There's been a popular meme going around lately about the "Busy Trap" — the idea that we're all keeping busy with meaningless junk like checking our email or doing random tasks, and that this is somehow a lifestyle choice. But a new essay by Mark Fisher, "Time Wars," makes a persuasive case that our chronic busy-ness is actually a result of how technology and radical capitalism have transformed our lives. Instead of creating more leisure, technology has divided us into the overworked and the unemployed — and we're all constantly in fear of losing our jobs.
And yes, the much-maligned movie In Time had its finger on the pulse of what's really happening. Here's how Fisher's essay begins:
Time rather than money is the currency in the recent science fiction film In Time. At the age of 25, the citizens in the future world the film depicts are given only a year more to live. To survive any longer, they must earn extra time. The decadent rich have centuries of empty time available to fritter away, while the poor are always only days or hours away from death. In Time is, in effect, the first science fiction film about precarity – a condition that describes an existential precidament as much as it refers to a particular way of organising work.
At the most simple level, precarity is one consequence of the "post-Fordist" restructuring of work that began in the late 1970s: the turn away from fixed, permanent jobs to ways of working that are increasingly casualised. Yet even those within relatively stable forms of employment are not immune from precarity. Many workers now have to periodically revalidate their status via systems of "continuous professional development"; almost all work, no matter how menial, involves self-surveillance systems in which the worker is required to assess their own performance. Pay is increasingly correlated to output, albeit an output that is no longer easily measurable in material terms.
For most workers, there is no such thing as the long term. As sociologist Richard Sennett put it in his book The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism, the post-Fordist worker "lives in a world marked … by short-term flexibility and flux … Corporations break up or join together, jobs appear and disappear, as events lacking connection." (30) Throughout history, humans have learned to come to terms with the traumatic upheavals caused by war or natural disasters, but "[w]hat's peculiar about uncertainty today," Sennett points out, "is that it exists without any looming historical disaster; instead it is woven into the everyday practices of a vigorous capitalism."