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"Starving children", or the fallacy of relative privation

@mildbyte 1 year, 7 months ago | work | thoughts | philosophy | stoicism |

Introduction

All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.
—Blaise Pascal

All too often, in online and offline discourse, when I (or I see someone else) voice a concern about some phenomenon, the argument gets shot down with something like "Your problems are first-world problems, there are people who have it (or historically had it) much worse than you" or "Well, it could always be worse. What if you didn't have (a job/a car/food/money/a romantic partner)?"

In a way, it feels like a special case of whataboutism ("Yes, X did a bad thing, but Y also did a bad thing, so how about we discuss that instead"). To myself, I used to call it "the African children fallacy" and sure, it's kind of insensitive, but I thought that it nicely references a well-known form of it ("how dare you complain about this when there are children starving in Africa?").

Recently, I started digging into it further and learned that it's called "the fallacy of relative privation" or the "not as bad as" fallacy (RationalWiki). In this essay, I want to investigate why I don't like it being used, as well as possible reasons for it getting brought up.

Work could be worse, but it could be better, too

In a recent Hacker News discussion on "The Workplace Is Killing People and Nobody Cares", a Stanford Business School article on the harms brought by the modern work culture, this argument was deployed fairly widely: no matter what its issues are, the modern office environment (with comfortable chairs, air conditioning and mostly interesting work) is better than the life of a medieval farmer or an industrial factory worker, so we should appreciate it.

When I published one of my earlier essays, one of the points in which was that everybody commuting to work on a 9 to 5 schedule created undue strain on all sorts of infrastructure, I got a few similar responses, too ("well, try working in a Starbucks instead of a 9-5 job and see how you like it" or words to that extent).

Thing is, all these points are valid. I wouldn't want to swap my lifestyle with that of a medieval farmer, despite that by some metrics their life might have been better than mine, or live without electricity or potable water, or even work at a coffee shop.

But that doesn't imply that I want my life to stay exactly how it is. No matter whether there are people out there whose lives are better off or worse off than mine, I always want to improve my circumstances somehow and I think it's worth contemplating how things could be made better, all the time.

In the case of work, work cultures and workplace environments, as much as I do agree office workers have it pretty good, I don't think people should treat the ability to sell most of one's waking hours to someone else as the best humanity can do. It's in fact kind of elitist to suggest that our way of life is the best one and pity those who aren't striving towards it.

Dangers of the "not as bad as" argument

In its strong form, the "not as bad as" fallacy implies that nobody can improve their lives until they have made sure everybody else is going to be better off. This kind of serves as a counterpoint to Pareto improvements, where at least one individual ends up better off without making anybody worse off.

I think, partially, using it stems from the will of the speaker to rationalise what's happening to them and why they don't want to change their own situation and examine their own circumstances. It's easy to continue doing what you're doing and not taking any risks if you've seen (or imagined) how bad it can get.

As a more extreme form of this argument, it might even be an implicit desire to not see anyone in a group become better than the group, kind of an extension of a crab mentality. A villager could be told that, sure, life in the village is tough, but the neighbouring villages have it worse, so why leave? Especially if he does make it big somewhere else, comes back and makes us all look like fools.

But, more dangerously, it can also be used as a manipulation tactic by someone who affects someone else's life and wants them to come to terms with that. Consider a boss that doesn't want to give you a raise ("well, Jimmy has worked here for a decade and never asked me for one!"). Even darker, imagine a victim of domestic abuse getting told that the problems they are facing are first-world problems and at least they still have a roof over their head. Or indeed the victim telling this to themselves as a way of self-gaslighting.

Taken to its extreme, this argument invalidates any sort of technological advancement that's attempted before every country on Earth has exactly the same quality of life. Should space exploration be (or have been) postponed until all nations have achieved Western quality of life? Or do we expect innovation in one country, no matter which side of the globe it's on, to be eventually spread around the world?

