Originally published on 18 September 2018.
This is it.
I’ve finally found it.
The tech story that has made me question everything. But for very different reasons than it intended to.
From CNBC (emphasis mine):
Enam, Cresta’s CEO, describes an unusual situation that he counts as a sign of the success.
A sales representative using Cresta’s product recently told him that she got a sudden nosebleed while on the clock sending chat messages to customers, but was able to continue her work unimpeded. While ebbing the bleeding with one hand, she could click Cresta’s conversational suggestions with the other.
A sign of success.
A worker begins bleeding from the nose, and instead of stopping to see why her body is draining of blood, she “ebbs the bleeding with one hand” and continues answering customer service messages with the other.
And this is, completely without irony, hailed as a success by the creator of her work system.
Of all the AI, climate change, robotic and other tech scare stories I read daily, this is the only one that horrifies me.
And it’s not even a scare story. It’s a positive news piece about a new office automation software developed by “The creator of Google’s self-driving car project”.
Being so committed to your customer service job that you won’t take a break when you are bleeding from the face is hailed as a good thing.
The article continues (again emphasis mine):
The image of an employee working through the loss of vital fluids may seem bleak, but Enam says it illustrates the product’s value. Just imagine all the other types of distractions you may need to work through or the mundane tasks that could be breezed through faster.
No, Enam, It doesn’t “illustrate the product’s value”. What it does is illustrate the complete lack of value you place in other humans.
“Just imagine all the other types of distractions you may need to work through.” Yeah, like the death of a loved one. Or childbirth. Or cancer. Or a stroke. Or a heart attack.
“I did suffer a heart attack at my desk. But thanks to Enam’s automation software, I was able to keep taking customer calls about our electric toothbrush head replacements, even while in the ambulance to hospital.”
Obviously that last quote was made up by me. But had it happened, I’m sure it, too, would be hailed as a success.
How can you possibly think that someone continuing to work while bleeding from the face is a good thing – a step in the right direction for humanity?
If that person was a marine in combat, or an emergency services first responder, fair enough. But they were answering customer service questions about a product I would imagine no one even needed in the first place.
A scar across our collective soul
In 2013, anthropologist David Graeber penned an essay Strike! Magazine, titled: On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant.
It crashed the website.
It was read more than a million times and translated into 12 languages. This year, Graeber expanded his essay into a book, which quoted some of the hundreds of responses he had to the original piece.
You can read it here.
The crux of his essay, and later book, is this (From Eliane Glaser’s review of the book in the Guardian):
In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that technological advances would enable us to work a 15-hour week. Yet we seem to be busier than ever before. Those workers who actually do stuff are burdened with increasing workloads, while box-tickers and bean-counters multiply.
Yet as he notes, people are not inherently lazy: we work not just to pay the bills but because we want to contribute something meaningful to society. The psychological effect of spending our days on tasks we secretly believe don’t need to be performed is profoundly damaging, “a scar across our collective soul”.
As well as documenting personal misery, this book is a portrait of a society that has forgotten what it is for. Our economies have become “vast engines for producing nonsense”. Utopian ideals have been abandoned on all sides, replaced by praise for “hardworking families”. The rightwing injunction to “get a job!” is mirrored by the leftwing demand for “more jobs!”
As I said, Graeber wrote his original essay in 2013. Five years on and, if anything, the situation now is even worse.
Although, I’m hesitant to say “worse”. It’s not like we’re in some sort of authoritarian dystopian nightmare. It’s just that many people’s jobs – and by extension, lives – are becoming more and more meaningless. And they know it.
After all, like it or not, we are defined by our jobs. It’s one of the first things people ask about when they meet you: “What do you do for a living?”
If you know that what you do for a living is essentially pointless, it’s going to impact on pretty much everything else in your life.
As Glaser said in her review of the book: “The psychological effect of spending our days on tasks we secretly believe don’t need to be performed is profoundly damaging, ‘a scar across our collective soul.’”
Perhaps that unnamed, bleeding worker really did believe her tasks needed to be performed. But I doubt it. I imagine she was just trying to prove that nothing would impede her productivity for fear of losing her job.
Because it’s all well and good calling out jobs as bullshit, but if you can’t offer a solution, it’s basically not much better than whinging.
So what is the solution? How can people possibly find meaningful work while still paying the bills? And how can it happen without “society grinding to a halt”?
On this Graeber, like many others over the last few years, suggests some form of universal basic income (UBI).
Essentially paying people to live, so they can have their basic needs met while they pursue a more meaningful life.
The question is, where would all that money come from, and wouldn’t many just abuse the system?
Well, that’s’ what I’ll be covering in tomorrow’s Exponential Investor. The pros and cons of UBI, and if it really is the only viable solution as automation wipes out the workforce.
Editor, Exponential Investor
PS Congratulations if you recognised the Predator quote I used as today’s headline. Still one of the greatest Arnie films of all time.