The twenty-four hour loaf

In the educational and science fiction comics of the fifties and sixties it was commonly predicted that we would soon be living in an age of leisure, when robots and computers would make the daily grind of work a thing of the past, and we could devote our lives to the pursuit of pleasure, (sometimes interrupted by the ongoing war against the Mekon and the Treens, led by our hero, Dan Dare, the Pilot of the Future, and his sidekick Digby).

By the eighties we were assured that the advent of the PC and the "paperless office" would take the drudgery out of office work, and lead to an unprecedented era of creativity in the office, but it didn't happen.

The computer on our desktop was sold to us as a productivity enhancer that would change our working lives, give us power at our fingertips, improve communication, and rid us of the stiff embrace of bureaucratic control.

But the long-term effects of the word processor revolution have not always been beneficial or profitable for the organisation. The office suite long ago spread from its original preserve on the secretarial desk to the computer of every worker in the organisation, sometimes with detrimental effects. Office suites have their virtues, but their overuse as a means of intradepartmental communications, and the working practices and culture that they promote, can get in the way of productive work, and paradoxically, increase the bureaucratic overload. We now routinely expect an elaborate prepared document where once a quick word and rapid action would have done. Anyone who has worked inside a large corporation knows the routine - masses of man hours are wasted producing documents which exist only to impress managers, and go straight from the desktop to the manager's in-tray to the wastepaper basket, and largely remain unread and unconsidered.

Teenage heaven

Two centuries ago Benjamin Franklin predicted that the technological advances of the late 1700s would lead to the four-hour working week. A century later George Bernard Shaw confidently predicted that by the year 2000 we would be working a two hour day. Not everyone saw this as a glorious future, but the loafers and eternal teenagers among us have been living in hope. Robots would do the washing up, go down the mines, man the factories and hoover the floors. Technology would be our liberator, and free us for more creative pursuits.

Strangely, not only has this not happened, but the mines and factories have also disappeared.

There may be robots working on the factory floor but few of them are in Britain. This is an economic miracle in itself. We are living in a golden age of service industries and consumerism, where we work longer and longer hours for less and less reward, and often with less and less tangible purpose. If you are making objects that can be traded for other objects, it is easy to see the economic benefit to the community, but the great manufacturing industries of Britain have long since disappeared, squeezed and asset-stripped out of existence two or three decades ago, and they haven't been replaced.

Waiting for the crash

Like many western economies, the modern economy of Britain is booming, but we manufacture little, trade even less, and work longer hours than any other country in Europe. The British economy, at the individual and the corporate level, depends upon the intangibles of the trading floor, the moving around of money that exists only on paper, and the shuffling of debts from one corner of the world to another, the leftover assets of Empire. As long as we keep shuffling the debts around our economy keeps expanding - at least, until the oil runs out, or the gas power stations fail for lack of fuel, or everybody decides to pull in their debts...

The culture has changed. Far from living in an age of leisure, we are working longer hours than we were thirty years ago. Where once we were promised a thirty-five hour week and full employment for all, such is the current level of insecurity in the workplace that our own (nominally left-of-centre) government was able to veto a European directive that made the uncontroversial decision to limit the working week to 48 hours. It was argued that a shorter working week would cut productivity - but one famous precedent during the seventies when a miners' strike and an oil crisis led to the imposition of a compulsory three day week seemed to prove that productivity was barely affected by shortening the working week. The nature of things would seem to be that humans will expand work to fill the hours available, and not the other way round...

At the top of the tree, the bankers, the pop stars, the premiership footballers and celebrities live on the hill and rake in greater and greater rewards, and those at the bottom claw at the roots... the rest of us are sitting at work watching reddit or del.icio.us or digg, and doing some work in the hours between.

For the average honcho, tealady, bean-counter or cheese-parer, longer hours at work does not necessarily equal more work done.

Full unemployment

Even further away than Shaw's prediction of the two hour working day is the Dadaists' hopeful promise in the aftermath of the First World War, of a state of Full Unemployment, a condition we could describe as the twenty-four hour loaf. It hasn't happened, and probably never will. Instead, too many of us live in a homogenised gloom, reading the news of the Daily Planet, waiting for the coming catastrophe, and clinging to the glimmer of a hope that something might come down and whisk us away to a better future.

