Dire Trend #3: Busywork?

Fourth in an ongoing series about the deeper reasons behind the difficulty of finding work

(Adapted from an essay originally presented on 4/4/05)

Most Americans are familiar with the phenomena of “busywork” –time-consuming tasks of dubious meaning and value, which much be completed according to precise but arbitrary parameters. Such tasks –generally consisting of pieces of paperwork to be laboriously filled out –compose a large portion of many people’s jobs (as trenchantly chronicled in the movie “Office Space” in which the main character’s entire career hinges around the use of one form versus another).

Few people realize, however, the extent to which busywork has come to dominate the American workplace, or have questioned the sinister implications of such a seemingly innocuous phenomenon.

The reason for the existence of busywork is as follows: In a money-based economy, wealth is relative. My spending power increases when the spending power of those around me decreases. However, there are some absolutes, and one of the most foundational absolutes is human labor. In order for anything to actually be produced, there must be human labor involved, and the value of human labor is physically bounded by the amount of productive work a person can do in a day.

What this means is that, in order for a people to become wealthier than the limits of their own labor, they need to me able to control, directly or indirectly, the labor of a large number of people. Direct control of other people’s labor, as in slavery, is ultimately inefficient, because one person can only exploit the labor of a limited number of people before facing the inevitability of a revolt. However, indirect control of labor solves this problem through the magic of hierarchy. If I control a small number of people –ten, for example –it takes relatively little force and coercion, particularly if I share the benefits of their labor with them.

A part interest in the labor of ten people is not enough to create immense wealth. If each of those ten people controls ten other people, however, and those people control ten other people, then I quickly reach a situation where I have a part interest in the labor of a thousand people (or, to extend it another level, ten-thousand). Now my wealth is greater than those of my laborers by several orders of magnitude.

One of the problems with this setup is that the vast majority of the actual productive labor that keeps the company running takes place at or near the bottom. There are other functions that take place higher up the hierarchy –skilled labor and technical work such as engineering and design for example –but the need for such labor is generally not extensive enough to fill the vast pyramids that compose mega-corporations.

This is where busywork enters the picture. The filling out of forms, shuffling of paper, and completion of meaningless tasks keeps people in the middle of the corporation busy, and thus prevents them from causing trouble. The busywork also structures the organization and keeps it from collapsing, by limiting opportunities for advancement and by placing barriers to productivity.

This last point demands some explanation. Why is productivity in the middle a bad thing? The answer is that the function of middle management is to maintain the organization and to keep the hierarchy from collapsing. Productivity is not the chief function of the middle. If people in the middle are too productive, it calls into question the need for the vast numbers of people in the middle. If I, as a mid-level employee complete tasks too efficiently and effectively, then why does the company need all the other workers at my level of the structure? It is only a useful fiction that my employment is maintained primarily for my productivity. Rather it is maintained for my utility as a channel through which wealth can flow upwards.

Thus, success in middle management is largely dependent on the ability to keep people busy, but not productive. In other words, the function of middle management is to create busywork. The more busywork that is available, the more the company can expand, and the larger the structure will be, thus creating a greater concentration of wealth at the top.

This explains a phenomena noticeable in many offices. One or two people may be the ones doing all of the actual productive work in the office, but they are surrounded by a vast number of other employees who are essentially supernumerary and parasitic. The employee who does the actual work, however, is less likely to be promoted or recognized than a co-worker who continually creates meaningless projects, and thus increases the workload on those around them.

Why is the hardworking employee disdained and the parasitic employee celebrated? The former endangers the employment of those around him or her by demonstrating their uselessness, but the latter ensures the continued employment of his or her coworkers by disguising their needlessness .

Unfortunately, this phenomena creates employment at the price of the death of creativity and human potential.  To restate the problem, our society is unable to generate a quantity of meaningful jobs sufficient for the working population, and so, in order to avoid mass unemployment, it must create jobs whose only real justification is their own existence.

