to ‘earn’ a living – if leisure was not our choice but our lot? Would we hang out at the local Starbucks, laptops open? Or volunteer to teach children in less-developed places, such as Mississippi? Or smoke weed and watch reality TV all day? I’m not proposing a fancy thought experiment here. By now these are practical questions because there aren’t enough jobs. So it’s time we asked even more practical questions. How do you make a living without a job – can you receive income without working for it? Is it possible, to begin with and then, the hard part, is it ethical? If you were raised to believe that work is the index of your value to society – as most of us were – would it feel like cheating to get something for nothing?
Last year I turned off all my notifications. I stopped booking meetings. I started living asynchronously. Now instead of being interrupted throughout the day—or rushing from one meeting to the next—I sit down and get work done. I work a lot. I communicate with hundreds of people a day. I collaborate extensively. But I do so on my own terms, at my own tempo. You can live more asynchronously, too. I’ll explain the benefits. I’ll show you how.
Our anxiety about sleep underscores some uncomfortable realities about the present. How is it that an essential biological function has had to fight so hard to be recognized as, well, essential? When we look back on our lives, the third we spend recharging registers as an opportunity cost, something to be overcome. But what if the on/off binary that we understand consciousness through was the wrong lens to use on sleep? Can we reject the awake/asleep binary, and plot sleeping and dreaming on an expanded spectrum of consciousness? Sleep isn’t death–it’s something else entirely. The future of sleep won’t be its absence, it will be a new class of people leveraging its creative potential. Slowave is the response to this realization
Acknowledging that work is medically, socially and emotionally harmful requires you to reject the belief in the legitimacy of working hard. This can be especially difficult as this belief is one of the foundational beliefs of modern culture. We are taught to believe in working hard as soon as we enter formal schooling, if not before. We are soon too taught to reject idleness and useless contemplation to pursue rote mastery of facts and rules in order to pass arbitrary standardized tests. This continues into work life. Philosophy therefore is often derided as useless. Especially in our contemporary busyness, work, efficiency, productivity, practicality and optimization-obsessed world, philosophy is seen as an outdated waste of time. It’s considered useless because people think it is impractical and cannot see how philosophy can make money. The practice of philosophy – i.e., thinking – is intimately tied to idleness. In fact idleness is the key physical and mental condition upon which the exercise of philosophy has always been predicated. This is true of all the world’s philosophies. “Meditation” is nothing more than sitting and thinking. Sitting and thinking is sometimes even called meditation in white European philosophy, e.g., Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy or the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. This is why idleness is so feared in contemporary culture – it causes philosophy. And philosophy causes the practitioner to fundamentally question everything.
Located on the futurist left end of the political spectrum, fully automated luxury communism (FALC) aims to embrace automation to its fullest extent. The term may seem oxymoronic, but that’s part of the point: anything labeled luxury communism is going to be hard to ignore. “There is a tendency in capitalism to automate labor, to turn things previously done by humans into automated functions,” says Aaron Bastani, co-founder of Novara Media. “In recognition of that, then the only utopian demand can be for the full automation of everything and common ownership of that which is automated.” Bastani and fellow luxury communists believe that this era of rapid change is an opportunity to realise a post-work society, where machines do the heavy lifting not for profit but for the people.
I believe that it is correct to view luxury communism from a utopian perspective, not in the sense of something that is impossible but in the sense of something that attempts to open up the sense of future possibilities as opposed to a mere repetition of present conditions. Partially this is to act as a critique of the present, partially to act as a spur towards an open future. Indeed, the use of the term ‘communism’ implies a radical alternative future vision, one that is subversive of the present and, yes, even utopian. It is here that I think that fully automated luxury communism, by putting too much faith in capitalist technology overcoming scarcity and the need for labour, fails to imagine a more general transformation of social relations. To avoid this tendency, and to encourage thinking about the overcoming of the paradoxes and miseries of capitalism, we need to seriously engage in utopian experimentation in future possibilities.
recent research seems to indicate that flattening workplace hierarchy is not only much more complicated than it seems, but that people prefer a pecking order. One Stanford study found that egalitarian work structures were disorienting. Workers found hierarchical companies were more predictable, and therefore preferable, because it was easy to figure out who did what and how compensation should be doled out. Another Stanford paper, which looked at why hierarchical structures in the workplace have such staying power, concluded perhaps the obvious: Hierarchies work. They are practical and psychologically comforting.
