In the fantasy classic series, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there is a planet called Golgafrincham. On this planet, the powers that be saw that doom was coming to the planet, so they built three arks/ spaceships to take everyone to safety. Ark A was for leaders and scientists and such. Ark C was for people who made things and did needed work. Ark B was for hairdressers, telephone sanitizers, middle managers and the like.
Ark B set off first. Everyone remaining on Golgafricham continued working on the important and satisfying things they were doing, no longer bothered by those telephone sanitizers.
A new book suggests that automation is performing this trick backwards. Automation, a process which has been going on for at least a century, has removed people from many dangerous and low-paid jobs. But author David Graeber suggests that automation has also created pointless jobs, jobs which do not improve the world.
We may be less likely to work as miners or scullery maids, he thinks, but we are more likely to be telemarketers, dog groomers, or late-night pizza delivery boys. These meaningless occupations, and the millions of jobs that involve a small amount of visible direct work and a whole lot of paperwork documenting that small amount of work, are the result of automation. As automation has increased productivity and reduced the number of mill hands, someone has created makework jobs to disguise that fact.
Graeber has probably never worked as a domestic servant or an agricultural laborer. He’s an anthropologist. He probably feels that his work is meaningful. But he has found a deep vein of anger among the telephone sanitizers of the world. At least, he found 250 people on Twitter who shared with him their feeling that work has become pointless as machines undertake so much of the actual making of things.
Not surprisingly, Graeber’s thesis breaks down when he tries to get more specific about who is doing this and how automation is involved. But he has created an interesting conversation. When we say that a lot of the tasks taken over by automation weren’t that satisfying for human beings anyway, he’s ready to suggest that automation has created new, even more unsatisfying tasks.
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