On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs

Image an economy in which you were paid to do the things you like to read about on this blog: gardening, beer brewing, jam making, beekeeping etc. Or how about a world in which teachers, nurses and caregivers made more money than tech CEOs? Sadly, we don’t live in that utopia. Instead we have an economy that often rewards people who either do nothing all day or whose work degrades our lives.

Anthropologist David Graeber takes up these questions in his book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. Judging from the many months I waited for the library’s copy of Bullshit Jobs, Graeber hit a nerve. In fact, the original essay version of this book, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant” went viral.

Graeber’s bullshit job research began with a casual question in Twitter asking if people felt their jobs were worthless or unnecessary. He got a torrent of responses. Typical is the experience of this receptionist for a Dutch publishing company:

The phone rang maybe once a day, so I was given a couple of other tasks:

  • Keep candy dish full of mints. (Mints were supplied by someone else at the company; I just had to take a handful out of a drawer next to the candy dish and put them in the candy dish.)
  • Once a week, I would go to a conference room and wind a grandfather clock. (I found this task stressful, actually, because they told me that if I forgot or waited too long, all of the weights would fall, and I would be left with the onerous task of grandfather clock repair.)
  • The task that took the most time was managing another receptionist’s Avon sales.

In the book Graeber develops a taxonomy of Bullshit jobs and estimates that at least 50% of jobs could vanish and no one would notice. And, no, we’re not just talking about government jobs. It turns out that capitalism produces prodigious amounts of useless jobs despite those who claim that the alleged efficiency of markets makes this impossible.

While many of the examples in the book, such as the Dutch receptionist, are amusing behind them lies a lot of human misery. It turns out that being paid well to look like you’re busy when you’re not can crush the human soul. Worse are jobs such as telemarketers who, in order to get by, have do something deceptive or destructive.

Sadly, in our economy, with a few exceptions, the more useful your job is the more likely you are to not be paid well. On Thursday, here in Los Angeles, public school teachers are set to go on strike for better wages and to prevent creeping privatization by charter school companies. It’s very expensive to live here and a teacher’s salary amounts to a lower middle class wage. You probably won’t starve but you’ll never be able to afford to buy a house. Instead our economy rewards finance sector employees who have no idea what they were hired for and who spend their work days pretending to do something while they are actually just looking at Facebook. Worse, Graeber shows how those in power foster resentment between those in bullshit jobs and useful workers such as teachers and utility workers.

Much of this inequity falls on women, who are more likely to occupy low paid but useful jobs taking care of other people. Lost in the tedious debate over the percentage of female Google engineers is why we pay hospice nurses less than the people who figure out how to serve ads for outdoor grills while we search for porn.

Graeber goes on to describe the history of our attitudes towards work from the medieval guild system to the bloated bureaucracies of the present. Along the way he delves into the theology of why we think terrible jobs are good for us. He concludes with an argument for universal basic income that had me (a skeptic of UBI) partly convinced.

If you’ve read this book or experienced a bullshit job leave a comment!

2018: The Year in Review

Walter Crane: Christmas Card, 1894.

As Kelly noted in our Christmas letter it was a non-eventful year and sometimes that’s a good thing. We had no visits to the emergency room and no unexpected problems or crises. We have full stomachs, health care and a roof over our heads, all luxuries in this unjust world.

We spent most of the year on a home restoration project, putting the house back to exactly the way it was configured when built in 1920. A crew fixed our back patio and will return sometime this year to do some hardscaping for our neglected garden.

The blogging year involved a lot of kvetching, a veritable casserole of complaints with blog posts on the Thanksgiving holiday, squirrels eating all of our fruit, hoarding food and books, smart phones, junk mail, open floor plans, as well as proof that I’ve gone full Luddite.

Speaking of old Ned Ludd, the most commented upon post was the one in which I announced the deletion of my Facebook account. Let me note that I’ve not regretted it one bit and please allow me to toot my prognosticational horn by noting how news about Facebook went from terrible to, well, beyond terrible by the end of the year. When I first blogged about Facebook I thought I might have been too harsh. In fact, I probably wasn’t harsh enough.

As far as 2019 goes, I long ago gave up on New Years resolutions. But I know partly what is in store for 2019: finishing home improvements and working on that neglected garden.

How did your year go? What do you have planned for 2019?

That Time I Got Deplatformed

There’s been a lot of publicity, including an article in today’s New York Times “Patreon Bars Anti-Feminist Hate Speech, Inciting Revolt” about “deplatforming” or being booted off internet services due to controversial content. Most of the cases have involved alt-right figures such as Alex Jones and Sam Harris.

