Not going to lie – this week’s email comes out swinging a bit. Not 100% sure it works.
I debated sending it at all.
In the end, there’s nothing to do but trust the process and hope it lands.
Let me know your thoughts at the end. You can always reply right to this email; I read every one.
Is This The Factory Floor?
I’d like to point out something that you likely take for granted:
The language of work has seeped into everyday life.
This occurred to me, of course, while I was reading a textbook on Lean Manufacturing and wondering how I could apply it’s lessons to my personal life…
(This is what you read in your spare time too, right? Of course it is.
My next project – a productivity course called “Against Productivity” – is about this sort of thing.
If I’m being honest, though, I’d be reading it anyway.)
Consider love, the least “businesslike” thing we do.
What’s the most common, most cliche advice on love?
The thing you’d hear in any marriage book, dating book, relationship book…
From any therapist, sexologist, or advice columnist?
“Relationships take work.”
Laura Kipnis, in her wonderful book Against Love: A Polemic (from which I have shamelessly stolen my title), underlines the point:
“We all know that Good Marriages Take Work: we’ve been well tutored in the catechism of labor-intensive intimacy.
Work, work, work: given all the heavy lifting required, what’s the difference between work and ‘after work’ again? Work/home, office/bedroom: are you ever not on the clock?
Good relationships may take work, but unfortunately, when it comes to love, trying is always trying too hard: work doesn’t work.”
Of course, relationships aren’t the only thing we’re taught “take work.”
If you want to be a good person, you probably believe that you need to be working out…
Or working on yourself…
Or “doing the work” in therapy.
With all this “work” going on it’s not surprising that we’re all obsessed with productivity…
But it’s important to understand how new this concept is.
How To Lift Heavy Things
Taylorism (the “scientific management” system spearheaded by Frederick Winslow Taylor in the 1880s) is where our modern sense of “productivity” begins.
Taylor’s goal was getting the worker…
(“so stupid and phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles in his mental makeup the ox than any other type”, in Taylor’s words)
…on the factory floor to lift more and more heavy shit.
Anything that got in the way of this (say, a brief moment to enjoy the sunshine) was waste.
As Stanley Buder puts it in Capitalizing on Change: A Social History of American Business, “Taylor…substituted a mechanical work pace based on repetitive motions for the worker’s freedom to use his body and his tools as he chose.”
From this came the idea that it is an unqualified good to get ever more output from the same amount of input.
No matter what.
Enjoying the sunshine can go fuck itself – we have screws to tighten!
So, let me make a bold claim:
Productivity is dehumanizing.
But what do we really mean, when we say something’s dehumanizing?
We mean we are removing the biological – the human.
What defines the biological?
Redundancy, variation, diversity – in other words, randomness.
Capitalism abhors the random.
After all, economies of scale only emerge when every Big Mac is identical…
When the experience is guaranteed no matter what town, or state, or even country you’re in.
A Big Mac is a Big Mac is a Big Mac.
Unreliability means uncertainty and uncertainty means lost profits.
Businesses need reliability, because reliability means you can calculate a profit margin.
To achieve this, systems must be constructed, and then subordinated to.
Redundancy is eliminated.
Variation is reduced.
Diversity becomes monoculture.
As Taylor himself put it:
“In the past, man has been first; in the future, the system must be first.”
This is the logic of the factory floor: an unending conveyor belt attended to by automatons.
Pure, logical, productive, and efficient.
In other words, inhuman.
(This is the system’s greatest weakness…but that’s a discussion for another time.)
Now let’s move this unrelenting logic of the factory floor to “knowledge work” –
You know, the stuff that’s creative, requires originality, involves personal interaction….
The human stuff.
People are just so damn variable.
Our day to day performance changes depending on how we slept, whether we’ve had sex in the last week, whether we’ve gotten enough sunlight, whether our blood sugar is too high (or too low).
These squishy bits might help with survival, but they’re terrible at work.
If that’s the case, why the drive to be more productive?
Why the creeping dread that our inboxes are full, our schedules packed, our phantom phones buzzing in our pockets?
Excess Capacity Goes To The Bosses
The lie was that increased productivity at work would mean more free time at home.
This has been the promise of all since technology since the wheel.
As recently as 2013, Ross Douhat wrote in the New York Times that we were experiencing “a kind of post-employment, in which people drop out of the work force and find ways to live, more or less permanently, without a steady job. So instead of spreading from the top down, leisure time — wanted or unwanted — is expanding from the bottom up.”
Wonderful. How’s all that awesome free-time treating you, post-employment?
In fact, technology almost never “frees up” time for leisure. Excess capacity always goes to the bosses.
More time means higher standards and more demands on that time. After all – if you can respond at midnight to a work text, why shouldn’t you?
We saw this with household labor. The promise of the dishwasher, washing machine and vacuum cleaner was they would provide household workers more free time.
Instead, standards of cleanliness rose with the excess capacity, and now mom is on her hands and knees cleaning the bathroom tiles with a toothbrush instead of reading Proust in the garden.
(Happy Mother’s Day, by the way!)
What this expansion of “work time” does is suffocate our “work-less” time.
“Work/Life balance” is a meme in our culture because one always overlaps with the other. There’s never a clean break.
So, rather than becoming more productive at work and finding ourselves with oodles of free time…
We find ourselves becoming more productive at work, and having less free time as a result.
And so, why not try what worked for the boss – and turn the tools of scientific management on ourselves?
And so Taylor waltzes into our homes, clipboard in hand.
Our desperate hope:
If we can become more productive in our vanishing “free” time…
We can cram more life into less hours.
Kanban Boards – popularized inside Toyota manufacturing plants – in our kitchens, helping keep track of chores.
Bullet journaling – “the analog method for the digital age that will help you track the past, order the present, and design your future” – to keep track of self-care.
Sex, intimacy, and date nights – scheduled across a shared Google Calendar.
We’ve bought into the belief that because business is effective, it must be good;
And so the tools of business can help us live a decent life.
But they can’t.
Because business is about efficiency;
And efficiency is about process;
And efficient processes cut variety, chance, and waste;
And thus, efficient processes are dehumanizing.
And living a good life is all about being human, with all the messiness that entails.
You and I both know what the ultimate extension of this thought process looks like.
You and I have both seen the logic of the factory floor applied to living things.
Because a slaughterhouse is just another kind of factory.
Just one pure moment of silence
You’ll never see it coming –
you’ll be far too busy.
Because I don’t want to end it there…
And because I stated at the beginning that I’m working on a course on productivity…
What’s to do about all this?
I have a few thoughts:
1. Productivity needs to be, first and foremost, hedonistic.
By which I mean, it is designed to produce pleasure in your life. Fuck your boss, fuck your job, fuck your sidehustle –
The goal of productivity is pleasure.
2. Productivity needs to be humanizing.
We don’t build a system so that we can imprison ourselves in it.
We need to build a system that is human; one that allows for serendipity, for aesthetic joy, for the days when we just don’t feel like getting shit done.
It’s not about doing more. It’s about being effective in our human pursuits.
If you’re wondering what that looks like in practice…
Well, I’m working on it.
Stay tuned – I’ll tell you when it’s ready.
Better Questions Newsletter
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.