Friday, July 10, 2009

Modern Work is Mostly a Lie

Modern work is mostly a lie.

Especially in the so-called knowledge, information, or entertainment sectors, work has all too often become little more than an arbitrary hierarchy of stupidity fees, ignorance fines, influence peddling, and pathetic popularity plays. It's increasingly an unjustifiable waste of time to set up such pointless and counterproductive relationships in the first place. It's no wonder that increasingly, many of the most intelligent, creative, and educated simply opt out.

Forget value judgments about whether this is Good, Bad, Indifferent, a vast Right-wing or Left-wing conspiracy; the fact that more and more modern work is mostly a lie -- tens of millions of make-work duck-n-shuffle experts at looking busy -- is simply a primary symptom of the overwhelming success of 18th and 19th century industrial era capitalism and the attendant cultural anomie typical of the evolution toward postscarcity.

Take a typical knowledge work case: a consultant just upgraded six Wordpress blogs to version 2.8.1 in a total of about 20 seconds, thanks to automation, and billed clients for six hours. Why? Because the client has no idea of the level of automation available since the relationship was forged, years ago. The last the client knew, these updates could be "very risky" -- OMG! the website could go down! -- and "take a long time" to make sure hell doesn't accidentally freeze over.

Multiply such norms by some X-hundred million similar seemingly insignificantly tiny transactions per day. Each time we engage in these behaviors, believing we are the only ones doing it -- okay, maybe a few others do the same, we exponentially understate to ourselves -- we simply fail to conceive of the aggregate effect.

This is standard operating procedure for so-called service providers everywhere: find a client who doesn't know how easy you've made your work, convince them it's even more complicated than they imagined, and start the meter running. We've all seen this a thousand times. It's defended as monetizing the marginal value of efficiency. The thinking goes, "Hey, if the client needs something done and it's of X value to them, who cares HOW we get it done, right? If we're really efficient, that's our paycheck."

Well, yeah, sort of. On the other hand, that's a complete make-work sham, isn't it? This is why so much of modern work is mostly a lie, perpetrated by small cliques who myopically believe they are the only ones getting away with this game, who are collectively addicted to and fearful of any change from the status quo, and who implicitly agree to cover for one another's fiddling about in cubicles all in the name of keeping the job trance intact.

The job trance holds that a Calvinist industrial era hourly wage slave J.O.B. is the only conceivable moral Justification Of Being.

This is not an indictment of the hapless humans enshrouded in this stultifying, anachronistic systemic miasma; rather, this is an indictment of a systemic group think that has failed to declare and deploy the productivity dividends born of the past two centuries of accelerating progress. This is to expose the obsolete, old world Centralized Capitalist organizing principle that is failing to serve us all as humans, as a community, as a nation, moving forward.

In the entertainment industry case, everyone knows that the job or the part seldom goes to the best qualified or most talented applicant or audition. That's not An Efficient Market Objectively Allocating Resources, that's a popularity pecking order that is arbitrarily -- and often capriciously -- allocating resources that reinforce the dominant Central Capitalist Party Monarchy. Those who think that they see that game and can one day become king themselves, fully buy in and defend the monarchy, even though it's strictly against their own best self interest.

Modern work is mostly a lie. That's why more and more of the brightest and best qualified people opt out. It's one of several off-balance-sheet explanations of why U6 total unemployment is already above 16.5% and empirically indicative of the growing Structural Unemployment that has steadily, relentlessly overtaken us in recent decades.

Still need convincing? Maybe conjuring the Bloomberg brand will reopen a singed synapse or two:
We are going to have a huge pool of unemployed, second only to the Great Depression,” said Allen Sinai, chief economist at Decision Economics in New York. “It will be a big public-policy problem.”
We're clueless about how to handle surpluses -- the most dangerous of which is cognitive surplus -- and the Old World Centralized Capitalist Party Bosses began embezzling our exponential productivity dividends long ago by providing myriad creative ways to soak up the first hints of the sociologically volatile stuff.

But change kept accelerating faster and faster and faster and faster. Faster than ever dared imaginable by my very own great grandparent share croppers.

So Industrial Era capitalism worked. It succeeded. It blew the doors off of history. It will continue to work and succeed for other civilizations that need to make that phase state transition from agrarian to industrialized. But it's utterly obsolete for America and today it is our existential obligation to define what comes next -- Postscarcity Agalmics. If we fail, then one industrial locomotive after another will simply run off the end of the same iron rails of fear and inertia we've run off.

As a recent New Scientist article put it
So will we cling to scarcity just so that we can keep capitalism? Or will capitalism have to evolve into some new kind of digital economics? The question underlines many things - from music piracy to the woes of the newspaper industry to Google's efforts to scan all the books in the world. (via @agalmacist)


  1. Very interesting, but the Entertainment industry is perhaps not the best choice to illustrate the problems. First, entertainment is entirely subjective. Second, artistic merit is neither a gauge nor a gaurantee of any project's ulimate business success, just as the ROI of any film or program is no gauge of its artistic merit, or of the skill of the people involved.

    Actors aren't surgeons or engineers or carpenters or mechanics or any of the other roles whose work and merit are judged on very specific, objective criteria.

    Or am I missing something...?

  2. Hi Bob, thanks for the comment. I'm certainly not an expert in the entertainment industry, so the analogy certainly has its limits. I think what I'm grappling with here is the underlying transformation in the nature of what we call "work" and the JOB Trance that keeps us locked into rituals that simply no longer maximize returns on human imagination, creativity, and energy. Research such as Time as symbolic currency in knowledge work may strike closer to the heart of the matter; namely, antiquated measures of efficiency and quality have long since lost their relevance in more and more sectors of our evolving, post-information economy. Abstract: "The use of time as a symbolic currency in knowledge-work rites is presented as often influencing the very process of labor and schedules. It [time | human attention] is revealed to be the dominant evaluation factor, replacing the officially used measures, such as efficiency, or quality."

  3. Update: The following predates the post above by several months, but had I seen it at the time, I would have included it. This is from a Successul San Francisco CEO not some intern hiding out in a covert cubicle.

    El Presidente saith: "I spend a good part of each day procrastinating real work by reading tweets. There I said it."

    Now hold on a second. I am not impugning the productivity of El Presidente in the least. Quite the contrary. I am drilling the point home with one of these

    We live in a world where nearly EVERYONE is able to "spend a good part of each day procrastinating" and yet STILL continue to improve GDP efficiency year, over year, over year.