Total Work Newsletter #3: AI And Ennui

Total Work Newsletter: How Work Took Over the World

Total Work, a term coined by the philosopher Josef Pieper, is the process by which human beings are transformed into workers as work, like a total solar eclipse symbolized in the logo above, comes to “occult” all other aspects of life. In these newsletters, I’ll be documenting, reflecting upon, and seeking to understand this world historical process, one that started at least as far back as 1800 and quite possibly well before then.

Update: In Issue #2, I included an article describing how Treehouse, a Portland-based educational startup, had decided to implement a 32-hour workweek. Jacqueline Jensen (@JackieMJensen) informed me afterward that Treehouse has since returned to a 40-hour workweek. You can read more about it here.

Going To The Woods

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan- like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

So wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden. On the Upper East Side of New York City, while walking south of 92nd Street on Lexington Ave., Alexandra and I used to recite, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately….” And so we did. This was the winter of 2013 and to Appalachia we went.

Thoreau left Walden Pond after living there for two years, two months, and two days.

AI And Ennui

#1: Bonfire of the Noveau Tech Vanities This Is Your Life in Silicon Valley – The Bold Italic 11 min. | Medium | Satire?

In Brief: In Sunil Rajaraman’s short story, which I presume is a satire yet may not be, we learn about the day in in the life of an unnamed 27-year-old protagonist working in Silicon Valley. It begins: “You wake up at 6:30 a.m. after an Ambien-induced sleep. It’s Friday. Last night at the Rosewood was pretty intense — you had to check out Madera and see if there is any truth to the long-running…”

Of Bonfires: In 1987, Tom Wolfe wrote a satirical novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, about life on Wall Street. (Looking for a darker portrayal? Go with Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho.) To the best of my knowledge, no comparable book has yet to be written about the excesses and vanities of Silicon Valley denizens.

Of Vice and (Mostly) Men: Evident in this piece are vanity, envy, a vaguely construed notion of “success,” a remarkable thoughtlessness, insularity, and delusion about greatness.

#2: How Automation Will Change Work, Purpose, And Meaning 5 min. | HBR | Future of Work

HBR Summary: “The promise of AI and automation raises new questions about the role of work in our lives. Most of us will remain focused for decades to come on activities of physical or financial production, but as technology provides services and goods at ever-lower cost, human beings will be compelled to discover new roles — roles that aren’t necessarily tied to how we conceive of work today.”

Nails It!: Wolcott writes that, apart from the political question concerning how to distribute wealth, there’s a more vexing philosophical question: “When technology can do nearly anything, what should I do, and why?”

Nails It x 2!: “When,” Wolcott concludes, “our machines release us from ever more tasks, to what will we turn our attentions? This will be the defining question of our coming century.” I agree.

It's The Modern Workplace, Ya'll

As seen by Peter Limberg in a Toronto bookstore

“In the modern workplace,” we read, “corner offices and water coolers have given way to open layouts and office dogs. But while the workplace itself is changing, what it takes to be a good employee and reliable coworker remains steadfast. From maximizing your productivity to navigating office dating and communal kitchens, Work Life is a handbook for the modern office―whatever yours looks like.”

In a book excerpt, Molly Erman explains, “I spent much of my twenties trying to understand what it meant to do ‘good work.’ My fellow assistants and I became a mesh network of support for each other. G-chats flew between us in real-time as we contemplated pressing questions — how to request time off, how to deal with a disrespectful coworker, and what to do if you’ve seriously effed up bigtime. Is office dating always illegal, or is it kind of okay? Can you leave the office before your boss, or should you stick around — and what to do if it’s 9 P.M.?”

While these are, without question, what medievalists would have called casus perplexi (“perplexing cases”), one wonders whether there’s any time to consider the nature and aims of life beyond the subtleties of office politics, the nuances associated with getting ahead, and the unstated workplace mores.

#3: Maybe We're In Trouble A World Without Work 20 min. | The Atlantic | Longform Essay

Atlantic’s Summary: “For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?”

In Brief: The author describes three visions of a post-work future: (a) consumption, (b) communal creativity, and © contingency. Regarding (a), he’s rightfully concerned about leisure (which he incorrectly calls “consumption”) because “it doesn’t resemble the world as it is currently experienced by most jobless people.” I agree and argue as much about ennui in my essay below. Regarding (b), he takes us to makerspaces and wonders, with many others I’m starting to read in the post-work literature, whether this could inaugurate a period of great craftsmanship. Maybe. Nobody knows. Apropos ©, he presents us with a vision of greater economic precarity, one with which many millennials are already very well-acquainted.