Stoicism and negative visualisation

I think Stoicism is a great philosophy and a way of life and I've been trying to use it in my life too. One of Stoicism's core teachings is that the best way to be happy is wanting things that one already has and valuing them. Negative visualisation is one of the tools for that: imagining how things could be worse, partially to appreciate them more, partially to plan for the case they do become worse. When used like that, Stoicism leads one to the revelation that they could be happy here and now, without relying on anything outside of their control.

Hence, the "not as bad as" argument could also be used as a way of negative visualisation.

But a large amounts of Stoics whose writings have reached us were rich and famous. Seneca was a playwright and a statesman. Marcus Aurelius was an emperor. I have long tried to reconcile the fact that Stoicism seems to stop us from wanting anything with the fact that a large part of Stoics were of high statures.

Given that for Stoic writings to reach us, they had to have been famous in some way already, it's possible that they started using this philosophy as a way to keep the positions that they had achieved and stay where they were. However, it also could be argued that their beliefs empowered them to do what they felt was right without seeking external validation. That the recognition of their work in terms of money, fame or prestige happened as a side effect, something they didn't care about.

One of my favourite pieces of writing I reread quite often is David Heinemeier Hansson's "The Day I Became A Millionaire". Here's what I think is the best quote from it:

Barring any grand calamity, I could afford to fall off the puffy pink cloud of cash, and I’d land where I started. Back in that small 450 sq feet apartment in Copenhagen. My interests and curiosity intact. My passions as fit as ever. I traveled across a broad swath of the first world spectrum of wealth, and both ends were not only livable, but enjoyable. That was a revelation.

Note how DHH caveats this with "first world spectrum of wealth": he also credits the privileges we have, in his case, the Danish social security system, with his success.

I view Stoicism and ability to appreciate what I already have as a springboard to continuous (and continued) improvement of things within my control. It's the ability to take risks knowing that wherever you land, your life will still be pretty good. So in that respect, the "not as bad as" argument turns into "won't ever be as bad as", changing apathy into an empowering limited-downside proposition.

Conclusion

While appreciating privileges that we have is a good tactic for personal happiness, I also believe that the best way to respect those privileges is to use them and do things that one wouldn't have been able to without it. Otherwise, we're essentially squandering them.

And it's not like one's success helps just that person. Joanne Rowling wrote the first few chapters of Harry Potter whilst on benefits, another first world privilege. A couple of decades later, these series of books have sold in excess of 500 million of copies worldwide and spanned a film franchise that has grossed a few billion dollars. Notwithstanding the joy that the Harry Potter series has brought to the people all across the world, the tax revenue from that might well make the UK's welfare system one of the best-performing VC funds in the world.

Sure, all of humanity's problems might stem from a person's inability to sit quietly in a room alone, but so does all the progress.

Against the synchronous society

@mildbyte 1 year, 10 months ago | work | thoughts |


PhD comics

Introduction

Imagine if we could turn this:

into this:

The first picture is a graph of how many people enter the London Underground network every minute on a weekday. The second graph is for the weekend, except slightly altered: I normalized it so that both graphs integrate to the same value. In other words, the same amount of people go through the network in the second graph as in the first graph.

Would you rather interact with the former or the latter usage pattern?

The data geek in me is fascinated at the fact that there are clear peaks in utilization at about 8:15 (this is the graph of entrances, remember) and, in the evening, at 17:10, 17:40 and 18:10. I'll probably play with this data further, since the dataset I used (an anonymized 5% sample of journeys taken on the TfL network one week in 2009) has some more cool things in it.

The Holden Caulfield in me is infuriated at the fact that these peaks exist.

Millions of toilets suddenly got flushed and were suddenly silenced

It's alarming how often society seems to hinge on people being in the same place at the same time, doing the same things. The drawbacks of this are immense: infrastructure has to be overprovisioned for any bursty load pattern and being inside of a bursty load pattern results in higher waiting times and isn't a pleasant experience for everyone involved. Hence it's important to investigate why this happens and whether this is always required.

