Bullshit Industry Part 1 - Bullshit Work & Work Snobs

Wednesday, July 21st 2010

This follows on from The Bullshit Industry Prologue - Thought Factories and the Invasion of the RoombaTurks

Some people call it the "Bullshit Industry":

Alan Kohler writes:

I bumped into a senior Labor politician at the airport last night and he observed, during the course of a long conversation, that a big part of the job of governments in the years ahead will simply be to employ people - especially relatively unskilled workers.

In fact there are already a vast number of jobs at all levels of government that are pointless, and simply exist for employment. He also referred to the huge and rapidly growing "bullshit industry" - public relations and lobbying - which produces virtually nothing useful but employs an army of relatively unskilled people.

Work Versus Effort

Work is something you're paid to do. If you're not paid you stop doing it. That's a very specific definition of work.

James M Barrie said that:

"Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else."

What would you do if you won the lottery? Let me take a guess. Whatever "something else" is to you. Michael Bernstein, paraphrasing Clay Shirky, puts it this way:

Work is what we have considered for years: your boss tells you to do something, you do it, and you get paid. By contrast, (little-w) work is motivated by inherent interest and generally unpaid.

Bernstein's blog is here

Or read on ...

Sometimes effort is often seen as a defining characteristic of work. Using your will power to overcome some obstacle, or to learn something difficult. Sometimes it means you confront fear and pain and defeat it. Or just laziness and apathy!

But the reward for effort is often non-monetary; the satisfaction of learning how to do something, working with others, helping others, the fun of using your talents or developing skills, pleasing others, pleasing yourself, and so on.

Riding a BMX competitively on the weekends requires effort, but if it's unpaid it's not work. Working on a novel in your spare time, that's not work, but it requires some effort. Overcoming the frustration of the basics chords on the guitar. That requires effort. But it's not work. Parts of life other than work also require effort.

So we can exclude the more general notion of effort from our definition of work. Work is something you do for the sake of money. The defining reward for work is money, even if other rewards come as well.

Most people have to work to pay bills, pay for food, clothing, housing, and other things. Work is not something you do for fun!

So there is one exception. There is a specific type of effort involved in doing something disagreeable for the sake of the money. It requires the will power to get up and go to work in the morning to a job you don't like. It requires will power to avoid thinking about it too much or getting the best out of it.

But one thing is for sure: your work often benefits others. Otherwise they wouldn't pay you to do it! When you do work that you don't enjoy much, you often suffer to benefit others. In this way work is conferred a certain nobility.

But work was not always considered noble. To swan around, twirling a cane, that was the mark of a gentleman. Indeed, Thorstein Veblen thought that if you were wielding a cane it meant you didn't need your hands for lowly, mechanical work. The cane was what he called a "status symbol". Like the sports car. Or the uncomfortable art deco couch. The status symbol's status came from its uselessness. After all, usefulness signified work; toil, suffering and lack of status. The idle nobles were, essentially, snobs about work.

Work Snobs

If there's one thing you get from this article it's this:

We should all be snobs about work.

But we aren't. For the last 100 years even the rich have started to celebrate work. The venerated are no longer the wealthy loafers. The venerated are the people who work hard. The people who have earned their loot by the sweat of their brows. Tom DeMarco writes:

The legacy of the nineties has been a dangerous corporate delusion: the idea that organisations are effective only to the extent that all their workers are totally and eternally busy. Anyone who's not overworked (sweating, staying late, racing from one task to the next, working Saturdays, unable to squeeze time for even the briefest meeting till two weeks after next) is looked on with suspicion.

(Tom DeMarco, Slack (beginning of chap 1))

The CEO who works all night, the surgeon who works long hours, the tradie working long hours to complete lots of jobs. The tired and the busy. The people who have great responsibility and earn a lot. They are the "high achievers", the successes. People boast of late night sessions to complete a project, early morning meetings and weekend work. They boast in the noble, self-sacrificing way of the workplace martyr; and confer on themselves the nobility of work and the respect that entails.