NEXT WEEK:  The Bright Side of Unemployment

Dire Trend #2: The Global Pyramid Scheme

Third in an ongoing series about the deeper reasons behind the difficulty of finding work

Dire Trend #2 – The Global Pyramid Scheme: This second trend is a little easier to miss than the first one.  Did you ever get a letter –or an email –promising you $625 in the mail? All you had to do was send five dollars to each of the four people’s names above you on a list, add your name to the bottom of the list, and send the letter on to five (soon to be former) friends. This is what is known as a pyramid scheme, and it sounds like a great deal. Basically, the people at the beginning of the scheme, the top of the pyramid, get paid by an ever increasing pool of people at the bottom of the pyramid. It really does work as advertised, at first, but the same law of mathematics that promises exponentially huge payouts dooms the scheme to an unhappy ending. After only a short amount of time, you run out of people to recruit at the bottom of the pyramid. The very large group of people who come in at the end of the pyramid scheme pay money that goes to the people above them on the pyramid, but they never get any payment back because there aren’t enough suckers left to recruit under them.

Pyramid schemes never completely die off because they seem so promising. Most people learn pretty quickly to avoid the most obvious chain-letter type schemes, but millions of dollars are routinely lost in more upscale Ponzi-type pyramids, such as the one run by the crooked financier Bernie Madoff.

As many shock waves as were set off by the collapse of Madoff’s pyramid, however, it was small potatoes compared to the biggest pyramid scheme of all –the one played by nations. It works like this: In order to become wealthy, a nation industrializes, which means it opens up factories and begins mass producing consumer goods. In order for this to work, however, a nation needs a constant supply of low-priced raw materials, and a market full of consumers ready to buy the finished products.

When what are now the “First World” countries industrialized, one of the ways in which we accomplished that task was by entering into an exploitative relationship with less fortunate countries around the world.  In that relationship we obtained raw materials from them at artificially low costs, and sold back finished products to them at inflated prices. This relationship still continues, but there is now also a second tier of industrialized countries –places like China and India –that are still subsidizing the luxurious First World lifestyle, but that are also entering into their own exploitative relationships with countries further behind on the pathway to industrialization.

Like the Madoff investment group, the payoffs are great for the top of the pyramid –so far–, but a collapse is inevitable. The number of people in the world is large but finite, and the resources of the Earth are vast but exhaustable. Now that countries as large as China and India have entered the game, the chances of there being enough new recruits further down the pyramid to keep the system running are becoming smaller and smaller.

NEXT WEEK: Dire Trend #3

Dire Trend #1: Debt

Second in an ongoing series about the deeper reasons behind the difficulty of finding work

Dire Trend #1 – Runaway Debt: I think everyone has pretty much noticed this one, and if not, it’s because we’re collectively putting our fingers in our ears and shouting “Na na na na!” at the top of our lungs. In a nutshell, our government has run out of money, and is paying for everything on borrowed funds –as have other governments all around the world. It’s the same as when you or I put the rent on a credit card to make up for having no money in the bank. That means more money is going out than is coming in, it leads to exorbitant interest fees that make it ever harder to catch up, and sooner or later you reach your credit limit and get cut off. If that happens to you or me, we declare bankruptcy and lose our homes. If it happens to a Third World country, you end up with riots and the rise of warlords. I don’t think anyone knows what happens if it happens to the world’s premier superpower, but it seems unlikely to be good.

NEXT WEEK: Dire Trend #2

I’m bright, talented, hardworking, well-educated and have good social skills. Why can’t I find a job? After I graduated from college I worked for about two years for a small company, but they went under over a year ago. Since then I’ve been pounding the pavement with no results. I couldn’t even land a retail job I’m overqualified for. What the [CENSORED] is going on?*

Dear Jobless,

In the smaller picture, you may be doing something wrong –looking for the wrong kinds of opportunities, not projecting a professional image, showing up for your job interview with spinach in your teeth –something that can be fixed. It’s quite probable there are specific practical steps you can take that would lead you to finding and obtaining a job you would be very happy with, at a nice salary, with friendly, cheerful coworkers. That’s all possible in the smaller picture.