Have you heard of TV pickups? Whenever a popular TV programme goes on a commercial break or ends, millions of people across the UK do the same things at the same time: they turn kettles on, open refrigerator doors, flush their toilets and so on. This causes a noticeable surge in utilization of, say, electric grids and the sewage system. As a result, service providers have to provision for it by trying to predict demand. This isn't just an academic exercise: in the case of electric energy, generators can't be brought online instantly and energy can't be stored cheaply.

In the case of the Underground network, there are times on some lines where trains arrive more frequently than every two minutes (pretty much as often as they can, given that the trains have to maintain a safe distance between each other and spend some time on the platform) and yet they still are packed between 8am and 9am. Any incident, however small, like someone holding up the doors, can result in a knock-on effect, delaying the whole line massively.

Why are people doing this to themselves?

Friday is a social construct

The weekend was a great invention (although Henry Ford's reason for giving his employees more time off was that they'd have nothing to do and hence start buying his own, and other businesses', goods). But does the weekend really have to happen at the same time for all people?

Some of the phenomena governing people's schedules are natural. It does get dark at night and people do need light. It gets cold in the winter and people need heating. But the Earth does not care whether it's the weekday or the weekend, a Wednesday or a Saturday. And yet somehow the society has decreed that Wednesday is a serious business day and any adult roaming the streets during daytime on that day might get weird stares.

Expanding on this, do working hours have to happen at the same time either? People naturally need rest, but what they don't naturally need is to be told when exactly they can work and rest. And in some types of work, like knowledge work, being told when to work is not necessary and even can be harmful.

In professional services, in most cases, the client doesn't care when the service is being performed. The client wants a tax return to be prepared: they don't want the tax return to only be prepared between 9 and 5. The client wants their investments to be managed: the investments don't need to only be managed between 9 and 5. And so on. Fixed work hours make no sense since it's not time the client is buying, it's the result. Knowledge work isn't predicated on people having to do it at the same time or even at a given time.

The fact that everybody has to work fixed hours hails from the Industrial age assembly line thinking (in fact, the term "line manager" is still used in the UK to refer to one's boss). If one part of the assembly line is missing, the assembly line doesn't work. Hence the management has to make sure that all parts of the assembly line have finished their sandwiches and are in place for when their shift starts. The whole shift also has to get their days off synchronously, as it can't function at all after a critical mass of people has taken the day off.

This is in no way an argument for longer working hours. If a person has exhausted their working capacity for the day, what's the point of holding them in the office until a given hour unless they're in a role that requires that? Some people work better when they have a set goal and some time to achieve it, to be used at their discretion. Some people work in bursts, where the output of one day can overshadow the rest of the week. Mandating fixed hours for knowledge workers means they aren't as efficient as they can be for their employer and further suffer from the utilization peaks that they themselves cause.

Corporate accounts payable, Nina speaking

Do we still need offices? Some criticize working from home as a way for employees to slack off. But if you think your people won't work unless they're watched, maybe you're hiring the wrong people. A loss of productivity from not having someone standing over their shoulder is offset by the gain in productivity from not having someone standing over their shoulder and not working in a distracting open office environment.

A benefit of offices is that they encourage communication and sharing of ideas. It's much easier to walk up to someone and ask them something, and information travels around quicker and more naturally.

On the other hand, imagine if you were a medieval scholar. They would usually work alone, with all communication with their peers done over long-form letters. Communication used to be asynchronous and there was no way the letter would be delivered as soon as it was fired off, hence there was no expectation of getting a reply in the same hour or even within the same day.

Nowadays, people are expected to respond to messages instantly, which means they have less and less uninterrupted time in which they can't be distracted.

Would you rather have a 1-hour chunk of time to do work in or 6 chunks of 10 minutes, interrupted by random phone calls, instant messenger pings and people walking up to you? The former option is much, much better if you want to do any deep work. Productivity is highly non-linear and 10 minutes of work result in better outcomes when they come after some time to ramp up. Even the anticipation that you can be interrupted can distract you and prevent you from getting into a state of flow.

Perhaps there's no need for people in the workplace to expect others to be able to instantly respond to them. In fact, slower, asynchronous communication can lead to more robust institutional memory inside of an organisation. Instead of the easy fix of tapping a colleague on the shoulder to get an answer, the worker might instead devise a solution for an issue themselves or figure it out while typing up an email, adding to the documentation and making sure fewer people have that question in the future.

