Sunday, 29 April 2012


When I was young, one of the hot topics for speculation was the possibility of much more leisure. Automation was the key – the more we had the less we’d have to do. Sounds okay in principle, even now, but has it happened?

Well as with most of these time series questions, it depends on your starting point. Some of us have achieved the goal of more leisure by retiring between the ages of 55 and 60, the so called baby-boomers. But now we are told it was always unaffordable and future generations will have to work much longer than we did.

Leaving aside the unfairness of it, and it is unfair, why hasn’t the leisure materialized for all? As usual I’d say there are lots of reasons, from investment returns to unexpected longevity to antibiotics, but the one I’m posting about here is the waste incurred by servicing an over-complex society.

When I grew up in the fifties, very little was wasted. Waste not want not was a necessary guide to daily life. Food was eaten, vegetable scraps went on the compost heap and the only thing not consumed was animal and fish bones. We had no central heating, no fridge, freezer, phone or TV set. Milk and beer bottles were all recycled and old newspaper went into lighting the fire or was threaded on a loop of string in the outside toilet.

As for work, well my impression is that jobs in the fifties reflected a post-war culture of frugality. What was done was worth doing – on the whole.

As time went on and we became far more prosperous, we also became far more wasteful. I don’t mean the kind of material waste that recycling nuts go on about, but more a case of wasted effort. It seems to me that the productivity gains which made us more prosperous are to a large extent being wasted in doing what isn’t worth doing.

Instead of more leisure, we have more people involved in useless activities. Rather than try to list them out though, I prefer to set the problem of wasted effort in the context of complexity.

Complexity is one of our great social constructs – possibly our most important modern social construct. As a society becomes more complex, the new complexity has to be serviced. Not only that, but those people who service the new complexity acquire a vested interest in even more complexity, because that creates more business. We have a vicious feedback loop here and don’t know what to do about it.

If the industrial revolution had made us into a nation of engineers, then all would be well, because we’d simplify our way out of our difficulties as a matter of social policy. We’d look at our own society via powerful engineering metaphors. But we aren’t a nation of engineers, and don’t have those metaphors.

Social metaphors are important because they frame our concepts, but our ruling elite don’t have them, or at least they don't have any that are worthwhile. The Big Society for example. The guy next door fitting out his kitchen can do better than that, but Dave, Nick and Ed can’t. They have the wrong background and mix with the wrong people.

Our political elite barely understand engineering, let alone the possibility of engineering complexity out of our society. Or at least, engineering it to manageable level.

I don’t mean trained engineers here of course, just rational people who see merit in simplicity. But practical folk never think of climbing the greasy pole do they? Ironically enough, it’s too greasy for them.


Macheath said...

An admirable summing up!

Sometimes I think the whole business is exemplified by an advert currently running on a 'yoof' channel the Urchin watches when at home.

Viewers are invited to text in their name and that of a prospective partner; a rely will give them a 'compatibility score' out of ten. "Texts cost £1.25 plus your network's usual charge".

Girls at my school used to do the same thing for free with a folded paper contraption, but that wouldn't suit today's culture. When I think of the amount of money this enterprise involves, from TV ads to teenagers squandering £1.25 to be sent a randomly-generated number it makes me want to scream.

And that's before I get round to thinking of what it implies about a waste of potential intelligence and creativity.

Sam Vega said...

The "leisure society". Do you remember Trade Union leader Clive Jenkins and his sibilant warnings that we would have to get used to more leisure because machines would do all the real work for us? What a difference an oil crisis makes!

Not sure I agree completely with the bit about engineering. The engineering mindset is obviously keen on doing as much as possible with limited effort, but engineers can also increase complexity. The impetus towards complexity or simplicity is prior to the means of achieving it. Want a device to light your cigar while you are in the shower? Send for Mr. Heath Robinson.... The problem, and the solution, lies with the would-be cigar-smoker.

Simplify the mind, stop thinking up daft ideas to provide more stimulation for the sake of it, and the rest will follow.

Macheath - your example is very well chosen. Activity for the sake of it. Stimulation for the sole purpose of keeping us addicted to being stimulated.

James Higham said...

As time went on and we became far more prosperous, we also became far more wasteful.

Very much so, as Macheath says.

Anonymous said...

So on day 1 we get a state allowance to buy robot built cars, sausages and cheese sarnies. On day 2 we find that working for Jo Soap two hours we get extra rations . On day 3 we find enveryone is working like blazes and the state allowance will hardly buy a tin of beans. The leisure society was never going to work.

I remember the '50s, the sheer limiting dullness of it all. No bloody thanks. I plan to turn up the heating and jet off to sunny climes and drink port and do all the things the nobs used to do back in the '50s and sod the consequences.

Once I was an (un)civil servant and advised that if I kept my nose clean I would get kicked upstairs a couple of years before retirement - to cop the extra pension. Maybe it still goes on. The pension funds were a bottomless money pit and got exploited mercilessly. Game over.

Bad money drives out good and busybodys drive creative people out of jobs where they are needed. Look at the difficulty of finding a headteacher - few good people want the job. But a new type has emerged that loves the bullshit and has no interest in teaching. The pattern repeats across our modern world.

Here is a quotation to cheer you up:-

Humanity, let us say, is like people packed in an automobile which is travelling downhill without lights at a terrific speed and driven by a four-year old child. The signposts along the way are all marked "progress".
Lord Dunsany

A K Haart said...

Mac - yes, if we can waste we do waste.

Sam - I like "sibilant warnings". Smoking in the shower is a problem though because we can't manage without showers. There must be a simple solution (:

James - and we all do it if we are able.

Roger - "I plan to turn up the heating and jet off to sunny climes and drink port and do all the things the nobs used to do back in the '50s and sod the consequences."

Apart from jetting off, I'm doing all that, but I'm one of the lucky ones.