Automation, Bullshit Jobs, And Work
This entry was inspired by Bullshit Jobs, a theory put forth by famed anarchist anthropology professor David Graeber. Ever since reading it, I have been itching to write about my own observations related to automation, bullshit jobs, and work. I’ll start with a few personal anecdotes related to workplace bullshit.
My own work history isn’t very extensive, but I’ve witnessed a lot of workplace bullshit. Unfortunately I’m going to have to be vague about those experiences since I’m not sure if I can legally share too many details, but I think you’ll still find reading worthwhile.
One of my first encounters with workplace bullshit was when I noticed my coworkers purposely working slowly so tasks took longer to complete. My ex-coworker told me when he was first hired that his team member told him not to work too fast or else there would be no work left. Eventually it dawned on me that purposely wasting one’s time by prolonging work was commonplace.
I understood why he prolonged his work. It was to give him more hours to make more money. But I couldn’t help but think how absolutely soul-crushing it is that people purposely waste time they’ll never get back just to have more money. And they weren’t greedy people. They were people just trying to get by.
What surprised me more was when I brought this phenomenon up to others, they were apathetic. Some of them nonchalantly shared with me their own stories of bullshitting on the job for money. I learned wasting time on the job is not only very common, but it’s seen as normal.
My only thought was “Surely there are better ways to organize society than this. Having a system that incentivizes time-wasting is just stupid.” And I still believe that. Just imagine all the different ways human societies can plausibly be organized and we’re supposed to believe that the optimal economy is one where people are incentivized to spend thousands of collective hours bullshitting at work? I don’t buy it.
Why do people act like a better system is impossible? Do I just have a more active imagination than everybody else? I mean it doesn’t take that much imagination to think of improvements. For example, what about UBI where the government redistributes wealth from the hyper-rich to everybody else?
If everyone could live comfortably without being forced to work, I think that might help eliminate some of the bullshit. How many people would stay for an extra four hours per day at work doing nothing if they could have a high standard of living without doing that? I’m guessing not many.
One day I witnessed my coworker joking with my boss about how pointless a certain position was in the organization. By pointless, I mean there would have been no negative consequences to the organization or anybody outside it if there was nobody to fill that position.
And I worked in that position before. I knew it was bullshit. My coworkers knew it was bullshit. Even the most senior supervisor knew it was bullshit. Even an outsider paying keen attention could’ve figured out it was bullshit. Yet I and many others spent hours of our lives there.
A different day, my manager let the cat out of the bag. He told me his boss wasted a huge amount of money on unnecessary equipment which led to unmanageable complexity and rather than using cheap, simple equipment which would’ve done the same job, several people now had to be employed full-time to constantly maintenance the complexity.
As a side note, David Graeber would refer to these employees hired to maintenance the complexity as “duct tapers”. Duct tapers are workers who fix problems temporarily which could be fixed permanently.
Anyways, my manager was then told that the bullshit was good because it gave people jobs and fixing the problem permanently would be cruel to those employed to fix it temporarily. I couldn’t even disagree because it wasn’t wrong. The bullshit does give people jobs. It just made me start to question what kind of stupid system incentivizes such bullshit.
Since there were several departments in the organization and money was allocated separately to each, each department was careful not to do the job of the other even when it made more sense. And since each department had a fixed budget, instead of paying employees the leftovers, it was “invested” (blown) on pointless new equipment which required constant maintenance.
Before I was hired, the organization had supervisory positions that were so useless one worker didn’t even bother showing up. He’d clock in, leave, then come back just to clock out. And nobody noticed because there was no need of a supervisor there. He was only fired after the boss caught him not coming to work.
How these bullshit positions came to exist in the first place I have no idea, but I suspect they were probably ended shortly after the worker was fired for not showing up. At that point the department probably couldn’t conceal how pointless those positions really were. But that’s just my speculation.
I’ll grant that with any big employer, some bullshit is probably unavoidable. But my personal experience reflects a greater degree of workplace bullshit than should be caused by mere organization scale. Based on my observations I think two of the main causes of excess bullshit are government-mandated red tape and, as I’ve already mentioned, workers having a low standard of living without accepting the bullshit.
Automation is another important topic that ties into all this. I remember having the same conversation with a few different people. I brought up automation in a positive context, saying how it would be nice for robots to take miserable jobs so humans don’t have to do them. Invariably, the first response I always got was that automation is bad because people will starve without jobs.