Shit, this is astonishing. Redrow, a luxury apartment builder, have made this creepy, completely dystopic, half-American Psycho advert for the new London they’re currently metastasizing all over the city. Its protagonist lives in a world of almost continual night, with the hungry eyes and dead affect of an Ayn Rand wet dream: his world is constituted of chrome, glass, a palette of white-to-taupe, a spatter-pattern rug and one book, a single book, on graphic design. ‘Luxury’ is so often a code for this – double-glazed, polished steel, hermetically sealed in the back of a cab. Our man does not have conversations, but stares out at the city from the fifteenth floor (he does a lot of staring). The concept of conversation is alien to him, though he is shown having a screaming argument; as you see from his inventoried shelves, he has a passion for objects and this is how he treats women, as well.
Flat-toned, void affect, social cancer in a suit: a model for London living. Here’s a curious honesty about it all: houses in the suburbs are marketed still for the smiling happy family, all oak tables and smiling coffee mornings (in zone 4, the dog never even barks, let alone bites). In the central zones, having been cleared of many of their inconveniences (families, communities, *life*), now deadboxes are marketed to the single (wannabe singular) sub-Thatcherite dweeb who manages his violence only on a balance sheet, who wants to take life, pin it, and crush it behind plate glass. Let us burn it down.
The art field is a space of wild contradiction and phenomenal exploitation. It is a place of power mongering, speculation, financial engineering, and massive and crooked manipulation. But it is also a site of commonality, movement, energy, and desire. In its best iterations it is a terrific cosmopolitan arena populated by mobile shock workers, itinerant salesmen of self, tech whiz kids, budget tricksters, supersonic translators, PhD interns, and other digital vagrants and day laborers. It’s hard-wired, thin-skinned, plastic-fantastic. A potential commonplace where competition is ruthless and solidarity remains the only foreign expression. Peopled with charming scumbags, bully-kings, almost-beauty-queens. It’s HDMI, CMYK, LGBT. Pretentious, flirtatious, mesmerizing. This mess is kept afloat by the sheer dynamism of loads and loads of hardworking women. A hive of affective labor under close scrutiny and controlled by capital, woven tightly into its multiple contradictions.
Much has been said about the difference between money and wealth and how we, as individuals, can make more of the latter, but the divergence between the two is arguably even more important the larger scale of nations and the global economy. What does it really mean to create wealth for people — for humanity — as opposed to money for governments and corporations?
For Graeber, bullshit jobs carry with them a moral imperative: “If you’re not busy all the time doing something, anything — doesn’t really matter what it is — you’re a bad person.” But the flipside of that logic seems to be: if you actually like doing x activity, if it is valuable, meaningful, and carries intrinsic rewards for you, it is wrong for you to expect to be paid (well) for it; you should give it freely, even (especially) if by doing so you are allowing others to profit. In other words, we’ll make a living from you doing what you love (for free), but we’ll keep you in check by making sure you have to make a living doing what you hate.
Well, we can talk about the decline of the union movement, but it runs deeper. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one of the great divisions between anarcho-syndicalist unions, and socialist unions, was that the latter were always asking for higher wages, and the anarchists were asking for less hours. That’s why the anarchists were so entangled in struggles for the eight-hour day. It’s as if the socialists were essentially buying into the notion that work is a virtue, and consumerism is good, but it should all be managed democratically, while the anarchists were saying, no, the whole deal—that we work more and more for more and more stuff—is rotten from the get-go.