Recommendation: If, um, you only have, ya know, enough time to read one longform essay this week, let it be this one. Albeit long, it’s well worth, ya know, the “time investment.” Gotta be some hidden ROI somewhere too.

#4: Alternative Work Arrangements Are Here! The Real Future Of Work 15 min. | Politico | Longform Essay

Politico’s Summary: “Forget automation. The workplace is already cracking up in profound ways, and Washington is sorely behind on dealing with it.”

In Brief: The author discusses at great length the economic status of the contract worker (or what some sociologists now call “the precariat class.”) Helpfully, he disabuses the reader of the idea that it’s only Silicon Valley startups making the push toward alternative work arrangements. As it happens, the change came earlier and was spearheaded by larger companies moving people from “full-time employee” status to that of the “independent contractor.”

Key Quote: “They [Democrats] all warn about automation and worry that robots could replace humans in the workplace. But there’s actually not much evidence that the future of work is going to be jobless. Instead, it’s likely to look like a new labor market in which millions of Americans have lost their job security and most of the benefits that accompanied work in the 20th century, with nothing to replace them.” Task work, or piecework, could play a key role in this new economy.

Brief Anecdote: It’s spring 2010 in New York City, and I’m a newly hired freelance editor, an independent contractor, at Princeton Review. I’m invited to attend a meeting during which all full-time employees save for a couple is summarily told that they’ll be re-hired as independent contractors. The scene is eery, cold, and at the time I have no idea what exactly is going on…

#5: A Very Brief Presentation on.... Why Automation Is Different This Time 1 min. | Less Wrong Blog | Outline

Opening: “I have been frustrated recently with my inability to efficiently participate in discussions of automation which crop up online and in person….”

Three Points: First, there is no fourth sector to which people can go as was true when workers migrated (a) from agriculture to manufacturing and (b) from manufacturing to service. Second, AI is not able not just to do tasks but develop skillsets. Third, because AI is “largely software driven,” adoption is gonna go fast this time.

No More String Beans To Count And Can

In 1934, women on a production line canning beans in Cambridgeshire, UK. (Courtesy of BBC)

AI And Ennui

AI And The Question Of Technological Unemployment

The first AI winters of 1974 and the late 1980s may now be over. A recent survey conducted by the National Business Research Institute found that 61% of survey respondents implemented AI in their businesses in 2017.

With the rise of AI also comes a renewed controversy over what John Maynard Keynes, in 1930, called “technological unemployment,” a threat first felt during the short-lived Luddite movement in the early nineteenth century, then after the Great Depression, and once again during the prophesied “Triple Revolution” in the mid-1960s

And where do the experts come down this time? (Short answer? Oh vey.)

In 2013, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, both at Oxford University, held that “about 47 percent of total US employment is at risk” of automation. In 2014, Mark McCarthy argued that, on the contrary, not only is it “a myth” that technology leads to unemployment but also that the “use of software both creates and displaces some jobs, and the net result has unquestionably been more jobs.” Yet Noah Smith begs to differ: acknowledging that not all human labor is irreplaceable, he nonetheless suggests that “it is quite possible that workers’ share of what society produces will continue to go down and down, as our economy becomes more and more capital-intensive.” Meanwhile, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, adopting a form of realism, foresee a future “labor-light economy” while maintaining that, in the short term anyway, people will continue to regard “human interaction” as being “central” to some economic transactions.

So, can we expect AI to bring about technological unemployment? As one of my friends Michael Coren, in true Alice in Wonderland style, recently put it, “The juries have spoken. They’ve said lots, none, and I have no idea.”

Ancient skeptics advised that, in the face of compelling arguments pro and contra where certain knowledge is in doubt, we should suspend judgment. Once we do so with regard to the question of technological unemployment, we can open ourselves up to asking a more searching philosophical question, one that virtually nobody is asking today: Why do we care so much about work?

