From the Third Treatise: What Do Ascetic Ideals Means of On The Genealogy of Morality:

Much more frequent than this sort of hypnotic general suppression of sensitivity, of susceptibility to pain – which presupposes even rarer forces, above all courage, contempt of opinions, “intellectual stoicism” – is the attempt at a different kind of training against conditions of depression, one that is in any case easier: mechanical activity. That this relieves a suffering existence to a not inconsiderable degree is beyond all doubt: today this fact is called, somewhat dishonestly, “the blessing of work.” The relief consists in this: that the interest of the sufferer is thoroughly diverted from the suffering – that is continually doing and yet again only doing that enters into consciousness and, consequently, that little room remains in it for suffering: for it is narrow, this chamber of human consciousness! Mechanical activity and that which belongs to it – like absolute regularity, punctual unreflected obedience, one’s way of life set once and for all, the filling up of time, a certain permission for, indeed discipline in “impersonality,” in self-forgetfulness, in “incur Sui”-: how thoroughly, how subtly the ascetic protest knew how to use these in the battle with pain.

Today we see mechanical activity pursued with even greater vigour, heavily individualised though no less regimented. This is exactly what I’ve been trying to express in the last few years in my writing on cognitive triage: how we embrace the narrowness of the cognitive chamber, losing ourselves in movement in order to blot out the existential challenges which otherwise impinge involuntary upon our consciousness.

(Translated by Maudemarie Clark and Alan Seensen in a 1998 Hackett Publishing edition)

From Counterculture to Cyberculture, by Fred Turner, presents the fascinating history through which avowed cultural radicals of the 1960s came to generate the present day dogmas of working culture under digital capitalism. In the last week, I’ve written about this in terms of the digital nomad and the digital hipster. These cultural forms are, as Turner puts it on loc 3846, “libertarian nostrums” which “can transform a series of personal losses-of time with family and neighbors, of connection to one’s body and one’s community-into a soothing narrative with which they can rationalize the limits of their own choices”.

What in reality is “every bit as thorough an integration of the individual into the economic machine as the one threatened by the military-industrial-academic bureaucracy forty years earlier” (loc 3838) is rationalised as a mode of living freely, living passionately and living openly. One congratulates oneself for resisting integration into the cold, mechanical life-denying system while in reality being integrated into that system in a manner which is, arguably, more comprehensive.

He makes a crucial point on loc 3838-3846 about this nomadic mode of integration. This integration is comprehensive in its scope, with ‘personal life’ constantly under threat from ‘working life’ in a way which was not the case with the careful balance of the bourgeois 9-5. Every facet of life risks being subsumed under one’s (passionate) work. But this is accentuated by the tendency of work to squeeze out what Archer and Donati call relational goods. The form of life of the digital nomad too often precludes the mundanity of everyday involvements which generate relational goods, bonds with others that produce sources of value independent of those of organisations and capital. There is not a necessary feature of freelance labour, as much as it a certain self-articulation and mode of accounting for this condition of labour: the (relative) temporal autonomy which many enjoy could facilitate a very different relationship to the social order. From loc 3838-3846:

It may in fact result in every bit as thorough an integration of the individual into the economic machine chine as the one threatened by the military-industrial-academic bureaucracy forty years earlier. Furthermore, it may cut individual workers off from participating in local cal communities that might otherwise mitigate these effects. To stay employed, Ullman and workers like her must move from node to node within the network of sites where computers and software are manufactured and used, and in order to pick up leads for new work, they must stay in touch with one another. As a result, programmers and others often find themselves selves living in a social and physical landscape populated principally by people like themselves. To succeed within that landscape, they must often turn their attention away from another, parallel landscape: the landscape of local, material things, of town boards and PTA meetings, of embodied participation ticipation in civic life. They must declare and maintain an allegiance to their own professional network, to its sites and technologies. And they must carry with them a handful of rules that Ullman trumpets with more than a little sarcasm: `Just live by your wits and expect everyone else to do the same. Carry no dead wood. Live free or die. Yeah, surely, you can only rely on yourself.”

The reality underlying the ideals of the digital nomad and the digital hipster is the digital monad. If we treat these ideals too seriously, working life under digital capitalism eats away at our independent sources of esteem and value, leaving us with no locus of fulfilment other than work. The more we invest ourselves in working life, the harder it becomes to imagine a life which is not centred around work.

I spent the second half of this week thinking about the ideal of the digital nomad, he who takes advantage of the affordances of digital media to live a life of constant movement, working with a laptop from a different place each day. We can see this expressed in extreme form in contemporary lifestyle minimalism, defined by a competitive escalation in the number of accoutrements one can dispense with while remaining functional. However it has also percolated into the broader culture, coming to constitute existential common sense amongst great swathes of freelancers and cultural labourers.

