Random finds (2017, week 49) — On Hippy Taylorism, the quitting economy, and why time management is ruining our lives
“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne
Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets and, as such, a reflection of my curiosity and thinking.
According to Evgeny Morozov in The digital hippies want to integrate life and work — but not in a good way, “The digital turn of contemporary capitalism, with its promise of instantaneous, constant communication, has done little to rid us of alienation. Our interlocutors are many, our entertainment is infinite, our pornography loads fast and arrives in high-definition — and yet our yearnings for authenticity and belonging, however misguided, do not seem to subside.”
“Beyond the easy fixes to our alienation — more Buddhism, mindfulness and internet detox camps — those in the digital avant-garde of capitalism have toyed with two solutions. Let’s call them the John Ruskin option and the De Tocqueville option. The former extended the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement, with its celebration of craftsmanship and romantic, artisanal labour by Ruskin, William Morris and their associates, into the realm of 3D printers, laser cutters and computerised milling machines,” Morozov writes.
“De Tocqueville option hailed the use of digital tools to facilitate gatherings in the real world in order to reverse the trends described by Robert Putnam in his bestselling Bowling Alone. The idea was that, thanks to social networks, people would be able to find like-minded enthusiasts, creating a vibrant civil society à la De Tocqueville.”
How did these two options fare?
“The John Ruskin option has faced a major challenge today, the distinction between artisanship and gentrification is blurry.” Makerspaces had their reinvigorating uses for cognitive workers who were exhausted by mind-numbing office jobs but they also angered those not lucky enough to have mind-numbing office jobs in the first place.”
As for the De Tocqueville option, it is more complex. “At the end of November, Meetup.com was acquired by WeWork, a $20bn startup that blends big data and real estate to offer ‘space as a service’ — the latest variation on ‘software as a service,’ the staple of the modern technology industry.”
WeWork is expanding in many directions but its main innovation, accorrding to Morozov, is in branding. “Rare is a Silicon Valley company that does not claim humanitarian intentions. WeWork, however, is beyond competition. Its self-proclaimed mission is to ‘create a world where people work to make a life, not just a living.’”
“Eugen Miropolski, a WeWork executive, says that, whereas in the past, ‘the residents of urban areas were brought together in part through town halls, gatherings in taverns, cafes and open spaces to hash out the subjects of the day,’ WeWork aspires to be ‘a place where people can come together, talk, discuss new ideas, and innovate in a collaborative way.’ Thus, he concludes, ‘real estate is just the platform for our community.’”
“Everything else, from kindergartens to yoga salons,” Morozov writes, “arrives on top, optimised by WeWork’s data geniuses in what amounts to the 21st-century equivalent of the company town, albeit with much subtler forms of social engineering. In WeWork’s future, the hastily privatised public space is returned to citizens. However, it comes back as a commercial service provided by a lavishly funded data company, not as a right.”
“While in the late 1960s some leftwing intellectuals warned of the emergence of the ‘social factory,’ where Taylorist production first comes to transform and dominate the life beyond the factory but eventually falters as the work becomes cognitive, the WeWork model points to a different future: society is brought back inside today’s factory — the modern office — but on terms that reinforce rather than undermine many elements of the Taylorist paradigm.
That all of this is couched in the language of the hippy movement does not make the underlying processes any less Taylorist. With the takeover of Meetup by WeWork, the struggle against alienation, thus, moves into a new stage: the De Tocqueville option is out, the Hippy Taylorism option is in.”
The quitting economy
Although companies rarely admit to this, they often want employees who can be let go easily and with little fuss. And without long-term commitments from employers, employees reinvent themselves as marketable goods, always ready to quit, Ilana Gershon writes in The quitting economy.
After the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, “triumphant US economic intellectuals raced to implement the ultra-individualist ideals of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and other members of the Mont Pelerin Society, far and wide. […] In doing so for work, they developed a metaphor — that every person should think of herself as a business, the CEO of Me, Inc.” This would have profound implications for how we organise our workplaces, how people understand their jobs, and how they plan careers, which increasingly revolve around quitting.
At the same time, the way in which we value companies also changed. Until then, “business people thought that companies provided a wide variety of benefits to a large number of constituents — to upper management, to employees, to the local community, as well as to shareholders. Many of these benefits were long-term,” Gershon tells us. “But as market value overtook other measures of a company’s value, maximising the short-term interests of shareholders began to override other concerns, other relationships. Quarterly earnings reports and stock prices became […] the sole measures of success.”