In many cases the nobility is deserved. People who work hard keep the world running. They empty bins, mind children, write software, make movies, and so on. Something worth celebrating.

The veneration of work may also come from the notion that everybody "should pull their own weight", "contribute to society" and so on.

People shouldn't live off the work of others.

The snob who swans about twirling his cane relies on the fact others do the work for him.

That's not fair, is it?

Work Snobs - Selfish?

So the snobbery against work is seen as a selfish philosophy. The philosophy of those who exploit the efforts of others. The philosophy of impractical dreamers, dangerous radicals and intellectual dilettantes. Those who aren't willing to "put the effort in", those who aren't willing to suffer for the benefit of others. Anti-social misfits who mooch off the goodwill of others.

The notion of being a snob about work goes against many people's sense of fairness. In this sense, work snobbery is something immoral. Something you should be ashamed of.

Moreover, consider other deeply felt emotions. A "real man" earns a living, for instance.

But what happens if a lot of work is being done by machines?

And, no doubt about it, technology is doing more and more. It is reducing the work humans have to do.

Fundamentally, technology treats labour as a cost and tries to eliminate it. Computers and computer networks get more powerful and require fewer and cleverer programmers. Computers do more and more everyday things. Food production and distribution requires fewer and more skilled people. More and more services turn "self service". Technology keeps producing exponentially more and more "stuff".

Yet work remains a moral and practical imperative. Working hours have not substantially reduced since the 1970s.

Reducing working hours doesn't even seem to be a possibility. But it was not always so.

As John F Kennedy said in [1965]:

"This country is changing. We had a 58 hour week, a 48 hour week, a 40 hour week, as machines take more and more of the jobs of men, we're going to find the work week reduced."

In 1933, President Roosevelt reduced the working week from ten hours a day to eight hours a day.

Yet hard work remains lauded and work snobbery remains chastised. The notion of reducing the work week seems silly, impractical.

I hope to explain why this is a terrible mistake.


First, the only way society has to distribute resources is by having people trade their labour for them. I go to work to get the money to pay for the things I want. Is there any other way to distribute resources? Second, people need to keep working on new things to keep technological progress going.

There is a joke about the last Mayday parade in the Soviet

Union. After the tanks and the troops and the planes and the missiles rolled by there came ten men dressed in black.

"Are they Spies?" asked Mikhail Gorbachev.

"They are economists," replied the KGB director, "imagine the havoc they will wreak when we set them loose on the Americans!" - Anonymous

A moral imperative also makes for a more diligent employee. The biggest advocates of the work ethic are those people who have people working for them!


"Nothing is more obstinate than a fashionable consensus." - Lady Margaret Thatcher

And then there's habit. People have been brought up to think work is moral and good. The people around them say so. Their parents said so. They were taught at school that work was good. They need to earn to money to pay the bills. So they find it hard to imagine a world where work is seen as something you can practically be a snob about.

"Hey, you've gotta earn a living - you gotta eat!"

But there is a strange contradiction in all of this and technology is gradually revealing it.


Most - if not all - businesses treat labour as a cost. This manifests itself in the fact that wages are a cost; they cut into the profits of the people who own the businesses. Businesses are snobs about work.

Businesses have to be snobs about work. After all, customers treat businesses as a cost, too. Other things being equal, the more labour that goes into something the more expensive it will be. All other things being equal, people like the cheapest options. Indirectly, most consumers are snobs about work too!

Moreover, businesses are consumers too. They treat paying other businesses as a cost, too.

Technology is often about reducing work, too. Making humans more efficient, reducing labour.

So nearly everyone, when they make everyday buying and business decisions or inventing new technology act as if they are snobs about work.

So we're faced with a contradictory culture of work;

  • the notion that work is a moral imperative, a good, versus the fact work is treated as a cost - a bad, if you will - by business and by consumers;

And ...

  • the only way to organise things is around people trading their labour for other things, yet technology is doing more and more of our work for us making that labour superfluous. So that means more debt or more work (or both) to maintain one's ability to buy stuff.