This was a mode of existence glamorised in the coverage of early digital gurus within magazines like Wired. But it built on a cultural impulse which predated these institutional entrepreneurs, something which Fred Turner locates within the counter-culture: the amorphous and apolitical cultural movement often conflated with the action-orientated new left. However this in turn has broader roots than the commune dwellers who are the focus of Turner’s study. Thomas Frank quotes Norman Mailer’s early expression of this moral source on loc 381 of his Conquest of Cool:

“The only life-giving answer” to the deathly drag of American civilization, Mailer wrote, was to tear oneself from the security of physical and spiritual certainty, to live for immediate pleasures rather than the postponement of gratification associated with the “work ethic,” “to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey with the rebellious imperatives of the self.” The antithesis to the man in the gray flannel suit was a figure Mailer called the Hipster, an “American existentialist” whose tastes for jazz, sex, drugs, and the slang and mores of black society constituted the best means of resisting the encroachments of Cold War oppression.

Assuming we accept this cultural genealogy, we confront an apparent paradox that a refusal of the work ethic can come to be such a crucial component of  a contemporary culture of over-work. As Turner puts it on loc 3838 of his study, it leads to “every bit as thorough an integration of the individual into the economic machine as the one threatened by the military-industrial-academic bureaucracy forty years earlier”. 

My suggestion is that this hinges on the locus of fulfilment for Mailer’s hipster moving from life to work. As Frank summarises on loc 397 of the same text:

Unlike the “over-civilized man” with his diligent piling of the accoutrements of respectability, the hipster lives with a “burning consciousness of the present,” exists for ever-more-intense sensation, for immediate gratification, for “an orgasm more apocalyptic than the one which preceded it.” 

The accelerated conditons of intensified labour for creative workers, as working life is constituted through their rapid movement through a heterogenous array of projects with an equally varied range of collaborators, feeds this “burning consciousness of the present” in a way that even the most excitingly hedonistic life would fail to do. There is no rhythm or routine, only an endless succession of experiences, continually challenge one to self-transcend. To the digital hipster, personal  life has become the theatre of stultifying conformity while working life promises liberation from it.

In From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Fred Turner analyses how digital technology came to be seen as capable of liberating the individual, freeing them from the shackles of petty attachments to organisations and places. This is a complex story but it’s one in which cultural entrepreneurs figure prominently, carving out modes of living which later percolated through the emerging cyberculture as ideals to be imitated. One early such figure was Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab, described on loc 2677:

As LSD and a beat-up school bus had once freed Kesey to roam the American landscape with a tribe of friends, so digital technologies now allowed Negroponte to turn work into play. “Some of us enjoy a privileged existence where our work life and our leisure life are almost synonymous,” he told Brand. “More and more people I think can move into that position with the coming of truly intimate technology.

The personal charisma of a figure like Negroponte plays an important part in their coming to serve as an exemplar, embodying a desirable form of life which invites explanation in terms of emerging notions of digitally-driven social change and in turn contributes to these changes through cultural elaboration. From loc 2685:

If the Lab demonstrated the way a “wired” world might look, then Negroponte was the image of the social possibilities such a world might offer. Mobile, wealthy, handsome, some, completely networked in both the technological and the political sense, Negroponte was a new kind of man. As an echo of Marshall McLuhan, though, he was also the reincarnation of an earlier generation of hero. Like the Media Lab he headed, Negroponte was the living bridge between the legacy of cybernetics and the legacy of countercultural experimentation.

George Gilder was another figure who was glamorised in this way. As Turner observes on loc 3353, his hectic schedule was held up as embodying a liberated life. His peripatetic working patterns were exciting and profitable:

Much as other Wired writers had celebrated brated the members of the Electronic Frontier Foundation or the Global Business Network for their social connections, Bronson dwelled at length on Gilder’s hectic schedule of appearances, his migrations from tech company to tech company, and his twenty-thousand-dollar speaking fees. Gilder appeared peared to be a pattern of information, shuttling from node to node along a web of elite institutions. In case the reader missed the point, Bronson depicted picted Gilder literally speaking in the machine language of zeros and ones.

As Turner puts it on loc 3366, “Wired had offered the freelance lance lifestyle of a high-profile consultant as a model of the independent lifestyle ostensibly becoming available to the digital generation as a whole“. This equivocation is an important one, seemingly at least a little bit dishonest when we consider how aware Wired were of the particular demographic they were pursuing. From loc 3233-3241:

In a 1992 business plan, Rossetto and Metcalfe had described their target audience to potential investors as “Digital Visionaries.”.” With annual incomes averaging $75,000 a year, this group represented “The top ten percent of creators, managers, and professionals in the computer puter industries, business, design, entertainment, the media and education.” In the coming years, Wired reached this group with extraordinary success. Less than three years after the first issue appeared, for instance, when Wired was selling 300,000 copies a month, its readers were 87.9 percent male, 37 years old on average, with an average household income of more than $122,000 per year. In a reader survey, more than 90 percent of subscribers scribers identified themselves as either “Professional/Managerial” or “Top Management.”