This is a philosophy column, however, and the big picture has less to do with your brightness, your talents, your work ethic, your education, or your ability to carry on a conversation and chew gum at the same time, and more to do with the impending –some would say ongoing –collapse of our society’s economic system.

I am not an economist, nor do I play one on television, but there are three current trends that require neither a Harvard degree nor a psychic sixth sense to read as warnings of dire consequences ahead. Understanding them might just be your last best chance at a brighter future.

NEXT WEEK: Dire Trend # 1

Is this statement a tautology: “If there were no opportunities there would be no crimes” ?

It depends on how strictly you want to define the word “tautology”.

A) FORMAL: If you wanted to evaluate it this statement as a formal tautology you would have to rewrite it as a formal statement first. In the form

“IF NOT a THEN NOT b”
(a=opportunities, b=crimes)
it is not a tautology, but in the form

“IF NOT a THEN NOT (a AND b)”
(a=opportunities, b=actions and opportunities + actions=crimes)

it is a tautology, because no possible assignment of a and b makes the statement as a whole false.

B) RHETORICAL
Although, taken literally, it seems to verge on a tautology in a rhetorical sense, you could reasonably argue that it functions rhetorically as a stand-in for the substantive claim “preventing opportunities is the best way to prevent crimes”.

who is the philosopher that said a real philosopher are the ones that question?

You are probably thinking of Socrates. To be exact, he said that the wiser man is the one who knows he knows nothing rather than the person who thinks he knows something (but does not). However, the underlying idea is the same. Socrates is also famous for developing a method of practicing philosophy that consists only of questions without answers (the Socratic Method).

What does Sartre mean by “Existence precedes essence?” What is essence and existence? What makes him conclude this? What further effect does this have on meaning, value, and freedom?

Essence in this case refers to the ancient philosophical idea (most closely associated with Plato) that all things have a predefined, ideal set of characteristics. For instance, the Essence of a chair is that it has four legs, a back, and people sit on it.

However, not everything matches its Essence. You might have a chair with three legs, or a broken back, or that no one sits on. The actual details of a particular chair make up its Existence.

The idea that Existence precedes Essence is that –for human beings –there is no predefined pattern that we must fit into. We live our lives, and that in turn defines what we truly are, not any idealized set of characteristics. This idea is the heart of Sartre’s version of Existentialism.

The implications are that we must create our own meaning, place our own value on our acts, and that our individual freedom is absolute and unbounded.

As a side note, Sartre, although an atheist, gave what I consider to be one of the best ever descriptions of God, as the “Union of Existence and Essence”, meaning that God is the full Existential realization of every perfect, ideal or Essential attribute of God. Sartre, of course, described that as an impossibility, but it is also a good description of what a believer believes God to be.

HI THERE..when we say time doesnt have any meaning in the life after death so we are living here and there now!how can it be possible?what happened to our soul in that case?and whataya think about the events we see from future?there are some connection between our soul in here and other life?

I can’t give any definitive answer to this question, but I can offer you a portrait of a situation that might be analogous. Picture yourself as a character in a book. Time only has meaning for you, the character, during the narrative of the story, which represents your life on earth. However, outside of the book you, the character also exist in the mind of the author. You were in the mind or the author before the book was written, while it was being written, and after it was finished. And although you experience your life as a series of chronological events, that perspective is only valid from within the story –from outside of the story, your life exists as a timeless whole, although it can only be experienced chronologically.

Reconstructivist Art: American Born Chinese

Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel American Born Chinese as an example of Reconstructivist Art.

American Born Chinese centers around what at first seem like three very different narratives.  The first is a superhero-themed retelling of a beloved classic tale from Chinese mythology, the story of the kung-fu practicing Monkey King.  The second is a realistic, contemporary story about a young Asian American boy, and his struggles to fit in at an almost wholly white school.  The third and final narrative is a sitcom about a white boy named Danny, and the mischief caused in his life by the yearly visits of his cousin “Chin-Kee”, a walking conglomeration of every possible offensive stereotype about Asians.  What makes the work a tour de force, however, is the way Yang swiftly, unexpectedly and yet credibly brings together the three narratives at the end, revealing them to be linked not merely thematically but also as facets of a single unifed storyline.

