Russ Roberts

de Botton on the Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

EconTalk Episode with Alain de Botton
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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Author Alain de Botton talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about his latest book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. How has the nature of work changed with the increase in specialization? Why is the search for meaningful work a modern phenomenon? Has the change in the workplace changed parenting? Why does technology become invisible? These are some of the questions discussed by de Botton in a wide-ranging discussion of the modern workplace and the modern worker.

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0:36Intro. [Recording date: September 3, 2010.] Beautiful book, elegance, humor, insights into daily life, nature of work, modernity. Visited a wide array of people in their work lives, followed them around, described not just what you saw but how it made you feel. Excerpt, p. 35 of paperback: channel Adam Smith and F. A. Hayek, writing about logistics:
Two centuries ago, our forebears would have known the precise history and origin of nearly every one of the limited number of things they ate and owned, as well as of the people and tools involved in their production. They were acquainted with the pig, the carpenter, the weaver, the loom and the dairymaid. The range of items available for purchase may have grown exponentially since then, but our understanding of their genesis has diminished almost to the point of obscurity. We are now as imaginatively disconnected from the manufacture and distribution of our goods as we are practically in reach of them, a process of alienation which has stripped us of myriad opportunities for wonder, gratitude and guilt.
One of the themes of this early part of the book is this role of specialization and how because of specialization we are sometimes less able to see what our work produces; we often do not see how our work fits into the whole. Talk about the wonder and guilt and alienation--lost opportunities for wonder and guilt--that you feel that produces. Central point: we are incredibly fortunate, have enormous array of consumer goods and products generally. But, a problem with this is that we live in a world where we just don't know where stuff comes from and in what circumstances it was made. Lots of excitement and interest just to look at people working. Work is central to most people's lives. When you are trying to get to know or understand people, important to know what they do. The way in which work tends to happen nowadays tends to mean we know a few areas of life well--the area that we're in--and then there's this kind of mystery. Old joke about taking child to supermarket and child says: don't carrots just grow here? Surprised that they come from someplace called a farm. Cut off from the whole chain of production at very time when these chains are well-attuned to our needs. Amazement is dearly won: Hayek. Old payoff between a society of craftsmanship, local craftsmanship--which doesn't produce great surpluses--and narrow opportunities, versus an open market, which is a good place to be a consumer in, but very confusing to be a producer in.
4:55Like about book that you make those observations, not grinding an axe against civilization; pointing out that it comes sometimes with a set of other effects we may not be so enthusiastic about. Do you think people feel alienated? Is it important that we see precisely where our carrots come from? Is it saddening that we don't know who grew our carrots? Think it's a missed opportunity. One of the reasons vacations tend to be so difficult for people is they are not at work, not doing anything. Strict division between leisure and work, and during our leisure time we are not really supposed to be thinking about work as such. Reflected in literature. Lots of business books, but in terms of books that really aim to shine a spotlight on what's going on in the working world, we don't have too much of that. Business journalism tends to avoid those sorts of stories; tends to report on management changes and so on, share price. Amazed by business journalism that reports on fascinating areas where people are working. People have a job to do, have to make money. Example of how we are missing out on something. Are we daily unhappy? Think not; not unhappy about not knowing where the carrot comes from; but missed opportunity. Willing to grant we could get interested in how people used to work 100 years ago. Traveling to the southwest might end up in a mining museum or cattle ranching. Tend to be visits to dead industries or quaint, offbeat industry. If you said you'd like to visit a shoe factory or a bank, you can't. Cannot visit places where most people work. The feeling is partly that these places are boring--which is not true--and partly that if you let anybody in, they are going to cause havoc, which is probably not true either. Generally, we hide our productive selves from our culture. Missed opportunity. Another of your books, The Art of Travel, set of philosophical observations about these issues--can get away from your work, your home, when you travel but you can't get away from yourself. Sounds like a joke, but interesting and thoughtful things to say about it. Having had the good fortune to tour a number of production facilities--seen a Ford auto plant in Kansas City, Missouri; extraordinary human achievement. Seen pencils being made in rural Versailles, Missouri--Dixon-Ticonderoga pencils are made there, about a billion a year. One of the themes of the book is there is some aesthetic value to those activities. But of course, the people who work in those facilities are very far away from craftsmanship. Typically watching and monitoring machines to make sure they don't break down. Very few people who physically work in those plants. You toured a biscuit factory--we call them crackers in the United States--and the actual production process, not a lot of room for people in it. The people who made the machinery, which is quite extraordinary, are the unseen contributors. But they are not on the site. The people who work there are pretty interesting. What I found touring factories was once you get them off where nobody's watching, people are genuinely interested in telling you about their work. If you take an interest in it, they will reflect that interest back and go with it. Even a simple, not-very-interesting job, on the whole people are proud to do what they are doing. Every job demands a lot of care. No pencil gets made without an unbelievable amount of effort. Part of being human and knowing how the world works. We do notice because everybody works at something. Great virtue in learning about other people's work, empathy, value in stepping out of your own shoes. Broadens your horizons. A lot of times when we try and look at the landscape, we don't know how that landscape operates. We see trees, look at sky, see clouds. But we don't know what that gray shed is over in the corner or where that truck is going; where the power lines are coming from or are heading. Leads to deadened feeling where we just can switch off. Pity. On the whole what's on that truck is likely to be really interesting, and what's going on in a gray warehouse in the corner is also going to be full of things of genuine human value. But we lack the tools. Art of Travel: The interesting thing about travel guide books is if you pick up the average guide book to a place like Italy, the only thing the guide book wants to tell you about is Renaissance churches. Mainstream photo guide. Meanwhile, there's lots of other stuff: pylons, factories, etc. No mention. These things are invisible; idea is that's boring. But it's not. As much part of existence and hence of travel as anything else. Mercantile, commercial, technological--we're really focused on culture. Think of ourselves as only being interested in where a movie was shot, where a painting was made. Just isn't true.