The idiots so wonderfully satirised in Nathan Barley are the children of these visionaries, sufficiently immersed in the emergent culture that any sense of transition has been lost. But the ideal of the ‘digital visionary’, something to which the ranks of digital nomads might find themselves aspiring, has a currency all the more powerful for it having lost touch with the conditions which gave rise to it.

This bullshit came from somewhere and it felt a certain way to the people who first encountered it. We can’t explain its subsequent iterations, as well as the cultural power it has exercised, without appreciating these origins. But it’s still with us, identifiable in the propensity to find certain people shiny and certain lifestyles alluring.

It intersects with other cultural trends, such as the ‘road warriors’ explored in Up In The Air, lending them an epochal lure by association, as if living life in this way leaves one at the bleeding edge of social change, bringing the new world into being through the very act of living one’s life:

I’m interested in these lifestyles, valorising acceleration and the pleasures associated with it, as forms of life which emerged under conditions of socio-technical change. They became logistically possible, financially possible for some (though not others) and represented in popular culture. What effect did this have on how people saw the options available to them in life? How has it shaped our unspoken understandings of what it is to live life ‘fully’? What political work has this inadvertently achieved?

As Turner describes on loc 2582, what now seem to many like regressive views (valorising the freelance economy as inherently liberating to workers) were at the time radical cultural sentiments, at odds with the prevailing socio-economic order:

But Barlow’s account of cyberspace also mingled the countercultural critique of technocracy with a celebration of the mobility and independence required of information workers in a rapidly networking economy: I’m a member of that half of the human race which is inclined to divide the human race into two kinds of people. My dividing line runs between the people who crave certainty and the people who trust chance…. Large organizations and their drones huddle on one end of my scale, busily trying to impose predictable homogeneity on messy circumstance. On the other end, free-lancers and ne’er-do-wells cavort about, getting by on luck if they get by at all.

In its most extreme versions, this liberation could be from embodiment itself: as Barlow once wrote, “In this silent world, all conversation is typed. To enter it, one foresakes both body and place and becomes a thing of words alone”.

This was a radical and profound freedom, particularly in the context of a post-60s counterculture that had raised itself on a hostility towards the stifling bureaucracy of post-war American life. But these lofty, even metaphysical ideas, emerged alongside networked employment, providing a powerful framing which obscured the specificity of economic relations that would soon be generalised throughout the social order. However, the challenge is to recognise this ideological function while nonetheless acknowledging the novelty of this form of life. From loc 867:

Only the freestanding individual “could find the time to think in a cosmically adequate manner,” he explained. Fuller himself lived accordingly: for most of his career, he migrated among a series of universities and colleges, designing projects, collaborating with students and faculty – and always claiming the rights to whatever the collaborations produced.

This image of “an entrepreneurial, individualistic mode of being that was far from the world of the organization man” (loc 775) is still with us. Living freely, living passionately, living everywhere. It’s a powerful ideal, floating free within our contemporary culture, with specific roots in a peculiarly American tradition.

I wrote recently about a short article by Michael Burawoy in which he bemoaned the ascendancy of the spiralists within universities. These relentlessly ambitious new entrants to the university system see it as a theatre within which they can make themselves known, spiralling into the university before once more spiralling out of it to bigger and better things. As Burawoy describes them:

Spiralists enter the university from the outside with little knowledge of its inner workings. They don’t trust the local administration and instead cultivate, promote and protect each other through mutual recruitment, at the same time boosting their corporate-level incomes and contributing to administrative bloat. At UC Berkeley, senior managers have increased five-fold over the last 20 years, rising to 1,256 in 2014, almost equal to the number of faculty, which has barely increased over the same period (from 1,257 to 1,300). While the number of faculty has remained stagnant, student enrollment has increased by 20 percent.

Coming from the outside and concerned more about their future, spiralists are in the business of promoting their image — Dirks employed a firm to do just that at a cost of $200,000 to campus. Branding takes priority over ethics. This last year we have witnessed the cover up of sexual harassment by prominent faculty and administrators and the exoneration of punitive football coaching that led to the death of a football player and a $4.75 million civil suit — all designed to protect the Berkeley brand.

While he appeared to be using ‘spiralist’ in a way that was as much rhetorical as anything else, I’ve had the concept stuck in my mind since then and firmly believe it’s a potentially powerful way of conceptualising a particular form of biographical trajectory within organisations. I just encountered another example of spiralists at work in The Gospel of Self: How Jesus Joined the GOP, a reflective confessional written by one of the leading figures in the creation of modern televangelism in the United States. On loc 2196-2214 he bemoans the ascent of the spiralists in American television:

Of all the things that the press obscures in the gathering and reporting of news, this career self-interest bothers me most. Many, if not most, of the reporting staff at any local news operation don’t really want to be there. Each TV station is viewed as a stepping-stone to a bigger market, and so many enter through the front door with one foot already out the back. Their work in the smaller market includes the strong motivation to do highly flamboyant pieces for their résumé tape that will quickly grab the attention of a “more important” news director elsewhere. It is why the farm system for local TV news is corrupt. The business is almost entirely self-centered and self-driven.

