Bullshit jobs, zombie feeding and valley crossing

I published on Medium today (Bullshit jobs, zombie feeding and valley crossing | by Kylie Stedman Gomes | Nov, 2021 | Medium)

Text only below …

Bullshit jobs, zombie feeding and valley crossing

tldr : As a society, we’re trying to hold on to relationships with our world that are effectively dead. We need to quit feeding those zombies and focus on the living.

When the pandemic began, I was living in Australia and in the process of moving house. Being in that liminal state gave me early warning that supply chain issues were forthcoming, so by the time the lockdowns started in Australia I had time and space aplenty for contemplating the consequences of people staying at home en masse all around the world.

While musing over this, I remembered David Graeber’s 2013 essay on “bullshit jobs” — an essay which resonated perfectly with my experience as a business analyst and project manager. In that line of work, I could scarcely fail to notice how automation was increasingly rendering once-useful work into bullshit work and slowly sanding away at people’s spirits (e.g. some poor soul wondering what on earth they did to deserve the task of entering the same data several times into different software systems!)

Isolating at home wherever possible in order to ‘flatten the curve’ resulted in tectonic shifts across the entire work landscape. Getting food and other supplies to people’s homes was an enormous logistical challenge. We started talking about ‘essential workers’. Businesses reliant on office staff in central business districts shut down, as did gyms and pools and cinemas and anywhere else that people cluster together. Restaurants shifted to a takeaway and delivery model. This is all old news now, of course … but it’s worth remembering that this was a lot of change happening all at once. The veil lifted, at least for a while.

Panicking somewhat, I suspect, the Australian government reacted with an initiative called “Job Keeper”, intended to keep employment relationships such as flight attendants and airlines intact during the pandemic by subsidising employers to continue paying their now unoccupied employees. Looking through the “bullshit jobs” lens, this struck me as an irresponsibly foot-shooting and bullshit-generating approach. There we were, with an incredible amount of useful work needing done, and plenty of unoccupied people available to do it, if only they were free to. Instead, JobKeeper would, by design, hold them financially hostage to a now-bullshit job, as if the construct of ‘job’ was somehow more primary and valuable than real work required to meet real needs. Inspired by frustration, grief and disgust at this total waste of life and resources (which I admit is a fairly common theme for me), I started calling JobKeeper and its ilk “zombie feeding”.

Anyway, at the beginning of April 2020, before the proposed zombie feeding actually started, a friend (who was — understandably — heartily sick of me talking about this) and I wrote to the Prime Minister’s office and my local Member of Parliament, suggesting that a significantly more effective and efficient approach would be to provide a generous upfront and unconditional emergency universal basic income (UBI) to every resident via the existing tax system. People would be freed to contribute whatever effort was needed within their unique circumstances, and any payments not needed by recipients could always be recovered at the end of the tax year. Of course the main outcome of writing this proposal was simply to shut me up a little. UBI didn’t exist in Australia’s Overton Window (the range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time)), so it’s not at all surprising that the proposal fell on deaf ears, the zombie feeding commenced, and many thousands of real live people fell through the system’s cracks.

Completely heartbreaking to watch.

The point I’m leading up to here is this: It’s surely time for our species to reconsider our axioms and the social contracts based on them. Even without the pandemic, reality has diverged so far from what it was at the time that our governance structures and mainstream ideologies were conceived it’s a wonder any of them remain functional at all. In less than 50 years we’ve exchanged a reality of abundant ‘natural resources’ and scarce information for its opposite: a world of increasingly scarce ‘natural resources’ and overwhelming (mis)information. Governance processes that incentivise waste and unfair distribution of finite resources on the one hand, and pollute our species’ ability to make sense of reality on the other, are clearly maladaptive.

We’re in this maladaptive state not because humans or our governance processes have changed, but because our old fitness landscape has gone the way of the dodo. It’s high time we stopped bullshitting ourselves about that, put down our outdated maps, and did some serious valley crossing (exploration) to discover what’s what, and adapt and exapt to realign ourselves with reality.

