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Technology, learning, and the demise of the Protestant work ethic

Over a number of years of teaching, efforts at self-creation, and being required to provide career advice, I have made an observation of certain recurring theme: existential anxiety connected to work, employment, or career. I find myself repeatedly having to explain to people the concept of structural unemployment. There are, as far as I remember from my high school economics class, two kinds. Cyclical unemployment is when you have a recession and people lose their jobs. Structural unemployment is more permanent and due to the structure of the economy. We are no facing high levels of structural unemployment, most of it being hidden in forms of education and underemployment in casual and contract work. The other thing I have to explain to people that this is largely a natural result of technological progress which displaces people in favour of machines and general higher productivity.

In Sleepers Wake! (1982) Barry Jones, the Australian minister for technology under Labor, exposes the effects of technological advances and promotes more leisure for the masses. Only the privileged few will have access to full-time work. In Hello Laziness: Why Hard Work Doesn’t Pay (1985) Corinne Maier advises idleness and finding a hobby.

Both approaches exhibit the bourgeois elitism that fuels the clamouring for secure employment. Correct in their diagnosis of the stasis inherent in the capitalist system, they reinforce elitism and reinforce bourgeois set of values rather than undermining them. They are reinforce the “succeed or opt own/downshift” paradigm which provides for an effective short-term strategy but, again, operate within an established paradigm. Where they fail is in identifying any potential within the rising technological system for a new paradigm. Why? Because they are written within an era prior to the most recent technological revolution that has potentially shifted reality from merely “coping” with an intolerable situation by way of ironic transgression: disenchantment, withdrawal of commitment, opting out; in other words, it exposes the downshifting or impoverishment aspect of postmodern thought; or else, the pseudo-postmodern character of human potential philosophy.

In the same era of rising awareness and struggle for self-impoverishment, we have witnessed the rise of a new era of the internet. The disenfranchised middle classes are looking towards this new medium precisely for the new messiah, a way out from postmodern self-impoverishment, a new paradigm. Much of current discussion that is not concerned with the collapse of the American empire and the onslaught of the masses at the walls of first world empires, is concerned with the consequences of the internet on our psyches, with efforts to control the internet, and emerging social movements on the internet, and with the potentialities of the internet for productivity, earning money, self-improvement, and access to knowledge.

Current experiments seem superfluous to the concerns for the existentially anxious middle classes if it simply magnifies the existing arguments. The ecological economist points to the culture of scarcity, and the guru preaches the mindset of abundance. The internet becomes the vehicle for recycling the same ideas, hardly a vehicle for creativity. If the option is the performance of some mental gymnastics to convince myself that I am not really poor then perhaps French bourgeois cynical realism might be preferable after all. Enlightenment but hardly a paradigm shift anywhere. What the internet does instead is to simply magnify the existing structures of thought.

There are two features of this that have a positive side. One is that the concerns are coming to the fore and are receiving a full airing, and in that form the proposals are subject to criticism. Another is that a variety of projects and experiments are being formulated and dispensed with. The conservative character of postmodern preachiness can be attributed to the fact that those who are dispensing these ideas–although they ought to be thanked for offering a critique and proposals for opting out; even if what they are proposing is self-impoverishment they at least identify the dysfunctional character of the paradigm within which they remain,–are intellectually still in the previous era of development (so they are aware of its problems), and they are also able to operate within a publishing industry that is also a remnant of that era. It is these very structures supporting that line of thinking that is in the process of being dismantled.

The initial phase of the internet is characterised by, on the one hand, the movement of the existing institutional structures online; the proliferation of trash-media; and the emergence of ‘online anarchism’ manifested in open source, file sharing, and intellectual freeware. It can be commented that they go some way towards rationalisation and satisfaction of certain shortcomings of the established system, the proliferation of the library model, and so provide for the Romanticist ideals of intellectual and aesthetic enrichment. These tendencies where all already inherent in the earlier era and the technologies for this were anticipated in the 70s by Marxist philosophers of learning and technological futurists. There was a recognition of the archaic nature of schooling and of the need to make ideas freely available. There was also the recognition that there is a certain inefficiency in the way people work and do things. So the technologies are modes of rationalisation, of realising the shortcomings and inefficiencies within the established paradigm. Connectivity anarchism remains within the established paradigm.