Where else can we see the spiralists at work? If we take a ‘spiralist’ to be a new entrant to an organisation who has immediate and practical designs on moving upwards and/or outwards – as opposed to merely harbouring future ambitions, without formulating plans about how to achieve them through immediate action – it looks as if the spiralists are everywhere under present circumstances.

There’s an interesting passage in Uberworked and Underpaid, by Trebor Scholz, in which he discusses the contrasting experience of Amazon Mechanical Turk by users and workers. From loc 719:

While AMT is profiting robustly, 11 it has –following the observations of several workers –not made significant updates to its user interfaces since its inception, and the operational staff appears to be overwhelmed and burned out. Turkers have written and shared various browser scripts to help themselves solve specific problems. While this is a wonderful example of mutual aid among AMT workers, it is also yet another instance of how the invisible labor of Turkers remains uncompensated. While people are powering the system, MTurk is meant to feel like a machine to its end-users: humans are seamlessly embedded in the algorithm. AMT’s clients are quick to forget that it is human beings and not algorithms that are toiling for them –people with very real human needs and desires.

It’s easy to slip into characterising platforms in terms of our familiar experiences of them as end-users. This is an important reminder that their user-friendly character is a contingent expression of the interests the corporation has in maximising user engagement, rather than anything intrinsic to the technology of the platform itself. 

This is important for analytical reasons, but it’s also a crucial prop to the ideology of platform capitalism, sustaining an idea of platforms as user-friendly spaces which mediate interactions determined by external factors. As opposed to deeply rule-governed systems, with the content of those rules being determined by commercial imperatives. From loc 735:

Mechanical Turk starts to look even less positive when considering that in the case of labor conflicts, Bezos’s company remains strictly hands-off, insisting that AMT is merely providing a technical system. Why would they have anything to do with the labor conflicts occurring on the platform? This would be like Apple owning the factories in Shenzhen where its iPhones are assembled, but then rejecting any responsibility for the brutal work regimes and suicides of the workers in these factories because Foxconn controls daily operations.

I just came across this term in The Upstarts, by Brad Stone, loc 1828:

Enjoying a modicum of momentum, Kalanick leased a new office in San Francisco but had a month before he could move in. Instead of waiting, he took the whole company to Thailand, where they worked eighteen-hour days out of cafés and a house overlooking the craggy Railay Beach coastline rewriting the Red Swoosh code. It was a productive retreat and the first of what Kalanick called workations, a tradition that continued at Red Swoosh and, later, Uber.

There are loads of videos on YouTube about this:

(the last one is particularly cringe-worthy)

On pg 106 of their Rethinking Social Exclusion: The End of the Social? Simon Winlow and Steve Hall describe the changing realities of work, as more and more jobs become “non-unionised, low paid, short-term, insecure and part time”:

We should also note that few of these jobs enable workers to construct and maintain an image of themselves as socially valuable (Winlow and Hall, 2006, 2009a; Southwood, 2011; Lloyd, 2012); in fact, many of these McJobs (Ritzer, 1997) communicate the exact opposite: the low-level, low-paid service worker is seen as disreputable, exploitable and untrustworthy, the homo sacer of the post-political order, waiting tables, flipping burgers and sweeping rubbish. These are fundamentally insecure and alienating jobs. The people who have these jobs do not want to retain them beyond the obvious and pressing need to earn enough money to pay for their immediate living expenses (Winlow and Hall, 2009a). Most of the positive symbolism associated with traditional work has already been stripped away. They do not cling to and seek to defend an image of themselves as fast food workers, call centre operatives, cleaners, supermarket shelf stackers or factory box-packers.

This is the context in which I’m interested in contemporary discourses of ‘craft’. As anyone who’s followed my work will probably have noticed, I’m drawn to these ideas because they seem to promise a bulwark against alienation. For instance in higher education, I’ve long seen the idea of ‘craft’ as a way of experientially reclaiming the pleasures of scholarship in an institutional context which increasingly hinders, if not outright obliterates, such internal goods.

But are these residual pleasures mere consolation prizes against a background of exploitative precarity and communal diminishment? Increasingly, I wonder if they are but the theoretical challenge as I see it lies in recognising the reality of these internal goods while nonetheless being critical of their cultural deployment in the creation of a new ethos of work.