There's one other oddity.

When was the last time you heard someone say:

  • "Hey, what I'm doing here in my well paid enjoyable job is entirely pointless. If you just do this, you won't need me to work here any more! I quit for a life of penury!"


  • "I don't really have any useful skills at all."

... in a job interview?


  • "There really are much cheaper ways to do this than we offer, but we have costs to cover."

... in an advert?

We have this last contradiction:

  • My work is important to my well being; financial and psychological. I want to make it look like my work is vital to others. Other people's work is just a cost to be eliminated.

With all this work-reducing technology trundling out of factories, why is that people are working as much now as they did in 1975?

In response to the prospect of obsolescence, humanity warps technology into a form that makes work for humans! The system can be summed up as "Bureaucracy".

  • And I don't just mean government bureaucracy. I mean corporate bureaucracy, too. Memos to the boss or staff, advertising, welfare forms, filling in timesheets, measuring the immeasurable, pointless meetings, government lobbying, and so on. It all counts as bureaucracy. You know it when you see it.

But I don't mean all bureaucracy. Some bureaucracy is a consequences of trying to coordinate large groups of people and lots of machinery.

But I do mean most bureaucracy. And that is the "bullshit industry".


People, faced with obsolescence need to find a way to maintain the current culture of work. Without that culture chaos would reign! Civilisation would collapse! They need to feel useful, they need to trade their labour for resources.

So we invent a social system that administrates and regulates technology in a way that makes it compatible with the traditional culture of work.

It doesn't always work. Often people miss out. They're made redundant. Their skills become less valuable. The common solution to this is that these people need to "adapt"; develop new skills, work with new technology.

Make themselves useful. If they can't adapt, then they rely on a welfare or charity bureaucracies. Bureaucracies that provide work for lots of people!

It is not often a conscious act to "make work", though.

Imagine I am doing something superfluous (it's not very hard!). I'm merrily filling in forms, processing forms, going to meetings discussing forms, and so on.

If this was entirely pointless work it would be hard for me to continue doing it. It would be dispiriting. And no-one would pay for it. I'd have to get a "real" job. I wouldn't feel like part of the social system of work. I wouldn't feel useful to others. The need for social reward, reciprocity and so on would not be fulfilled.

But what if someone else, let's call her Anne, needs her form processed? And, what's more, is willing to pay for it? Now the job is useful and pays! I have a "real" job.

What about Anne? Why is she paying me to process the form? Well, she needs to hand a processed form to someone else; so that person will give her a 9a license. What's a 9a license? That is a license to start processing another sort of form - a very particular type of legal document - that involves drawing up contracts about how welfare is distributed to ex-widget engineers.

She rings up: "Thanks for your help!"

All of a sudden we have a social system making people feel useful to each other.

What makes this "real" is the human interaction stimulates the parts of our brains that reward us for cooperating. The work satifies some of our atavistic needs.

Everyone has a "real" job, one that they are paid to do and one that other people need done. Trading psychology and social normality is bolstered.

But it's all Bullshit.

And we know it. On some level, we know it's bullshit.

Bullshit is a natural reaction to technological change. It is a natural consequence of people acting in their own interests. It is a natural consequence of a complex society filled with really specialised jobs; sometimes it's hard to sift the pointless from the useful. So the bullshit disappears into a haze of abstraction and obscurity. And acronymns. Buzzwords. And really long job titles.

Bullshit Example

An example. I got an email from a friend a while ago. He forwarded me this (names, etc, changed):

The ALPN is leading the way in developing the 'collaboration architecture' that will facilitate the future collaboration with the public sector. Dr Tim Jeffries will discuss the status of this ongoing work and its potential application in your workplace.

In other words:

Dr Tim Jeffries is working on a way to collaborate with the public sector. He'll discuss how his ideas may apply to you.

38 words versus 23. If Dr Tim Jeffries' collaboration architecture discussion is anything like that description it's almost twice as long than it needs to be! :-)

Facetious, silly?

