Your Dissertation Lit Review was a Waste of Time, and Other Lessons from the Service Economy

The last few posts have described my latest post-academic gig at a tech firm where I am paid hourly to do administrative work. (“Administrative” is a fancy word for “secretary,” of course.) The office where the firm is located is temporary. The firm may be temporary too. Who can tell? My employers seem to have a lot to do, though I am only vaguely aware of the services they offer to the people who pay them.

My employers sit at computers all day and have frequent conference calls with clients. They complain constantly about being overworked and about the stress they’re under to make this new company a success. Inexplicably, I am very sympathetic to their plight and would like to help them succeed. Yet, from a proper perspective, their success means nothing to me.

I am rarely told what I will be doing each week in advance. I am instructed (usually by email) to file this and to mail that. I do these things. But I am never sure what the context is for these actions. Why must I file this and mail that? It’s not as if I need to know why I am mailing something in order to address the envelope properly or to hit the “print” button on the printing machine. I can certainly do those things without understanding the larger purpose. But my effort feels disconnected from any meaningful context. The partners operate as if I don’t need to know anything more than the action to be performed in its stripped-down, utilitarian form. Moreover, if I perform the task and perform it well, I have no sense of the outcome. Did my actions result in the employers earning more money? Did it result in more business for the firm? I never know.

I believe this experience is called alienated labor.

It may be alienated, but that doesn’t mean it’s mindless. There’s a lot of concern these days that workers are going to be replaced by robots, that there won’t be jobs anymore, only tireless machines. This is not a particular fear of mine. I know that I won’t be replaced by a machine because I am one. I am a particular kind of machine, a robot of the service economy.

I sit in a state of suspended animation and wait for instructions. When I receive them, I sputter to life and perform the task with a smile. Then, when the mission has been accomplished, I grind to a halt and I wait for the next to-do list to arrive in my inbox.

At least, that is what my employers imagine I am doing. I am actually not doing that. I have other paying jobs, and I have friends, family, and writing and reading projects that matter to me. When I am not following the employers’ instructions, I am engaged in my human life. Yet, each time they email a new task, I know they expect me to do the job right away. They would not like it if I replied: “I will do this task as soon as possible. Right now, I am busy doing something else.” Such a reply would be confusing to them. As soon as they issue instructions, they assume that my gears click into motion at that precise moment. I am a technician of the age of information, a life form conjured from chemical-laced dust. When I am not doing something for them, I do not exist.

The service economy, which is all there is now, is a marketplace in which workers are expected to know only how to perform the acute task in front of them. (To be fair, in my case, maybe that’s all I want to know.) I have been told many times by one of the firm partners that he has no time to train me so he would like me to watch and learn. Watch and learn. It sounds like a warning, a slogan stitched onto a flag at the gates of The Only Factory That Will Ever Hire You. At some point, my employer seems to expect, the tiny bits of disconnected data that leak into my inbox each week will add up to something that represents a whole. But if it doesn’t add up to something, it doesn’t matter anyway.

My service to my employers, I have concluded, is to not know anything.

In some ways, the focus on acute tasks and on discrete, portable skills is the exact opposite of academia. (That is one reason I found myself so woefully unprepared for the part-time office work that became my fate the moment I entered a PhD program in English.) I wrote a dissertation that contained an extensive literature review: many pages devoted to explaining what other people had said about the topic I was writing about years before I had ever heard of it. This was an important and necessary part of the work. In learning to be a scholar, I learned to frame my arguments by historicizing them and by providing context and purpose. It all seems hilarious in retrospect.

There is no historicizing in the service economy. There is no context that really matters in a globally connected world of instant communication. Learning context and history takes time, and time is money. Who wants to pay for that?

Perhaps the neo-conservatives were right and it really is the end of history, just not the history they had in mind. The end of history, for workers, means the end of the need to know anything except how to perform the next task on a list of tasks thought up by someone else. Employers no longer need to invest in education or training. In the future, we’re all mechanical Turks.

What corporations need is a “technical workforce,” the New York Times has explained. “Companies say they need engineers with more than high school, but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree.” This is what Henry Giroux meant when he wrote, in his essay on the fury of the young, that “what the ruling class wants are technicians.” Employers prefer people who make and do whatever is asked of them quickly and efficiently without too many questions.