12:51At one point in book lovely parallel between an Edward Hopper painting and a woman at work writing a marketing study. Hopper really tried to force the eye to notice a lot of that--the industrial life, the unseen, quiet moments of daily existence, not cathedrals or great landmarks. Lots of pictures of paintings of corners of things. Help us see some of the things we are looking at. Hopper classic example. Can't be an American today in many situations without that word "Hopperesque" coming to mind. Be it the late-night motel, the bar, the diner, whatever, we'll be in the footsteps of this great painter. Art is putting post-it notes on parts of the world going, Notice this. Your book is a tourist guide to some of the aspects of modern work. People like to talk about their work: doing some research, observation on bottling: when you bottle things, put things in cans, need to make sure they get filled all the way to the top. Standard thing you'd think they would do is weigh them. But that slows the process down. Instead, what they do at a modern bottling plant is they shoot gamma rays through the can as they are spun off the line, having been filled at very high speed. The gamma rays go through liquid at a different rate than they go through air; sensor on other side. Good fortune to talk to the guy who makes those gamma ray sensors. Pretty dry activity, not really cocktail party conversation. We see eye to eye. He was so excited that somebody cared about what he was doing. Wonder about this. My feeling is that everybody is interested in this. Imagine the conversation went something like this: he would have said, Look, I'm sure you don't really want to know. And you would have said, No, no, no, tell me. A lot of things not quite respectable to be interested in. If the guy said he's a restorer of 18th century Renaissance pictures, they would have been very interested. Maybe even exaggerated how interested they were. Similarly, sometimes there are things we are interested in but we are not allowed to be. Feeling that's a bit nerdy, geeky thing to be interested in. The word "geekishness" covers such a huge area, but that's a lot of who we are, a lot of our glory. We're talking about somebody who made a machine and took an interest, and just drove it to the nth degree. Something kind of sublime; characteristerically human. This is what humans do: drive things to the extreme. Beauty in that. Obsessive focus. We think of specialization: Charlie Chaplin character in Modern Times turning a wrench over and over again; utterly boring job--would be for Charlie Chaplin. Perhaps the person who does it doesn't find it as boring as the intellectual who decries it. Alienation side. Other side: obsessive focus and the people who like that, who it attracts. Example of renal surgeon--doesn't want to talk about anything else; everyone's a kidney; they see you basically as a kidney surrounded by lots of other stuff. To have a specialty like that, even within example of accounting--also a part that's kind of grand about it. Whole world is found in a grain of sand, idea. By specializing, not necessarily narrowing. A particular field will contain within its boundaries most of the dynamics of life. Macro and micro: worth entertaining the thought that by getting to know a narrow field very well, you will be encountering many of the same dynamics. True. When you put a Shakespeare scholar together with the inventor of machines--two obsessives--get them to talk, share, how they feel about what they are doing, what they are doing day to day, predict there will be many similarities. Can draw that across many fields. Might not be the best of friends, but they have a certain sisters-under-the-skin. One of my ambitions in the book--coming personally from an arts background--learn that technology, business boring. Never accepted that. Irked me. Book basically saying that it's in one corner we have the artists who care obsessively about relationships, dating; and in the other corner we have the technologists who care about infrared beams through carbon dioxide.
20:47Aesthetics of mand-made versus natural things. Follow a satellite launch; troop through the hillsides with a fan of electric transmission power line pylons. Testing yourself perhaps there. A lot of irony in that electricity transmission chapter--not willing to take seriously that these physical forms have a lot of natural beauty to them. The more developed people become technologically, the more attached people become to everything natural. Phenomenon we see again and again. Britain, world's first industrial nation, was also the first to institute protected parks, to develop a passion for unspoiled nature, to develop a tourist industry devoted to putting people in wild places. Same thing happened in the United States. And strong art movements celebrate that. Always the same person--the early pioneers that live on the land did appreciate the beauty but didn't make much of a big deal about it. Pastoral poetry--poetry making lyrical our experience of nature--only starts taking place when people live in cities. Complete debt to industrialization in appreciation of nature. Limit to how far we should push that. Of course, unspoiled nature quite interesting, etc. So in danger of going in that direction that we miss that there is also incidental beauty in bridges, power lines, fiber optic cables, all sorts of man-made things as well. Power lines can be absolutely stunning. Windmills used to be in 17th century Holland the target of attacks by people who saw them as ugly, pointless, ruining landscape. Nowadays viewed as extremely beautiful. Many of these industrial things ugly not because they are ugly but because no one's come along to point out that they are beautiful. Back to Hopper point. Beauty and ugliness--we think they are things we ought to feel automatically. We know the forest is beautiful, landscape of diners and advertising ugly. Not so simple. A lot of the time, artists have been there and shaped our sensibility. When we look at Las Vegas strip, illuminated urban scene, we see it as beautiful because it's been depicted that way already. Beauty gets missed. Philosophy teacher, Dick Smyth: coming into NYC on the NJ turnpike, to a lot of people ugly, factories, smoke, but in a lot of ways an extraordinary testament to imagination. Hard to remember that sometimes when you are looking at it. Often we need a key into a landscape. Could be a song by Bruce Springsteen, painting, film, work of literature: key that says it's okay to like this, look at it this way. Were there things you wanted to write about in the book you didn't have time for? Many. Many processes that I still want to study. Would like to get more acquainted with bureaucratic processes, understand how the machinery of government works. Frustrated ethnographer--maybe being a writer is to be an ethnographer. Many parts of the modern world