Shadow Work

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* Book: SHADOW WORK. The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day. By Craig Lambert, 2015

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Review

Barbara Ehrenreich:

"There’s still plenty of work to do, even if no one is willing to pay for it. This is the “shadow work” that Craig Lambert appealingly brings to light in his new book on “the unpaid, unseen jobs that fill your day.” We take it for granted that we’ll have to pump our own gas and bus our own dishes at Panera Bread. Booking travel reservations is now a D.I.Y. task; the travel agents have disappeared. As corporations cut their workforces, managers have to take on the work of support staff (remember secretaries?), and customers can expect to spend many hours of their lives working their way through menus and recorded advertisements in search of “customer service.” At the same time, our underfunded and understaffed schools seem to demand ever more parental participation. Ambitious parents are often expected not only to drive their children to and from school, but to spend hours carrying out science projects and poring over fifth-grade math — although, as Lambert points out, parental involvement in homework has not been shown to improve children’s grades or test scores.


“Shadow Work” is generally a smooth ride, but there are bumps along the way. The definition of the subject sometimes seems to embrace every kind of unpaid work — from the exploitative, as in the use of unpaid interns, to the kind that is freely undertaken, like caring for one’s own family. At times the book gets weighed down by an unwarranted nostalgia for the old days, when most transactions involved human interactions. For example, Lambert grants that home pregnancy tests offer women “more privacy and more control,” while also lamenting — as no woman ever has — that they cut out the doctor and thus transform “what can be a memorable shared event into a solitary encounter with a plastic stick.”

Lambert, formerly an editor at Harvard Magazine, is on firmer ground when he explores all the ways corporations and new technologies fiendishly generate new tasks for us — each of them seemingly insignificant but amounting to many hours of annoyance. Examples include deleting spam from our inboxes, installing software upgrades, creating passwords for every website we seek to enter, and periodically updating those passwords. If nothing else, he gives new meaning to the word “distraction” as an explanation for civic inaction. As the seas rise and the air condenses into toxic smog, many of us will be bent over our laptops, filling out forms and attempting to wade through the “terms and conditions.”

Lambert falls short of calling for the shadow workers of the world to go out on strike. But that’s what it might take to give us the time and the mental bandwidth to confront the dystopian possibilities being unleashed by technology. If middle-class jobs keep disappearing as wealth piles up at the top, Martin Ford predicts, economic mobility will “become nonexistent”: “The plutocracy would shut itself away in gated communities or in elite cities, perhaps guarded by autonomous military robots and drones.” We have seen this movie; in fact, in one form or another — from “Elysium” to “The Hunger Games” — we’ve been seeing it again and again." (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/17/books/review/rise-of-the-robots-and-shadow-work.html?_r=1)