A world without work might be totally awesome, and we have models for it, but getting there might be hard

Derek Thompson’s “A World Without Work: For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?” is fascinating and you should read it. But I’d like to discuss one small part, when Thompson writes: “When I asked Hunnicutt what sort of modern community most resembles his ideal of a post-work society, he admitted, ‘I’m not sure that such a place exists.'”

I can imagine such a place: A university. At one time, most professors made enough money to meet their basic material needs without making extravagant amounts of money (there were and are some superstar exceptions). Today, a fair number of professors still make enough money to meet their basic material needs, though proportionally fewer than, say, 30 years ago. Still, universities have always depended on peer effects for reputation; they’ve tended to convince smart people to do a lot of meaningful activities that are disconnected from immediate and often long-term remuneration. Many professors appear to have self-directed lives that they themselves structure. The average person with free time doesn’t explore build-it-yourself DNA or write about the beauty of Proust or do many of the other things professors  do—the average person watches TV—but perhaps norms will change over time.

I don’t want to overstate the similarity between a potential low-work future and contemporary tenured professors—many professors find grading to be mind numbing, and not everyone handles self-direction and motivation well—but they are similar enough to be notable. In a world of basic incomes and (relative) economic plenty, we may get more people writing blogs, making art, and playing sports or other games. People may spend more time in gyms and less time in chairs.

The open-source software software community as it currently exists tends to intersect with large companies, but there are fringes of it with a strongly non-commercial or academic ethos. Richard Stallman has worked for MIT for decades and has written enormous amounts of important open-source code; the primary PGP maintainer made almost no money until recently, though he could almost certainly make tons of cash working for big tech company. Many people who make money in tech are closer to artists than is commonly supposed. Reading Hacker News and the better precincts in Reddit will introduce you to other open-source zealots, some of whom mostly blow hot air but others of whom act and think like artists rather than businessmen.

Many programmers say publicly that they consider programming to be so much fun that they’re amazed at the tremendous sums they can earn doing it. A small but literate part of the sex worker community says something similar: like most people they enjoy sex, and like most people they enjoy money, and combining the two is great for them. They may not enjoy every act with every client but the more attractive and attentive clients are pretty good. One could imagine an activity that is currently (sometimes) paid and sometimes free being used to occupy more time. I’ve met many people who dance and make their money putting on and teaching dances. If they had a guaranteed annual income they’d probably dance all the time and be very pleased doing that.

Already many professions have turned into hobbies, as I wrote in 2013; most actors and musicians are essentially hobbyists as well, at least in the revenue sense. Photographers are in a similar situation, as are many fiction writers. Poets haven’t been commercial for decades, to the extent they ever were (they weren’t when the Metaphysicals were writing, but that didn’t stop Herbert or Donne). Today many of my favorite activities aren’t remunerative, and while I won’t list them here many are probably similar to yours, and chances are good that some of yours aren’t remunerative either. Maybe our favorite activities are only as pleasurable as they are by contrast with less desirable activities. Maybe they aren’t. Consider for a moment your own peak, most pleasurable and intense experiences. Did they happen at work? If you worked less, would you have more?

In short, though, models for non-commercial but meaningful lives do (somewhat) exist. Again, they may not suit everyone, but one can see a potential future already here but unevenly distributed.

A lot of white-collar office work has a large make-work component, and there’s certainly plenty of literature on how boring it can be. If people really, really worked in the office they could probably do much of their “work” in a tiny amount of the allotted time. Much of that time is signaling conformity, diligence, and so forth, and, as Tim Ferris points out in The Four-Hour Work Week, people who work smarter can probably work less. To use myself as an example, I think of myself as productive but even I read Hacker News and Reddit more often than I should.

Some people already do what appears to me to be work-like jobs. People who don’t like writing would consider this blog to be “work,” while I consider it (mostly) play, albeit of an intensely intellectual sort. It already looks to me like many moderators on Reddit and similar sites have left the world of “hobby” and entered the world of “work.” The border is porous and always has been, but I see many people moving from the one to the other. (As Thompson observes, prior the late 19th or early 20th Century the idea of unemployment was itself nonsensical because pretty much anyone could find something productive to do.) Wikipedia is another site that has adverse effects in that respect, and I can’t figure out why many disinterested people would edit the site (my edits have always been self-motivated, though I prefer not to state more here).

One can imagine a low-work future being very good, but getting from the present to that future is going to be rocky at best, and I can’t foresee it happening for decades. There are too many old people and children to care for, too many goods that need to be delivered, too much physical infrastructure that needs fixing, and in general too much boring work that no one will do without being paid. Our whole society will have to be re-structured and that is not likely to be easy; in reality, too, there has never been a sustained period of quiet “normalcy” in American history. Upheaval is normal, and the U.S. has an advantage in that rewriting cultural DNA is part of our DNA. That being said, it’s useful to wonder what might be, and one can see the shape of things to come if we see radically falling prices for many material goods.

