Total Work Newsletter #41: Silicon Valley's Philosophical Tipping Point
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 obscure all other aspects of life. In these newsletters, I document, reflect upon, and seek to understand this world historical process, one that started at least as far back as 1500 and possibly as the thirteenth century.
Announcement: Below, I provide a good chunk of my recent talk, “Silicon Valley’s Philosophical Tipping Point.”
Peasants Composing Haiku
An excerpt from Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming (1978) (HT Jonatan Spejlborg Juelsbo):
The more the farmer increases the scale of his operation, the more his body and spirit are dissipated and the further he falls away from a spiritually satisfying life. A life of small-scale farming may appear to be primitive, but in living such a life, it becomes possible to contemplate the Great Way. I believe that if one fathoms deeply one’s own neighborhood and the everyday world in which he lives, the greatest of worlds will be revealed.
At the end of the year the one-acre farmer of long ago spent January, February, and March hunting rabbits in the hits. Though he was called a poor peasant, he still had this kind of freedom. The New Year’s holiday lasted about three months. Gradually this vacation [sic] came to be shortened to two months, one month, and now New Year’s has come to be a three-day holiday.
The dwindling of the New Year’s holiday indicates how busy the farmer has become and how he has lost his easy-going physical and spiritual well-being. There is no time in modern agriculture for a farmer to write a poem or compose a song.
The other day I was surprised to notice, while I was cleaning the little village shrine, that there were some plaques hanging on the wall. Brushing off the dust and looking at the dim and faded letters, I could make out dozens of haiku poems. Even in a little village such as this, twenty or thirty people had composed haiku and presented them as offerings. That is how much open space people had in their lives in the old days. Some of the verses must have been several centuries old. Since it was that long ago they were probably poor farmers, but they still had leisure to write haiku (pp. 110-11).
Secular Monks And Do Nothing Clubs
#1: SYNOPSIS | Total Work: When Humans are Transformed Into Workers And Nothing Else (Were We Born Only To Work?) | 15 min. | Medium | Synopsis
Medium Sum: “I came across the concept of total work through Andrew Taggart–and, oh man, has he opened my eyes and expanded my mind to an entirely new level of thinking about work: the history and evolution of….”
My Take: Kyle Kowalski provides readers with a very nice and thorough synopsis of my reflections on Total Work from 2017 to the present. It’s worth reading.
#2: MISUNDERSTANDING LEISURE | Leisure Is Our Killer App | 5 min. | MIT Sloan Review | Opinion HT Daniel Doyon
Sloan Overview: “In the race for jobs, the capacity for leisure can give humans a surprising edge.”
Argument: To ensure that we remain employable, human beings need to find what sets them apart from robots. This author argues that (1) sociability, (2) variability, and (implied later on) (3) creativity all set us apart.
Looking Deeper: But how do we maintain sociability and variability? And how do we deepen our creativity? His answer: leisure. Claim #1: Leisure prevents burnout. Claim #2: Leisure makes us better thinkers owing to the capacity of our minds to wander. Apropos the latter, “What does that have to do with the cognitive benefits of leisure? By encouraging our minds to wander, leisure activities pull us out of our present reality, which in turn can improve our ability to generate novel ideas or ways of thinking.” Conclusion: “When we let our minds drift away from work, we return to our tasks capable of tackling them in more inventive and creative ways.”
My Take: As you would expect, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University would (i) mischaracterize leisure as free time and then would go on to (ii) argue on behalf of leisure-as-free time on the grounds that it has instrumental value (only?). Hence, (iii) this piece provides further evidence in support of my Subservience Thesis, i.e., that whatever is not work is not only put in the service of but is also made to be subservient to work. QED.
#3: SCATHING CRITIQUE | Carole Cadwalladr: Facebook's Role In Brexit--And The Threat To Democracy | 15 min. | TED | Talk
TED Sum: “In an unmissable talk, journalist Carole Cadwalladr digs into one of the most perplexing events in recent times: the UK’s super-close 2016 vote to leave the European Union. Tracking the result to a barrage of misleading Facebook ads targeted at vulnerable Brexit swing voters–and linking the same players and tactics to the 2016 US presidential election–Cadwalladr calls out the ‘gods of Silicon Valley’ for being on the wrong side of history and asks: Are free and fair elections a thing of the past?”