Again, I can’t contest the fact that pointless work creates jobs people survive on and I’m not pretending that’s not the case. But in a potential future where survival doesn’t rely on employment, automation seems good in the sense that it frees people from miserable labor.
In a sane economic system, less jobs would be good news. It would mean there’s less work to be done which would mean more leasure time for everybody. Only in today’s backwards economy do people worry about not having enough work, even if that work is pointless.
It doesn’t seem to add up that after rapid technological progress which automated much of the labor humans used to perform, here we still are with a forty hour work week. Predictions a hundred years ago said we’d have a fifteen hour work week. So what’s preventing this?
According to Graeber, the reason we’re not working less is basically because the ruling class has figured out that a happy, productive population with free time goes against their interests. They want people financially enslaved so they don’t have time to pose a threat.
He also notes in his 2013 essay that people’s attitudes about work are extremely convenient to the ruling class. Those who shame the unemployed for not working hard doing pointless jobs they hate are unknowingly spreading a meme that keeps the ruling class in power. It ensures that the working class is too busy doing pointless box-ticking to incite the political inertia needed to change their circumstances.
Another example of this is people who criticize protesters for not being at work. “Get a job!” they shout. If you go to enough protests, and I’ve been involved in a few, then you’ll probably eventually hear that phrase. I’m reminded of a relevant paragraph about Fractal Wrongness from RationalWiki (CC-BY-SA 3.0):
“Debating a person who is fractally wrong leads to infinite regress, as every refutation you make of that person’s opinions will lead to a rejoinder, full of half-truths, leaps of poor logic, and outright lies, which requires just as much refutation to debunk as the first one—kind of like a recursive Gish Gallop, where each point both surrounds and is surrounded by an equally wrong argument.” - RationalWiki
I imagine this is what it would be like to debate the kind of person who shouts “get a job” at protesters.
Returning to the topic of automation, people seem pessimistic about not having to work. I can understand why people don’t want jobs they like to be automated, but why are people so pessimistic about not having to work jobs that are, by their own estimation, shitty, demeaning, and miserable? How can this be accounted for?
I find that people who don’t want miserable labor to go away also happen to possess this frame of mind which I call “self-righteous automasochism”. People feel a moral superiority over others by working jobs they hate, as if they earn imaginary bonus points for being unhappy. They wear their misery like a badge of honor and will judge you harshly for not doing the same.
They think if you’re not working hard on something that makes you miserable, then you’re a parasite. And they have competitions between whose labor is more arduous, imagining that the person with the most miserable job has moral superiority. They’re the people who brag about how many hours they work.
Self-righteous automasochists are envious and critical of those who have jobs they actually enjoy. For them, work is supposed to be suffering. If you’re not suffering, then you must not be doing real work.
The elites and the rich still retain moral superiority because workers imagine that the wealthy worked their way up and deserve to be there. This is in direct contradiction with their experience of lazy incompetent bosses who keep getting promotion after promotion.
I think the appropriate response to this is we have to rethink what work is all about. Society mostly follows the old Puritan work ethic. It says that your worth is determined by your work. It’s the idea that hard work is noble in and of itself, regardless whether it actually provides value to society.
My biggest complaint against the Puritan work ethic is it misses the point of work. In one way or another, all valuable work boils down to caring for oneself and others. And by caring, I mean it in the broadest possible sense. Teachers educate which is a form of caring for future generations. Dentists care for other people’s teeth. Laborers build roads for people to drive on.
Even engaging in personal hobbies that require significant effort is a form of work, because it’s a form of caring for oneself. For example, writing this journal is work. It’s not a job and I don’t get paid, but it does require significant time and effort. It’s a form of self-care because it allows me to clarify my thoughts and it cares for others because I put out good ideas that don’t get talked about enough. Motherhood is another example of legitimate work that isn’t a job and doesn’t pay.
What the Puritan work ethic says is you’re worthless if you don’t work (in the sense of a job) and it doesn’t matter if you don’t like the work. But working a bullshit, low wage, alienating job you hate isn’t caring for yourself and others. Contrary to what the Puritan work ethic says, your suffering is relevant because suffering too much or causing others to suffer (telemarketing) defeats the very purpose of work.
Ultimately the Puritan work ethic is an attempt to divorce the purpose of labor from labor. The idea that you shouldn’t enjoy work or else it isn’t really work is completely backwards. If work causes you to suffer excessively, then that subtracts from the purpose of the work. If you enjoy your work, that adds to its purpose. The idea that doing work you hate is more noble or honorable is therefore totally incoherent. Work gets its value from caring and reducing suffering, not causing it.