Can we see the notion of ‘craft’ as something that is developing alongside, indeed implicated in, the stripping away of traditional bases of working identity? On the one hand, for example the elaboration of the role of barista into that of cultural producer able to meaningfully express oneself through latte art (etc), goes hand-in-hand with the normalisation of part-time labour and zero hours contracts in the hospitality sector. On the other hand, craft micro-production and the opportunities for micro-enterprise are being embraced alongside the decline of secure employment, the growth of underemployment and the still expanding phenomenon of forced freelancing.

To explain away the real pleasures people take in these ‘crafts’ is problematic. But we need to avoid a dichotomy in which we take their accounts of craft pleasure at face value or we reject them in the name of being ‘critical’. What interests me is how the discourse of ‘craft’ increasingly organises the pleasures and dissatisfactions of contemporary labour, giving cultural form to “I am” statements* about one’s working life in a context where structural trends had made such statements less tenable in precisely the way Winlow and Hall suggest.

The notion of ‘craft’ also finds itself employed as part of a macro-economic narrative in which the harms of structural unemployment, particularly that led by technology into the previously secure professions which are themselves subject to longer-term trends toward deprofessionalisation, can be offset by the imperative towards craft production. There’s a kernel of truth here but only a kernel. The idea that mass unemployment can be offset by the expanding ranks of Etsy craft sellers is obviously absurd. But it’s another vector through which ‘craft’ can be used to effectively romanticise exploitation and abjection.

So on level, I increasingly find myself opposed to the notion of ‘craft’, despite this being an idea which I’ve gone on about for years to anyone who’ll listen to me. On another level, I’m still drawn to it as a way to organise my own experience, something which I think is ripe for informal autoethnography. There’s also a critical potential in the notion of ‘craft’ which I think shouldn’t be lost and that’s why we need to avoid dispensing with it entirely. What I mean here is captured incredibly forcefully by Akala after his freestyle in this video: ‘the craft’ is something which transcends marketing and commerce, something basically irreducible in any arena of human activity and a site upon which excellence can be achieved:

*This is an expression I heard on a radio call in show i.e. “I am an X”. I wish I could remember which one because I’d love to cite this properly.

From Inventing the Future, by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, loc 2429:

Work has become central to our very self-conception –so much so that when presented with the idea of doing less work, many people ask, ‘But what would I do?’ The fact that so many people find it impossible to imagine a meaningful life outside of work demonstrates the extent to which the work ethic has infected our minds.

I’d add to this that the more time we spend triaging, attending to the immediate and urgent rather than the diffuse and important, the more difficult it becomes to imagine lives for ourselves beyond the horizon of our present conditions.

From Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, by Douglas Rushkoff, loc 72-86:

A few weeks later, there was nothing to smile about. Protesters in Oakland were now throwing rocks at Google’s buses and broke a window, terrifying employees. Sure, I was as concerned about the company’s practices as anyone, and frustrated by the way Silicon Valley’s rapid growth seemed to be displacing instead of enriching the people of San Francisco and beyond. But I also had friends on those buses, trying to make a living off their hard-won coding skills. They may have made $100,000 a year, but they were stressed-out, perpetually monitored, and painfully aware of their own perishability. “Sprints”—bursts of round-the-clock coding to meet deadlines—came ever more frequently as new, more ambitious growth targets replaced the last set.

We may all be on the same side here. Google workers are less the beneficiaries of an expanding company than they are its rapidly consumed resources. The average employee leaves within a year 2 some to accept better positions at other companies but most of them simply to break free of the constant pressure to perform. Taking the bus gives them more time to work or just relax instead of driving. They are human beings.

I find his suggestion that recognition of growing inequality by Google workers leads them to pursue their careers more forcefully very plausible:

Google’s employees are not oblivious to the increasing poverty outside the bus windows on their way to work. If anything, such sights only make these workers cling to their jobs all the more desperately, leaving them less likely to question the deeper processes at play.

From Intern Nation, by Ross Perlin, loc 2379:

(A small-scale survey in the U.K., conducted in 2010, found that a whopping 86 percent of recent graduates and soon-to-be graduates were willing to work for free, despite considering it exploitative.) As the cost of copying and disseminating (but not creating) content has plunged towards zero, no one is quite sure what to charge for in the digital world. The position of interns is not unlike that of many young journalists, musicians, and filmmakers who are now expected to do online work for no pay as a way to boost their portfolios.

An interesting snippet from Losing The Signal, by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff, concerning the lengths to which overzealous mangers would go during the early days of Research In Motion. From pg 39:

One RIM manager became so obsessed with deadlines he issued an edict requiring engineers to ask permission before leaving at night. Lazaridis reversed the decree, but his company’s aggressive, need-it-yesterday approach fostered what would become a robust cynicism. “It got to the point that when schedules were made up I didn’t bother to read them,” says Wandel. “They were so made up, a fantasy.”

