Late-February Check-in: On Work 001

February 27, 2021

I used the last check-in post to open a conversation on work that has been rattling around in my head for a while now. I'm glad to have put that into writing, but I couldn't help feeling like it wasn't a "real" check-in--it didn't say much about what I'm up to at the moment and how it fits into my overall plan. Today I want to elaborate on why I see those ideas about work as relevant to my ongoing project.

The main tension I underscored was the tension between the perspective of a guild, society, or other sort of collective endeavor, and the abstract perspective of human rights when it comes to the role of work as a currency according to which we distribute resources and opportunity. This feels especially relevant to me this week, as I rely on hundreds of person-years of labor available to me for free in the form of carefully thought-out security code and protocols. It's also relevant to me personally; every day I feel both great happiness and excitement that I get to do this project, and a kind of "waiting for the other shoe to drop" nervousness. My whole working life, regardless of whether I was working at a coffee shop or a software company, regardless of whether I liked what I was doing or not, I always had in the back of my mind a loop of or else, or else. Or else I won't be able to pay rent. Or else I won't have health insurance. Or else I'll never be employable again. Now, that quiet refrain is gone, and the lack of it keeps drawing my attention, like the space left when you lose a tooth. I don't feel like there's any external negative consequence that will follow if I don't complete this project. I work at my own pace, without deadlines or performance reviews. When I want to rest, I rest. When I want to write blog posts, I write blog posts. When I want to write code I write code. It feels very natural and unforced. There's a part of my conditioning that resists that; that tells me the external pressure and the or elses were all that validated my usefulness as a human. Those intrusive thoughts use as evidence the grim conclusion of the litany of or else: that one only eats if one does what someone with money thinks is useful.

Today I want to approach it as a kind of survey: given that I can observe cases in the world around me where people are denied basic needs, and given that these cases seem to have been fairly consistent over my whole life, I think it's fair for me to say that they are inherent in the current societal organization, and to imagine a kind of societal personality[1]--the embodied logic of or else. When does that logic allow a human to be denied basic needs solely because they haven't done enough work[2]?" When does that societal personality prioritize the right to property over an extremely broad notional right to have one's needs met?[3] We should probably expect that there will be many examples of this--there will be many times when the societal personality allows you to say "no" to someone when they ask you to give them your stuff, even if the stuff in question, like food or clothing or shelter, is one of the basic necessities of life (and even if it is plausibly surplus; that is, you can't demonstrate that you immediately need it or else something bad will happen).

For the past couple of weeks, I've been immersed in the mechanics of security[4], an area which is counterintuitively permissive about giving things away. Among the things software practitioners learn to take for granted is the fact that software technology and computing knowledge are almost entirely unprotected by any economic gatekeeper besides the ability to get your hands on a computer and the time to study. If you want to encrypt a connection between two computers in a way that can't conceivably be broken, you can get the software to do so. It's built into your browser, and the browser company isn't required to pay for it. Viewed as a whole, software is one of the most impressive artifacts that humans have ever produced, and the "good stuff," as it were--the building blocks that are to software what blueprints, drywall, and plumbing fixtures are to home construction--are free and in infinite supply. When I consider that, it truly stuns me; please, for my sake, let it be stunning to you as well. If you want to build a really solid software system, you can expect to pay for computers[5], and you can expect to pay people for their time, but if you want to avoid it, it's pretty easy to never pay anything for code itself. To put this in perspective: I've been working for six months on this software system, which uses some of the most advanced services and techniques, and my "raw material" costs have been about $70[6]. And this is where I get really twisted around the question of what it means to treat work as the determinant of who gets what. My six months of work is really just the tiniest scaffolding hooking together years of the work of others. And unlike the work that goes into building a house or a car, there's no inherent reason why any human should ever need to do much of that work again, for as long as there is time[7].

So when it's possible to fill certain specific needs "once and for all"[8], and when the types of tasks that can be automated in that way vary in complexity between "a technique for doing math on a computer" and "operating the entire Port of Rotterdam," doesn't that somewhat undermine the effectiveness, in terms of "likelihood to maintain a stable society," of individual human labor and or elses as a metric for whether we make someone endure privation and disgrace? At some point along this trajectory, you have to ask not "how long will this train stay on the track," but "why hasn't it already derailed?"