Do all meetings have to happen at the same place or at the same time? Some of them do: sometimes there's no replacement for getting all stakeholders in the same room in order to come to a decision. But meetings are also a great way to waste company money, setting thousands of dollars on fire by the simple act of blocking out one hour of several people's time.

What is now a synchronous meeting (together with the flow breakage than that brings: I found that I'm more productive in a given hour if I know I don't have to go anywhere in the next hour even though the time I'm spending is the same) could be an asynchronous e-mail chain or a set of comments on the intranet that people can get to at their discretion.

Peter, you've added nothing

There's something mesmerising about being able to watch live coverage of an event. Instant notifications of a new development are a way to gratify yourself, feel like you've done something, get a small dopamine rush from getting another nugget of information. But in reality, not much has changed and this development will likely be insignificant in the end.

In this age, people have no time to think about their reaction: everything is knee-jerk, synchronous and instantaneous. An incident happens. Minutes later, we find out there is a suspect. Minutes later, there's a witch hunt across social media for the suspect and their family. Days later, the suspect is acquitted and there's another suspect. Information, not necessarily valuable or true, nowadays travels so fast that things can easily get out of control and anyone with Internet access can join in the madness.

There are a few billion times more people than you and your brain can't process inputs from them all in real time. Hence people have to operate with abstractions. Instead of constantly receiving a stream of data that interrupts your life and ultimately doesn't add anything to it, why not go to a different abstraction level and lower the sampling rate, instead reading a weekly newsletter?

If you had an investment portfolio, would you act based on looking at its performance every hour or every day? Or would you instead be aware that all the noise from the daily developments will probably cancel itself out and turn into a clearer picture of what's happened?

Bernoulli's principle works in January, too

A friend of mine works in a role where she needs to interact with offices in other countries that don't maintain UK bank holidays. What her employer does is increase her holiday allowance instead, making bank holidays a normal working day. I think this is amazing. The time when most people are away on holiday is the best time to get some work done in the office and the time when most people are in the office is the best time to go shopping, visit doctors, go to a museum and do all other sorts of other life admin things.

From a cultural point of view, public holidays are amazing. From a logistical point of view, they're a nightmare. If everybody is having a holiday, nobody is, and the fact that everyone is observing the holiday at the same time yet again creates usage peaks in all sorts of places.

For example, synchronous buying of presents means that retailers have to overstock their wares in run-up to major holidays, say, Christmas, and, worse even, have to offload all the Baylis and Harding soap sets at fire sale prices starting at about dinnertime on the 24th December. Hilariously, the best time to shop for Christmas presents is in January.

And most holidays are taken around these times too. People in the UK get fined and can even get prosecuted for taking their children on holiday during term time. The fine is usually less than the difference in price for airline tickets and accommodation between taking a holiday during term time and outside of term time, but that price difference is just a consequence of the difference in demand between those times. There are still planes in January, but they're... emptier. And airports aren't such an unpleasant experience.

In any case, most parents are now coerced to take holidays only outside term time, which has a knock-on effect on flight/accommodation usage and prices.

Conclusion

I honestly don't know how to solve most of these problems. Maybe with the rise of remote work and teleconferencing this will naturally go away, moving us to a future where nobody can have a case of the Mondays any more. Some companies are embracing parts of being asynchronous already, like Basecamp (ex-37 Signals) who list the benefits of remote work and fewer meetings in REWORK.

It's more difficult on the social side. I dream of a relationship where we agree to celebrate all holidays (Christmas, Easter, Valentine's etc.) a few days later to take advantage of the trough in the demand that comes after the peak. In addition, to be efficient, education indeed has to be synchronous: one teacher educates multiple children and any of them skipping material will result in them having to catch up, delaying the whole year. I had a chat about this with a friend once: what if education were much more granular, with children (or their parents) being able to pick and choose when their child takes a given class? Staggered school shifts, perhaps?


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