that remain deeply interesting. Always itching to get into people's work spaces and look around. During, back of this book, invited by Heathrow Airport to spend a month as their writer in residence, wrote a little book that comes out in the United States in about ten days, A Week at the Airport. Along the lines of this book: study of an industrial location. This is what I love to do. A man who wants to illuminate the inner workings of bureaucracy is a very ambitious man. First: How many writers in residence at Heathrow proceeded you? None at all. Dreamt up by their advertising agency; became a fascinating project; gave me access to all areas; always loved airports, technology, etc. Wear that title with pride. Easy to see it as a place where large physical structures moving in and out, but emotional overlay of arriving and departing. Leaving everybody behind; moment of reprieve, can find them again. No need to go to the movies any more--far more exciting to spy on those arriving and departing. All of human live. Moment in movie Love, Actually: show all the arrivings, greetings. Tom Hanks movie--okay, some flavor, window into complexity of the airport.
30:10How about your work? You don't really, like me, manufacture stuff. I can hold your book in my hand. Do you find your work gratifying, fulfilling, meaningful? My imagination always outstrips the reality. That's part of life. We all need to do that. Writer's impact--worry that writing a book is a very negligible way of having an impact; wrestle with that personally. Admiration for people who make stuff happen; on a bad day, doesn't look like literature can make anything happen. Just passing the time, help people pass the time. Another kind of optics: very important, too. My own background--line of practical people who did stuff. Weird part of sitting alone in a room and putting words on paper. Unlike some writers, can't help but be interested in other ways of life. Wastrel, no way around that. Passing the time is probably one of the greatest human enterprises there is, and having people pass time in reflective ways rather than, say, playing a video game or watching something mindless. Defend what writers do: what artists do is put labels on things, give us a vocabulary with which to discuss things and understand ourselves; words, images we can use to make ourselves less mysterious to ourselves and to other people--increases communication; enjoyment. Book on Marcel Proust--all a great writer does is give his reader a pair of glasses. That's what economists try to do, too. The other part of that book is how Proust can change your life: How Proust Changed My Life. Humor in that, but underlying sincerity. Frightening. Waded through 2/7 of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. How Proust Changed My Life is a modest 200 pages. Maybe more happens in those 200 pages than in a 1000 pages of Proust.
34:07What we do is a huge part of our identity; we expect in many ways fulfillment from our work. Modern concept, relatively new concept. When and why did that change; what kind of a burden? What we tend to forget is that what's new about work is not technology--of course that's new--but our attitudes. Scroll back 300 years and see how people are working, and what you find is an almost universal assumption that work is about suffering. You have to do your work because you have to live, but you don't particularly enjoy it. The idea that work is connected to happiness is a really modern idea. Only really starts to take off in the middle of the 18th century. At about the same time, people start to discover that maybe marriage isn't just activity connected to child-rearing, but could also be about romantic fulfillment. Great bourgeoisie experiment: you could work for money but also for love. Could get married for practical reasons like child-raising but could also do it for love. We are the heirs of these two ideas. Love and work, two modern ideals. Don't necessarily think these are the wrong ideals to have, but they are incredibly ambitious. Idea that you are going to be married happily ever after is a challenging thought. Everlasting bliss in the workplace very challenging. Sometimes these ideas are good--power us to achievement, get out of bad relationships, fulfill our talents at work. But can flip over and become a kind of torture to us. It's not about being delighted every day; just a job. Survival. On a bad day we can let our ambitions torture us. Have to remember the world has become predominantly secular--not that people don't go to church or believe anything, but in this area: we basically believe this life we have is an arena in which you've got to give it everything you've got. Prove yourself in this life because it's the one shot you have or even if you have another shot, it's going to be different. That's the modern world. Led to terrific ambitions, but also terrific unhappiness, low self-esteem, not measuring up to that goal. Older, traditional rural society, always a feeling that at the end of the day, humans are humans; not gods, don't control the world; just getting by is okay. With computers, etc., can forget to look at the stars, the eternal, keep our eyes fixed on the Internet, the news cycle. Air becomes fouled; need to open a window and get out a bit more. Parallel between marriage and work--could argue in the modern era that they are both part of what we must achieve to achieve happiness, and therefore whatever we do, our home life, children, spouse, work, leisure, are all supposed to produce happiness. Modern thought. A bit of a hopeless task; not made that way. Bit of a dangerous one. Economists have got this right down: tell us how rich you feel does not depend on having hit a certain level of income; simply has to do with meeting expectations. Can give someone the same amount of money but surround them with advertising, people richer than they are and they will end up pretty miserable. Same thing happens with happiness: our levels of happiness are not fixed. What we think of as normal. If you are on your honeymoon and you have an argument with your spouse, could seriously think your life is coming to an end and all your dreams are shattered. If you settle on a view of marriage that says you will have one bad argument every week, but that's fine, that's normal, part of being human. Squabbling creatures: look at children playing together, cats together. Somehow, reducing expectations of happiness makes us happier. Paradox. Expectations: deep truth in book is your observation about electricity and how we take for granted if we have lived through an era where it was always there. Very powerful. We only notice technology if it is new. Anything that has been around a while, we forget. Beyond technology; partners, view out of our window. Any acquisition we make, there is a window in which we are receptive to it, and then that window tends to die. Happens with technology. Amazed by new telephone. Histories of technology shouldn't just have when things were born, invented; but in a more sinister way when they started to become invisible. Marcel Proust, writing beginning of the 20th century; one of the many charming things about his writing is that he's very interested in technology, particularly the telephone and electricity. Had just come on the market in the early 20th century. Proust fascinated; writes endlessly about the telephone. Will spend 20 pages describing the wonder of the telephone. About 15 pages where he describes what a car