And the more expendable the workforce, the easier it is to respond to short-term demands. “These are market and shareholder metrics. Their dominance diminished commitment to employees, and all other commitments but to shareholders, as much as the particular industry requirements of production allow. With companies so organised, the idea of loyalty receded.”
Loyalty, however, is a two-way street. Making jobs short-term, commitment-free enterprises leads to workers who view temporary work contracts as also desirable. You start hiring job-quitters. “In a society where market rules rule, the only way for an employee to know her value is to look for another job and, if she finds one, usually to quit,” Gershon writes. In other words, the CEO of Me, Inc is a job-quitter for a good reason.
“In significant ways, the calculus of quitting changes workplace dynamics. Being a good manager now means helping those whom you manage acquire the skills that will help them to leave for a better job at another company,” Gershon writes. “The calculus of quitting also changes what it means to have a good division of labour at work. If your goal is to get a job somewhere else, not all work projects are equally valuable. Workers must jockey for the tasks and projects that might lead to a job elsewhere. They must try to avoid tasks that, either due to intellectual property issues or for other reasons, are too company-specific.” Furthermore, “[t]he calculus of quitting also changes the nature of being co-workers, and not just because they are jockeying over who does which tasks in a new way.” After all, “when it comes time for them to look for their next job, [they] have supporters at other companies.
“The environment of the quitting economy also brings about a change in the emotional life of the worker and workplace. […] Since company loyalty is no longer around to guarantee committed workers, passion is now supposed to be the driving force. Intriguingly, this passion […] is restricted to the tasks at work or to learning certain skills.” The market-specific problems for which workers feel a passion for solving aren’t specific to that particular company. In other words, working for passion means focusing on the task, not the company. This makes it far easier to move to another company where they can still do the work about which they feel passionately.
“[B]egun by the re-orientation of companies to maximise shareholder value, quitting work is now central to what it means to have a job in the first place,” says Gershon. “Hayek’s philosophy has led to workers thinking of themselves as the CEO of Me, Inc; and to survive in the neoliberal world of work, the CEO of Me, Inc must be a quitter.”
Why time management is ruining our lives
All of our efforts to be more productive backfire — and only make us feel even busier and more stressed, Oliver Burkeman writes in Why time management is ruining our lives, a long read for the Guardian (2016).
“The quest for increased personal productivity — for making the best possible use of your limited time — is a dominant motif of our age. And yet the truth is that more often than not, techniques designed to enhance one’s personal productivity seem to exacerbate the very anxieties they were meant to allay. The better you get at managing time, the less of it you feel that you have,” Burkeman writes. “The allure of the doctrine of time management is that, one day, everything might finally be under control. Yet work in the modern economy is notable for its limitlessness. And if the stream of incoming emails is endless, Inbox Zero can never bring liberation: you’re still Sisyphus, rolling his boulder up that hill for all eternity — you’re just rolling it slightly faster.”
“Given that the average lifespan consists of only about 4,000 weeks, a certain amount of anxiety about using them well is presumably inevitable: we’ve been granted the mental capacities to make infinitely ambitious plans, yet almost no time at all to put them into practice. The problem of how to manage time, accordingly, goes back at least to the first century AD, when the Roman philosopher Seneca wrote On The Shortness of Life. ‘This space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily, and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live,’ he said, chiding his fellow citizens for wasting their days on pointless busyness, and ‘baking their bodies in the sun.’
Clearly, then, the challenge of how to live our lives well is not a new one. Still, it is safe to say that the citizens of first-century Rome didn’t experience the equivalent of today’s productivity panic. (Seneca’s answer to the question of how to live had nothing to do with becoming more productive: it was to give up the pursuit of wealth or high office, and spend your days philosophising instead.) What is uniquely modern about our fate is that we feel obliged to respond to the pressure of time by making ourselves as efficient as possible — even when doing so fails to bring the promised relief from stress.”
“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.” — Seneca
According to Burkeman, “Time management promised a sense of control in a world in which individuals — decreasingly supported by the social bonds of religion or community — seemed to lack it. In an era of insecure employment, we must constantly demonstrate our usefulness through frenetic doing, and time management can give you a valuable edge. Indeed, if you are among the growing ranks of the self-employed, as a freelancer or a worker in the so-called gig economy, increased personal efficiency may be essential to your survival. The only person who suffers financially if you indulge in ‘loafing’ — a workplace vice that Taylor saw as theft — is you. Above all, time management promises that a meaningful life might still be possible in this profit-driven environment, as Melissa Gregg explains [..] With the right techniques, the prophets of time management all implied, you could fashion a fulfilling life while simultaneously attending to the ever-increasing demands of your employer.”