Overwhelmed is a book about time pressure and modern life. It is a deeply reported and researched, honest and often hilarious journey from feeling that, as one character in the book said, time is like a “rabid lunatic” running naked and screaming as your life flies past you, to understanding the historical and cultural roots of the overwhelm, how worrying about all there is to do and the pressure of feeling like we’re never have enough time to do it all, or do it well, is “contaminating” our experience of time, how time pressure and stress is resculpting our brains and shaping our workplaces, our relationships and squeezing the space that the Greeks said was the point of living a Good Life: that elusive moment of peace called leisure.
According to Keynes, the nineteenth century had unleashed such a torrent of technological innovation—“electricity, petrol, steel, rubber, cotton, the chemical industries, automatic machinery and the methods of mass production”—that further growth was inevitable. The size of the global economy, he forecast, would increase sevenfold in the following century, and this, in concert with ever greater “technical improvements,” would usher in the fifteen-hour week. To Keynes, the coming age of abundance, while welcome, would pose a new and in some ways even bigger challenge. With so little need for labor, people would have to figure out what to do with themselves: “For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won.” The example offered by the idle rich was, he observed, “very depressing”
In the popular imagination, artists tend to exist either at the pinnacle of fame and luxury or in the depths of penury and obscurity — rarely in the middle, where most of the rest of us toil and dream. They are subject to admiration, envy, resentment and contempt, but it is odd how seldom their efforts are understood as work. Yes, it’s taken for granted that creating is hard, but also that it’s somehow fundamentally unserious. Schoolchildren may be encouraged (at least rhetorically) to pursue their passions and cultivate their talents, but as they grow up, they are warned away from artistic careers. This attitude, always an annoyance, is becoming a danger to the health of creativity itself. It may seem strange to say so, since we live at a time of cultural abundance and flowering amateurism, when the tools of creativity seem to be available to anyone with a laptop. But the elevation of the amateur over the professional trivializes artistic accomplishment and helps to undermine the alre
These days, when neak ta appear on the factory floor — inducing mass faintings among workers and shouting commands at managers — they are helping the cause of Cambodia’s largely young, female and rural factory workforce by registering a kind of bodily objection to the harsh daily regimen of industrial capitalism: few days off; a hard bed in a wooden barracks; meager meals of rice and a mystery curry, hastily scarfed down between shifts. These voices from beyond are speaking up for collective bargaining in the here and now, expressing grievances much like the workers’ own: a feeling that they are being exploited by forces beyond their control, that the terms of factory labor somehow violate an older, fairer moral economy.
Citing a need to “become more solid and get back to basics,” and “to sharpen our manual skills and further develop them,” Toyota CEO Mitsuru Kawai wants humans to take the place of machines in plants across Japan so workers can develop new skills and figure out ways to improve production lines and the car-building process.
Stillness is the third space between spaces of action and reflection. A space that vanishes if life becomes too frictionless and reliably provisioned.
The problem that crops up in all discussions of this kind, however, is the ambiguity of the term “work,” particularly in a capitalist society. It has at least three distinct meanings that are relevant. One, it can mean activity that is necessary for the continuation of human civilization, what Engels called “the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life.” Two, it can mean the activity that people undertake in exchange for money, in order to secure the means of continued existence. Three, it can mean what Gourevitch is talking about, an activity that requires some kind of discipline and deferred gratification in pursuit of an eventual goal. These three meanings tend to get conflated all the time, even though they all appear seperately in reality. This is the point I’ve tried to make going back to my earliest writing on this topic. “Work” manifests itself in all eight possible permutations of its three meanings.
The difficulties and ambiguities in discussing wages for facebook stem from the reduction of wages for facebook to a thing, a lump of money, instead of viewing it as a political perspective. The difference between these two standpoints is enormous. To view wages for facebook as a thing rather than a perspective is to detach the end result of our struggle from the struggle itself and to miss its significance in demystifying and subverting the role to which we have been confined in capitalist society.