engine sounds like when you change gears. Philosophy of gears; connects up to life, all of us have gears. Here is a guy who never drove or had a car. We do that with the Apple iPhone that has just come on the market. Once it is alive, in ten years' time, it will become invisible. Distinction. Important point; friend John Papola mentioned once that you have this incredible technology in the palm of your hand, and if you lose service for 30 seconds, you can get extremely upset. Twenty years ago: I'm going to give you this thing and you can talk to people and find out things about the world around you, call restaurants, but by the way, it's going to lose service. How often? About once a week. That's lovely! Bizarre. Same with cars. If you talk to our parents--I'm 55--their cars broke all the time. Now if your car breaks down, you are shocked and horrified; expect it to be perfect. What we're allowed to be interested in. Many are interested in their cars. Small band who wear that on their sleeves, auto enthusiasts, car magazines; but many more of us--will be looking at the instrument panel, and think this is really beautiful. Not something to bring up at a dinner party. Prejudice, bias in our culture. Work of artists: what actually makes us sad, is beautiful. May depart from Newsweek. May not be the standard view, but that's what art should be about.
46:18Car makers certainly understand it because they spend a lot of time trying to stun us with that view. Dashboard that's dated is a real turnoff. Back to point about art: extraordinary explosion of photography and sharing of photographs, which is in the billions and billions through Flickr and Facebook, has made some dent into the aesthetics you talk about. For example, people who take photos of cars and machinery are illuminating that beauty in a way that wasn't there before. Favorite website: Airline Meals: series of photographs taken by ordinary passengers of their meals, all around the world, at any time. See people's legs, hands, leave them in the shot; who and where are they going; airline tray. Hundreds of thousands of photographs. People starting to take photos of more their just their mom and dad. Question of fulfillment: burden, we are supposed to be fulfilled in our work for the first time, expected. Does seem to me, either through delusion or fact, that that's come to be true, more than any time in history. There were people in 1600 who got satisfaction in their work, didn't find their work exhausting or dangerous. That was the exception; most work brutally long, dangerous, and no fun. That proportion has gone down over the last 300 years--seems a good trend. Many jobs now that cannot be done properly unless people are happy. Many of the jobs in the past, didn't matter how happy the person was. Slavery. Doesn't matter if person is happy. Service jobs, though, are about human relationships. Cannot be done unless the actor involved is broadly content and in sympathy with what is going on. Can't do it at the barrel of a gun. As much as the altruism of employers, really that that's driven the improvement in labor conditions, especially in the last 60 years. Deep point. No point hiring somebody if that person is going be left in an insalubrious place, fights with management, etc. Not worth the hassle. A human being is a complicated machine; if you are going to acquire it, look after it. That's been the motto of the modern economy: cannot abuse your tools. Used to be people respected that in relation to, say, a farm animal: wouldn't hit your horse, look after horse. Could actually hit the person. Now we look after not only because we are nice, but also because we are self-interested. Self-interest probably a better basis for continuing that. Don't think we are much nicer than 300 years ago, but we act that way. It's sporadic. Example: Supposedly Southwest Airlines, when they would hire people, they would put 40 people in a room and they would tell them: What we're going to do here is everyone is going to make a brief 5-minute presentation about themselves and I'll give you a few minutes to start preparing. People would start making frantic notes; every few minutes someone would make a presentation. Supposedly what Southwest did was they didn't pay so much attention to the presentation, but the other people in the room. The people in the room who sat and continued to work on their presentation while others were presenting, marked them down. Looked for people who looked empathetic toward the presenter, looked like they were rooting for them, encouraging them. That was their inexpensive way of discovering who was a pleasant person to work with. Seems extremely important. Strangest job that has never existed before and is ubiquitous now is the Greeter: the person who stands at the front of the store and says, "Hey!" Wife went into store, Russ waiting in front; had quick errand; Russ chatting with greeter, helping her out. Job, the main skill is being a relatively happy person. Hard to fake it. Turned out in the Foot Locker, asked her: You do this all day? "Oh, no, we can only handle it for an hour." They rotate them among different tasks. At some stores, some people do it all day; happy to greet people. In the United Kingdom, hear older people complaining about how the younger people are bringing up their kids, along the lines of: spend the whole time nannying them, worrying about their self-esteem; in my day, tougher, kid gets out of line, hit them; all fine and everything was the best for it. Message is younger generation all too soft, not real. To some extent, actually just as attuned to the needs of modern society as what the previous stoic, get-out-there-and-be-tough philosophy. Really what it's doing is responding to the needs of the modern economy. Techniques of modern parenting, schooling, are about creating people who are going to work in the modern economy. We don't live in a militaristic society on the whole. We need to have people who are cheerful individualists. That's what's going to work down at Foot Locker.
55:10Phrase you don't use in book: the Knowledge Economy. Our work life is very different than 50 years ago, work with knowledge, podcasts one of them. Designing iTunes, latest gadget, people working in the back part of a corporation doing data-based design. General view that those jobs are good jobs. Then there are the folks who don't have access to those jobs--don't have the education, didn't make the investments; and they are still doing the non-knowledge economy jobs. Not designing the software that lets you track the package at FedEx--they are driving the truck. Claim is that those jobs aren't as numerous as before; but they don't have the opportunities for fulfillment. Over-romanticize the knowledge jobs, under-romanticize the blue-collar jobs; dreary, dead-end? Divided on the value of blue-collar work. On one hand, romanticization of blue-collar work, Jesus as a carpenter. Move between thinking that's real life or sitting in a den writing computer code. At end of day, human animal has complex needs, from needing shoes to needing entertainment, etc. All work is the same at the end of the day, about fulfilling human needs. Becomes satisfying when we feel we are able to bring something of ourselves, something quite personal, tied to the best of ourselves, to fulfilling someone else's needs. Unites all workers. Work for the world unites not through a labor organization but through a commitment to fulfilling other human beings' needs.

