An Inexpert View…  On Utility

Following the work of David Graeber, his 2018 publication, the roguishly titled Bullshit Jobs1, one is tempted to survey the extent and character of occupation in the 21st Century.  Inexpertly, naturally.
The direct experience that informs this discussion would then be primarily based here in the UK, but may largely apply to other westernised regions too.

We face two distinctions.  The aforementioned ‘bullshit’ and ‘non-bullshit’ jobs, and also a more pervasive and generic one – useful and non-useful.  Useless or pointless would be too strong a term for this context, and clouds the difference between the two would-be dichotomies.
For illustration by example let me set out an informal table for both of these:

Bullshit Non-bullshit Useful Non-useful
public relations Teacher Engineer Artist
“duct-taper” Key-worker Doctor Pure mathematician
“flunkie” Carer Actuary Historical scholar

As we can see in this unthorough treatment, the distinctions don’t seem to correspond or correlate.
One thing that Graeber mentions is how much the bullshit jobs pervade the economy, seeing as those employed thus vacuously in turn employ more legitimate sounding workers such as teachers, chefs, tradespersons and the like.  This isn’t altogether unexpected as we found work for a whole army of clerks, secretaries and typists prior to the modern computerised era. And likewise agriculture was very labour intensive before the advent of mechanisation.
One may turn this on its head and question the utility of the apparently useful jobs given the basis they provide, in a kind of chain-of-utility.  For example, a civil engineer may be firm in the conviction that their occupation is undeniably useful.  Indeed, that seems like a fair conclusion.  However, if we were to examine the use that the bridge they designed was put to, we may cast this into doubt.
A bridge has an obvious utility.  Yet it is in some sense a tool.  It performs a purpose.  Must that purpose also be useful? A bridge bearing an ambulance travelling to the hospital with a wounded patient is more than useful.  How about a bridge carrying a bus full of attendees of a science-fiction tv series conference? (I for one would not deny them their trip).
Let’s move sideways to another example.  A different engineer, Alice, has designed the circuit board for a mobile phone.  That’s useful.  Any number of very useful tasks may be performed by this phone.  Yet many hours will be spent by purchasers, such as Bob, idly whiling away the time perusing amusing videos of cats jumping into boxes, and why shouldn’t they.
Ok, that point having been established maybe we could have some kind of index of usefulness? There must be a point to the concept, instead of accepting all pursuits as essentially equal? Well, yes - however, one thing we can establish with confidence is that the chain-of-utility is an expansive interconnected web at least as large as humanity itself and so the worth of how someone uses their time seen in this light is a lot harder to evaluate than it might at first seem2.
Perhaps we could be more objective, taking inspiration from Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs3, we may index occupations by import in correspondence to the needs they attend to.  Assuming the hierarchy to be an accurate representation, we may initially declare those who provide food, water, warmth and habitation to be the most essential workers; namely farmers, waterboard repair workers, energy distribution engineers and builders, to name a few examples.
Next, we move on to the police force and doctors who contribute to a feeling of safety and security.  Then, interestingly we come to a halt.  The people who satisfy the next level of needs (belongingness & love) aren’t workers at all.  Or at least in most moral frameworks, shouldn’t be.  Although this is an aside for our discussion, which focuses on paid employment, we have nonetheless stumbled upon something important.  Large parts of our lives are facilitated voluntarily or without strict organisation.  In terms of politics these could indeed be construed as anarchic relations, networks or co-ordinations. An invisible economy of labour unaccounted for.
Our direct view of people doing important jobs to sustain society doesn’t seem so important if these remarks so far are at least to an extent compelling.
Moving up Maslow’s infamous pyramid we see that the rest of it, the summit, justifies any number of occupations apparently less useful to humanity.  It may even be tempting to suggest an axis, upon which the generally supposed utility of a job is diametrically opposed to how important it actually is.  Perhaps humans have an intrinsic sense of the usefulness of what they are doing – by means of a sense of fulfilment, while their extrinsic selves may attracted to work that while ‘ticking boxes’ has a detrimental effect in opposite action.
It has been observed before now that the human mind is a complex and contradictory beast, often labelled as the Human Condition.  Yet, as in this case, the appeal of questioning or at least marvelling at this never ceases.  It would seem that humans are deliberately moving from rewarding work to unfulfilling work without good reason.  Surprisingly enough, an artist may indeed be incalculably more important to society than a corporate lawyer.  And this is the puzzle.
Let us examine how such a situation might arise.  Have you ever been told to ‘look busy’? One natural spectrum on which to place this apparent conundrum is that which spans between collaboration and competition.  One may find many examples of either within the human scope of activity, I would suggest in my inexpert view that collaboration is the bedrock upon which competitiveness floats above, wispy and fleeting.  Or perhaps the large scale co-ordination, communication and trust (which is undeniably extant to a large degree) is the cake, the veneer of individuals barging and shoving each other out of the way, the bitter icing on the cake.
Now, such vague posturing can surely not be taken for a persuasive argument.  An effort to quantify and thus more concretely form this discourse would be helpful.  I shall leave it to you the reader to merely take a lead from the suggestion and furnish your own thoughts as you desire.
Given these vague discussions, one might be then led to examine how other innate human motives might be opposed to the ones above – a sense of duty, kudos or false import could well indeed push the other way and lead those to spend their time doing what could indeed be fruitless tasks.
Another point which might be made is that Humans, like many other animals, may be compelled to inaccurate behaviours, like the frog in a pan of water who can only sense temperature by immediate contrast and thus boils, or the proverbial moth to a flame, seeing light in the night and erring it to be the moon.  These animal pitfalls are only loosely analogous, surely a human is far more sensible, or sentient, or cognitively able, and would not fall into such a trap?
Well, let us be generous and say not.  Yet, it is a well established phenomenon that us gooey flawed creatures do in fact have - while a little more complex in nature - a whole class of irrational, unproductive or contradictory mental traps, known as cognitive biases.  Who knows, you may right now be falling to one or more of a host of pathologies right now in agreeing or disagreeing with any of this authors ramblings.
It is this authors intention, that you - dear reader – may be stimulated to look, investigate, search and research, a little deeper.  As a result our imperfect world might just turn a little in our favour.  How useful.

  1. Published by Penguin Books and others ↩︎

  2. An aside: The author most humbly suggests a simple and unempirical observation - that is uncharacteristically prescriptive or judgemental by implication – titled The Three Stages of Technology Adoption.
    1.  Enthusiasm.  Early adopters play and experiment enthusiastically with a new unfinished and undeveloped technology.
    2.  Victory.  After a period of development the technology matures and becomes very useful or productive.  The golden era in which it initially amazes and flourishes.
    3.  Malaise.  The technology becomes obvious and taken for granted.  It is used mainly for mundane or banal meaningless purposes.
    You’re welcome. ↩︎

  3. Proposed in the somewhat dated 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation published in Psychological Review. See the Andrewism channel for an excellent discussion. ↩︎

∞  Last edit/update on: 23 / 1 / 2024

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