Let's say Tim's talk lasts an hour. Would it make sense for him to shorten it? Not really. He's paid for his time. He wants to be paid more. It makes sense to extend the talk. For Tim, it may also be a mistake to make what he's doing appear too simple, too concise. The more obscure it remains, the harder for others to understand, the less likely what he is doing will end up replaceable or redundant.

So he spends an hour talking. His talk fills up an hour of my friend and his colleagues' time. Let's say there are nine colleagues. That means 11 hours of time used up where 5 and a half would have been sufficient.

There's another way of looking at it. Tim charges $110 an hour. My friend and her colleagues are all being paid $35 an hour. The total cost for an hour talk is $285. Let's say Tim shortened the talk. Half an hour would be $142.50. But because it isn't in Tim's interest to be concise, the total cost stays at $285.

Can you blame Tim? Not really. Perhaps if the other people didn't get these regular talks and meetings, they could work a lot less, too. And they might end up getting paid less too. Perhaps it's not really in anybody's interests for Tim to be concise!

You Work Too Much!

Working too much - being busy - should be treated with more than snobbery. It should be treated as irrational and expensive.

After all, inventors, customers and businesses already treat it that way.

Despite peoples' ingenuity, eventually $142.50 will win against $285. If that's the case, why not let history take its course?

There is another possibility. As humans make more and more work for themselves, the technology develops its own momentum. Rather than being designed to improve our lot, it starts to be designed to support a redundant way of thinking - the culture of work, and its atavistic human psychological roots.

If we persist with making work for ourselves is it possible technology ends up being directed toward less than optimal ends? Yes. And I think this is already happening.

Wisdom says a smoother transition to a world of less work would be better.

Moreover, in less outlandish terms, holding on to ideas made redundant by technological change makes for confusion and conflict. Some businesses try to cling to old ways of doing things. They end up lobbying the government to stifle new technology or curtail the freedom to use it. Governments waste billions trying to save ailing businesses, only the eventually have to let them die anyway. Bureaucratic time-wasting increases. The unemployed blame themselves for being unemployed, the rest of society sees them as bludgers. People lose faith in government. They start to react with fear. They turn to politicians who manipulate their baser instincts; fear of the other, fear of the wealthy, the technological elite, fear of technology itself. History tells us not many good things come out of that.

But more than any of those dangers, there is a splendid hope.

The hope is that the culture of work - and ancient human psychology - will adapt to technological progress. That the elite of wealthy snobs will morph into the mass of Everyman snobs.

That automation will reduce the absolute amount of work people have to do, not just change the type of work people have to do.

That more and more folks will join the leisured class, at least for a longer proportion of the week.

The Four Day Weekend!

This article is a shamless piece of propaganda. It is calling for a four day weekend.

It's a call to spend more time enjoying life and less time filling doing boring "busywork" in the Bullshit Industry.

Working less and being no worse off is something we can consider right now. It is not naive. It is not silly. It is not impractical.

Indeed, it is all about being practical. It is about efficiency - using technology well and consigning the redundant culture of work to history.

It would be unwise to impose this idea via government edict; but there's no reason people and businesses can't start making the choice to be snobs about work right now.

Anyone for a bit of cane twirling?

So what's stopping us?

... aaah.

Let's start at the beginning ...

Get an Education!

It starts with education. It gives kids and parents and idea of what their kids are good at.

"You're good with words"

"You're good at maths"

"You're great at biology"

"You're artistic"

And so on.

It even comes on neat report cards. Just the emphasise the point. Each kid has a series of attributes that get marked on a scale.


Job descriptions with are also a series of attributes marked on a scale. Or thereabouts.

Education is designed to convert kids with a series of attributes on a school report into adults in a series of attributes in a CV. Workers. People who fit themselves into existing job descriptions for eight or more hours a day.

... in Fear!

Most people are afraid of looking stupid. Education works by making people fear failure. It also rewards success. So if you're good at maths you get good marks; you gradually see yourself as a "mathematician". If you get bad marks for "English"; you see yourself as a bad writer. You tend toward maths and away from English.