COMMENTS (26 to date)
rpl writes:

For someone who seems so interested in getting in touch with how people work, de Botton seems singularly unaware of all the outlets for finding out. Television programs like "How it's made", "Unwrapped", "Dirty Jobs", and probably others I'm forgetting all exist precisely to feed viewers' interest in what goes into the products and services they use every day. Indeed, I don't see how he can be "writer-in-residence" at Heathrow Airport and yet be (apparently) unaware that the BBC made a documentary series about the behind-the-scenes workings of that very same airport.

That's not to say that I disagree with de Botton's observations. It just seems weird that he seems unaware that an entire industry exists to fill precisely the niche he is describing.

Robert Kennedy writes:

I had a similar response as rpl about our broader interest in what goes into products & services that we use every day. My daughter & I love to watch "Unwrapped". And there are at least a few companies that promote their products via public tours of their facilities, with Anheuser Busch being a prime example.

I did like de Botton's insights of comparing marriage and work. It's true that our societies have evolved in both areas. Many movies will focus on how marriage was viewed in the past and the struggles of "young lovers" to break the bounds of the tradition of their day.

I tried to think what it might be like if de Botton wanted to observe my work. It would certainly feel like to would be might boring!

All in all, nothing particularly provocative in this week's podcast but certainly enjoyable.

I do find myself listening carefully for the Hayek reference each week. Will it come early or will it come later? Will it be obvious or will it be subtle? Will Hayek be referenced explicitly or will it be somehow unspoken? But there will invariably be a Hayek reference of some kind in almost every podcast, right? It came early this week.

emerich writes:

A lot of interesting observations but de Botton’s contention that modern work is uniquely “alienating” unlike farming is dubious, even if this view has a long pedigree. Why, for millennia, have humans left their farms for cities at the first opportunity? Because farm work is hard, dangerous, repetitive, and oppressive, and the next famine could be just around the corner. Do farmers of yore appreciate the stars more than we do, as de Botton suggests? Maybe they notice as they fret about whether the clear sky portends a longer dry spell. Most of the time, I suspect peasants and farmer were just trying to get through the back-breaking drudgery of the day, hoping they would eat for another season. And even if they did know where their bacon and peas came from, the world and nature around them was full of mysteries, many seemingly intent on making their lives harder. Less alienating? I’m not so sure.

