10 June 2022. Work | Dystopia
Four hours a day // The bright side of dystopia
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1: Four hours a day
A guest post by Peter Curry
There is a political movement that is broadly called ‘anti-work’. It argues, in essence, that the majority of the work we do is unnecessary, and that we should make every effort as our society advances to reduce the amount of work that we do. In other words, the idea of work as something that is necessary to survive is a capitalist fiction, and we could exist far more happily in a world where work was minimised or largely optional.
Bertrand Russell suggests, in his famous 1932 essay In Praise of Idleness, that people should work four hours a day. This is a suggestion echoed by Oliver Burkeman and Alex Pang (many of their conclusions are for knowledge workers). They point out that many people we consider productive geniuses, of the ilk of Charles Darwin, Henri Poincaré and Virginia Woolf, spent three-to-four hours a day engaged in the work they’re recognised for.
Policy wonks who like this argument are currently pushing the idea of a four-day week, which has also been discussed previously on Just Two Things. (I believe the four-day week is thought to be more achievable in the short-run).
Often the anti-anti-work campaign respond to ideas like this by arguing that people would just ‘waste’ all that extra time. Russell preempts this critique:
When I suggest that working hours should be reduced to four, I am not meaning to imply that all the remaining time should necessarily be spent in pure frivolity. I mean that four hours’ work a day should entitle a [person] to the necessities and elementary comforts of life, and that the rest of [their] time should be [theirs] to use as [they] might see fit.
He pursues this argument by suggesting that allowing people to rest may allow us to engage more with pursuits that are more meaningful, whether they be learning a language or volunteering or, uh, as Russell suggests, peasant dances. I did say the essay was from 1932. The nature of most work as it currently exists is repetitive, tiring, and massively time-consuming. This all contributes to a general exhaustion, which prevents us from engaging in all our favourite peasant dances. Instead, free time is spent recuperating:
The pleasures of urban populations have become mainly passive: seeing cinemas, watching football matches, listening to the radio, and so on. This results from the fact that their active energies are fully taken up with work; if they had more leisure they would again enjoy pleasures in which they took an active part.
One of the problems here is that the sorts of outcomes that emerge from foundational shifts like working for four hours a day are difficult to imagine. They are made actively harder to imagine by the way we consider the future, where academic papers correct for changes—mutatis mutandis—or hold things constant—ceteris paribus—or we simply imagine the direct consequences of a change, but don’t allow for the second-order effects.
Change rarely occurs in intuitive ways, and they often have wider reaching consequences than you expect. This is at the heart of Russell’s argument here:
In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving, however excellent his pictures may be. Young writers will not be obliged to draw attention to themselves by sensational pot-boilers, with a view to acquiring the economic independence needed for monumental works, for which, when the time at last comes, they will have lost the taste and the capacity.
Is this competitive? If we stop writing sensational pot-boilers, will that allow us to keep up with our enemies or our friends who constantly attempt to deceive and outmanoeuvre us by taking our clients away or by posting pictures of their happy lives on Instagram? Well, yes. Russell and Burkeman and Pang all suggest that allowing time for people to experiment and develop enhances our current systems, rather than damaging them.
One of the key parallels that’s useful to draw here is between the idea of working less and ‘slack’. Slack is a difficult concept to pin down, but can exist in forms from queueing theory to buffer states. Working fewer hours than the current default 40-hour week is probably what most people do already, and it is also probably likely to move our slack-meter to a more optimal level.
Running with significant slack is often more efficient than running systems at high capacity. If you’re mathematically minded, Erik Bern simulates this via some code in the queueing theory link above, but G Gordon Worley III (who I believe got his name from erroneous DALL·E output) gives a simpler explanation:
If you work with distributed systems, by which I mean any system that must pass information between multiple, tightly integrated subsystems, there is a well understood concept of maximum sustainable load and we know that number to be roughly 60% of maximum possible load for all systems.
This property will hold for basically anything that looks sufficiently like a distributed system. Thus the "operate at 60% capacity" rule of thumb will maximize throughput in lots of scenarios: assembly lines, service-oriented architecture software, coordinated work within any organization, an individual's work, and perhaps most surprisingly an individual's mind-body.
"Slack" is a decent way of putting this, but we can be pretty precise and say you need ~40% slack to optimize throughput: more and you tip into being "lazy", less and you become “overworked".
Allowing flexibility and time into our systems so that we can sit idle is not an admission of defeat, but instead has the potential to be optimal in many circumstances.
I’m not sure how many working hours a week the dogma “operate at 60% capacity” translates to, but Bertrand Russell thought it might be twenty. It’s definitely not Goldman Sachs’ amphetamine soaked 95-hour weeks. I was going to crunch the numbers, but I think I might just slack off instead.
The writer Rosa Rankin-Gee—the author of Dreamland, set in a near-future Margate—was interviewed by the Five Books website on the subject of the best five books on near-future dystopias.
As she says early on:
we’re living at a time where the world is often stranger than fiction. A lot of what’s happening to us— climate change, the spectre of war, a pandemic—are worked out or grappled with through these novels. I think we can see in them a future that we don’t want to happen. They can also be quite stoic. When you think through what you might do in those circumstances, it affords you—or at least you hope it does—some level of preparedness.
Her selection: The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller; Under the Blue, by Oana Aristide; Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel; World War Z, by Max Brooks; and Z for Zachariah, by Robert C. O’Brien.
Their common theme—“each explore(s) a societal or cultural unraveling through beautiful prose.”
I’m not going to discuss all five, but just pick up a couple of observations about some of these books.
The Dog Stars came out six years after Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in 2012, and like other post-The Road dystopias lived in its shadow. Rankin-Gee characterises its reviews as “like: ‘The Road… but with hope.”
The thing which frustrates me about the idea of it being dubbed ‘ The Road… but with hope!’, is that that suggests a sentimentality of some kind, and this book is decidedly unsentimental... the books without hope are considered stronger or more literary or realer—as if the books with hope have somehow been airbrushed. But I think the latter are actually more realistic.
And hope, she says, can also be a dangerous thing:
(W)e can hold onto hope long after we should, sometimes. Hope is a fundamentally human trait, which brings with it its own risks. To me, social realism must contain hope—and hope is not necessarily a form of soft-focus.
She observes that there’s an interesting paradox around dystopian writing. The first is that as the structures of society disappear around you, there’s suddenly more scope for agency, especially if you’re a young adult—and it’s striking that several of these books are definitely from the YA genre. (She also talks about Meg Rossoff’s book How We Live Now, which just missed the cut, which similarly features teenaged protagonists):
Dystopias put you in a world where characters (and thus, in some way you, as a reader) have to fight to survive. It makes all those structures of society that make life sanitised and safe suddenly disappear, and I think that’s something that can be particularly appealing to young people—the idea of suddenly, drastically having agency.
At the same time, although some dystopian novels do involve disasters—war, pandemics, zombies, etc—it seems as likely that they’d arrive slowly, that one day we’d notice that the world was a lot worse and somehow we’d just got used to it:
One trope of dystopian novels is that people who have so much suddenly lose it... But in my own book Dreamland, I was more interested in the slow degradation of society... There’s not a lot of space or time for nostalgia, they’re just continuing to exist, with all the immense difficulty but also joy which that brings. It’s just life.
Rosa Rankin-Gee was interviewed by Cal Flyn. And since I’m mentioning Five Books, my Five Books interview on futures is here.
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