Monday, January 19, 2009

Blessed are the indolent

Laziness is a virtue. Those who can be bothered to tell you otherwise are clearly lacking it.

- Emery Finkelstein

Despite my limited experience of the world there are a number of things I have discovered about large organisations:

  1. In any large organisation the amount of work to be be done will grow to consume all the time of all the people available for work.
  2. As an organisation grows in revenue the number of people working for it will increase.
  3. Activity does not equal accomplishment.

The first observation is an extension of Parkinson's Law that work expands to fill all the time available. Working for several months at a call centre has taught me that not only is this the case but that the more people there are in an organisation, the more work needs to be done, regardless of output.

The second observation is seemingly obvious: labour is a key factor of production after all, but it's importance relative to capital has shrunk over the last century.

And activity

In 1970 James Martin and others predicted that the confluence of Moore's Law and the growth of automation would result in most human toil being replaced with machine work. There were predictions that by the year 2000 a 3 1/2 day work week (4 days one week, 3 days the next) would be the norm.

And yet this has not happened.

Where did my utopia go?

Why have all the improvements in technology not lead to a consummate increase in leisure time as people have stopped working as hard as they once did and start looking to more important things?

I am developing a suspicion that a great deal of the jobs and careers of a large portion of people in the Western world are essentially useless.

A Keynesian might argue that any labour is good labour: even digging holes in the ground then filling them in counts as economic activity if the digger is paid. The digger can then spend their income buying food and services from others and thus the economy is stimulated.

But what if someone invents a digging-machine that does the work faster and for less money - what then?

Politicians (like Barack Obama) talk of "creating jobs" as if that were an end in and of itself.

This raises an interesting question: what is the ultimate end game of human civilization? Are we aiming for a society where no one has to work if they don't want to and leisure is plentiful?

Or do we want a hamster wheel society of people doing makework for no higher purposes than to stimulate the consumer economy?

Keynes had some thoughts on the endgame of human civilization [via Futurismic] in his essay Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren:

The strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance. But it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.

Charles Stross comments on the hamster wheel aspect of this problem with reference to the job-creating system otherwise known as Microsoft Windows.

At the root of all the great engineering, technological, medical, economic, philosophical, social, and political developments of the last few centuries is the constant desire to get more for less.

Nuclear weapons and ICBMs have made all-out war between industrial nations a monstrous mistake in every context. Therefore for a relatively small amount military effort a great gain of peace is achieved.

Cars and planes make transport easy and safe; drugs and surgery and antibiotics make life longer and less painful; central heating and air conditioning allow us to control our environments and build comfortable homes for a fraction of the relative cost to our ancestors of doing the same.

And as for me I think that cultivating the art of life itself is a much higher goal than mere money-grubbing.

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