M. Boyd writes:

Russ,
At the end of the interview (56:45) you discussed the "over romanticizing of knowledge jobs and under romanticizing blue collar jobs." This reminds me of Matthew Crawford's book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, as he makes the case for "blue collar" work to be a choice-worthy pursuit in the age of the Knowledge Economy. I highly recommend you read this book and would love to hear Crawford on the program. As a longtime fan of the show who has listened to every episode (& many twice), I think Crawford’s case is one worth hearing.

Greg Ransom writes:

Here's what my young kids seen in urban Orange County, CA:

A farm where she picked carrots and green beans and other veggies.
They've been to the Krispie Cream where she's seen donuts made.

They've been to the tortilla factory at Disneyland.

They've been to a roll factory at Disneyland.

They've helped grow veggies in our side yard.

They've toured the back rooms of the local grocery store.

They've been to the firehouse.

They've toured a dam producing electricity on the Columbia River.

They've toured a turn of the century farm house where they washed clothes the old fashioned way, they've made butter, etc.

They've dug coal in a working coal mine designed for kids to operate.

They did these things with the Boy Scouts or with the Girl Scouts or with friends or with the school or with the family.

Many these things the kids did by the age of 4.


Greg Ransom writes:

On the Wii and the computer the kids have "simulated":

Being cooks.

Being a vet.

Being a dog groomer.

Being town planner, builders.

Being interior designers.

And all sorts of other things.

emerich writes:

Greg, your kids are awfully lucky. You make this parent feel like a slouch and a slacker.

Mads Lindstrøm writes:

I am skeptical that specialization in itself contributes to alienation. In my experience, it is when people cannot see how "they contribute to the hole", that they feel alienated. I would think that workers at a shoe factory do not feel particular alienated, as it is easy for them to see how they contribute to the world. I would imagine that New York stock brokers level of alienation skyrocketed after taking government money, as they had to question their contribution to the world.

I had a friend who made a living selling t-shirts to other companies. According to himself, he did not "contribute to the world" as he was just selling stuff, not producing anything. He's observation was plain wrong, but the fact that he believed that, would make him feel alienated.

Obviously, specialization carries the risk of missing the big picture, but in itself, is it really alienating?

Greg Ransom writes:

The TV programs "Dirty Jobs" and "Modern Marvels" take you inside the production of just about every aspect of the modern economy you can imagine.

The History Channel also has shows which take you inside all sorts of ancient and medieval production processes.

The Food Channel has shows that take you inside the production of all sorts of different foods.

The Travel Channel has programs that take you inside the production of all sorts of different foods from around the world.

And so on.

Let's not forget how technology and wealth has expanded our horizon.

Greg Ransom writes:

Emerich, If you have the chance take the kids to Williamsburg, were they can see sppons being made, newspapwers printed, and nails produced.

Greg Ransom writes:

Also,

My 4 year old and 6 year old pretended to run a hotel and a farm on Facebook.

No, it's not the same as my dad working on the farm as a kid ..

But it's not an Ivory Tower, either.

David writes:

After reading emerich's comment, I remember numerous articles in numerous publications about extremely wealthy people changing professions after making tons of money. You have corporate lawyers becoming fisherman or dotcom entrepreneurs becoming wine makers or oncologists playing farmer on their acres of land in the country and now they make artisan cheeses. The amount of manual labor varied between millionaires. I guess one person's toil is another's playtime fantasy.

Greg Ransom writes:

Government workers who retire with six figure pentions at age 50 are also known to do this:

"After reading emerich's comment, I remember numerous articles in numerous publications about extremely wealthy people changing professions after making tons of money. You have corporate lawyers becoming fisherman or dotcom entrepreneurs becoming wine makers or oncologists playing farmer on their acres of land in the country and now they make artisan cheeses. The amount of manual labor varied between millionaires. I guess one person's toil is another's playtime fantasy."

Of course, as Schwarzenegger points out, a young and retired government worker with a large pension is effectively a multi-millionaire.

Tony Lekas writes:

When I was in elementary school in the late '60s we took school trips to a couple of factories, one being the Nabisco plant in Chicago where I lived. My younger son went on a trip to a local business that makes computer controlled micropipets used for genetic and drug testing. So there are attempts to provide some of this.

I have always been interested in how things are made. I tend to get into discussions with people concerning what they do and how they do it. The making of each thing around us has has a fascinating story and a great deal of cleverness behind it. From time to time I look at something or think about it and I am almost overwhelmed by a sense of wonder. I have been to many areas of natural beauty and I enjoy them, but I am more likely to become emotional when I consider what people have accomplished to provide what we have. It is both the technical and organizational accomplishments.

It may be that I have a better appreciation of what it takes to create what we have because I have a good background in physics, chemistry, engineering, etc and I have worked in a number of large corporations so I have a feeling for what it takes. For example, I have some detailed idea of what it takes to make the cell phones we carry work and the system behind them. It is truly a thing of wonder.

