Modern World

1. When I was a child, my mother often cautioned me about ruining my eyes. On afternoons, I would start reading a book and be so captured by the story that I didn’t noticed the daylight fading; when she saw me reading in near darkness, she would turn on a light and tell me that I was in the process of ruining my eyes.

Fast forward few years later and I am spending my evening in a dimly-light living room, looking through one pane of glass onto another one: my eyes are viewing a computer monitor through a set of prescription glasses. I still read, of course, but 50% of it on a screen, wearing my glasses. My mother was both right and wrong: I did harm my eyes. But the books weren’t to blame.

2. Despite of all technological advances, the modern workplace has remained a hostile environment. People used to ruin their backs working on fields, then through repetitive motion in factories following the industrial revolution. Today, most workers are sitting at desks in brightly-lit, air-conditioned offices, typing away on standardized keyboards all day, getting up only for the occasional lunch and/or smoking break. The paradox of our time is that the technology we invented to facilitate work may have improved productivity but not reduced the actual working hours. Sure, work times have decreased since the industrial revolution, but not drastically.

3. At 25 years, the internet is still a relatively young invention. That means we are still learning how to use it. Just think of the various new businesses that emerge every year, sweeping aside legacy businesses made obsolete in an  interconnected world. Their competitive advantage is based on new ideas of how to use the internet. Likewise, communication has become unbound. But despite all of these events, I still believe we are squandering many of the chances the internet is affording us – particularly in the workplace.

An example: The strangest effect of today’s digitization of business is the emergence of what economist David Graeber has bluntly dubbed “bullshit work”: Tasks that exist merely to fill the hours of a Western workday now that many of the menial tasks that used to take up time are done by machines. Graeber writes:

In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.

4. In his book “Und was machst du so?” (“So, what do you do?”) German author Patrick Spät tackles what he calls our society’s “work fetish”. Just like Graeber, he bemoans the fact that any criticism of work is a taboo:

Diese Wehklage zu äußern, ist riskant, denn eine Kritik an der Arbeit ist ein gesellschaftliches Tabu: Es gilt als anrüchig, den Sinn von offensichtlich sinnfreien Jobs infrage zu stellen, über gesundheitsschädliche Arbeit zu motzen oder ganz einfach die Faulheit zu glorifizieren.

Spät insinuates that we should not expect a reduction in working hours – since our society defines itself through its work. A reduction of the number of working hours would pull the rug out from below our feet. No wonder workplaces are only evolving slowly.

5. Sure, people are no longer losing limbs in fast-moving machines, but due to that contrast, the modern world regards side effects of unhealthy workplaces as a luxury problem. It is a dangerous logic: Remedies against workplace ailings – such as standing tables against back pain – are currently only available to those already suffering from a workplace-related problem. People hurt their necks and wrists due to unhealthy posture and repetitive motion, acquire obesity and high blood pressure from a lack of exercise. And, as newest studies show, they increasingly get eye problems due to the strain of staring at computer screens all day.

We have a long way to go before technology overcomes the damaging aspects of work. Viewing the workplace more critical is a good way to start.