What fails to be addressed in any adequate way is the problem of the collapse of work. We can access learning, and we can do things more efficiently, but that makes sense in the context of work that provides the context for learning and doing things more efficiently. We are then thrown back onto the self-impoverishment paradigm of enforced leisure and cynical opting out. It is not clear therefore how connectivity anarchism provides for a paradigm shift. Work is connected to earning money, even if this is only a modest income, which relative to a member of the third world is still an astronomical sum. The struggle for employment is simply transferred online with proposals for self-employment, self-publication and self-marketing.

Those who are losing out in large numbers due to technological advancements can be accused of having failed to heed some relatively well-known philosophical truths. Journalists complain about the shutting down of newspapers and the dire consequences for democracy, not having once consulted the standard Hegelian critique of both. One can honestly say that ignorance is at once the licence for self-justified pulpiteering, and the road to self-annihilation. The press was the end of religious belief; it’s not inconceivable that the internet is the end of social democracy. It remains, much as the Catholic church, to dispense with vital functions. Quiet possibly this is already the case for large sections of the politically apathetic population. The Catholic church, democracy, and the free press all suffer the same fate of obsolescence.

Our analysis of the current predicament may begin with obsolete structures of work, education and marriage. Work and earning money figures centrally because it provides a ticket to independence, social status and meaningful relationships. Education figures in relation to gaining meaningful employment and hence independence. The end of work, and related phenomena, has undermined these structures for many. Archaic forms of education educate for jobs that no longer exist, and fail to educate for jobs that potentially exist. Institutions no longer find it necessary to guarantee employment, and governments are no longer capable of enforcing them to do so due to globalisation of capital. Social relatedness that depended on employment disintegrates leading to social confusion and retreat to backward forms of social relatedness and sexual dysfunction. New agism, gender politics, and downshifting mark various forms of retreat.

The anarchist access model, and the lifelong learning as enforced leisure, are pointing in the right direction except that they ignore the intrinsic connection between learning and work or vocation. The response to the breakdown in the connection between education and employment is not education for its own sake or for the sake of leisure. Dewey’s ideal of informal education was a tighter connection between learning and work, not a complete divorce between them. The internet provides for, or has the potential to provide for, one but it is not as yet clear what sort of substitute it offers for the other.

Thinking in terms of Dewey we can see precisely that the question is not one of separating work and satisfaction but precisely the opposite, a tighter connection between them. From this perspective the problem of work is not a new phenomenon of the loss of jobs, but simply the further elaboration of the disconnection of work and learning. Having been educated into jobs that no longer exist the individual is left helpless to think outside of the prevailing structures. Learning on the job requires that there is a job there to begin with. Here we can also see that the problem is not so much the loss of jobs as the loss of vocations, that is, of vocational paradigms. As Hubert Dreyfus insists, expertise demands involvement and the existence of concrete exemplars or paradigms.

It is possible therefore to analyse the problem in terms of the loss of these concrete structures, of the vocational ecology, that provides the concrete context of meaningful learning, that is at the heart of the matter. Work has these different dimensions whereby it provides not only an income, social standing, but more significantly, the context of for learning. Of course, many jobs have ceased to have this learning dimension, and lifelong learning is offered as the upside of the casualisation of many jobs. But this perspective at least informs us why neither enforced leisure nor cynical opting out can really provide an adequate response to the situation. It also puts into question whether the internet is really capable of providing for the requirements of learning. Dreyfus, again, is critical of the possibilities of online learning.

Perhaps then thinking about work is not the central issue here so much as thinking about learning, and teaching. Arguably the fundamental source of the problem of work is the character of education that promotes the dependency on institutional jobs. The American pragmatist G. H. Mead makes the point that schools need to teach for flexibility, such that the individual is not merely trained into a job but is capable of seeing the wider context the productive process. More generally it can be said that there is a problem of connecting the psychological needs of the individual and the material needs of society.