I tend to get upset when I hear people denigrating the inventive and productive accomplishments of mankind. If you want to go back to a state of nature you are free to do so but do not try to take me with you!

Matthew writes:

The Art Of Travel is quite wonderful and insightful, but Henry David Thoreau might have been credited for that tidbit on the reality (read not the art) of travel.

Just thought I'd point that out.

I'm also really interested in @David's observations about the second careers of the well-heeled as it relates to the topic of the podcast. Many questions are raised specific to these choices, all fascinating, but these circumstances also beg broader questions.

Questions such as, what influence does a deep and broad financial safety net play in the success or failure of an individual in their work life? Like the second career of the well-heeled, individuals with a financial safety net face a different level of risk, encumbrance, different obstacles and expectations.

While, certainly, there were those individuals 200 years ago who similarly financially secure, couldn't it be argued that there are exponentially more individuals setting out into the workplace who have the choice between a work life and a life of leisure? Does this impact all of our understanding of "work", in a broad cultural way?

Finally, I think it worth tossing into the conversation on work the expansion of Andy Warhol's brilliant statement about a person's 15-minutes of fame. 15 minutes has been expanded to MTV's Real Life, game shows like Survivor, and other variants of reality TV.

We're not just alienated from other's work in our daily life, we've exploded the the familiar understanding of what it means to be productive (a relative term, of course).

Mark Sundstrom writes:

Interesting podcast, thank you. The part on powerlines made me think of a book I've enjoyed: "Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape", by Brian Hayes. It's information and background on pretty much everything manmade you'll see while driving around the country.

And now I want to check out the TV shows that commenters have mentioned, too.

M Lewis writes:

I really enjoyed this discussion. I want to read Alain's books now. I guess that's a good incentive for him and others to do these podcasts.

I kept making mental connections throughout the discussion with other things I've read. One topic that interested me was how expectations were such a large part of happiness. I remember stumbling onto Julian Simon's book about how he managed his depression by managing his expectations. You can find the book online here: http://www.juliansimon.com/writings/Good_Mood/

Tony Lekas writes:

M Lewis - Thank you for the pointer to the Julian Simon website and that book. I know a little about Simon, including his bet with Paul Ehrlich but I will have to look into his writing further.

I have found that it is also helpful to, from time to time, give thanks for what I have and consider how fortunate I am to be born in the place, and time, to my family as imperfect as it was, and with the genes I have even though they are likely to prevent me from living above average. I could be much worse off.

For me this is not a religious thing, just reminding myself of what I have.

Ralph Buchanan writes:

I've been reading Studs Terkel 'Working' in bits lately - it’s good for short reads. Though I don't agree with his politics, his interviews with people in all types of work are fascinating.

Ruskin and William Morris were founders of a group of 'alienated' artists/craftsmen in Britain, and early socialists, as described in Morris' News from Nowhere [Utopia]. I was recently reminded of these by Nancy Pelosi's comments about artists being free to practice their art while their basic needs are met by government largess. That strikes me as a violation of the stereotype starving artist whose suffering brings value to the work. Wouldn't art then just become another job?

Greg Ransom: The family went to Williamsburg recently and I was struck by how dependent on trade the colonists were (imported iron, the printer’s type-face blocks etc...) Most of their tools and basic materials were imported and then fashioned for specific purposes in the colonies. That's why the British blocking the ports was such a problem.

I was also impressed that industry is actually much more "green" than more primitive methods. Those zig-zag stacked rail fences without nails must use many times more trees than a simple fence with nails. I was told it took thousands of saplings to make the points on the defenses around the magazine.
Glass blowing required several weeks of burning wood to get a melt, now it's achieved overnight with natural gas; Not to mention all the wood/coal used by smiths and in all the homes.

Proust:
"...Marcel Proust had an haddock! So, if you're calling the author of 'A la recherche du temps perdu' a looney, I shall have to ask you to step outside!" --Monty Python, Fish License

Thanks again Russ!

Prior_Analytics writes:

I might also add a few more reality TV shows to the mix.

Apprentice, Kitchen Nightmares, Ice Road Truckers, Pawn Stars, Shark Tank.....

You'll learn more about how to keep your job in the real world from a season of 'Survivor' than you will from many MBA classes..

-prior

Seth writes:

I enjoyed the podcast. de Bottom asks a great question, "when does the technology become invisible?"

I also liked his observation about how Dutch windmills were thought to be ugly at first and now are considered beautiful.

I like watching "Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives". To see what creative people are doing in their little shops amazes me. So many seem to have their secret ingredients and processes that they developed through trial and error. "American Pickers" and "Meteorite Men" are also interesting.

Jon writes:

The under appreciation of modernity (cell phones not wokring and getting mad) reminded me of a Louis CK talking on Conan O'Brien that always makes me laugh.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8r1CZTLk-Gk

Dr_C writes:

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One of my favourite episodes for a while, mainly because it delved into themes I've been mulling over for years.

de Botton's central point (snipped from the summary above) is that "we live in a world where we just don't know where stuff comes from and in what circumstances it was made", i.e. alienation.