  1. Nod to Artifice:  Although the cartoon format is highly contrived to begin with, Yang further heightens the sense of artifice with the framing device for his third narrative, which is presented as an American sitcom, complete with an intrusive laugh track.
  2. Iconic and Transcontexual Elements:  The most notable examples of this are the Monkey King, an icon of traditional Chinese myth transposed to a number of alien settings throughout the book, and his counterpart Chin-Kee, a montrous being uniting a host of iconically offensive elements.  Other, less prominent icons include the herbalist’s wife, who represents the archetypal figure of the wise but sinister old woman, and a wide variety of pop culture references and icons, including Transformer toys, a high school named after a racially insensitive cartoonist, a reference to American Idol non-singer William Hung, and a cartoon representation of a popular You Tube video featuring two young Asian lip-synchers.
  3. Classic Structure:  Although Yang’s triple narrative structure is nothing if not innovative and unique, the three narratives considered separately all have familiar structures –the first story is patterned after the classic myth it borrows from, the second has elements of a teenage romantic comedy, and the last is a parody of a typical sitcom episode.  In addition, the larger story arc can be considered as having a traditional three act structure, with the caveat that all three acts are presented simultaneously.
  4. Moments of Genuine Emotion and Significance:  Stripped of its trappings, the heart of “ABC” is a starkly honest story that will be both familiar and relatable to anyone who has ever sacrificed some portion of his or her identity in order to fit in –which is to say, everyone.

Reconstructivist Art: Kehinde Wiley

Artist Kehinde Wiley as an example of Reconstructivist Art.

Adries Stilte II
From Wiley’s commissioned show at the Columbus Museum of Art, which featured Columbus area subjects in the style of portraits from the museum’s permanent collection

Wiley is an African American visual artist, known primarily for his lush, full-scale portraits of young urban African-American men in poses inspired by well-known paintings from the classical Western canon.  Here’s how his work matches against the four key elements of Reconstructivist Art.

  1. The Nod to Artifice: Although Wiley’s portraits include highly realistic figures, he is known for his highly stylized backgrounds which resemble ornamental wall coverings, and which sometimes interact with the figure in ways that emphasize the artificiality of the portrayal.
  2. A Classic Structure: As noted above, Wiley’s portraits are nearly always based directly on some established work of art from the Western canon.
  3. Transcontextual and/or Iconic Elements: Both the subjects of the portraits (young urban black men in contemporary dress), and the poses taken in the portraits (based on classic portraits from bygone centuries) are iconic elements transcontextualized to the timeless, placeless ornamental space in which Wiley works.
  4. Moments of Genuine Emotion or Significance: In making his juxtapositions, Wiley compels the viewer to look beyond ingrained conceptualizations of race and class.  In doing so, he shows us the common humanity linking his contemporary subjects with their medieval counterparts, and the universality of all human experience.

Is this sentence a question or a metaquestion?

It’s both. It has the form and function of a question, so it is a question, but it is about the questioning process, so it is also a metaquestion. Formal languages such as first or second order logic have paradox-avoiding restrictions that force an either/or choice between using regular langauge or meta langauge, but not both, but English, being a natural language, has no such constraints.

Can the questions answered by science be unlimited or limited by what can be investigated?

We have to define science first –let’s say it is the body of knowledge formed through the scientific method of testing hypotheses against verifiable empirical data.

It becomes clear that there are a range of questions science cannot answer. Science cannot answer the question of “what is science?” because the body of knowledge that composes science has boundaries that are dependent on already having an accepted definition of science. Science also cannot answer the question of “what questions can science not answer?” since that would require the ability to prove a negative, which cannot be done through empirical testing.

It also seems clear that science is ill-equipped to consider questions about unique phenomena –events or entities that cannot be duplicated, since the replicability of results is a key component of empirical verification. Science is also maladapted for the consideration of transcendent entities –i.e. God, if we assume God to be unbound by scientific laws.