There’s one other fascinating quote that doesn’t fit into my essay but I want to emphasize anyway:

Decades from now, perhaps the 20th century will strike future historians as an aberration, with its religious devotion to overwork in a time of prosperity, its attenuations of family in service to job opportunity, its conflation of income with self-worth. The post-work society I’ve described holds a warped mirror up to today’s economy, but in many ways it reflects the forgotten norms of the mid-19th century—the artisan middle class, the primacy of local communities, and the unfamiliarity with widespread joblessness.

Life: The meaning of life edition

“Their protest often reduces salvation to the idle contemplation of one’s own inner void; to them, even the merest search for a remedy is a form of complicity with the alienating situation. On the contrary, the only possible salvation demands an active and practical involvement with the situation. Man works, produces a world of objects, and inevitably alienates himself to them. But then he rids himself of his alienation by accepting those objects, by committing himself to them, and, instead of annihilating them, by negating them in the name of transformation, aware that at every transformation he will again find himself confronting the same dialectic situation. . .

If he chooses instead to withdraw into himself and to cultivate his own purity and spiritual independence, he will find not salvation but annihilation. He cannot transcend alienation by refusing to compromise himself in the objective situation that emerges out of his work.”

—Umberto Eco, The Open Work

Lisa Levy, Alain de Botton and the meaning of intellectuals and their relationship to sex

Lisa Levy’s How to Be a Pseudo-Intellectual (actual title: “How To Think More (But Not Better): Alain de Botton’s School of Life”) isn’t really about de Botton’s How To Think More About Sex so much as it is about throwing rocks at de Botton’s intellectual middle road from the high road where most supposed scholars are unread, unloved, and unsexed.* It’s true that How To Think More About Sex is de Botton’s weakest book, to the point that I didn’t bother reviewing it because it’s so bad; any pop evolutionary psychology book from the last ten years offers more and better information, and sex is arguably the field least informed by the philosophy and philosophers most often in de Botton’s purview.

But his other books are fun and informative. Levy writes that “he often seems like a grad student who shows up to seminar having done just enough of the reading to participate by jumping on other people’s comments, but who never makes an original observation of his own.” Maybe “an original observation” is overrated in philosophy, especially compared to accessibility. Levy writes that “he tends to meander and summarize after a quotation rather than using it to drive his own argument forward,” but if de Botton meanders in an interesting way—which he usually does, in books like The Architecture of Happiness and his novel On Love, which is charming (a word that never appears among academics trying to prosecute dubiously original arguments)—then he’s at least doing one thing better than 90% of those allegedly being original. For one thing, he’s writing clearly enough to make a judgment about originality; how many doctoral dissertations and tenure books are written in impenetrable, deliberately misleading jargon, such that it’s difficult or impossible to tell whether an argument is original?

Most people trying to make “an original observation of [their] own” don’t seem to make actual original contributions but do bloviate quite a bit. If more people admitted to synthesizing and fewer had to pretend to originality, we’d probably live in a better original world. Levy says that “he’s not exactly Michel Foucault,” and I’d call that a very good thing.

That being said, however, Levy is right that “This might in fact be the most boring book ever written about sex.” Sex might also be the field that, of all that de Botton has addressed, philosophy is the least well-equipped to handle, especially compared to current psychology and biology.

Still, the funniest bits of The Consolations of Philosophy concern the number of aged philosophers in their twilight years who fall for vapid but hot teenage girls and adult women, which could arguably tell us more about the nature of life than all of their books combined; actions speak louder than words, as the cliché goes, and what one wants in the midst of composing a monumental manuscript may be different from what one wants when confronted with real people. De Botton describes how the 43-year-old Schopenhauer “turns his attentions to Flora Weiss, a spirited girl who has turned seventeen,” and feels “revolted” by his gift of white grapes. Nietzsche, similarly, faced rejection from “a twenty-three-year old, green-eyed blonde” named Mathilde Trampedach. From there, “a succession of similar rejections took their toll” in his marriage proposals, caused in part, perhaps, by “his extraordinarily large walrus mustache” and “his shyness.” Later still, he chased around a twenty-one-year-old hottie (my word), who “was more interested in Nietzsche as a philosopher than a husband.”

Perhaps we should consider philosophers’ work in light of their lives, and the lessons we should take are not necessarily those entombed in The World as Will and Representation or On the Genealogy of Morality. Alas, however, that de Botton might have instead worked to write original observations that go unread in a university library somewhere instead.

* Hannah Arendt and a few others famously excepted.

The Sun Also Rises and meaning through action

Almost none of the characters in The Sun Also Rises and have jobs. Jake Barnes works as a journalist, but during most of the novel he’s on the sort of vacation that makes one long for the office. Bill Gorton writes too, but we don’t see much evidence of his writing. Pedro Romero is a bullfighter who apparently loses his magical bullfighting essence (or “aficion” in the language of the novel, but “magical bullfighting essence” makes it sound sillier) due to Brett. The rest—Mike, Brett, Robert—don’t do much of anything beyond drink.

This might be connected to why they all seem unhappy. Not only are they unhappy, but they don’t even appear to be getting much action (with the exception of Brett), which probably compounds their problems. This may be a feature of hanging out with a large group of guys and only one woman.