So one of the most important questions we should ask ourselves about work is how can we increase caring and decrease suffering? There are several right answers to that question, but I’ll just offer two to get started.
Democracy in the Workplace
In general, the more agency and personal freedom people have, the more their well-being increases. This is reflected in the desire for a democratic form of government. The idea that government is there to benefit the people, that everyone gets exactly one vote, no matter the color of their skin, sexual orientation, wealth, caste, or popularity. Democracy has become sacrosanct.
Now let’s think about work again. In every job I’ve had except for one, I’ve had a boss telling me what to do. The boss gave orders, and I followed them until I was off the clock. I had zero agency and zero freedom. And as we all know, that’s the most common experience for workers.
It’s strange that when it comes to work, the expectation of democracy vanishes. Workplaces are essentially dictatorships where you do what the boss says for as long as the boss says to do it. If you decline, you’re fired. Since non-rich people need jobs to survive, declining to follow orders isn’t an option. The choice is between doing whatever you’re told and dying.
And the mere fact that one can (in theory) change jobs does nothing to alleviate the problem. Almost all workplaces are structured in undemocratic command hierarchies where workers have no autonomy or ownership. The lack of agency is inescapable.
When people think their government is behaving undemocratically, they risk their lives on an insurrection. When the workplace they go to for eight hours a day five days a week is utterly undemocratic, that’s just the way things are.
But what if we can have democratic workplaces? If democracy should govern the state, then why shouldn’t it also govern economic enterprises?
As it turns out, highly democratic workplaces do exist and they work. Democratically governed workplaces are shown to be more successful than simple command hierarchies. Workers have higher motivation and trust in each other. They have increased job satisfaction, better health, improved perceptions of society, and lower turnover.
I’m not just talking about unions where workers have more collective bargaining power. I’m talking about worker cooperatives, where workers own and self-manage the company. Workplace democracy is an idea which I think doesn’t get talked about nearly enough, at least not here in Burgerland, but it would be a great way of promoting and possibly even exporting democracy.
It really diminishes the benefits of living in a democracy when you’re being dictated to for so much of your waking hours anyways. So I think we ought to explore all possibilities and really get creative to make it so workers enjoy the work they’re doing and the work they’re doing is necessary and beneficial to others.
Another way workplaces can change for the better is to eliminate the culture of phoniness. I believe the degree to which this happens partly depends on culture, but I find it abhorrent wherever I encounter it.
When I worked a service job, I was forced to complete this stupid online course instructing me on how to be “pleasant” when interacting with customers. It basically taught me how to be fake. How to conceal my negative emotions while interacting with the public, how to say the right words, how to pretend I’m just some always-happy service person that’s thrilled to solve other people’s problems. It was demeaning.
I now consider what I underwent to be a form of psychological violence. Forcing employees to mask their authentic selves with a pleasant but phony personality for a prolonged period of time is abusive. Either hire an employee or don’t, but don’t force them to become this fake phony person just to please the customer. It’s wrong and customers can see right through it anyways.
When I check out at Walmart and every cashier tells me to have a nice day, it loses its meaning because I know I’m not having a real interaction with the person. They’re just saying what they have to say to avoid getting fired.
And please don’t force employees to thank me for calling either. I know that’s part of the script too and I know the thanks isn’t genuine and they probably secretly want to get me off the phone as soon as possible.
Customer service skills are important and should be taught, but please don’t force employees to be fake happy and non-genuine.
In summary, I think there’s lots of bullshit jobs that could be eliminated, but trying to quantify exactly how many is quite difficult. We need a solution for wealth redistribution soon so people don’t have to work these bullshit jobs just to survive. I think the problem of intentionally prolonged work can also be reduced or even eliminated.
Automation is already here and it’s reducing the number of useful jobs. I don’t see any point in reverting to Luddism. For one, the economy can adapt. Two, humans can find meaning outside work. Three, the knowledge that machines can automate one’s job might be worse than the job being automated. Something like UBI will be necessary to ensure people can get the necessities without a job.
The idea that suffering gives work meaning is backwards. Ultimately all meaningful work is about caring for oneself and others. Suffering should be kept at a minimum.
And finally, in order to make work more enjoyable for everyone, we should implement democracy in the workplace so workers have more freedom and we should never force employees to be fake just to please customers.
Thanks again for reading and let me know your thoughts. :)