I think there are a couple of blind alleys leading off from that thought, and it's important to signpost them carefully.

First: can we truly be said to be alienated from something that it is impossible to ever be reconciled with?

Today we have iPhones but we don't get to speak to those who make them. de Botton raises the problem (as he sees it) of our "alienation" from the people who build our gadgets.

I think implied behind all this is the suggestion that it is possible to get the best of both - to have something as complex as an iPhone and also to be on handshake terms with all of the hundreds of people who had their hands on the device (or parts of it) during its construction. And surely there would be even more meaning and connection (intellectual rather than emotional) in getting to know the designers. Much of the hard mechanical work is done by other machines, so we'd need to get to know the designers of those machines, and so on.

It clear that we're in the realm of the pencil and the mystery of how it's made. Nobody knows. It would take many hundreds of lifetimes to work back through the mystery of how an iPhone came to be.

So in complaining about alienation de Botton is asking us to mourn the loss of something we never had, and never could possibly have. We can't grasp the complex world. We can only exchange it for a simpler one - which would be really dumb! Throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

We can only know a small sliver of what is happening around us, and we just have to have the humility to accept that - but also enjoy the sense of relief that this partial knowledge doesn't stop us contributing value to the world, as long as we are careful not to overreach. de Botton hints at this with his "we're not gods" riff.

The other blind alley? For many years I would worry that as technology becomes more advanced, so it appears more like magic, and generations of people are relying on it without the faintest clue how any aspect of it works. So you basically have the same old ape: eating, burping, farting, not really thinking too hard, but now being moved around by machines, existing in a world that was constructed for them by geniuses (think of the passengers on the ark spaceship in the movie WALL-E). The perfection of the technology allows people to slip back into idiocy, so it heightens a kind of divide. Nicholas Carr's recent book "The Shallows" raises the same kind of concern.

But one day, let's say I was eating a carrot. It occurred to me, as it occasionally does, that with each mouthful I'm chomping down maybe ten million eukaryotic cells, each containing a bundle of DNA molecules that contain the complete blueprint for making more carrots, and some of the genes are the same as the ones in my own cells' DNA. It's all very complicated. So I'm carelessly munching on something I don't completely understand. Even leaving aside the mystery of who grew it and how they grew it, a vegetable itself is packed full of technology. And not even vegetables: what about sunlight? I've met full-grown adults who don't know the sun is a star. The world is teeming with mysteries that are all too easy to ignore for days at a time.

By which I mean: the "problem" of being alienated from production, not knowing the details of how something came to be, is not unique to human-produced, manufactured artefacts. It's the essential position all science starts from. It doesn't really matter how much of the world has been built for you by geniuses. What matters is how curious you are about it.

The problem of how to achieve fulfilment we can only solve for ourselves. But I can certainly recommend taking the deepest possible interest in how things work, where things come from. Just don't expect to find out everything - there's not enough time!

Freya writes:

Thank you for this podcast, my first on econtalk!

I'm reminded of the French notion of 'terroir'.

A steward on Air France once took the time to explain 'terroir' as an appreciation of everything that contributes to the specific quality of a particular wine: choice of grape, the givens of climate, terrain and geology. One might also include the skills and labor of those involved: planting seeds, nurturing the vine, producing the wine, trading, transporting and displaying it - until it arrives at one's table.

When next sipping a glass, spare a thought of appreciation for our wonderful planet, it's structure, the web of life,and for all those whose effort made your joy possible! It adds immensely to one's enjoyment and allows one to feel connected to a larger universe, to our history. This notion is even conveyed in our language:

'Good wine needs no bush.'

This phrase taken from the old time custom of hanging a bunch of ivy [bush] representing grape leaves, outside an establishment to advertise that wine was sold there.

I am forever grateful to the Air France steward who took the time to spoil this passenger - something he did when not too busy- even making me a gift of a bottle of very expensive champagne, placed in my bag as I dozed following a memorable meal. 'Ssshhh, he gestured, as I opened my eyes, 'Entre nous et Air France!' A very French extension of the notion of 'terroir!' Next morning, at home, I checked the fridge to make sure I hadn't dreamed it! I hadn't!

David Servan-Schreiber, in his book, ANTI CANCER uses a similar notion, that of 'terrain', in describing the conditions that facilitate the growth of cancer cells in our bodies...Hmm...

Perhaps we are talking about then notion of integration? A critical theorist might identify that idea as: 'explanatory, practical... and self-reflexive', accounting for 'their own conditions of possibility and for their transformative effects.'*

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terroir#Elements_of_terroir

*The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy
[2nd Ed. Robert Audry, General Ed. 1999]

Russ Roberts writes:

Freya,

Welcome! In my book, The Price of Everything, a story of how we relate and connect to each other in a modern economy, I open the book with this quote from the movie, K-Pax:

You know what I've learned about your planet? There's enough life on Earth to fill 50 planets. Plants, animals, people, fungi, viruses, all jostling to find their place, bouncing off each other, feeding off each other. Connected.

That feeling of life and connectedness seems to be a part of terroir. Thanks for the insight.

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