REPENT! STAY HOME! SLACK OFF!!
The impact of quarantine on imagination, productivity, and the legibility of our labor
My previous piece on Covid-19 focused on how extended quarantine might impact members of the precarious labor pool previously used by the now-obviated gig economy. This piece will instead focus on white-collar workers & the shift to remote work.
While the shift to remote work (specifically work-from-home) in the wake of lock downs is liable to result in lower individual productivity (for instance, I have been working on this article for an entire month), I think it will inevitably produce reorganizations on multiple scales that, if properly embraced, will increase productivity on the whole. This increase will be the direct result of subversion, and while it will benefit businesses in various ways, it will also destabilize their control over us, because this increase in productivity will be inseparable from a higher order abstract creativity incompatible with micromanagement and surveillance.
Working from home differs from working in the office in two major ways. One is the absence of a shared physical environment specific to workers. The other is the barrier to managerial supervision.
A shared physical environment was once a near-necessity for quick response times. Today, as much white-collar work is done between offices, the primary function of the office itself is psychological: it produces a kind of unity. This is because of state-dependent memory and a variety of related cognitive biases.
At work, we are required to become different people than we are at home. We play specific roles, and follow particular rules. Some of these rules are for the sake of productivity (for instance, we aren’t supposed to sit at our workstations browsing social media or playing video games); some are for the sake of ease of supervision (for instance, we are supposed to come in and leave at more or less the same time, sit in the same place); some are simply side effects of needing to share a space (for instance, no loud music, no smelly food, and no pornography or graphic imagery).
These rules are bound to the setting: it is unnerving to unexpectedly meet a coworker in a neutral space like a grocery store, because shifting into work mode outside of that space is hard.
When storing a memory, all of the particulars of sensation are part of the encoding, and subsequently, at retrieval time, memories associated with sensations you are currently experiencing are more available than other memories: this is state-dependent memory, and it is why last night’s drunken antics are easier to remember when you are drunk again, you can’t remember or imagine being happy when you’re in the depths of depression, and the smell of old books and cinnamon rolls unexpectedly dredges up a vision of that one night at the lake when you were twelve. Your office-self is a semi-independent being, like the rest of your selves, and is bolstered by an externalized memory in the form of the look, smell, and texture of your office — the particular taste of the stale coffee, the feel of the rough toilet paper, the layout of your keyboard.
The thing about state-dependent memories is that, when the state is kept stable, they solidify and compound. The entire history of your interactions with your coworkers — your fights and your nitpicks and your admirations — are much more solid and inescapable in the office. They feel like ground truth. Recalling them at home, they take on the tinge of half-remembered dreams, and like dreams, the bits that don’t make sense become substantially more obvious. Your coworkers, likewise, are being solidified by the shared environment, and the shared understandings you come to there are propped up by it.
The other thing about state-dependent memories is that you are experiencing a lot of states at any given time, and when you control your own environment, it is easy to mix and match.
Workers have been forced to leave the relatively stable and static world of the office and stay in the more varied environment of the home. Work coincides with other tasks: entertainment (of types not previously available), childcare, cooking, cleaning, home maintenance, and all the minor rituals of the hearth’s private pantheon. What’s more, grosser and more physiological disruptions to routine cannot be enforced away anymore: more of us will begin to apply in our work the kinds of thinking we can only do stoned or drunk or naked, in addition to the kinds of thinking we can only have while blasting death metal or half-watching slasher movies or eating pickled herring. We will begin to have the kind of work thoughts that we can only have while being interrupted by cats or children. We will have thoughts that we could not have had in the office, and they will be thoughts that nobody in the office could have had.
In a particular state of mind (as created by set and setting), what may be literally unthinkable in other states becomes obvious & vice versa. In other words, when the best solution is not already decided upon, any temporary alteration of your state of mind is justified on the grounds that it can reframe your thinking so that the correct solution becomes obvious — even as the changes to the obvious/unthinkable division are functionally schocastic: what changes to the environment would make thinking about a particular problem easier are not known except for the cases of solved problems, and only randomness and diversity can uncover unknown unknowns.