I believe the answer to that question can be found in the psychology of the guild system. In the last post I wrote about work, we saw an example where someone was essentially fired, from the job she presumably used to buy food clothes and shelter, because she didn't demonstrate the proper respect for the enterprise in which she was employed, which standard of respect was essentially the same master / apprentice relationship as would have existed on a 15th-century castle-building site. I believe that it's these kinds of social relationships and power differentials, much more than any empirically-definable idea of "work product," that are functionally responsible for determining who gets what in our society. Much as, when building a movie set, one only bothers to work on the things that will be within the camera frame, the logic of a company or guild makes sense only within its borders. Within the context of a company, there is no cognitive dissonance involved in firing someone because they don't do the job the way the boss wants. But if you describe the exact same event as the arbitrary and unappealable way that someone loses all social supports, it starts to look a lot darker. And if that is the case--if the concept of "deserving things because one worked hard for them" is really just a smokescreen that obscures the pragmatic reality of "getting things because one loyally occupies a particular position within a web of social relationships"--then we should start to look very carefully at any place where we see that smokescreen deployed, and any institutions it's used to justify.

  1. My supporting evidence for this claim--that I can posit a societal personality that makes specific assertions--rests in the existence of official legal codes. My reasoning is that if a society has laws--as opposed to there being different laws for different people--that implies a belief that there is a unified way to express the society's values. I'm using the broader idea of a societal personality to also include other spheres than the legal--such as norms and mores--that are less codified but flow from the same implication of universality. ↩︎

  2. I'm not really satisfied with "done enough work" in this phrase. It could maybe also be "provided enough value" or "been useful enough" or "been useful enough to some entity." ↩︎

  3. There's also a metaquestion I'd like to highlight. Can we agree that this topic is worth real, thoughtful consideration, to the extent that we will not accept at face value traditional explanations for why things are as they are? What I mean is that, for this conversation, the argument "because property rights" will not be accepted as persuasive without further qualification--without some elaboration stating when and why it is the job of the societal personality to enforce those rights. I'm trying to make sure this conversation takes edge cases seriously. For instance, if we accept an absolute conception of property rights, then it's theoretically possible for a very small number of people to own most of the stuff in a society. In that situation, enforcement of property rights is functionally the same as maintenance of inequality--everyone pays for it, but only those with property benefit from it. In that scenario, what is the logic by which we expect the disenfranchised to accept the legitimacy of the authority? How would it avoid becoming simply the enemy and oppressor of anyone who doesn't benefit from it?

    I'd like to invite answers to this question in at least two framings. First, we can ask, "How would that authority pragmatically avoid being treated as an enemy and oppressor? If we acknowledge that the authority has the capability to do pretty much anything, which specific things would it do to protect itself from this framing?" Second, we can ask "How would that authority be able to ethically avoid being seen as an enemy and oppressor? Is there a logic under which the disenfranchised might justifiably accept that the system is necessary or useful?" We can think of this as the "platonic" view of the question. I'm interested in the answers to both views. ↩︎

  4. In previous posts, I laid out a view of security in the abstract, values worth securing in the context of social media systems, and approaches to implementing security according to those values. The work that I've been doing for the past weeks is implementation--assembling and testing the security mechanisms that follow from those earlier assertions. ↩︎

  5. Including purchasing or renting, electricity, network connectivity, physical plant maintenance, etc. ↩︎

  6. I've paid $24 for two domains, about $10 for the logging bug I had, $5 / month for a Github membership (which I don't strictly need; a free account would work too), and about $1.30 per month for everything else. If I didn't have my current computer, I would be able to use a $100 raspberry pi plus a cheap screen. My internet costs haven't changed since I started this project. ↩︎

  7. It often seems like code becomes obsolete, and indeed there are areas of software writing, such as websites and personal device operating systems, where fashions change fast enough that you can see people doing the same work over and over. But the deeper you look into these systems, the more static they seem. The C programming language and C Standard Library, the Unix operating system, and many of the systems that run things like the world's financial-services infrastructure, originated within a couple decades of the 1970s and haven't changed much since. ↩︎

  8. To give an example, LAPACK, one of the more powerful and well-known libraries for doing linear algebra, was first released in 1992, and the most recent releases show precious few changes. The pragmatic challenges associated with doing linear algebra on a computer at any human scale are effectively resolved. ↩︎