Surprisingly, fatigue may boost creative powers. For most adults, problems that require open-ended thinking are often best tackled in the evening when they are tired, according to a 2011 study in the journal Thinking & Reasoning. When 428 students were asked to solve a series of two types of problems, requiring either analytical or novel thinking, their performance on the second type was best at non-peak times of day when they were tired, according to the study led by Mareike Wieth, an assistant professor of psychological sciences at Albion College in Michigan. (Their performance on analytical problems didn’t change over the course of the day.) Fatigue, Dr. Wieth says, may allow the mind to wander more freely to explore alternative solutions.
If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorised stratum of the, universally reviled, unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc) – and particularly its financial avatars – but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value. Clearly, the system was never consciously designed. It emerged from almost a century of trial and error. But it is the only explanation for why, despite our technological capacities, we are not all working 3-4 hour days.
Well, there is no longer any difference between work and play. There’s no such thing as leisure and non-leisure. We’re all working all the friggin’ time. But when we’re working, we’re goofing off half that time anyway. Does anyone even know when they’re working anymore? I’m talking about in what the Situationists called the ‘overdeveloped’ world. I do all my work in coffee shops, and I see people constantly juggling stuff that’s either work or not work, god only knows what it is. As the grid tightens, it in certain senses becomes more diffuse.
And yet. The New Groupthink has overtaken our workplaces, our schools and our religious institutions. Anyone who has ever needed noise-canceling headphones in her own office or marked an online calendar with a fake meeting in order to escape yet another real one knows what I’m talking about. Virtually all American workers now spend time on teams and some 70 percent inhabit open-plan offices, in which no one has “a room of one’s own.” During the last decades, the average amount of space allotted to each employee shrank 300 square feet, from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 square feet in 2010.
Now we also know that if you study absolute world class, best virtuoso violin players, none of them put in more than about four or so hours of practice in a day, because that’s the cognitive limit. And this limit actually shows up in a lot of different fields where people do intense training, that you really can’t do about more than four or so hours of this type of really mental strain.
Pretty much all the evidence (rather than anecdote) I can find shows that co-located teams in a single team room environment are the most productive - all other things being equal. (And I’m saying this as somebody who spends a lot of their time working from home, and talking to other folk over Skype, etc. There are reasons for telecommuting - personal preference, getting access to people who cannot co-locate, etc. But for business productivity I’m not seeing much, if any, evidence).
I argue that when people are switching contexts every 10 and half minutes they can’t possibly be thinking deeply. There’s no way people can achieve flow. When I write a research article, it takes me a couple of hours before I can even begin to think creatively. If I was switching every 10 and half minutes, there’s just no way I’d be able to think deeply about what I’m doing. This is really bad for innovation. When you’re on the treadmill like this, it’s just not possible to achieve flow.
Imagine a world in which most people worked only 15 hours a week. They would be paid as much as, or even more than, they now are, because the fruits of their labor would be distributed more evenly across society. Leisure would occupy far more of their waking hours than work. It was exactly this prospect that John Maynard Keynes conjured up in a little essay published in 1930 called “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.” Its thesis was simple. As technological progress made possible an increase in the output of goods per hour worked, people would have to work less and less to satisfy their needs, until in the end they would have to work hardly at all.
More than a century of studies show that long-term useful worker output is maximized near a five-day, 40-hour workweek. Productivity drops immediately upon starting overtime and continues to drop until, at approximately eight 60-hour weeks, the total work done is the same as what would have been done in eight 40-hour weeks. In the short term, working over 21 hours continuously is equivalent to being legally drunk. Longer periods of continuous work drastically reduce cognitive function and increase the chance of catastrophic error. In both the short- and long-term, reducing sleep hours as little as one hour nightly can result in a severe decrease in cognitive ability, sometimes without workers perceiving the decrease.