Global work-from-home suddenly (and roughly simultaneously) explodes the former rough constants of set and setting for knowledge workers during their ostensibly-productive time: workers who previously worked during the day will start working primarily at night, those who previously listened to music will watch TV, and (seeking novelty in media to make up for the novelty they previously got from IRL social interaction with coworkers and other constant companions) they will expose themselves to increasingly unusual media, accelerating their daring in taste — coworkers who formerly regulated each other through tight coupling and produced an extremely stable shared understanding will begin to drift. While each individually will likely (for the duration of their long adjustment) feel less productive — and be less productive on every easy metric — their work decisions will begin to incorporate new insights, and the creativity of collaborative efforts will increase because collaborators are forced by circumstance to become more intellectually diverse.
This is an extremely disruptive state of affairs for businesses, who largely don’t have the capital necessary to focus on anything beyond the medium term and therefore cannot abide very much blue-sky thinking. The office environment is stable and consistent largely in order to encourage the exploit mode over the explore mode: to make us believe that we have most of the prerequisite information necessary to make decisions, so that we can make those decisions quickly and predictably. It matters more that we make them quickly than that we make particularly good ones: any careful and considered decision will require a great deal of careful consideration by others in the process of analysis, and any decision that promises dramatic gains also risks dramatic losses from unconsidered factors. Capital maintains itself through risk-aversion and incrementalism: one is more likely to make any profit at all by merely pretending to be revolutionary and turning that rhetoric into marketing than to take genuine risks; so, for any company already making a profit, any change is for the worse (in the short term). But major changes, no matter their quality (so long as they are varied), mean a vast overall improvement in an adaptive system like an economy. Disruptions like we are beginning to see will force new equilibria to form, and open up new opportunities.
The other factor here is slack.
The Divine Transcendence of Slacking Off
Debt, Sin, and Exploration in the Marketplace of Signs
At the same time that a change of setting has distanced us from static patterns of thought, we have lost the enforcement mechanism that had previously kept us from ever thinking too deeply. We no longer need to look busy, because nobody is able to check. When not in a state of panic, a human being’s natural inclination is to speculate, and so we’re going to see an awful lot of fairly elaborate off-the-wall ideas being implemented simply on the grounds that long-term concerns can, for the first time, be considered deeply.
Neither of these changes will be going away any time soon. We have already been working from home for long enough to begin the change. Slack is only increasing: in the face of widespread lockdown-related burnout and depression among knowledge workers, expectations around reported work time have been loosened; because those loosened constraints will result in bigger, scarier, and more successful bets, they will not be eliminated. It is unlikely that most of us will ever go back to the office permanently. Even for those who do, micromanagement will need to fall out of fashion.
We should expect, in exchange for this fuzzing of the boundaries between work and non-work (which, for once, capital is incapable of tilting entirely in its own favor), a looser division of labor and looser sense of responsibilities. At the same time, we have the numbers (and can develop the organization) to avoid the kind of gig-ification that happened to journalism when it became more casual.
After the pandemic ends, office attendance will probably remain rare. Buildings can be smaller, or be rented. This levels the playing field a bit: having a ‘real workplace’ is less expensive & so smaller capital-holders can play, smaller amounts of capital can be borrowed, and co-ops become easier to organize. This will be the second big restructuring: disappointed by the response to their crazy new ideas, lots of white-collar workers will leave their existing positions and strike out for new lands — especially if UBI or stronger unemployment benefits (ultimately necessary for supporting the majority of former service workers now without income) come about.
The alternative to all this is so obviously stupid that one hopes even the most ideologically blindered will not succumb: an invasion of work surveillance into all aspects of home life for knowledge workers, combined with masses of starving and homeless former service workers.