“At the very bottom of our anxious urge to manage time better — the urge driving Frederick Winslow Taylor, Merlin Mann, me and perhaps you — it’s not hard to discern a familiar motive: the fear of death. As the philosopher Thomas Nagel has put it, on any meaningful timescale other than human life itself — that of the planet, say, or the cosmos — ‘we will all be dead any minute.’ No wonder we are so drawn to the problem of how to make better use of our days: if we could solve it, we could avoid the feeling, in Seneca’s words, of finding life at an end just when we were getting ready to live. To die with the sense of nothing left undone: it’s nothing less than the promise of immortality by other means.”
And also this …
“History is full of examples of the relationship between reverie and creativity,” write Julia Christensen, Guido Giglioni and Manos Tsakiris in ‘Let the soul dangle’: how mind-wandering spurs creativity.
“Here is one, idiosyncratic example: the German art historian Aby Warburg (1866–1929) organised his library of 50,000 books with the aim of promoting mind-wandering. His collection was the kernel for the Warburg Institute in London, where we now work as researchers. Each of the library’s four floors is devoted to one of four themes — image, word, orientation, and action — and separated into sub-themes, such as ‘magic and science’, ‘transmission of classical texts,’ and ‘art history.’ Guided by Warburg’s ideas about what makes a good neighbour for a book, this unique approach to classification allows a withered 17th-century medical tome to cluster next to texts on mathematics, the cosmos and harmony. The shelves promote intellectual serendipity as you skip from the book (or thought) you thought you wanted, to another intriguing idea or topic that hadn’t even occurred to you.”
“Art appreciation is held in high esteem in most cultures and societies. It is often portrayed as a laborious cognitive exercise, but this is to forget that the arts provide an opportunity for intense emotional experiences, positive mind-wandering and psychobiological self-regulation. Dürer perhaps captures the activity of such inactivity best of all. ‘If a man devotes himself to art,’ he wrote, ‘much evil is avoided that happens otherwise if one is idle.’”
“There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting. Consider this utterly commonplace situation: A man is walking down the street. At a certain moment, he tries to recall something, but the recollection escapes him. Automatically, he slows down. Meanwhile, a person who wants to forget a disagreeable incident he has just lived through starts unconsciously to speed up his pace, as if he were trying to distance himself from a thing still too close to him in time.
In existential mathematics, that experience takes the form of two basic equations: the degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting.” — Milan Kundera in Slowness (source: On Slowness, an essay on the slowness of method, design and perception by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, 1998)
In How Alexander Calder Made Art Move, Adam Gopnik reviews Jed Perl’s seven-hundred-page Calder: The Conquest of Time: The Early Years: 1898–1940, a new biography argues that the mobile-maker was one of the majors.
“The real advance in [Calder’s] work, however, came through more intimate exposure to two artists: the great exiles Piet Mondrian, who was present at the gallery show that night, and Joan Miró. It was in Mondrian’s studio that Calder was first exposed to a credible utopianism — not of vague half-comic abstractions about the fourth dimension but of white light and primary colors. Mondrian’s abstraction, like Calder’s, drew from the artisanal practice of decorative arts. The furniture of Rietveld anticipated the painting of Mondrian. The purity of Mondrian’s vision spoke to Calder all the more deeply for being so entirely rooted in things made, not things imagined.”
“From Miró he took more directly a visual vocabulary — the biomorphic streamlined forms, at once abstract and animal, that would be the basis of his art-making for the rest of his life. To be sure, that language of simplified form still instantly recognizable as life was part of the common currency of Surrealism. But Miró’s sense of mission (and, perhaps, his alignment both with Catalan folk art and with Spanish Republican virtue) lent his work an authority that gave permission for Calder to be himself. Influence among artists works in many ways, but usually the most potent is to provide not a series of patterns but a set of permissions — confidence that what one is already inclined to do is not trivial. Calder had been making abstract animals since he was a child; Miró showed him that abstract animals were sufficient for major art. (It’s curious that Calder never seems to have been much impressed with Constantin Brancusi’s work, though Brancusi’s streamlined seals were closer in their way to his own preoccupations than the works of any other artist.) Calder became, and remained for the rest of his life, one of a rare kind: the American imaginatively located in Paris, seen as very French in New York, as very New York in France.”
