Wither a deviant life

I’m not really someone whose daily activities fit neatly in the guidelines. You’re probably the same. I was standing in line at the bank yesterday with a woman who is.

She needed to withdraw money. But just too much money to do it from an ATM. The bank, as is its wont, has invested in a battery of smart ATMs at the front of the branch. It now only staffs one of the six counters inside. The ATMs can do basically anything you would need of a teller – withdraw, move and deposit money etc.

But the ATMs have hard limits and absolutely no room for discretion.

The long line of disgruntled customers waiting to see that lonely bank teller attest to how many of us needed the flexibility of a human. Something, someone, who isn’t absolutely constrained by rules. Except, does this describe any of us anymore?

…since Economic Man is incapable of being morally load-bearing, he cannot be trusted. He will only work if incentivized by material benefit, so his behaviour must be watched like a hawk, and his rewards linked to the observed performance of contract-specified actions… Britain’s employers have been taught this in business schools and the consequence is manifest in the annual Jobs and Skills Survey. Twenty-five years ago, most people said they had enough autonomy to do their job properly; that has since dropped by 40 per cent. The reduction of workers to automata has resulted in a massive loss of job satisfaction, and with it of intrinsic motivation: it is hard to be loyal to an organization that manifestly distrusts you. It has also forfeited the good judgement that comes from using tacit knowledge – the expertise that can only be acquired through experience. By definition, this cannot be codified, specified, monitored and incentivized.

This is from a great essay by Paul Collier. And it makes me wonder what the future holds for services even if they aren’t dominated by automation.

The metrification of daily life is well under way and is already visible in a reduction to box ticking. There is some discretion left in the world, but I have little doubt that the necessary surveillance and analytical technology will grow in leaps and bounds. The MBAs demand it.

So what does that mean for those of us who live a deviant life? Who need to withdraw just too much money, or otherwise travel outside the norm? Probably a lot more time on the phone, talking to similarly constrained call centre workers.

As always my emphasis

How convenient is it really?

A Twitter thread last week had me wondering the most impactful thing I learned over the past decade. It is probably this observation from Austin Kleon:

Low overhead + “do what you love” = a good life.
“I deserve nice things” + “do what you love” = a time bomb.

I’ve completely overhauled my life in the past couple of years, trying to minimise unnecessary or extravagant expenditures and commitments. I had allowed lifestyle inflation to trap me in a situation where I had to earn a certain amount. I had fallen for the advertiser’s vision of freedom and empowerment through consumption, rather than a financial, emotional and mental freedom to work on things that have impact and bring me joy.

I don’t know how I got there, as I used to break consumption down into its time value. Calculating how many hours in my minimum wage job equated to getting a couple of pizzas delivered, for instance.

I seem to have stopped this at some point, but it’s a remarkably effective way of identifying what’s worth the trouble. I came across a very stark illustration today in The Art of Frugal Hedonism:

how fast does your car really go, on average? We’re not alluding merely to time stuck in traffic here. To truly calculate the ‘effective speed’ of our vehicles we need to include all the hours we put in at the office to cover fuel, registration and other running costs… with that speedometer sitting right on zero all the while. One Australian study calculates that for every hour spent driving a Toyota Landcruiser, the average owner spends another 1.5 hours working to pay for it. The study also points out that if the owner had to pay for their car’s ‘externalities’–those costs borne by society–of CO2 emissions, traffic congestion and the cost of road accidents, they’d need to work another 0.6 hours for every hour behind the wheel. That puts the effective speed of a Landcruiser at 9 kilometres (5.7 miles) per hour. Not so convenient after all, eh? A bicycle, by the way, with its far lower purchase, running, and externality costs, clocks in at a relatively speedy 18 kilometres (11 miles) per hour.

You could probably run similar analyses on almost any gadget or service that supposedly saves you time or adds convenience.

I, most of us probably, take our work lives as given. We must work full time. That gives us X dollars. Then we use those dollars as best we can to maximise the non-work hours.

But what if you reversed this? Every minute you save by owning a car (could be anything) is one you pay for with one or more minutes at work. Could you do without the car and simultaneously reduce the work? How convenient is the gadget in terms of the hours required to pay for it, purchase it, maintain it and eventually replace it?

What if you rethought both the numerator and the denominator?

As usual my emphasis

The old is new

One reason I love reading history is how often you find reflections of current worries. This isn’t necessarily good, obviously. Some things should have been left in the dust (notably gig-economy feudalism).

But one thing it does offer is perspective

I’ve just cracked open The Invention of News, for instance, and have immediately been slapped with a couple of things that should be familiar.

The first is that information networks in the pre-information age could only be sustainably maintained by the already rich and powerful. These were run either to ensure a supply of valuable information for private consumption, or the lower quality and somewhat biased stuff to influence others.

Sound familiar?

The next is that early newspapers existed in such an information rich environment, fighting against other practices and needs, that journalism and journalists themselves were not sustainable.

At the beginning of the fourteenth century only the rich and powerful could afford the cost of maintaining a network of couriers; as a result, those in positions of power largely determined what information should be shared with other citizens…

…this was not yet the age of the professional journalist. The information they provided was hardly ever valuable enough to command the exclusive service of one particular paper. Most sold their stories to whomever would have them. It is only with the great events at the end of the eighteenth century–the struggle for press freedom in England and the French and American revolutions–that newspapers found a strong editorial voice, and at that point a career in journalism became a real possibility. But it was always hazardous. As many of the celebrity politician writers of the French Revolution found, a career could be cut short (quite literally) by a turn in political fortunes. At least these men lived and died in a blaze of publicity. For others, the drones of the trade, snuffling up rumour for scraps, penury was a more mundane danger.

As a journalist I feel both of these but am especially interested in how they relate. As the sheer volume of information has increased, and the value captured by new forms of distribution, the value has declined.

Some information, obviously, is still valuable, but it is increasingly chased behind paywalls or funded for other reasons.

And journalists, especially, are finding it tough. Jobs have disappeared and pay slowed. “Exclusivity” doesn’t really mean anything anymore, and so neither does paying.

Will be interesting to see the trends that led away from this, as the industry matured. Can they be recaptured or substituted?

As always my emphasis