Writing in Men’s Health, and sadly not available anywhere I can link to, Will Self reflects on what we’ve collectively learned during the pandemic.
In it, he uses a quotation from Nietzsche I can’t seem to find elsewhere, “There are better things to be than the merely productive man”. I definitely feel this.
[T]he mood-music in recent months from government and media has all been about getting back to normal. So-called freedom. Trouble is… people from all walks of life and communities [have] expressed a reluctance to resume the lifestyle they were enjoying before March of last year. Quite possibly this is because they weren’t really enjoying that much in the first place — and it’s this that’s been exposed by the pandemic and its associated measures.
The difficulty, I think, is that lots of people (me included at times) had pre-pandemic lives that they would probably rate a 6/10. Not terrible enough for the situation by itself to be a stimulus for change. But not, after a break, the thought of returning to how things were sounds… unappetising.
We all know the unpleasant spinning-in-the-hamster-wheel sensation that comes when we’re working all hours with the sole objective of not having to work all hours — it traps us in a moment that’s defined entirely by stress-repeating-anxiety, a feeling that mutates all too easily into full-blown depression. And we’re not longer the sort of dualists who believe that psychological problems have no bodily correlate — on the contrary, we all understand that working too hard while feeling that work to be valueless can take us all the way from indigestion to an infarct.
I’ve burned out a couple of times in my life, which is why these days I feel privileged to be able to work 25-hour weeks by choice. There’s more to life than looking (and feeling!) “successful”.
It’s funny, I have more agency and autonomy than most people I know, yet I increasingly resent the fact that this is dependent upon some of the very technologies I’ve come to realise are so problematic for society.
[I]t might be nice in the way of 18 months of being told what to do, to feel one was telling one’s self what to do. One way of conceptualising the renunciation necessary to cope with the transition from a lifestyle where everything can be bought to one in which both security and satisfaction depend on more abstract processes, is to critique not just the unhealthy economy but the pathological dependency on technology that is its sequel.
Ultimately, I think Will Self does a good job of walking a tightrope in this article in not explicitly mentioning politics. The financial crash, followed by austerity, Brexit, and now the pandemic, have combined to hollow out the country in which I live.
The metaphor of a pause button has been overused during the pandemic. That’s for a reason: most of us have had an opportunity, some for the first time in their lives, to stop and think what we’re doing — individually and collectively.
What comes next is going to be interesting.
Not a sponsored mention by any means, but just a heads-up that I read this article thanks to my wife’s Readly subscription. It’s a similar monthly price to Netflix, but for all-you-can-read magazines and newspapers!
🏙️ How the spread of sheds threatens cities — “A white-collar worker who has tried to work from the kitchen table for the past nine months might be keen to return to the office. A worker who has an insulated garden shed with Wi-Fi will be less so. Joel Bird, who builds bespoke sheds, is certain that his clients envisage a long-term change in their working habits. “They don’t consider it to be temporary,” he says. “They’re spending too much money.”
😬 Transactional Enchantment — “The greatest endemic risk to the psyche in 2021 is not that you’ll end up on the streets next week or fail to fund your retirement in 30 years. The greatest risk is that you’ll feel so relentlessly battered by the weirdness all around that you’ll go numb and simply disengage from the world entirely today.”
💬 Convocational Development — “The fundamental difference between the convocation and traditional open source is that energy is put into facilitating discussions between users, coders, graphic designers etc. Documentation and instructions are often the weakest part of an open source project, and that excludes people who don’t have the time or ability to assemble a mental model of the open source software and its capabilities from just the code and the meagre promotional materials. The convocation starts as a basic web forum, but evolves tools and cultures that enable greater participation in the development process itself.”
📈 GameStop Is Rage Against the Financial Machine — “Instead of greed, this latest bout of speculation, and especially the extraordinary excitement at GameStop, has a different emotional driver: anger. The people investing today are driven by righteous anger, about generational injustice, about what they see as the corruption and unfairness of the way banks were bailed out in 2008 without having to pay legal penalties later, and about lacerating poverty and inequality. This makes it unlike any of the speculative rallies and crashes that have preceded it.”
Quotation-as-title by R.H. Tawney. Image from top-linked post.
I get the feeling that, between film and TV shows on Netflix, Amazon deliveries, and social interaction on Twitter and Mastodon, beyond close friends and family, no-one would even realise if I’d been quarantined.
Writing in The Atlantic, Ian Bogost points out that Every Place Is the Same Now, because you go to every place with your personal screen, a digital portal to the wider world.
Anywhere has become as good as anywhere else. The office is a suitable place for tapping out emails, but so is the bed, or the toilet. You can watch television in the den—but also in the car, or at the coffee shop, turning those spaces into impromptu theaters. Grocery shopping can be done via an app while waiting for the kids’ recital to start. Habits like these compress time, but they also transform space. Nowhere feels especially remarkable, and every place adopts the pleasures and burdens of every other. It’s possible to do so much from home, so why leave at all?