“What you inherit, what you receive from a world that you did not fashion but that will do its best to fashion you, is at once beautiful and repellent. You will somehow have to come to terms with what is ugly as well as what is precious,” writes Stephen Greenblatt in Shakespeare’s Cure for Xenophobia.
“The task derives from the kind of creatures that we are. We arrive in the world only partially formed; a culture that has been in the making for hundreds of thousands of years will form the rest. And that culture will inevitably contain much that is noxious as well as beneficent. No one is exempt — not the Jew or the Muslim, of course, but also not the Cockney or the earl or the person whose ancestors came to America on the Mayflower or, for that matter, the person whose ancestors were Algonquins or Laplanders. Our species’ cultural birthright is a mixed blessing. It is what makes us fully human, but being fully human is a difficult work in progress. Though xenophobia is part of our complex inheritance — quickened, no doubt, by the same instinct that causes chimpanzees to try to destroy members of groups not their own — this inheritance is not our ineluctable fate. Even in the brief span of our recorded history, some five thousand years, we can watch societies and individuals ceaselessly playing with, reshuffling, and on occasion tossing out the cards that both nature and culture have dealt, and introducing new ones.”
“There is something very strange about experiencing The Merchant of Venice when you are somehow imaginatively implicated in the character and actions of its villain. You laugh when Shylock’s servant, the clown Gobbo, contemplates running away from his penny-pinching master. You smile when Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, having escaped from her father’s dark house into the arms of her beloved, declares, ‘I shall be saved by my husband. He hath made me a Christian.’ You shudder when the implacable Shylock sharpens his knife on the sole of his boot. You applaud the resolution of the dilemma, when clever Portia comes up with the legal technicality that confounds Shylock’s murderous plan. The Jew who had insisted upon the letter of the law is undone by the letter of the law; it is what is called poetic justice. But, all the same, you feel uneasy.
What, exactly, are you applauding and smiling at? How are you supposed to view the Jewish daughter who robs her father and bestows the money on her fortune-hunting Christian suitor? Do you join in the raucous laughter of the Christians who mock and spit on the Jew? Or do you secretly condone Shylock’s vindictive, malignant rage? Where are you, at the end of the harrowing scene in the courtroom, when Portia asks the man she has outmaneuvered and ruined whether he agrees to the terms she has dictated, terms that include the provision that he immediately become a Christian? ‘Art thou contented, Jew?’ she prods. ‘What dost thou say?’ And what do you think the Jew actually feels when he answers, ‘I am content’?”
At 50, the colossal Edifício Copan, which was designed by Oscar Niemeyer in the shape of the tilde above the ‘a’ in São Paulo, is starting to show its middle age, writes Jonathan Watts in Copan strategy: the wild plan to revamp the ‘coolest building in Latin America.’ Once a crime-ridden mess, the Copan has flourished thanks to the efforts of its fabled administrator, ‘Don Affonso’ Celso Prazeres de Oliveira. But can he push through his last, greatest scheme — the replacement of 72 million tiles? Although his plans have run into obstacles — city authorities have so far turned down the application — Don Alfonso hopes to get permission for the re-tiling before he retires next year. “Given his track record, few would bet against him getting his way,” Watts tells us.
“When I first moved in, I used to be ashamed to tell people I lived here. It was a mess. There were power cuts. Topless women did drugs on the roof. Anyone could go anywhere,” [Giovanni Bright, a Copan resident for 35 years] recalls. “Now, I believe it is the coolest building in Latin America. It’s safe, it’s central and there is so much attention on this building that it helps artists like me to get more visibility.”
“‘It ought to be a model. Unfortunately, today’s architects don’t think like Niemeyer, said Kleber Simões, a resident on the 13th floor better known as the DJ KL Jay. Born to a relatively humble mixed-race family on the outskirts of the city, Simoes says the diversity of Copan makes him feel comfortable. ‘This is a build for artists. There is a great energy. I’d be happy to spend the rest of my life here.’”
Students from the Kansas State University have designed and constructed a two-unit apartment building that is intended to be occupied by low-income families.Typically, affordable housing only advances perceptions of inequality rather than fight them. This project is the result of a rigorous investigation of the construction process, and an unwavering belief that design excellence is possible within affordable housing.
“The Waldo Duplex looks to the inherent benefits of duplex construction, but works to redefine the building typology through a wholehearted embrace of pragmatic constructive and material constraints,” according to the students.
“This position of ‘not knowing a priori’ is antithetical to the general model of the architect as hero. This is a damaging model because it discourages the slowness of process that comes from the patient search. Certainty is a prison.” — Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects in On Slowness, 1998