It can’t be that the prospect of technological unemployment matters to us in the developed world in the early twenty-first century because of the fear of starvation since, as Yuval Harari shows in Homo Deus, in the twentieth century famine was pretty much wiped out. Starving to death, once a genuine possibility, is now very highly unlikely. It might instead be that we worry about increasing economic inequality or we believe that financial success is a necessary ingredient in a good life, yet plenty of people have lived well without also having achieved financial success and we don’t yet know how such material goods produced by AI would be distributed across society. The latter, as Brynjolfsson and McAfee also point out, is a political question.

It must instead be that the fear of technological unemployment points to a deeper fear we share: the loss of a sense of who we are. In the work society, if you’re not working, then you’re socially irrelevant; if you’re not employable, then you’re useless and, because of this, invisible. And the work society, it turns out, is the product of a profound historical force so woven into the texture of our daily lives that we don’t see it. It’s called total work.

What Makes Us Distinctly Human

In “The Last Things That Will Make Us Distinctly Human,” Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, asks “a fairly simple question: What’s so special about us, and what’s our lasting value?” He calls it a “fairly simple question,” yet I think it is, for all that, a peculiarly odd one.

Odd and old. Aristotle also asked that question, inviting us to see what was the ergon (or function) of a human being and identifying that ergon, according to Thomas Nagel, with the “highest part of ourselves.” Mayer-Schonberger makes no appeal to the philosophical tradition and thus is left ruling out the answers previously given, those such as rationality or linguistic facility and acquisition.

I confess that I’m betwixt three thoughts. One: stark bemusement when presented with Mayer-Schonberger’s claim that what’s distinctively human is an “irrational creativity.” Geez, is that all we’re left with? Some groovy creative class tune? Two: the feeling that we should strike down the question about what is “the” distinctive feature of being human and get on with living more humbly among all other sentient, and now also AI, beings. But that thought, come to that, may be too uncharitable or at least too quick. Ergo, three: the sense that it’s best to grant the question while trying to wring out of Nagel’s line of inquiry something about the life of leisure as well as that of political action.

With this in mind, I turn next to the suggestions that Robert C. Wolcott makes in his Harvard Business Review piece entitled “How Automation Will Change Work, Purpose, and Meaning.” (In case you were looking for an SEO bonanza, “AI,” “purpose,” and “meaning” will probably do ya good.)

I say, “Politics and Contemplation!” You say, “Huzzah!”

Wolcott’s short HBR piece is thoughtful. If, in Arendtian language, more and more of us won’t need to labor in the sense of fulfilling our material needs or work in the sense of producing physical artifacts, then what the hell shall we do with ourselves? Wolcott would have us think with the Greeks: Though Arendt privileged the life of public engagement over that of contemplation, “action and contemplation,” he writes, “function best when allied. We have the opportunity–perhaps the responsibility–to turn our curiosity and social natures to action and contemplation.”

Hooah, buddy, responsibility is a big word. Here, therefore, enters the colicky modern skeptic come to announce, with affected disgruntlement, her disagreement: “But come now,” she says. “Total work has created the work society. For at least 200 years, we’ve known no other. From birth to working age to retirement to death. Only look around you, huh?, to see what people are doing each day, what they’re thinking about most of the time, what they’re talking about over cocktails, before bedtime, at the dental office, while being wheeled into surgery. Think back to chattel slaves, to helots, to serfs, to peasants, then think of wage laborers, piecemeal workers, and giggers today. I ask you, ‘Is homo sapiens really, en masse, all that fit for this new, entirely untried social experiment?’ I ask you, 'Even if homo sapiens is constitutionally fit, have our educational institutions really bred this creature to take responsibility–for his or her attention? I ask you finally, 'Is it really going to be that easy to make the transition from the work society to the leisure society?’”

She exits the stage with proper pride.

In this case, dear colicky skeptic, I agree.

Ennui–And You?

In an important essay penned in 1930, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” the economist John Maynard Keynes issues a thought experiment, which involves seeing what life would be like in 2030 (not very far off now, dear readers!) and granting the assumption that human beings living then would be “eight times better off in the economic sense” than they are today in 1930. His “startling conclusion” is that the “economic problem” would, by then, utterly vanish. The problem with subsistence, one that has afflicted homo sapiens he thinks for all time (but James C. Scott in Against the Grain would say that this is only true of life under the state and not, therefore, of that of hunter-gatherers), would be up and gone. For good.

