Do Nothing (2020)

The following are notes of a podcast interview Brett McKay did with Celeste Headlee. Headlee is a radio journalist and author of the books We Need to Talk and Heard Mentality besides Do Nothing.

Do Nothing
Image Credit: Celeste Headlee

It has only been about 200 years since the industrial revolution that human beings are living the way we do now. Before the industrial revolution and for a large part of human history, human beings worked in spurts. There were spurts of intense activity and work and then there were long periods of relaxation. As an example, Headlee says that peons and serfs worked less than a year.

From Task-based to Time-based Work

With the onset of the industrial revolution, work switched from being task based to being time based. Before the revolution, people worked on a task and then rested till they got their next task. With the coming of factories, people worked by the hour. Their pay was not by the output they produced but by the amount of hours they worked.

Earlier people demonstrated their wealth by the amount of time they spent in leisure. Now, people demonstrate their wealth by showing off how busy they are. Headlee says that people were almost brainwashed, perhaps by the education system, to believe that we are considered more productive by working more hours. This belief is unsubstantiated by research.

Research, even from the 1950s, show that people who worked 12-20 hours per week were more productive than people who worked 50-60 hours per week. It was noticed that employees who work 50-60 hours per week and took little time-off, vacations and paid leaves were less effective and got only a 6% pay-raise compared to employees who worked 12-20 hours per week.

Also, changing pay from a time-based method to a task-based method has advantages for both the employer and the employee. Task based methods are more efficient as the employee tries to spend the least time to get the work done and leave. Task-based method is considered more humane, boosts morale on accomplishment of task and gives joy on completion of the task. Employees on time-based method of payment may spend more time on other pursuits while completing the task.

Taking a Break

Headlee says that taking a break should involve a break from all screens. She says that when we open our smartphones and check email, shop or stay on social media, our brain thinks that we are still working. It cannot distinguish between these activities, done for work or pleasure. So, when we think we have taken rest, we have actually not taken any. When we keep pings from our email program or notifications on our smartphone on, the brain goes into a ready mode all the time expecting and ready to do a task.

Home Work

Headlee says that at the end of a long day at work, we don’t look forward to coming back home. She says that the reason could be not having anything to do at home. Some people fell lonely at home or even isolated. Some also treat home as something they have to work on or even as a chore. They treat all home work to be top of the class with each thing to be shared with the world. As an example, it can’t just be a simple garden, it has to be the ultimate garden with all the bells and whistles. We are not satisfied with what we have.

Earlier, people used to return home to spend time with family and participated in tasks or hobbies that did not have a capitalist value. Women sew and men worked on their workbenches and fixed things. Now, when the call came for stitching cloth masks at home, we didn’t have sewing machines at home and if anything broke, we could not fix our own stuff without help from a technician. Headlee suggests that we do something that you simply enjoy as a hobby and which may not have any capitalistic value.

Means Goals and End Goals

Time-based tasks created the efficiency cults we see today. One way to escape this based on examples like sewing and fixing our own stuff is to understand the difference between Means Goals and End goals. Means goal follow the SMART acronym whereas End Goals do not follow the SMART acronym. We must try to create End Goals and use it to trim the Means Goals by seeing if the latter helps in the accomplishment of the former.

Using a Phone as a Phone

One of the radical ideas that Headlee suggests based on research is that one uses the phone as a phone. As discussed above, a smart phone tricks the brain into thinking that we are working when we think that we’re taking rest. Besides this, she says that the human voice carries information and depth that other humans know to identify immediately. Text can lead to a lot of misinterpretation that a call can solve in minutes. She says that listening to a person making a case for a point of view makes a person with an opposing view more considerate about the person’s stance. It fosters connection.

Headlee thinks that people are getting disenchanted by the over-use of video calling services like Zoom because the presence of a screen indicates to the brain that it is work. This makes us feel more tired after a video call. Teleconferencing has been proven to be as effective as being in the same room with other people.

Human connection

Humans are pack animals. We need a sense of belonging-ness. If the need for human connection is not fulfilled, it has been shown to lead to earlier death besides having several health consequences during a person’s lifetime.

Headlee thinks that when we re-emerge after the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to rethink the human connection to work. She hopes there is a global reconsideration of working hours, having a healthy work-life balance and creation of more pro-human habits (habits that don’t kill us).

She hopes that in going back, we don’t just go back to an era before smart phones but to an era before the industrial revolution.

American Pragmatism

Last week, I read news that Center for John Dewey Studies was being inaugurated at the Savithribai Phule Pune University in collaboration with University of Texas, Austin. Yesterday, on the Art of Manliness podcast, I heard about two American philosophies – American Transcendentalism and American Pragmatism, with philosopher John Kaag.

Of importance to me and the link between these two events is that these are philosophies which John Dewey believed in. He passed on this influence further to the Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. It is believed that this influenced him while working on the Indian constitution. Below are my notes from the podcast:

Kaag believes that American Transcendentalism is situated around three philosophers – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller. The Transcendentalists believed in freedom from societal constraints and the idea of self-reliance and breaking away from traditions set by European philosophy. However, Emerson believed that this needs to be tempered with compassion. He wrote about this in an essay called Compensation in which he says that the freedom is always in tension with or operates within a cosmos of give and take. It is believed that this idea was inspired from his study of the Bhagavad Gita and broadly with his reading of Indian metaphysics and with the idea of karma.