While it’s nice this wasn’t enforced indefinitely, it’s nonetheless reflective of a peculiar culture of intensified work. The famous office perks of Google et al represent a domestication of this impulse: why would you want to go home when we’ve provided all these nice things for you? Add to that an element of self and social selection, such that only those willing to subordinate themselves in this way are likely to get there in the first place.

But what was once a peripheral phenomenon, confined to the run up to deadlines and struggling start ups, now defines the working culture of much of the tech industry. The managerial culture this breeds can be toxic, as illustrated by this notorious op-ed about the ‘wage-slave attitude’ in game production:

A wage-slave attitude exhibits itself in several tragic ways. I’ve known a lot of stupid self-made millionaires — really, hundreds of them — and they’re usually young as well. I’m talking about kids who made some of the worst games you can imagine and got rich accidentally, working in their parent’s basement in the Florida Everglades. They make their first game, get rich, and they’re gone, never having attended a single networking event at the Game Developers Conference, done. Contrast the dozens and dozens of these kids with the many game industry veterans I know that have long storied resumes listing dozens of triple-A console titles they have “labored” on, who decry the long working hours they are expected to invest in the games they are employed to work on. These people are smarter, more experienced, more talented, better trained to produce amazing games and they’re still working for paychecks and whining about avoiding long crunch hours to finish big titles or about not being paid fairly by some big employer. Listening to them complain about it, you would they think that they are trapped in some disenfranchised third-world country forced to dig for blood diamonds to feed their families.

http://venturebeat.com/2016/04/16/game-developers-must-avoid-the-wage-slave-attitude/

Another concept I was unfamiliar with introduced in David Frayne’s superb Refusal of Work. From pg 210:

For most of us, and for good reason, giving up work seems like an extreme solution, and working less is not always a practical option. When the periodic sense of dissatisfaction swells within, most of us resort to a more familiar set of escape strategies. We fight the demon of routine in our minds. Some common strategies are those we might place in the category of ‘refrains’: mental tics and transitory fantasies that remove us momentarily from the mundane reality in front of us. A refrain could be playing a song over and over in one’s head, or it could be having daydreams. Cohen and Taylor write that, at any moment, we can ‘throw a switch inside our heads and effect some bizarre adjustment to the concrete world that faces us’ (Cohen and Taylor, 1992: 90). We can strip people naked, assassinate bosses, or conjure in the mind an altogether different and more pleasant scene than the one set before us. Drink and drugs provide a comparable break from reality, whereas some people rely on an annual holiday overseas. So unhappy are many of us with our daily routines, that even illnesses are sometimes greeted as a welcome refrain.

The role of such pauses, whether internal or external, in providing relief from conditions we’re struggling to cope with is what I was trying to get at when writing about the phenomenology of inertia. How do these breaks work to preclude action? Should they be seen as negative because they engender a propensity to tolerate conditions which would otherwise come to be experienced as intolerable? Here’s a blog post I wrote a couple of years ago:

I wrote a few weeks ago about obsessiveness and how I understand it in terms of internal conversation. I’m particularly interested in the role that differing forms of obsessiveness, as a generic term for difficulty with drawing deliberations to a close, plays in making decision making difficult. There’s no logically necessary end point to our rumination about a potential course of action. There’s always other possibilities we could consider. There’s always other ways of looking at the issue. There’s always other people whose advice we could seek. The divergent tendencies of individuals with respect to these possibilities could be conceptualised in a range of ways. I’d argue that they’re more significant than they may seem. Not necessarily because of their implications for action at one point in time but because of their cumulative implications for the trajectories of social action which an individual will tend towards.

It’s from this standpoint that I’m also interested in inertia. The capacity of people to go months, years or decades pondering a decision without making it is one which fascinates me (albeit slightly morbidly). I’m currently reading John Lanchester’s novel Capital and there’s a wonderful passage which made me come back to these issues, which I’ve been thinking about less since I (finally) finished the data analysis for my PhD. In the chapter introducing an Oxford educated classicist who entered the police force on a graduate fast track, Lanchester has a lovely couple of pages in which he paints a vivid picture of the ambivalence which characterises the relationship of this middle-class teetotal Christian to his career in the police. Having “wanted to scratch an itch to do with authority, his need for it, his desire to have it, his liking of hierarchy and order” he found the social politics deeply challenging. While he felt he was doing some good, this nonetheless went hand-in-hand with a perpetual consideration of a possible exit:

“That didn’t mean he didn’t think about giving it up and doing something else. He did, almost every day. The thought was a safety valve; the idea that he could quit whenever he liked was one of the things which kept him in the job. The exit was always in his line of sight. The idea of it helped him to stay put and to cope with the rough parts of his job and his day.”