But even if you’re not a prominent trouble maker you can be deplatformed suddenly, without warning and with no recourse. I didn’t blog about it at the time, but back in September of 2017 a Meetup group I ran, The Los Angeles Bread Bakers got booted off its payment system, a Paypal competitor called WePay (as of October 2017, owned by JPMorgan Chase). Mike of WePay’s Orwelian “Customer Delight” department sent me this astonishingly rude email:

Mike (WePay Support)
Sep 1, 2017 1:56 PM PDT

Hi there,

We apologize for the inconvenience, but WePay is no longer able to process payments for your account. Our banks and processors hold us to a strict guideline on what we can and cannot process through our site. All information regarding our review process is proprietary so typically, no additional information is available in these instances. Unfortunately, we will not be able to provide you with our services. We wish you all the best moving forward.
Best,
Mike
WePay | Customer Delight

In other words, we’re kicking you off, not telling you why and don’t bother contacting us. I tried to take up the issue with Meetup, but I had too much going on in my life at that time to resolve the issue.

Without the ability to process payments for classes WePay had, effectively, made the Los Angeles Bread Bakers Meetup useless. Meetup does not allow you to integrate other payment services such as PayPal. You have to use WePay if you want to use Meetup’s registration/reservation system. Thankfully, Roe Sie of the King’s Roost took over LABB and runs class payments though his business. But, without Roe’s help, the LABB meetup would have folded.

LABB never had any complaints about payments or refunds for classes. Maybe it had something to do with an anti-Trump bake sale that was organized by some members of the group a few weeks before we got booted off. It could also have been a simple credit card problem. Or maybe they were cleaning up things ahead of being purchased by Chase. But I have no way of knowing since WePay refused to disclose their reasoning.

Kris De Decker, who runs the awesome blog Low Tech Magazine just had the experience of getting caught in a Facebook “fake news” algorithm when the company rejected an ad he had taken out for his blog post on energy security.

This incident combines the idiocy of Silicon Valley’s monopoly over content with their belief that algorithms can parse the nuances of all the world’s languages. No intelligent person would confuse Kris’ carefully researched, non-partisan writing with “fake news.”

I’ll conclude with some advice: if you are a small business person or someone who hopes to run an internet based business, if you can, make sure that you are not dependent on any one platform. And have a contingency since it’s probably not a matter of if, but when you will be deplatformed even if you’re not spouting conspiracy theories or hate speech. It’s also time for us all to think about, as Kris De Decker has, of starting some alternatives to the big Silicon Valley platform monopolies.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Many thanks to all of you, our dear readers and listeners for your kind comments, input and support.

In lieu of sending a gift to each and every one of you, we offer this link to a downloadable version of William Morris’ fantasy novel, The Story of the Glittering Plain illustrated by Walter Crane and suitable for your tablet thingy or online reading. The book, published in 1894, influenced a young J.R.R. Tolkien.

May you all have a productive and happy 2019.

The Art and Architecture of C.F.A. Voysey

As a tangential way of following up on my overly hasty post on turn of the last century street scenes let me begin by saying that I’m not interested in an uncritical nostalgia for the past. Rather, I’d like to question why we assume we’re on the only right historical trajectory. What would happen if we could see that the way things are now are not the only possible way things could have turned out? In the case of those streets, for instance, what would have happened if we had planned cities on a more human scale and had not ceded so much real estate to automobiles? And why can’t we change the way we do things now?

C.F.A. Voysey: Design for a house.

Questioning this myth of progress is one of the reasons I’m so obsessed with the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I have a sense that many art historians don’t like this period because it doesn’t fit neatly into a linear progression from representation to abstraction. It also combines a contradictory, conservative interest in historicism along with radical socialist politics. So, just like reconsidering our streets, how about we ponder what would have happened if the Arts and Crafts movement had not died in the horrors of WWI.

C.F.A. Voysey: cabinet.

Looking for some dining chairs to make for our living room, I stumbled on the work of C.F.A. Voysey, an English Arts and Crafts architect and designer. He took an obsessive gesamtkunstwerk (total art work) approach to his architectural commissions, insisting on designing not just the building but the furniture and everything down to the pen trays. Very conservative politically, he was an exception to the more progressive bent of the movement. It’s also obvious that he spent every spare moment of his life obsessively drawing.

C.F.A. Voysey: Birds of Many Climes c.1900.

Voysey’s work points to an alternate trajectory in which our art and our cities are entwined with a reverence for nature instead being at the service of machines. Instead we have the cynicism, self absorption and nihilism of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. And all we have to look forward to are cites soon to be clogged with self driving cars.

C.F.A. Voysey: design for wallpaper.

Though we ended up in a great crapulence, at least we can still get Voysey’s wallpaper. Put it on your kids walls and maybe it will inspire them to figure out a better future.