As vocational structures are breaking down and new ones emerging, the individual is asked to be flexible. French bourgeois cynicism views this as code for corporate destruction of meaningful work. American new-age optimism views this as opportunity for self-development and self-determination. Arguably, however, it is the conceptual or intellectual content that remains and evolves throughout the destruction and reconstruction of jobs. If education leaves the individual helpless in the face shifting job market it is not because of excessive education but rather inadequate education. The educational system has become degraded and longer time in education does not equate better or more education. As the pragmatists have complained, education has become compartmentalised, and the failure to adapt to a complex and evolving job market is the clear consequence and evidence of this.

The question then is whether the forms of learning available on the internet, via the media of text, audio, and video, are capable of making up for the shortcomings of formal schooling. Clearly the standard paradigm of competitiveness, formal schooling, and the free market is dysfunctional. On the other hand, as I already pointed out, what is necessary is a form of learning that connects what one is doing to the wider social context. An important part of that is the intellectual component. It is this intellectual component that provides the grounding or the basis for flexible adaptation. One needs to acquire the ability to learn in a flexible way, and that demands on the one hand, certain cognitive or knowledge structures, and on the other, the ability to apply these structures to practical situations.

This kind of adaptation is a high level adaptation of knowledge rather than a low level adaptation of skills. It is the higher level cognitive understanding of the social context of my expertise that allows me to adapt it in a flexible way to the changing economic situation, rather than the flexible adaptation of particular skills to a changing market. I would add that this involves the ability to learn in a certain way, namely, in a way whereby one asks “why is that interesting?” rather than “what is this good for?”, the point being that there is an aesthetic element of work or vocation that transcends instrumental use that provides for meaning and commitment.

3 thoughts on “Technology, learning, and the demise of the Protestant work ethic”

  1. Interesting piece on the end of work. You may be interested in my book ‘Critical Social Theory and the End of Work’, which explores many of the issues you mention, in both historical and contemporary perspective. It is also on ‘google books’; I would be interested to read your thoughts on it. Thanks for the interesting blog, Ed.

    1. Thanks for reading! Had a look at the Google books version. It looks really interesting. I’ll need to have a closer look at it to make any comments. My initial gut response is whether ‘there is work as there is the Catholic Church’: the functions of religion were ‘secularised’, but that the church has retained some narrow social functions and so carries on in a much diminished and ‘functional’ role; … whether that’s not happening to work … we still have to work, in the sense that we have a wage/salary paying job but a lot of the ‘content’ that work carries is being rapidly offloaded and we will no longer expect work to provide the things that it once has … but education continues to promote the outdated ideals of job as ticket to … , which seems to be increasingly unsustainable and invalidated by economic realities. With that seems to also go education as ticket-to-a-job. Educational institutions have of course vested economic interest in promoting these ideas, and therefore are not progressive and are slow to uptake technologies which will in turn render them obsolete pretty quickly, but which would produce individuals better able to cope with the economic and technological realities. So my question would be whether in extolling the virtues of work as self-realisation Marxist thought (on my undergraduate sociology understanding of it) isn’t ‘spiritualising’ work in a way that legitimates reactionary thinking in the face of radical technological change. But I’ll have to read your book to find out what you think … if only you had a blog :)

  2. Insightful reply Tom. Yes lots more of this debate in the book. My position is that the work ethic is culturally ingrained (in UK, US, Aus etc.), but this is used more as a tool for regressive social policy, rather than anything constructive. Thus UK gov’t seeks to make those on welfare get jobs, but we have to ask, is there enough work, in the traditional sense, around for them to do, when so much useful work (nursing, policing etc.) is being cut-back. The sort of work they’re supposed to do is that which generates profit, I assume, but in the core manufacturing sectors that is increasingly automated. Capitalist society remains unwilling to break the cycle of work/consume, by whatever means. Marx conceptualised work as self realisation, for sure, but his was an ‘idealised’ form of work. By the way I have now got a blog and am trying to work out how to populate it whilst writing articles for academic journals at the same time! I’ve put a link to your blog on it anyway, so that’s a start.

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