It’s important, however, to keep in mind three things:

  • First, the limitations of science do not mean science is not a valuable and essential tool of understanding.
  • Second (and conversely), science’s inability to consider certain questions does not necessarily mean that the things considered by those questions are unreal, unimportant, or even unknowable (through other sources of knowledge).
  • Third, there are almost certainly things that do not currently seem empirically verifiable that may someday reveal an empirical footprint, and thus pass into the realm of what can be considered by science.

For an example of the last, consider the phenomenon of invisible electromagnetic radiation such as radio waves and UV light. At one point in history these rays would have seemed speculative, metaphysical, unverifiable, and perhaps even absurd, yet now their existence and their effects are uncontroversially accepted as belonging to the realm or science fact –because the advance of scientific equipment has made it possible to test them in ways that are verifiable and repeatable.

what is human nature

This ranks among the most important questions human beings must strive to answer. It’s also one of the most difficult.

There are three contrasting approaches typically used in answering this question. The first is pragmatic: Human nature is what humans do. The second is aspirational: Human nature is an ideal towards which we should strive. The third is constructivist: Human nature is what we say it is.

The first approach might be described as an anthropological research project. To pursue it, we simply look for patterns and commonalities in the behaviors of human beings around the world; and from there generalize to a description of human nature that reads as a list of typical traits and pursuits. Thus, for example, we might describe human beings as tool-making, building-constructing, art-loving, deity-worshiping, word-forming and/or war-mongering beings.

As sensible as the first approach may seem, it has substantial flaws. For one, there is tremendous variability among the cultures of the world. Is there any activity that is is so genuinely universal that every single human being (or even every single human society) practices it? And if so, is it truly unique to human beings, or is it something –such as eating or sleeping –that we share with all the other animals of the world?

A second major flaw in this approach is that it is purely descriptive. It tells us only what is, but gives us no basis for gaining understanding or making judgments. For instance, the sample list above claims that religion is a part of human nature, but doesn’t explain why, or whether that might be a good thing or a bad thing.

A third, and related flaw is that this approach seemingly locks us into the behaviors of the past. If warmongering is a part of human nature (as claimed above) does that mean that war is something we can never ever escape? Or is it possible that human nature might change in the future?

The second approach has a long and distinguished history in philosophy. The Ancient Greek philosopher Plato popularized the pursuit of virtues and ideals (such as Wisdom, Love, Truth and Beauty) as the correct aim of human nature, while his student Aristotle focused on a more earthbound set of “excellences” (such as skill in debate, skill in governance, skill in warfare, and so forth) as the true “measure of a man.” On the other side of the world the famous Chinese philosopher Confucius also advocated a similar approach.

The key advantage to this approach is that it celebrates the best in human nature, and in doing so offers a promise that we can become better as a species; even offering putative guidance towards transcending our weaknesses and eliminating our faults. As good as this may sound, however, this approach also has weaknesses. First, it is vulnerable to the charge of being an unfounded fantasy, divorced from reality –what evidence is there that Plato’s ideals have anything to do with “human nature” at all? Second, it raises the question of who sets the standards, and how can we ensure that they are universal and not ethnocentric –as in the case of many of the “excellences” of Confucius and Aristotle, which can seem strange and alien to a modern day observer in the West. Third, while it offers the possibility of progress towards an ideal of human nature, it does not simultaneously offer the possibility that human nature itself might progress. Thus, it runs the risk of being made obsolete by the changes in the human experience; most notably the increasing importance of technology of various kinds, and the effects on human societies of the worldwide crises of global warming and overpopulation.

The third approach, to claim that human nature is what we make of it, has a degree of freedom and openness, and a sense of personal agency and impact missing from the other two approaches. Yet by itself, it is far the weakest, possessing neither the direct connection to the real world of the first approach, nor the guidance and inspiration of the second approach. It thus threatens to reduce the entire concept of human nature to meaninglessness.

Rather than wholly adopting any one of these approaches, I would instead advocate a “reconstructivist” approach that draws from all three.