Ian Bogost (The Atlantic)
If you’re a knowledge worker, someone who deals with ideas and virtual objects rather than things in ‘meatspace’, then there is nothing tying you to a particular geographical place. This may be liberating, but it’s also quite… weird.
It’s easy but disorienting, and it makes the home into a very strange space. Until the 20th century, one had to leave the house for almost anything: to work, to eat or shop, to entertain yourself, to see other people. For decades, a family might have a single radio, then a few radios and a single television set. The possibilities available outside the home were far greater than those within its walls. But now, it’s not merely possible to do almost anything from home—it’s also the easiest option. Our forebears’ problem has been inverted: Now home is a prison of convenience that we need special help to escape.
Ian Bogost (The Atlantic)
I’ve worked from home for the last eight years, and now can’t imagine going back to working any other way. Granted, I get to travel pretty much every month, but that 95% being-at-home statistic still includes my multi-day international trips.
I haven’t watched it recently, but in 2009 a film called Surrogates starring Bruce Willis foreshadowed the kind of world we’re creating. Here’s the synopsis via IMDB:
People are living their lives remotely from the safety of their own homes via robotic surrogates — sexy, physically perfect mechanical representations of themselves. It’s an ideal world where crime, pain, fear and consequences don’t exist. When the first murder in years jolts this utopia, FBI agent Greer discovers a vast conspiracy behind the surrogate phenomenon and must abandon his own surrogate, risking his life to unravel the mystery.
If we replace the word ‘robotic’ with ‘virtual’ in this plot summary, then it’s a close approximation to the world in which some of us now live. Facetuned Instagram selfies project a perfect life. We construct our own narratives and then believe the story we have concocted. Everything is amazing but no-one’s happy.
Even Zoom, the videoconferencing software I use most days for work, has an option to smooth out wrinkles, change your background, and make everything look a bit more sparkly. Our offline lives can be gloriously mundane, but online, thanks to various digital effects, we can make them look glorious. And why wouldn’t we?
I think we’ll see people and businesses optimising for how they look and sound online, including recruitment. The ability to communicate effectively at a distance with people who you may never meet in person is a skill that’s going to be in high demand, if it isn’t already.
Remote working may be a trend, but one which is stubbornly resisted by some bosses who are convinced they have to keep a close eye on employees to get any work out of them.
However, when those bosses are forced to implement remote working policies to keep their businesses afloat, and nothing bad happens as a result, this attitude can, and probably will, change. Remote working, when done properly, is not only more cost-effective for businesses, but often leads to higher productivity and self-reported worker happiness.
Being ‘good in the room‘ is fine, and I’m sure it will always be highly prized, but I also see confident, open working practices as something that’s rising in perceived value. Chairing successful online meetings is at least as important as chairing ones offline, for example. We need to think of ways of being able recognise these remote working skills, as it’s not something in which you can receive a diploma.
For workers, of course, there are so many benefits of working from home that I’m not even sure where to start. Your health, relationships, and happiness are just three things that are likely to dramatically improve when you start working remotely.
For example, let’s just take the commute. This dominates the lives of non-remote workers, usually taking an hour or more out of a their day — every day. Commuting is tiring and inconvenient, but people are currently willing to put up with long commutes to afford a decently-sized house, or to live in a nicer area.
So, let’s imagine that because of the current pandemic (which some are calling the world’s biggest remote-working experiment) businesses decide that having their workers being based from home has multi-faceted benefits. What happens next?
Well, if a large percentage (say we got up to ~50%) of the working population started working remotely over the next few months and years, this would have a knock-on effect. We’d see changes in:
…to name but a few. I think it would be a huge net benefit for society, and hopefully allow for much greater civic engagement and democratic participation.
I’ll conclude with a quotation from Nafeez Ahmed’s excellent (long!) post on what he’s calling a global phase shift. Medium says it’s a 30-minute read, but I reckon it’s about half that.
Ahmed points out in stark detail the crisis, potential future scenarios, and the opportunity we’ve got. I particularly appreciate his focus on the complete futility of what he calls “a raw, ‘fend for yourself’ approach”. We must work together to solve the world’s problems.
The coronavirus outbreak is, ultimately, a lesson in not just the inherent systemic fragilities in industrial civilization, but also the limits of its underlying paradigm. This is a paradigm premised on a specific theory of human nature, the neoclassical view of Homo-Economicus, human beings as dislocated units which compete with each other to maximise their material self-gratification through endless consumption and production. That paradigm and its values have brought us so far in our journey as a species, but they have long outlasted their usefulness and now threaten to undermine our societies, and even our survival as a species.
Getting through coronavirus will be an exercise not just in building societal resilience, but relearning the values of cooperation, compassion, generosity and kindness, and building systems which institutionalize these values. It is high time to recognize that such ethical values are not simply human constructs, products of socialization. They are cognitive categories which reflect patterns of behaviour in individuals and organizations that have an evolutionary, adaptive function. In the global phase shift, systems which fail to incorporate these values into their structures will eventually die.
Just as crises can be manufactured by totalitarian regimes to seize power and control populations, perhaps natural crises can be used to make us collectively realise we need to pull together?