“The advance of automation in factories increases the number of forms and signatures needed to open an account in banks.”
— Mario Fabbri, The Imaginary Economy
Humanity has become very good at producing things. Thanks to the innovations of the last 250 years, We are more than able to produce everything we need, and plenty of things we don’t need. Our capacity to produce many products grows faster than our capacity to consume them. As a result, many manufacturing jobs were eliminated over the past few decades.
So far, innovation has always created more jobs than it has destroyed. We managed to become more efficient and employ a growing population of people who live and work for more years.
This is what the world looks like to an economist. In reality, the transition from the pre- to the industrial era has not been smooth. We had two world wars, a Communist revolution in Russia and China, and plenty of other painful dislocations and growing (or shrinking) pains.
But World Wars are not the only way to “absorb” the shock of technological change or put surplus labor to work until demand catches up. The other way is to keep more people busy doing unnecessary things. John Maynard Keynes famously wrote that “government should pay people to dig holes in the ground and then fill them up” during economic slowdowns.
Another way is to intentionally slow the adoption of new technology. For example, trains were required to employ “water tenders” — humans who shoveled coal to keep steam engines going — long after locomotives were equipped with diesel engines.
This type of response is known as “featherbedding,” which Wikipedia describes as “the practice of hiring more workers than are needed to perform a given job or adopt work procedures that appear pointless, complex and time-consuming merely to employ additional workers.
Featherbedding is commonly used in industrial relations, where large employers and labor unions negotiate over the adoption of new tools and procedures. But this practice does not happen only within industrial companies. It can also be seen in the economy as a whole, affecting the distribution of labor across industries. .”
Earlier this week, Daniel Doyon — the founder of Readwise, one of my favorite apps — recommended The Imaginary Economy to me by Mario Fabbri. Fabbri’s book suggests that to keep everyone busy, humanity is creating more and more jobs that are not necessary:
“The divergence between technically feasible production and actual consumption has visibly reduced the number of blue-collar workers and peasants in the population and inflated, for compensatory purposes, a gigantic service sector which must be unproductive of material goods, brimming with employees, managers, consultants, supervisors and various employees with duties difficult to understand and explain.”
According to Fabbri, many of the tasks performed inside office buildings belong to “the growing part of the economic system that claims to be ‘productive’ and is not.”
And now, even these unproductive jobs are being automated or can be “move” to lower-wage countries. But automation and outsourcing are eclipsed by an even bigger threat: humans.
As I pointed out a few weeks ago, a small minority of the most productive office employees can now capture a bigger share of all work (and all rewards) in a variety of industries. The internet and other tools enable them to be more productive than ever. This, in turn, means that many knowledge workers are essentially redundant, at least in their current roles.
In the past, geography forced hyper-productive people to be less productive because they could only be at one place at a time, working for one company at a time. Even before people started working, the most gifted children were often forced to study at the same pace and in the same place as everyone else because it was not economically feasible to let each child study at their own pace and access the resources that are relevant to them at any given moment.
That meant that even people who had the skills to do more were forced to do less. Geography and scarcity handicapped above-average performers and protected the average ones. By “average,” I am not referring to people’s overall worth or potential. I am referring to their ability to perform a specific task for which they are paid.
Another inefficiency associated with the old industrial world is that people were scarcely matched with jobs that they had the potential to be great at; most jobs were within large firms. Most large firms had clearly defined roles and procedures that employees had to fit into. The result was a world that was safe for average people.
As geographical constraints diminish, the world is becoming more dangerous for those who aren’t great at their job.
How will humanity respond?
When it comes to knowledge work, the old forms of featherbedding are no longer effective. Most technology employees are not unionized, so the formal adoption of labor-protecting procedures is less likely. More importantly, railroad operators could afford to operate at a sub-optimal capacity because they were protected from the competition — it would take years for anyone to build a new rail line or come up with a new way to move people across long distances.
Software and creative services firms are not as privileged. They operate in a world where competitors pop up overnight, and customers can often switch to a different provider within minutes. The only way to keep the masses employed in these industries is to handicap the best performers and prevent them from being as productive as they can. And not just within individual companies, but for whole sectors.
How can this be achieved?
In the industrial world, the main unit of input was man-hours. Employees were organized and measured to ensure they spend as many hours as possible doing the thing they were meant to do.
In post-industrial work, the main unit of input is concentration. Creative work takes time, but more time does not necessarily equal a more valuable output. The best ideas come up when smart people are allowed to focus — on their own or with a small group.
In the past, slowing down the pace of change required us to make sure our employees waste their time (shoveling coal in a locomotive that does not run on coal). Today, slowing down the pace of change requires us to make sure our employees are distracted.
Which brings us to Slack, the world’s hottest “enterprise social” app. For those of haven’t used it yet, Slack is a chat app for companies. In its own words:
“Slack gives you access to real-time conversations with any teammate or team. Unlike email, where every new message is weighted alike, it’s easy to grab a specific someone's attention with a notification when you need a quick response.”
In a world powered by human concentration, giving every employee the power to “grab” every other employee’s attention is the ultimate form of featherbedding. It keeps everyone distracted just enough to make sure we’re not innovating too quickly.
And by offering this experience as-a-service to multiple companies within the same industry, Slack ensures that everyone can afford to be a little less productive. As Fabbri pointed out, “for companies, being competitive does not mean avoiding unproductive work, but only not remunerating more of it than competitors do.”
This does not mean that Slack doesn’t help some or even most employees. But it holds back the most productive among us and prevents them from coming up with ideas that would make all their colleagues redundant. In that sense, Slack is a social good, helping society absorb the shock of technological change.
I am still working on the longer essay I started last week. Stay tuned.
This week’s cover image was inspired by the one and only Packy McCormick. His latest pieceon the future of work is well worth a read.