This is what I mean about obsessiveness and inertia. This fictional character deliberated almost everyday about a potential exit (“could I leave? should I leave? is this right for me?”) but far from deliberation leading functionally towards action, the obsessiveness which characterises this consideration actually engenders inertia. Reminding himself of the possibility of exit offers fleeting protection against the facets of the job, as well as his feelings about them, which engender his desire to do something else. But if this continues then with the passing weeks and months the cost of exit (and entry elsewhere) become higher and the inertia becomes ever more entrenched. How much of life is lived this way? How different would the world be if inertia of this form didn’t exist? Is such inertia simply a product of the tyranny of choice which privilege allows? Is inertia always negative? Is it possible to investigate inertia in an empirical way? Or will the stories people tell themselves and others to make sense of their inertia prove too much of a problem?

Unfortunately the pleasures of the refrain are fleeting. They can promise change yet remain defined by their underlying escapism. From pg 210-211:

The problem with refrains, however, is that their buzz never lasts long. A holiday overseas might provide us with a refreshing sense of distance from our usual circuits of possibility –we might arrive home pledging to relax more, eat more interesting food, and reconnect with old friends –but it is never long before life takes over and we are once again overwhelmed by the ordinary business of living. Try to make the temporary escape more permanent and one runs into trouble.

As Frayne asks on pg 214, do “they only serve to reinforce our tolerance of the toxic situations from which we seek escape”? I suspect they usually do.

From The Refusal of Work, by David Frayne, pg 199:

What do you do? After ‘What is your name?’ and possibly ‘Where are you from?’ this is one of the first questions that strangers usually pose to one another, with convention dictating that this question is almost always an enquiry into our employment situation. ‘What do you do?’ means ‘What job do you perform?’ If we are being generous, we might say that the posing of this question is innocent enough. It represents a social custom, or an attempt to elicit information that might bring relief to the interaction by providing it with some context, pushing the conversation towards some common ground. If we are being more critical, we might view this question of ‘What do you do?’ as a naked attempt to measure the status of the other. ‘What do you do?’ means ‘Summarise in a sentence what you contribute to this world, and I will judge you on the basis of your response.’ Or ‘Are you a person worth knowing?’

I found this argument, in David Frayne’s excellent Refusal of Work, deeply persuasive. From pg 110:

Employment itself can be held partly responsible for the negative experiences of joblessness because, in allowing people only a limited space in which to cultivate other interests, skills and social ties, full-time jobs can often leave people with few personal and social resources to fall back on.

In contemporary capitalism, the notion of a public life has become so synonymous with paid work that it has indeed become difficult to imagine other ways in which a person might transcend the isolation of a purely private existence.

I’m enjoying The Refusal of Work by David Frayne at the moment. He asks some fundamental questions about the meaning of work in contemporary society. From pg 12:

What is so great about work that sees society constantly trying to create more of it? Why, at the pinnacle of society’s productive development, is there still thought to be a need for everybody to work for most of the time? What is work for, and what else could we be doing in the future, were we no longer cornered into spending most of our time working?

I’m interested in the role that this intensification of work plays in circumscribing the lived experience of future possibilities. When people are triaging, they suffer from a death of the imagination: it becomes much more difficult to address Frayne’s question: “what else could we be doing in the future, were we no longer cornered into spending most of our time working?”

I gave a lecture earlier this week about the cultural politics of automation and how this might shape the emergence of mass automation as a primarily structural reality.  I wish I’d seen this Pew poll when I was preparing the lecture:

pew

This sense of the inexorability of mass automation is deeply worrying. It’s possible that people might begin to see the issue differently when face-to-face with the prospect of their own technologically induced redundancy. But it’s also possible that the mechanisms I outlined in the lecture – anticipatory acceleration in the face of contracting opportunities within an occupational field, coupled with an increasing fetishisation of ‘talent’ and corresponding denigration of ‘failures’ – might work to preclude any kind of collective resistance to mass automation or agitation for policy designed to mitigate the damage to people’s lives.

Much deserved Guardian coverage of the weird phenomenon that is the internet cat video festival. What grips me about things like this is not the fact that people are trying to make money from their cats, but rather that many others people are trying and failing to make money from their cats. Not unlike the aspiring professional pick up artists, though you’ll have to read this brilliant paper to see what I’m getting at.

I’m increasingly convinced that a tendency to publicize successful outliers to propagate the illusion‘ can be seen across the web, as a few people who make a living within a novel field wilfully co-operate with platform providers to promulgate the notion that other people could do this too. The result is inevitably a rather off-putting stampede of aspirants which must be read against the background of contracting structures of opportunity which can be seen across more established sectors within an increasingly low-wage and precarious economy.

There’s an interesting BBC programme about the rise of Vloggers which has left me thinking about this: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b06zw04s/rise-of-the-superstar-vloggers It’s very descriptive but it’s interesting to see these people asked about what they’re doing now and how it relates to what they were doing previously.