I find myself obliged to quote Keynes at length because doing so brings out his doubts and concerns (in what follows, set aside his less than charming views of women):

Will this be a benefit [to humankind overall]? If one believes at all in the real values of life, the prospect at least opens up the possibility of benefit. Yet I think with dread of the readjustment of the habits and instincts of the ordinary man, bred into him for countless generations, which he may be asked to discard within a few decades.

To use the language of to-day–must we not expect a general “nervous breakdown“? We already have a little experience of what I mean–a nervous breakdown of the sort which is already common enough in England and the United States amongst the wives of the well-to-do classes, unfortunate women, many of them, who have been deprived by their wealth of their traditional tasks and occupations–who cannot find it sufficiently amusing, when deprived of the spur of economic necessity, to cook and clean and mend, yet are quite unable to find anything more amusing.

To those who sweat for their daily bread leisure is a longed-for sweet–until they get it.

We should take Keynes’ dread very seriously. Why? Because

for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem–how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.

Writing in the 1960s, Sebastian de Grazia too once wrote (I’m paraphrasing by culling my memory), “Woe to the country that in times of peace and prosperity has no clue what to do with its newfound leisure.” He was referring to the post-World War II United States.

Quite recently, futurist and Silicon Valley favorite Yuval Harari has argued that should AI create a “useless class,” then we have every reason to expect more and more people to be hooked on games: “virtual realities,” he writes emphatically, “are likely to be key to providing meaning to the useless class of the post-work world.” Providing meaning? Regardless of how interesting virtual reality games are, I see this move less as a claim about “providing meaning to the useless class” and more as a rather cynical, or, to be more charitable, overly dispassionate, move to reveal that entertainment is the mad, man-made substitute for otium: for stillness, perchance for sacredness, for the gift of time.

Still, what Harari and Keynes both bring to light is that if my claims about total work are true and if total work created the work society, that in which we’ve grown up and to which we belong, then how, assuming AI did create something akin to a post-work world, would we make the transition to a leisure society without falling prey to “nervous breakdowns,” needless aggression and violence, and the siren songs of attention monopolization? What Orien Etzioni says, in Wired Magazine, about UBI could also apply to a post-work world: “A universal basic income doesn’t give people dignity or protect them from boredom and vice” (my italics).

I think that ennui, which is nearer the mark than boredom, could, in such a society, become our greatest affliction. In the early modern period among the “leisurely class,” ennui was already in play as the historian Peter Burke has illustrated in his essay, “The Invention of Leisure in Early Modern Europe.” Now an affliction not just for the few but for many? Quite possibly. The Oxford English Dictionary is helpful here inasmuch as it shows that ennui, a French term, is derived from the Latin, in odio (“I hate”) and from thence to the Middle English ennoy, meaning “a troubled state of mind, grief, vexation.” Hence, the loathsome, ornery, irritated feeling associated with ennui–specifically: “The feeling of mental weariness and dissatisfaction produced by want of occupation, or by lack of interest in present surroundings or employments.”

Restless, weary, dissatisfied, vexed–this is more than being just a bit bored or “out of sorts.” I am, in ennui, bordering on not being able to stand myself or to brook life as it is. I can find nothing to which I can wholeheartedly give my attention, nothing to absorb my mind, nothing to quicken my spirit, nothing to uplift my heart or apply my calloused hands. In ennui, I may become sick of others, of my life without, as Peggy Lee once sung, also having the desire to “go ahead and end it all.”

Ennui could reveal that beneath our more than 200-year-old culture of total work, frighteningly, dwells nihilism.

Yet Blessed Be The Delightful People

It is not the Keynes filled with dread with whom I shall conclude but the eloquent Keynes for whom poetry just might save us:

We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not, neither do they spin.

Let us raise our plentiful glasses to the delightful people and, by so doing, become one of them.

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Coming Up Next in Issue #4?

I’ll discuss the invention of clock time, time discipline, and much more.

Special Thanks To…

Jacqueline Jensen (@JacquelineMJensen) for bringing to my attention Treehouse’s return to 40 hours; George Lorenzo who I initially corresponded with over LinkedIn about Josef Pieper on leisure and who recently pointed me to the HBR article I included in this issue; Paul Millerd (@p_millerd) who pointed me to the Atlantic article about AI and the future of work; and to my friend Misha Lepetic (@mishalepetic) for pointing me to the Politico piece (as well as many, many, many others).

Comments, Suggestions, Articles On Total Work?

Feel free to send comments, suggestions, canards, and articles about total work to me at Andrew Taggart <>.