My Take: Cadwalladr provides a scathing critique of Silicon Valley of FAANG–most especially Facebook. She asserts that liberal democracy may now be broken and that Silicon Valley is the one that broke it.
#4: INFLUENCER SECULAR MONK | Jack Dorsey Is Gwyneth Paltrow For Silicon Valley | 5 min. | NYT | Feature
NYT Sum: “The Twitter chief executive is tech’s foremost manfluencer, guiding his followers toward optimum cognitive performance. Or, at least, hunger.”
Key Quote: “In L.A., there’s an economic value in appearing good, being physically strong, but we’re not physical laborers anymore. I’m not a farmer,” Mr. Woo said. “Now we need to optimize for cognitive performance and intellectual labor.”
My Argument: In a forthcoming article, I’ll be arguing that Jack Dorsey is a “secular abbot” of a movement I call “secular monasticism.”
Tree Hugger Opening: “It’s not lazy, it’s restorative. Last spring I went to Bologna to visit my friend Francesca. We were sitting on the steps of the central market, eating apricots and watching the world go by, when I expressed surprise at how many people were out drinking beer at 6 pm on a Wednesday. She shrugged. ‘Why wouldn’t they?’”
My Take: A good step in the right direction but once again the author can’t imagine doing nothing (let’s call it, to use Daoist lingo, wu wei) as an end in itself, only as a means of “restoring oneself” with the aim of working more. What still needs to be critique in this piece is the supremacy and centrality of work.
#6: TOTAL WORK'S MANIFESTATION | We Are Living In The Post-Horny Era | 5 min. | VICE | Personal Essay HT Alex Hardy
Vice Sum: “These days, sex and love are nothing more than productivity handicaps.”
My Take: I have a piece coming out in First Things about “secular monks and the new celibacy.” The author just puts her finger on something huge without going into the matter at great length.
NYT Sum: “How working-class men detach from work, family and church.”
My Take: I think NYT columnist David Brooks is especially good at putting his finger on something well before others do.
Silicon Valley's Philosophical Tipping Point
My Consciousness Hacking Talk
I gave a talk entitled “Silicon Valley’s Philosophical Tipping Point” at Consciousness Hacking on Tuesday night. Unfortunately, parts of the recording are missing. You can listen to the entirety of the second half here.
Because the entire talk isn’t available in its entirety, I include, therefore, the thesis as well as the notes I used to deliver the talk below.
Silicon Valley is swiftly approaching what I call a philosophical tipping point.
Part 1: Biography: How I got Involved with Silicon Valley
A. My awakening to philosophy (occurred in 2009)
B. My awakening to religion (occurred in 2014)
C. My relationship with Silicon Valley technologists (occurred in 2017)
Part 2: The Philosophy of Silicon Valley
Greg Ferenstein, who has studied the political philosophy of SV, has called them “hippies who dig capitalism and science”: “They’re trying to race into a better future as quickly as possible.”
Pro-entrepreneurship: Silicon Valley is an “ecology of innovation,” with new ideas implemented and new companies born, funded, living, or dying
Post-enlightenment progressivists: progress is happening and it’s good for everyone)
Agents first: human beings are first and foremost human agents acting on the world
Anti-conflict and Pro-win-win-win: in principle, everyone can benefit and no groups have to be at odds with one another
Optimists: future will be or can be better than the present
Meritocrats: merit ought to be rewarded–specifically, the best ideas in the room, regardless of who they came from, should win out
What is the picture? Human agents act, often in their role as entrepreneurs, by creating organizations that can have maximum positive social impact on the present world and that, in consequence, can create a brighter future for everyone.
Evidence: “Always there was a vision to make the world a better place,“ he says. "The assumption [was that] if you want to change the world and make it better, the best way to do that is to make an app or a start-up.” –Aza Raskin as cited by The Telegraph
In short, human agency is good, progress is possible and desirable, win-win-win is achievable (i.e., a win for founders, a win for stakeholders, and a win for users), the future can be better than the present, and the best ideas should be winners in the open market.
Part 3: Tech Backlash (“Techlash”): Tech Giants or Big Tech
How strange, then, to be in the very thick of a tech backlash–or what some have called a “techlash.” Chris Mims of the WSJ argued that the tech backlash is centered on limiting the power of major tech firms such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon.