When I first read the novel, I didn’t notice how dumb most of the characters are. Perhaps I was at an age when I still considered wandering around and mindlessly drinking to be romantic and logical. Perhaps I was just equally dumb. Now I mostly want to suggest to the characters that, since most of them are in their 30s, they ought to find something to do. What that “something” is isn’t very important. Writing sonnets. Working in nuclear physics (which was big at the time). Inventing a new dance. Opening a bar, instead of consuming in a bar. Just have it be something. In short, I want to them to get a job, or, if not a job, then at least a hobby beyond the bottle. Don’t get me wrong. I like the bottle as much as the next guy, especially when it contains gin, and someone has tonic and lime nearby.

Plus, Brett is overrated. By the time I hit 23 or thereabouts, the allure of the manipulative, dissolute beauty had faded—not, mind you, the allure of beauty, or beauty distributed across a number of women, but of the attention-seeking and thoughtlessly cruel kind, who might be worth going to San Sebastian with, but not worth working one’s self up over when she floats to her next lily pad.

That sentence is convoluted, but I’m pretty sure it makes sense and expresses what Brett does to the inner states of the men around her, who really ought to know better. If one doesn’t want to come around, look for another. Note that this strategy or principle also applies to men. If a rival comes along, there’s a decent shot the wishy-washy person will leap to defend her territory. If she doesn’t, you never had a shot in the first place, and you still have someone to keep you warm at night and do other fun things with. (Change the gender pronouns in this paragraph to suit your own sexual temperament.)

When you’re young, long-winded, elusive chases are kind of appealing. But you really ought to learn to know better by the time you’re, say, 22.

I still admire Hemingway’s use of language and style, but I wonder if one reason high school and college students are drawn to The Sun Also Rises is because school mimics the no-stakes, no-purpose world in which characters live. Once you get into the larger world, where things have real effects, the pleasures of wandering aimlessly, drinking randomly, and chasing mentally unstable girls who mostly want attention becomes much lower. Again: wandering, drinking, and chasing sex can still be quite fun for any and all genders, but they require purpose beyond the mere doing of those activities themselves. In The Sun Also Rises, Jake says, “The things that happened could only have happened during a fiesta. Everything became quite unreal finally and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequences. It seemed out of place to think of consequences during the fiesta.” Everything is “quite unreal” throughout the novel as a whole. It seems “out of place to think of consequences” for any of the characters, ever. They might be Americans in Europe, but their travels do not appear to have enlarged them.

We lack perspective: notes from Alain de Botton's The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

Yet our world of abundance, with seas of wine and alps of bread, has hardly turned out to be the ebullient place dreamt of by our ancestors in the famine-stricken years of the Middle Ages. The brightest minds spend their working lives simplifying or accelerating functions of unreasonable banality. Engineers write theses on the velocities of scanning machines and consultants devote their careers to implementing minor economies in the movements of shelf-stackers and forklift operators. The alcohol-inspired fights that break out in market towns on Saturday evenings are predictable symptoms of fury at our incarceration. They are a reminder of the price we pay for our daily submission at the altars of prudence and order – and of the rage that silently accumulates beneath a uniquely law-abiding and compliant surface.

1) A lot of engineers like their jobs and look at them as solving a series of puzzles: “theses on the velocities of scanning machines” are only as banal as you make them. In addition, even if you do find them banal, if you can make a faster scanning machine and sell it for a lot of money, you may not care when you retire to paint water colors for the rest of your life.

2) Fights say more about the dumb fighters than about the human condition.

3) Humans might simply never be, as a group, overtly happy in whatever conditions we experience; realizing this might release us from unreasonable expectations. A cultural fixation on happiness might paradoxically prevent us from experiencing what we think or imagine we most want or desire.

4) Related to three, people who leave work to drink on the weekends are probably intentionally looking for fights: I doubt the behavior can be blamed solely on alcohol. Many people seem to undergo a two-step process: they consciously drink so they can unconsciously act out in the ways they’d actually like to. My question is simple: why not just go to step two and be intellectually honest with ourselves?

5) Stumbling on Happiness discusses how and why we feel unhappy when we compare ourselves to others. Most of us don’t compare ourselves to people in the “Middle Ages;” we compare ourselves to our wives’ sisters’ husbands, to paraphrase that famous aphorism (switch gender roles as appropriate to you, the reader, and your gender / sexual orientation).

6) We submit “at the altars of prudence and order” because the alternative is often worse. That being said, I think Western society underestimates the power and importance of trance, ecstasy, transcendence, atë—all things that, denied and repressed, seem to manifest themselves in unusual ways (see The Secret History for more on this. Still, if the alternative to prudence and order is chaos, no iPhone, longer commutes, and living a dicey part of town, prudence and order sound pretty good—as does self-imposed “incarceration.”

7) The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is, like much of de Botton’s work, nicely balanced between readability and intellectual engagement, reasoned and learned without being pedantic. These are harder notes to strike than may be obvious at first.

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