Ok...watch this:


(This was brought to my attention by one of my classmates last term.)

To me, this commercial is a brilliant, accidentally-ironic critique on the information economy. We make everything faster and better-connected, but with every increase in efficiency, we undermine the necessity of there being people there to work in the first place.

It's been on my mind lately because of, well, how utterly, desperately bored I've been at work for all the years I had computer jobs. It was either a crisis or a long stretch of utter tedium at any given moment.* My current position is less of that, but there are still a lot of slow hours during which I sit at my desk feeling guilty enough to make a half-assed attempt to look like I'm working.** I don't have much in the way of insight about this, but I do think it suggests that the American obsession with working hard all the time is not only a stupid waste of your life, but is ultimately counter-productive.

It's a horrible, repugnant fact that there are over a billion people alive who are extraneous to the global economy.*** Following Marx (this is one of the things I think he got right), the goal of any given capitalist is, and in a sense has to be in a competitive economy, to reduce his need for his own workers. Thus, in a way, we do ourselves a favor by not working hard all the time: we perpetuate the need for there to be workers at all.

Clumsily phrased, I realize, but do you guys buy it?

* This is a condition really endemic to IT. It's like being a fireman waiting for fires to put out, only unlike firemen, management frowns on IT guys hanging out and playing video games when there aren't any fires.
** Because I'm still so friggin' grateful to have the job in the first place.
*** I base this on Mike Davis's Planet of Slums, which made a big impression on me.


Dr. Science said...

My gut-level response is to say, "yeah, I totally buy that." Since the industrialized world doesn't really support a well-functioning barter system, people have to have a job so they can make money so they can provide basic necessities (food, water, shelter, etc.) for themself and their family, not to mention actually afford some amount of joy and recreation so life is worth living.

But when I try to take a purely logical (Spock-style) approach to the argument, it seems silly to maintain inefficiencies solely for the sake of providing jobs. For instance, by law I am not allowed to pump my own gas in Oregon. There's only one other state in the union that has that law. The argument I hear most often for keeping it that way in the Beaver (heh.) state is that allowing Oregonians to self-serve would eliminate the need for gas station attendants, and would thus put people out of work. Applying this same thinking to other situations would result in much-reduced efficiency.

However... I personally don't believe that ultimate efficiency is a goal to which our race needs to aspire. The world would become a very cold, sterile, boring place if we were to take it too far to the extreme. And, as you pointed out, we would soon become obsolete. Whether we're talking about a science fiction humans-subservient-to-robots scenario, or just an everybody's-unemployed-and-broke scenario, it would generally suck all around. One could argue, then, that we might revert to a barter system in order to survive. I guess we'll have to wait and see.

While making a quite comfortably livable wage as a corporate IT whore myself, I still very strongly disagree with the general way of thinking in the business world. I think The Mancillator nailed it on the head when he said (and this is my interpretation and wording, not necessarily his) that publicly-traded corporations are the source of much of the world's problems. They're essentially required by law to make as much money as possible for their shareholders. This means they're going to take risks and make decisions that benefit their shareholders, rather than their employees and society as a whole.

It's totally wrong, and I won't stand for it. Where's my army of giant robots???

Rachel said...

def agree about the publicly traded corporations. And I'm all for inefficiency, but that's because I'm lazy, not because I have some sort of fancy argument for it. :) Of course, I was still the hardest worker when I was in an office. The other 'ladies' gossiped all day with the manager, who didn't like me because I'm not fat and I have an education. Office work is just lame in general.

thetravellor said...

I sometimes think that publicly traded companies are a derivative of efficiency gains. As production became more and more efficient, somebody realized that efficiency could only go so far (granted this was before the computer revolution) so they so they went looking for other ways to make money. Generally, I disagree with publicly traded companies because I don't see a social utility in it. There's nothing being "made," they don't do scientific research. I could be wrong, but all I see is rich people getting richer. Besides which, having shareholders drive the bottom line means that the short-gain is emphasized over the long-term loss (unless there is a board in place that realizes this and doesn't plan on jumping ship in a few years). I think has filtered into the American psyche as more and more people get into too much debt or think that "oh, eventually we can stop polluting the planet."

SuperJew said...

A: Dig Mike Davis as well. "Read" (i.e. skimmed for about 1/2 hour to use in historiography paper) Planet of Slums, definitely want to go back to it. Spent more time with City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear.

But I digress (as historians tend to do..."It's complex") I totally agree with you though. It's funny, I definitely need to read more Marx (should've done Marx and Beer in Eugene) but I'm beginning to believe more in the transcendent...mmm not transcendent (that's historical blasphemy right? Must have 3 Cs..everything is contextual, contingent and contested) ...but perhaps the "contextually specific" urmmm "staying power"? of work to identity (especially cuz it also adds those other things to basics of identity, i.e. ability to feed, clothe and shelter oneself).

Random connections...American industrialization...anxieties about wage dependency and disconnection from product of ones work...Office Space. Hopefully in academia, we won't be making ourselves redundant. But perhaps that's what the hamster wheel of churning out books (i.e. tenure track) is for: to continually legitimate our field as a necessary place of employment.

ransom said...

This is yet another one of those topics that underscores how I'm prone to developing an opinion and then being unable to maintain curiosity/suppress gag reflex long enough to learn anything in depth.

But yeah, I've been muttering to myself for quite a while about how the enlightenment seems to have gone out of "enlightened self interest." And the observation about publicly traded companies is one of my favorite examples of institutionalized evil/stupidity...

The CEO who chooses to not run that sweatshop is entirely likely to find him/herself on the pointy end of a lawsuit by the shareholders. The other factor that drives me up a tree here is that the making money and the not-doing-evil decisions are separated out. The board is beholden to the beancounters, who are charged only with doing the math. More money = right decision.

The shareholders, who if asked individually might care about the ethical considerations of their investments, frequently are not directly involved, but have simply handed off a bunch of funds to a professional investor, who is just another agent with a directive to make money, period. It seems designed to prevent any person along the process from actually being in a position to say "this is wrong, and we should not do it."

Chrissy said...

I totally agree with you on the publicly traded companies bit, but here is my question to you: should I feel guilty for investing in said companies in preparation for my retirement (i.e. my 401k)? Obviously, social security will be non-existent when I am old enough to need it (yet I still pay into it, which pisses me off a little - I have to save for my retirement TWICE?) and I sure as hell dont want to work until my death, so investing and saving for retirement seem to be my only options. Plus, my company matches my contributions to my 401k, so by not having one, I am giving up "free" money that my company is otherwise completely willing to give me.

Also, my company is employee-owned, so when I slack off, I like to think Im doing it on my own dime, but my boss doesnt seem to see it that way.

Things that make you go "hmmmm..."