Essentially, tech firms claiming that they’re benefitting all people are seeing how their naive views are being challenged with the counterclaims about the harms they’re either involved in or helping to create. In other words, the claim to be performing unequivocally intentionally good acts is colliding with consequences that are harmful.
–Data: privacy and use
–20,000 Googlers walk out over matters of inequality
–Destroying Jobs.– Is automation moving too quickly, with the result that truck drivers will be unemployed? (Andrew Yang)
–Falsehoods, Bullshit, and Truthiness.– Fake news, disinformation, hate speech, online harassment, child exploitation…
–Hijacking.– Devices “hijacking” our attention in the words of Tristan Harris? Are iPhones addictive? (“tech giants are creating the cultural equivalent of climate change.” – The Telegraph)
–Concentration of Tech Power.– Should these monopolies be broken up? Should they be regulated and if so, how?
–Responsibilities for Content.– Are tech firms responsible for the content expressed and shared on their platforms? (E.g., Facebook, YouTube)
Part 4: Tech’s Philosophical Tipping Point
My thesis is that Silicon Valley is approaching a philosophical tipping point.
Definition of a Tipping Point: A tipping point describes the moment when small things have accumulated and accumulated to such an extent that they suddenly cause a significant change. Things keep building up until they are about to burst, at which time they seem to spill over into something new.
The chief implication of tipping point arguments is that after this sudden change, there’s no way of going back to the ways things were before. Something profound has changed perhaps for good.
Therefore, a philosophical tipping point describes the moment when issues of a seemingly minor or else discrete nature keep adding up until they give rise to philosophizing. That is, things seemingly behind the scene continue to add up until you can no longer take them for granted; they scream to be examined at the fundamental level; at this point, basic philosophical questions arise and cannot be denied.
Consider your own death.
Or consider the existence and hegemony of nation-states.
Finally, consider Silicon Valley. Are we not witnessing the naivete of Silicon Valley “problem solvers” and “optimists” colliding with hard realities–some ethical, some metaphysical, and others political?
Part 5: A Case–Automation and the Future of Work
Let’s look more closely at one pressing case: automation and the future of work.
A few months ago, presidential candidate Andrew Yang appeared on the Joe Rogan Podcast to discuss, among other topics, Universal Basic Income (what he calls “The Freedom Dividend”). Here’s Yang: “New technologies – robots, software, artificial intelligence – have already destroyed more than 4 million US jobs, and in the next 5-10 years, they will eliminate millions more. A third of all American workers are at risk of permanent unemployment. And this time, the jobs will not come back.” Let’s call this the cautious alarmist position.
Meanwhile, the standard economists’ position is optimistic. It insists that each technological revolution to date has ultimately been a net positive for employment.
The alarmists proclaim that this may spell the end of human work while plucky economists believe that this will be a net positive and therefore there is no cause for concern.
MIT economist Daron Acemoglu takes a position between these two. In a series of papers authored with Pascual Restrepo, he has argued that
“automation does not directly augment labor; on the contrary, it transforms the production process in a way that allows more tasks to be performed by machines.“
Automation and human work operate in terms of countervailing forces: automation in this area may displace workers from, say, agriculture and into service positions; other kinds of automation (e.g., ATMs) may create the need for more bank tellers in the same sector (because more local branches opened up).
In the age of AI, we need to create lots of new “labor-intensive tasks.”
And, 4, “the real danger for labor may come not from highly productive but from “so-so” automation technologies that are just productive enough to be adopted and cause displacement, but not sufficiently productive to bring about powerful productivity effects.”
Question #1: What do you think–will AI largely replace human workers, or will AI largely augment human powers? Or will AI exist in a kind of dance with human workers, sometimes pushing, sometimes pulling in ways that Acemoglu and Restrepo describe?
Question #2: Larger existential question about Total Work: replacement and identity…
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Comments, Suggestions, Articles on Total Work?
Feel free to send comments, suggestions, thoughts, and articles about total work to me at Andrew Taggart <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
If You’d Like to Become a Patron…
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Looking for some clarity about the nature and history of total work? Start by reading my brief overview of total work on my Patreon account <https://www.patreon.com/ajt>, Next, take a look at the first issue of this newsletter <https://www.getrevue.co/profile/andrewjtaggart/issues/total-work-newsletter-1-working-ourselves-into-a-frenzy-89819.> Next, check out my Quartz at Work pieces (December 2017- present), which are available here <https://work.qz.com/author/andrew-taggart>.