So what has any of this to do with GNU/Linux or free software, you might ask. Not a lot. Except that the emergence of GNU/Linux as a powerful strategic operating system, and the spread of open source methodologies, has illustrated the potential for changing some working practices in the wider world. Most of the Linux kernel hackers are employed by large companies. Few are employed in an orthodox fashion. They are widely dispersed and many work from home on their own projects with little direction from their employers. One of the many lessons that can be derived from this is that productive workers don't have to be locked into cubicles and overseen - give them enough rope and they actually get things done.

In his book 'The Play Ethic: Manifesto for a New Way of Living', Pat Kane argues that "Play will be to the 21st century what work has been to the last 300 years of industrial society, our dominant way of knowing, doing and creating value."

Talking to Phil Leggiere for New World Disorder magazine, Kane says: "If the case is made clearly that a more playful organisation can mean a more value-added organisation, in terms of innovation flow and internal vitality, then change can indeed happen. A lot of talented people in info-age companies are already multi-faceted players - and there's a lot of corporate receptivity to designing organisational cultures that can retain and deploy these people. The tension as ever is between strategic and operational levels - the strategists want to be game-changers, but with those operating the machinery or doing the retail as their pawns or playthings. Until business starts to look at more cooperative models like the Mondragon corporation in Spain - quoted by both Shoshanna Zuboff in the 'The Support Economy' and Thomas Malone in the 'The Future of Work' - then genuinely play-ethical enterprises won't come into being."

In other words, managers need to recognise the value and talents of their workers, and release their potential through the spread of initiative and participation. Too many workplaces are ruled by rung climbing, timekeeping and uniformity.

Asteroid prospecting

In conclusion it is worth quoting at length from the GNU manifesto, written way back when:

"In the long run, making programs free is a step toward the post-scarcity world, where nobody will have to work very hard just to make a living. People will be free to devote themselves to activities that are fun, such as programming, after spending the necessary ten hours a week on required tasks such as legislation, family counselling, robot repair and asteroid prospecting. There will be no need to be able to make a living from programming."

"We have already greatly reduced the amount of work that the whole society must do for its actual productivity, but only a little of this has translated itself into leisure for workers because much non-productive activity is required to accompany productive activity. The main causes of this are bureaucracy and isometric struggles against competition. Free software will greatly reduce these drains in the area of software production. We must do this, in order for technical gains in productivity to translate into less work for us."


Richard Hillesley



Comments

The Abolition of Work

The Abolition of Work, Bob Black, 1984.

Re: The Abolition of Work

An interesting reference.

I suppose the other obvious reference, as someone pointed out, is Guy Debord, who once wrote a pamphlet with a similar title. But my real point was that much of the work we do is about work creation rather than work satisfaction - a lot of the time we spend at work we spend distracting ourselves from work, and a lot of the work we do is about filling in the alloted hours, rather than achieving any real objective. Different perspectives could bring better outcomes, especially where the perspective of the work force is valued for more than just the monetary return it produces..

Here's a quote from Mark Twain that sums it up:
"What work I have done I have done because it has been play. If it had been work I shouldn't have done it. Who was it who said, "Blessed is the man who has found his work"? Whoever it was he had the right idea in his mind. Mark you, he says his work--not somebody else's work. The work that is really a man's own work is play and not work at all. Cursed is the man who has found some other man's work and cannot lose it. When we talk about the great workers of the world we really mean the great players of the world. The fellows who groan and sweat under the weary load of toil that they bear never can hope to do anything great. How can they when their souls are in a ferment of revolt against the employment of their hands and brains? The product of slavery, intellectual or physical, can never be great."

Richard Hillesley

The mines and factories are still here!

You say: "but the mines and factories have also disappeared."

No they haven't! They've just moved elsewhere. People are still working in mines, and people are still working in factories. Just because YOU (and me) don't know them, and they don't live near us, doesn't mean they don't exist. Just because we live in countries with imaginary economies doesn't mean that all economies are imaginary -- it just means ours are.

The way mining and factory work goes may have changed (in fact, I know it's changed in some ways) -- but unless you LOOK at where it IS being done now, any analysis will founder.

--Jesse Weinstein

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