It channels kids in certain directions; into certain, predefined categories that require certain attributes. Into job descriptions.

This process is traumatic. "You will do maths now". It doesn't matter if you're not awake, don't feel like it, are in the middle of a great computer game. No. You will do maths now. And so kids start to resent the work. They are "told" to do it. They don't "want" to do it. The fun stuff happens outside school.

Does that remind you of anything? The idea of work - the boring stuff you're told to do. Leisure - the fun the stuff outside work.

The conditioning continues.

Schedules are also traumatic. Getting up for school when you're not awake is very bad for for a kid's body. It hampers brain development. It causes childhood depression.

What if a kid is really enjoying something and has a great teacher! Buzz! Time's up. Time to do something else.

There is also a prejudice against subject matter that doesn't take well to regimentation, categorisation and marking. Hence the prejudice against the Arts, which depends on an entirely different way of thinking to actually be artistic.


Why does it turn a kid into an unhappy adult? Because the adults develop those aspects of their character that are deemed "useful".

If you let kids develop their characters they would not fit into a schooling system or into the work system. They would demand artistic maths lessons, need to do English whilst playing sport, operate on their own schedules, do things when they felt like it, and so on. Each child would need to be taught differently, operate on a different schedule, respond to different ideas expressed in different ways.

It just wouldn't work as a "system". It would be too variable. The possible permutations would be too complex to systemise. It wouldn't act as the child care system; the one we need so adults can go off to work.

A system, by definition, deals with the generic and the arbitray. So the school system treats kids in arbitrary and generic way. And it turns kids into arbitrary, generic adults.

So: the kids are made to fit into the education system. And this is traumatic for the kids.

It cripples peoples' creative ability. It makes them specialise in what they're least afraid of. It stifles natural intelligence about diet, body rhythms, and so on. But worst of all: it cramps peoples' style.

Of course, no-one says they want to do this to kids, and I doubt many consciously do so, but this what schooling does.

This had existed before systemised education, but modern school exacerbates the problem.

After 12 or more years of this kids are then released into the "real world".

Get a job!

One of the great modern day crises is what happens to people in their mid to late 20s. They realise they need to convert ....

"You're good with words"

"You're good at maths"

"You're great at biology"

"You're artistic"

... into job descriptions ....

"You're good with words" -> journalist

"You're good at maths" -> computer programmer, mathematician

"You're great at biology" -> biologist

"You're artistic" -> advertising "creative"

It's a crisis, because people don't entirely lose touch with the child-like desire to develop their entire character. The trauma of school remains.

Effort, mastery and learning in various things are not sufficient.

  • they don't put bread on the table


Get a job!

So people dutifully do that.


Technological advance. If a human is doing a repetitive, algorithmical task in a neat, predefined forms there is no reason a computer can't do it. And they are starting to.

So workers - stuck in those gilded cages called "job descriptions" - are gradually being made obsolete. More than that - the personalities they have developed from childhood to adulthood are being made obsolete.

Everyone is afraid of being seen as useless. And afraid of looking stupid. And has the trauma of their childhood and their mid 20s.

So, afraid of looking stupid a useless, and not wanting to dredge up the trauma of childhood and the mid 20s, they are subsconsciously constructing a way to cope with obsolescence.

This sits on top of technology and turns it into a system to deal with this psychology; a lot of which stems from ancient atavism dating back millenia to small tribes wandering prairies and whatnot.

It's a giant bureaucratic morass. Again, the bullshit industry. This time we're dealing with bullshit emotions. It works on the basis of:

Time & Money

The only thing, across a complex division of labour, that everyone understands is

  • time
  • money

They are are, literally, the common currency. They are perceived differently by different types of people, but they are a common currency. Everyone can watch a clock or count the dubloons. So they form the basis for it, along with computers, networks and other systems.

So the bullshit industry works on the basis of time and money.

You know it when you see it. Time-wasting bureaucratic flummery ...

Bullshit Industry Part 2: Dilbert & the Magnificent Navy on Land