Everywhere among content-providers, knowledge-brokers, collaboration architects and heads of new divisions would be heard ceaseless chatter about workflows and deltas, about plans and benchmarks, about scaling up, monetisation and growth. In this world, eating, excreting, resting, having sex, exercising, meditating and commuting — closely monitored and ever-optimised — would all be conducive to good health, which would, in turn, be put in the service of being more and more productive.
No one would drink too much, some would microdose on psychedelics to enhance their work performance, and everyone would live indefinitely long.
Episode 20: 6 Things You Might Not Know about Thought Work
Off in corners, rumours would occasionally circulate about death or suicide from overwork, but such faintly sweet susurrus would rightly be regarded as no more than local manifestations of the spirit of total work, for some even as a praiseworthy way of taking work to its logical limit in ultimate sacrifice.
By this means, work will ultimately become total, I argue, when it is the centre around which all of human life turns; when everything else is put in its service; when leisure, festivity and play come to resemble and then become work; when there remains no further dimension to life beyond work; when humans fully believe that we were born only to work ; and when other ways of life, existing before total work won out, disappear completely from cultural memory.
Each day I speak with people for whom work has come to control their lives, making their world into a task , their thoughts an unspoken burden. For unlike someone devoted to the life of contemplation, a total worker takes herself to be primordially an agent standing before the world, which is construed as an endless set of tasks extending into the indeterminate future.
Following this taskification of the world, she sees time as a scarce resource to be used prudently, is always concerned with what is to be done, and is often anxious both about whether this is the right thing to do now and about there always being more to do. Crucially, the attitude of the total worker is not grasped best in cases of overwork, but rather in the everyday way in which he is single-mindedly focused on tasks to be completed, with productivity, effectiveness and efficiency to be enhanced.
Through the modes of effective planning, skilful prioritising and timely delegation. The total worker, in brief, is a figure of ceaseless, tensed, busied activity: a figure, whose main affliction is a deep existential restlessness fixated on producing the useful.
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W hat is so disturbing about total work is not just that it causes needless human suffering but also that it eradicates the forms of playful contemplation concerned with our asking, pondering and answering the most basic questions of existence. To see how it causes needless human suffering, consider the illuminating phenomenology of total work as it shows up in the daily awareness of two imaginary conversation partners. As the second conversation partner puts it, there is concomitantly the looming question: Is this the best use of my time?
Together, thoughts of the not yet but supposed to be done , the should have been done already , the could be something more productive I should be doing , and the ever-awaiting next thing to do conspire as enemies to harass the agent who is, by default, always behind in the incomplete now.
- Pragmatist Ethics for a Technological Culture (The International Library of Environmental, Agricultural and Food Ethics).
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Secondly, one feels guilt whenever he is not as productive as possible. Guilt, in this case, is an expression of a failure to keep up or keep on top of things, with tasks overflowing because of presumed neglect or relative idleness. The burden character of total work, then, is defined by ceaseless, restless, agitated activity, anxiety about the future, a sense of life being overwhelming, nagging thoughts about missed opportunities, and guilt connected to the possibility of laziness.
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Hence, the taskification of the world is correlated with the burden character of total work. In short, total work necessarily causes dukkha , a Buddhist term referring to the unsatisfactory nature of a life filled with suffering. In addition to causing dukkha , total work bars access to higher levels of reality. All of these require silence, stillness, a wholehearted willingness to simply apprehend.
If meaning, understood as the ludic interaction of finitude and infinity, is precisely what transcends, here and now, the ken of our preoccupations and mundane tasks, enabling us to have a direct experience with what is greater than ourselves, then what is lost in a world of total work is the very possibility of our experiencing meaning. Kate Kirkpatrick. Nigel T Rothfels. Become a Friend of Aeon to save articles and enjoy other exclusive benefits Make a donation.
Andrew Taggart is a practical philosopher and entrepreneur. Aeon for Friends Find out more. This world, it turns out, is not a work of science fiction; it is unmistakably close to our own. Meaning and the good life Work Values and beliefs.
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People went from apprentices to masters, using their training to set up their own businesses and become their own boss. Then capital took over.
When the means of production moved out of the hands of the producers themselves and into the control of an ownership class, apprentices increasingly lost opportunities to grow into self-governing masters. By the 16th century, there was less of a clear path from apprentice to boss, and so work became less of a practical means to a better way of life. English middle-class Puritans began to emphasize the value of work for its own sake.
Who art thou that complaints of thy life of toil? Complain not. As Graeber shows, this notion is inherently Judeo-Christian.
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