Easy to say, not so easy to do, I know. Figuring out what forms of governance might work to meet our needs and facilitate ongoing adaptation to our new contexts is a gargantuan task, and by definition, not one we know how to do. It involves exploring unknown and abstract territory, stepping into liminal domains where there are no experts because it’s impossible to develop expertise without experience. But just because it is huge and difficult and expensive and unknown doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary. Reality speaks last, and we desperately need to recalibrate ourselves with it before it tells us that humans are unfit for purpose.

Thankfully the situation is far from hopeless. As a species, we’ve had to work together these past 20 months to deal with the global impacts of a novel coronavirus. We’ve seen some of the failure points in our organisational systems, from information and media to logistics to ecology to health to education to technology to welfare. We’ve also discovered opportunities in working remotely, keeping in touch with each other and forming new relationships online. Those of us with the luxury to do so have often thought hard about our lives, getting back in touch with our selves as well — our values, what is truly important to us, what makes life worth living. Throughout all the kicking and screaming, COVID-19 has gifted us with some insights, and made us learn some of the skills we need to explore and create appropriate governance for the 21st century.

We know innovation is important for our species, but too often think of it only in the narrow terms of economic growth and competition in the marketplace. How about innovating more freedom? More wellbeing, health and happiness? Beauty in music and art and story, richer relationships, more meaningful and satisfying work and play? Less waste of our scarce resources — of our time, our attention, our lives. We could innovate in these domains too if we just removed the crusty bits of axiom-induced-sleep from our eyes. There’s sooo much low-hanging fruit to pick!

Take advertising as an example. Who among us would choose — if we had a real choice — to watch, read or listen to advertising? It wouldn’t be so hard to arrange things differently so we did have a real choice. Consider building governance around a new axiom that our attention and time are finite and invaluable, and belong to us. Why should advertisers be able to take time and attention from us at all, let alone for free? We could organise ways to charge them a small fee every time they get our individual attention. Alternatively, we could create a commons entity to charge advertising fees, and equally distribute the proceeds as a dividend to all — which, just sayin’, would be a fine start to a UBI. If that’s too expensive for advertisers and they stop advertising and instead find a way to create a directory that enables us to find their offerings when we want them … well, so much the better — we get our attention back.

And how about those bullshit jobs? Who among us would choose — if we had a real choice — to fritter away our lives doing useless, bullshit work? Wouldn’t we prefer to do something we find meaningful and useful?

Bullshit work is such a horrifying waste of our lives and our potential. We humans can be creative, loving, dancing creatures. If we quit feeding those bloody zombies, we’d have ample resources available to feed exploration and valuable creativity instead. New ideas and organisations would emerge as people explored and adapted to the contexts they’re in. Rather than expecting people receiving welfare income to apply for any job they can get, for example, we could unconditionally support them to give the best of themselves, whatever that happens to be. They might participate in exploratory research of one form or another. Some might keep a journal for a study, or start a project, or participate in a focus group or advisory board. Some might invent, or code, or paint, or teach, or write, or make music. Fewer zombies, less bullshit, less waste, more value, more meaning, more fulfilment. More life.

We could make it easier for all of us to offer our best value to the world, whether paid or gifted, individually or collectively. If nothing else, a society woven with a higher proportion of non-monetary threads of relating, gifting and trading would be a kinder, richer, lovelier one than the hyper-financialised, winner-takes-all, bullshit-jobs-prioritised-over-valuable-contribution society we have today. Governance that feeds the ‘good wolf’ in us, rather than the evil one — see Two Wolves if this reference isn’t familiar — would generate a healthier society with less bitterness, resentment, envy and fear.

Feeding zombies and treating bullshit as valuable entraps us in our failing systems. It’s time to let those dead axioms go and nourish the living instead.