This is broadly expressed in Transcendentalism as an individual existing within a cosmic whole, that an individual does not lead a solitary existence and that an individual continuously negotiates his freedom within the Society or cosmos he exists in.

The challenge to American Transcendentalism came from Charles Darwin and his work, On the Origin of Species. This posited that humans are just evolved animals. The question then arose that if we were just animals, then will we not be dictated by natural laws and hence, does free will exist?

The American Pragmatists provide the answer to this by trying to reconcile free will and morals with Science. They also appear after the American Civil War (1861-1865), where they see how a strict adherence to ideology and dogma leads to violence and conflict. American Pragmatism is built by philosophers Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and John Dewey. Pragmatism believed in securing human freedom and human dignity in response to changes seen in Industrial Revolution. They believed Philosophy should be world ready and that philosophical truth should be based on practical consequences.

Kaag believes that William James read a French philosopher, Charles Renouvier, who believed that there is no empirical proof for the existence of free will. However, if one believed that there was such a thing as free will then it would create a world where there was free will. James expands on this concept and says that there are certain concepts in the world like God, Love, Free Will etc. for which there is no empirical evidence possible. Here, the standard method of Science fails because they miss things that happens below a certain level of consciousness, small nuances and an unseen order.

So, the Pragmatists answer the question of whether life is worth living without free will with Maybe. They push the onus on the live-r. They believe that the experience of the important life events are not based on certainty but on maybes. James believes that exercising our freedoms while living life with others and negotiating our freedoms while living our life, is what makes our life worth living. They believed that there is a connection between freedom and love based on this maybe.They believed more in the experience of the real world.

Kaag believes that Pragmatism as an idea went out of vogue in the 1950s when Philosophy became more logical and followed the footsteps of Mathematics rather than staying with the Humanities and the Social Sciences.

I have not read any of the original thinkers mentioned on this podcast or the news item, Dewey and Ambedkar. Hearing the podcast, I think it would be worth reading them in the original. Naval Ravikant has tweeted and mentioned in other podcasts that reading “On The Origin of Species” in the original is possible. Hence, it may be worth reading the American philosophers, Emerson, James, Fuller and Thoreau, in the original as well. Of these, I have only tried reading and listening to Thoreau so far. However, I have ended up sleeping during both of my efforts. Perhaps, I should start with someone else?

What could be their contribution to our world today? It could perhaps ween us away from the strict adherence to ideology and dogma that we experience daily in the news and on social media. It could also help us understand that we are all rational beings capable of making decisions. Hence, we must respect others and the decisions they make that they have this rational capacity. There are some things that Science can explain and some that Science is yet to explain. We need to understand thing in the scientific way where evidence exists and be open to the possibility of the role of Spirituality where Science is not able to provide compelling answers yet. We need to spend more time experiencing life offline where experiences are shared and real and not try to argue in abstract terms. I would love to read the book that this podcast is based on, American Philosophy: A Love Story.

Social Media vs Social Internet

Brett McKay wrote on the Art of Manliness blog on the difference between Social Media and the Social Internet and the difference between the two. While the former was the keep of billion dollar industries the latter is the creation of individual people. Lately, I have found myself coming to my website to share things rather than keep them in silos maintained by corporations. Data is the new oil, if you haven’t already heard.

Brett’s blog post is a good starting point if you want to begin moving away from Social Media again towards the Social Internet.

Social Media are websites owned by corporations that monetize what you share and become multi-billion dollar corporations richer. Social Internet is the network of sites owned by individuals or even small businesses that put out content and are shared by people like you and me.

If you have browsed the web before 2007 in India, you would have worked your way through Yahoo! search engine, through various email threads on Yahoo! groups and found like minded people sharing web pages using links. When blogs burst on to the scene, you would always keep an eye on the about page and for the “blog roll” on the side of the blog to find new blogs. If you were on the blog roll of someone famous, you would get a lot of web traffic. This is how you organically grew your website.

A screenshot of the website, stryder.com
stryder.com was a website that I visited often for such web links and blog rolls. Image Credit: Pradeep Mohandas

The onset of websites like Facebook and Twitter were the onset of Social Media. These websites earned money by showing us targeted advertisements based on the things we liked, shared and searched on their website. Getting us to stay on their websites for longer (even not having to open web links on a browser) means they can watch user behaviour for a longer time. Data is the new oil. Wired ($) has a personal guide to Personal Data Collection that tells you how your personal data is collected and used. However, they do offer a convenience in use and sharing that Social Internet has never reached.

The Social Internet was built on RSS feeds. Not the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh but Really Simple Syndication. Google Reader made it a breeze to subscribe and read blog posts and even listen to podcasts. But, Google pulled the switch on the project and RSS feeds have been difficult to follow ever since. I currently use Feedly for blog posts, Spotify for podcasts and Thunderbird for feeds and email offline. What I would really love is a mobile version of Thunderbird that I could use to read and write emails, read my blog posts, listen to my podcasts and play videos from the channels I have subscribed to. One app to do it all would mean so many saved apps downloads and my data would be safe with a non-profit like Mozilla Foundation where we would have more control on our own data.

I know reading this sounds like I am scared of Social Media but the fact is that I use it as much as other people but I am slowly beginning to realise that we need control of the data that we create. I believe that awareness that your data is being used by Corporations to make more dollars is a good first step.