I was slightly disappointed by Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism but I’ve come away from it with one core concept stuck in my mind. The author distinguishes between what he calls ‘productive’ and ‘unproductive’ enjoyment: the former is that which ‘serves’ social and cultural structures, while the latter is pointless activity which serves no purpose. I take his point to be that, say, a high minded enjoyment of work is ‘productive enjoyment’ (or maybe blogging about social theory) while a game like the cat simulator I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve been playing for the last month counts as ‘unproductive enjoyment’.

He argues that we fail to recognise the radical potential in unproductive enjoyment while failing to recognise the conformist compliance in productive enjoyment. In doing so, we obscure the relation between them, with unproductive and productive enjoyments forming two sides of the organisation of desire in contemporary capitalism. His argument here isn’t clear to me, as he seems to say that ‘unproductive enjoyment’ naturalises a sense of joyless work by implicitly treating it as something from which we need mindless distractions, while also trying to sustain a view that we take enjoyment from work. Nonetheless, I think he opens up some really interesting questions about the proliferation of ‘unproductive enjoyments’ against a context of the intensification of (insecure) work.

A really interesting BuzzFeed article about the use of smart phones on building sites to increase efficiency (the 30% of on-site time that is regarded idle, for reasons attributed to ‘miscommunication and disorganisation’) and their implications for workplace surveillance. What’s particularly striking is that inefficiencies are often the result of the complex subcontracting arrangements now ubiquitous within the construction industry:

According to Frinault, 30% of time workers spend on-site at commercial construction projects is idle — not because workers are lazy, but largely because of miscommunication and disorganization. There’s also the problem of “rework” — doing a task, and then having to do it over again. For example, a subcontractor might be told to cover a hole with drywall; the next day, an electrician who wasn’t finished wiring an outlet comes in and tears that drywall out again, and the drywall hanger has to come back and redo it. With Fieldwire, Frinault hopes to improve the communication channels between subcontractors.

His app, which raised $6.6 million in October, doesn’t locate workers on a map; it locates tasks on a blueprint — tasks that foremen can then check off in real time as they are completed. The purpose of Fieldwire is to record and share information as synchronously as possible. “It may seem invasive,” said Frinault’s co-founder Javed Singha, “but the reality is these guys are recording all this information manually anyway.”

http://www.buzzfeed.com/carolineodonovan/these-apps-watch-men-at-work?utm_term=.rwKNoRWrm#.icdrQPGNq

This app is apparently being used on over 35,000 construction sites internationally. An even more invasive app has been developed by former Navy engineers:

Rhumbix, an app meant to be in the hands of the workers themselves, is making an even bolder ask in terms of transparency. Not only do workers clock every hour of their day on Rhumbix, but the app also tracks their location, and even some of their movements. Rhumbix is the invention of two former Navy engineers, Drew DeWalt and Zach Scheel, who took a class together at Stanford and decided to build a startup. “I said, every phone has GPS in it,” Scheel told BuzzFeed News. “Let’s try to create a system like the ones we use now in the military to help improve the system we use for construction.”

With Rhumbix, workers clock in and out at the beginning and end of each work day. While they’re on the clock, the app tracks their movements, both in terms of motion (moving or stationary?) and location (on the job or out to lunch?). This data is presented to managers in two ways: as a live safety snapshot, which shows where workers are at any given time, and as aggregated and anonymized labor time data that can help the bosses figure out how much is being spent on different activities. This tracking can benefit the worker — for example, a worker who had passed out on a hot roof due to sunstroke was discovered when the Rhumbix app alerted his foreman that he wasn’t moving. But the app can also be used to, say, prove that workers who claim they worked through lunch actually didn’t.

http://www.buzzfeed.com/carolineodonovan/these-apps-watch-men-at-work?utm_term=.rwKNoRWrm#.icdrQPGNq

At present the Rhumbix data is anonymised and aggregated when presented on the dashboard for managers. But how long can this last? As a general rule, if a weakly held moral commitment is the only thing preventing a service-provider from offering a much demanded service to existing customers, it’s unlikely to provide durable in the face of, say, declining sales or a difficulty raising further venture capital. Charmingly, their take on this question is to say “You’re going to have to trust us a little bit”.

It’s worth considering this in terms of what was until recently established practice within the construction industry. Given the existence of a UK industry wide blacklist has been conclusively established, ruining the lives of many who had the temerity to demand basic safety obligations be met on site, you’d have to be painfully naive to imagine these new technologies won’t be used for work place repression. For instance, if a manager wanted to rid a site of a ‘trouble maker’, use their Rhumbix data to demonstrate an unacceptable amount of ‘idle time’ as grounds for dismissal. Furthermore, it’s easy to imagine how Rhumbix could end up tracking collective organisation on site. Even if the data is aggregated, surely it would represent a grouping of the work force for a face-to-face meeting? It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this technology can be used for workplace repression and I fear we’re on a slippery slope.