Sunday, 11 February 2007

Superpowers, Snowflakes and Silicon Chips

My colleague and co-founder at the School of Everything, the code-artist Greenman (left), tells me that if he could choose any superpower it would be the power to give people surprise holidays. A few mornings a year, just as you're about to leave the house, you would get an unexpected call from him to let you know you don't have to come in to work. (Maybe you would decide to have a walkabout day instead...)

Anyway, that's exactly what the snow in England did for lots of people last week. They woke up and found they couldn't get to work. Cue the predictable made-up statistics from "Industry Chiefs". David Frost, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, ignored the irony of his name to tell the BBC: "It is expected that the lateness and loss of work hours caused by transport disruptions will cost the British economy up to £400 million."

Well, our Greenman is having none of this:

In all my time spent working for organizations, it was only in the few days after a holiday that most people actually tried a bit harder at their job.

The idea that productivity is about how many hours you are working needs to be consigned to the grave. It comes from the world of smokestacks and sweatshops. I suppose it is only in that stale, polluted world that Industry Chiefs can really matter. The same probably applies to most of the politicians. Unfortunately, there are still enough smokestacks and sweatshops (of all forms) for these points of view to have their place, but, luckily we wont have to worry about them for too much longer.

Now, I'm with him all the way on the benefits of holidays, but where I do get a little cautious is on the next bit:

(Here comes a big generalisation, that may not apply everywhere yet, but I do feel that it is valid in the UK)
We no longer live in a world where human time is simply a matter of quantity. When most of the economy operates on a service and information level, the quality of human effort is vital.

When I hear people talking about the "shift to an information economy", it usually seems like they're caught up in a rhetoric which obscures lived experience. Such a shift is neither as real nor as desireable nor as irreversible as they make it sound.

Certainly, countries like mine have outsourced much of the making of stuff to poorer parts of the world, and this makes it both less expensive and less visible to us. This is not the same as having arrived at a way of living which is less dependent on people making stuff.

Nor is the idea of stuff being made without the involvement of people necessarily attractive. "Untouched by human hand" is a cliché from the advertising of another era. It is also, more or less, the logic of Bernard Matthews and his like - and we've seen this week where that can lead. (This, I sincerely hope, stands as a reductio ad absurdum and not a prototype.)

Leaving meat behind - as the techno-gnostic devout aspire to do! - even the tools on which the information economy depends depend in turn on the "old economy" whose obsolescence its rhetoric seems to propose. My friend Dan challenges people from time to time to think about where their computers were made and what they were made from. Last week, he blogged a Google Earth link to the Export Processing Zone in the Philippines where Intel chips are made. The manufacturing of computers is by no means a clean industry. And then there are the extractive industries at the back of the process.

Finally, the precariousness of a way of living is hard to take seriously until something happens to destabilise it. In many of the decisions we make day to day, sanity is best maintained by assuming that things will go on roughly the way they're going right now (whatever that seems to be). But that's not a good way of predicting the future. So even the swelling value of information and service industries, in proportion to the making of stuff, probably shouldn't be taken as an irreversible trend.

So what am I saying? Well, to go back to Greenman's surprise holidays, I'd like to decouple the celebration of "play" time from the idea that we're evolving from a grim-but-necessary era of industrialisation into a post-industrial world where all manual work will be done by machines. I know Greenman doesn't subscribe to that idea any more than I do, but it's one which I think is implicit in the language of the "shift to an information economy".

1 comment:

greenman said...

Not just create holidays Dougald, although that would be good, it is even better to have a stick in the other hand, I also desire to be able to DESTROY holidays.

Imagine the power of forcing everyone to go to work on Christmas Day! So evil.

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