First, I think we need the anthropological background of the first approach in order to place human nature within a context; to let us know where we have come from, and what are the social, biological, spiritual and evolutionary pressures that have shaped us as a species. But from that point forward, I think we need to combine the second and third approaches in order to reconstruct a new vision of human nature that is responsive to the realities of the modern era, but that emphasizes the best potentials of human beings in order to create a brighter future.

In broad general outline, this is the way I would envision a reconstructed human nature:

First, I would reemphasize a range of traditional human practices, such as homemade meals enjoyed slowly and communally, face-to-face conversations, getting from place to place by foot (and living in places and ways that make that possible), community gardening and social dancing. These types of things have long histories in nearly all human cultures and therefore evoke a strong visceral response from most people.

Second, I would also reemphasize the arts and humanities, and practices such as music, painting, philosophy, rhetoric, mathematics, and so forth –these are practices that developed over the course of millennia towards the purpose of showcasing the unique aptitudes of human beings.

As far as attitudes towards age, I would reinstate an attitude of respect towards elders, as representatives of tradition and repositories of wisdom, but not to the innovation-stifling extent practiced by most traditional societies. At the same time I would reinforce the modern era’s attitude of respect towards the young, as representatives of innovation and sources of creativity, but not to the tradition-trampling extent practiced by most modern societies.

Some long-established facets of human nature would need to be discarded. Chief among these is the old equation of fecundity = happiness. Children are unquestionably our most precious resource, but our way of expressing that can and must change. I am an opponent of abortion, but I strongly support voluntary preventative birth control. We must embrace the fact that sexual activity is no longer synonymous with procreation. At the same time, we need to promote adoption as an alternative and as a supplement to biological family creation.

Something else that must be eliminated is the human tendency to go to war. The urge to compete is a necessary and positive element of human nature, but competition through violence has outlived whatever utility it once possessed. The new machines of war are so deadly, powerful and horrific, that we must unequivocally ensure they can never be deployed.

In addition, we must all take on a conservationist mindset with respect to natural resources. The past record of humanity on this is mixed. There have been societies, generally in resource rich environments, that have been successful despite their consumerist leanings, while other societies have thrived in resource poor environments through conservation. As the planet transitions from a resource rich to a resource poor environment, however, the human species as a whole must make the shift from a consumerist nature to a conservationist nature.

A modern student of humanity must also consider the place of technology in questions of human identity. On one hand, the invention and utilization of technology is one of the most characteristic of all human activities and traits. But on the other hand, the increasing pervasiveness of technological devices has had what can only be described as a dehumanizing effect on many people and societies.

I would argue for the following: first that we moderate our use of technology, instituting technological sabbaths similar to those practiced by Orthodox Jews, and scaling back our reliance on devices such as cell phones and PDAs. Second, that we change our technological focus away from dehumanizing instantiations of technology such as weapon development, cosmetic surgery and mass productive machinery, and towards more positive aims such as desert reclamation, clean energy production and preventative medicine. Finally, that we should less on physical/material technologies and more on the creation of a new set of social and cultural technologies that will help us better deal with one another as human beings.

difference between philosophy & science

The simplest answer is that philosophy is concerned with questions of why whereas science is concerned with questions of how. In other words, if I ask “How do we convert coal to energy?”, that is a science question, but if I ask “Why do we convert coal to energy?” and ”Should we convert coal to energy?” then I am starting to enter the realm of philosophy.

At one time all that we think of as science today was considered a part of philosophy, which encompassed all pursuits aimed at gaining, increasing or using knowledge and wisdom. Today, however, the two often seem very far apart.

Over the years there have been many different proposals about how the gap between science and philosophy should be bridged. Some believe that philosophy should become more scientific. At one time, there was even a strain of thought that argued that philosophy should become subservient to science and concern itself only with asking questions about scientific methodologies! I side rather with those who say scientists should become more philosophical, and spend more time questioning the use the meaning and the larger implications of their experiments and discoveries.

We must also remember that every science is based in some philosophy –some viewpoint about the nature and purpose of the universe.