This preference, now so concrete to me in my post-academic life, exposes one of the great lies of liberalism. We’ve all been told (we’re still being told) that employers want to hire people who can think broadly and have the capacity to deliberate in a critical fashion about a wide range of problems. This is bullshit. Employers want nothing of the kind. They want organisms, vaguely sentient, that respond to stimuli in predictable and profitable ways. Then they want silence and waiting until a new task becomes evident, until the next, inevitable keystroke sparks the machine to life.

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7 Responses to Your Dissertation Lit Review was a Waste of Time, and Other Lessons from the Service Economy

  1. “We’ve all been told (we’re still being told) that employers want to hire people who can think broadly and have the capacity to deliberate in a critical fashion about a wide range of problems. This is bullshit. Employers want nothing of the kind. They want organisms, vaguely sentient, that respond to stimuli in predictable and profitable ways. Then they want silence and waiting until a new task becomes evident, until the next, inevitable keystroke sparks the machine to life.”

    That totally sucks that you are in this kind of an environment. And yeah, it is the total antithesis of academia. I have a really excellent technician in my lab who spent a substantial amount of time working in an industry very much like what you describe: follow instructions, don’t ask questions, keep your head down. It has taken years for him to really internalize the expectation that in my lab he needs to do the opposite: obtain a full view of the situation, ask questions as necessary to clarify, keep your head up, and exercise considered judgment in deciding on a course of action.

    One thing that occurs to me is that the fact that one of your bosses actually did say that he’s too busy to teach you about what is going on but that you should try to just pick it up suggests that he does realize at some level that if you did really learn what is going on, you could likely contribute much more to the goals of the company. Maybe that provides some tiny opening you could exploit to try to access the context for your atomized actions?

  2. Reblogged this on MonkeyMoonMachine and commented:
    An interesting point about alienation of labor in the service economy.

  3. Cassidy says:

    THANK you for this. You’ve done an excellent job explaining this phenomenon that is affecting a whole generation of degree-holders.

  4. Derek Weiler says:

    There is a line in Linklater’s recent movie, “Boyhood,” in which the protagonist says that we’ve been afraid of robots taking over, but that corporations found cybernetic life way too expensive, and that humans are much cheaper, so they simply turned humans into robots.

  5. Avocado says:

    I missed your posts quite a bit. This post was excellent. Nailed it.

  6. lkmerc02 says:

    I am currently on chapter 3 of my dissertation and just got dissed hard-core by my diss director (pun intended). Was feeling so bad about it, but then wondered when the hell I started to care what that dork thinks of me. Seriously, his opinion wouldn’t matter to me if I hadn’t bought into the oh-so-academic notion that the institution is the be-all end-all of existence. I actually have a lot of really cool friends, lots of stuff to do with my time, and lots of other ways to make money and feel suuuuper special. I think if I wasn’t in this mid-grade institution doing this mid-grade work with the constant snobbish refrain of self-indulgent insecurity requiring my polite laughter on command and having to turn on a feigned interest in the politics of tenured professors, I would find these people pathetic. I was telling my significant other (who has finished his diss and is sort of post-PhD adrift and having the ensuing identity crisis that awaits all of us, apparently) that if the apocalypse were to come, these assholes would be sitting at their desks, writing about it until someone came to eat their brains. What’s the point of all this, I wonder?
    I liked your spite blog. I’m trying to muster enough disinterest to get there. I actually like my research, but I’m living in the heart of a neurotic darkness that seems to be the norm for this stupid little fishpond.
    Thanks for your writing. You made me feel less alone.

    • TemetNosce says:

      Just finished a 350 word document for my degree. 160 pages of historical and critical theory review. 160 pages of a case study and detailed mixed methods analyses. was partly about the pointlessness of academia.

      I published 4 articles in 2 years. I am now free from academia, but unemployed.
      $45k in debt. Master’d out because fuck this shit.

      spiteful? yes. bitter? yes. suicidal? borderline.
      finding solace in these posts? damn right.

      this little website has probably saved more lives than mine.

      thank you.

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