Oliver Burke­man

Is ‘shadow work’ slow­ing you down?

The Guardian - Weekend - - Contents -

Now that my roles in life in­clude Pur­chaser of Toys for a Tod­dler, I’m exposed to a whole new set of Guardian­ish dilem­mas: is the prod­uct I’m con­sid­er­ing too gen­der-stereo­typ­i­cal? Too com­mer­cial? Eth­i­cally man­u­fac­tured? But I faced no such in­de­ci­sion the other day when I en­coun­tered, via so­cial me­dia, My Very Own Shop N Pay Mar­ket , a toy self­check­out ma­chine pro­duced by the ap­pro­pri­ately named com­pany Amer­i­can Plas­tic Toys.

I ac­cept that I won’t be able to pro­tect my son in­def­i­nitely from the hor­rors of our era. But I will re­sist to my dying breath the no­tion that there’s any­thing nor­mal about a world in which buy­ing gro­ceries from a multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tion en­tails a pro­ce­dure that in­volves no hu­man contact, makes me put in all the ef­fort, per­mits the cor­po­ra­tion to fire long-serv­ing em­ploy­ees – and, decades af­ter the first mod­els were un­veiled, still ba­si­cally doesn’t even work. Ac­cord­ingly, I didn’t buy My Very Own Shop N Pay Mar­ket. Any­way, they’d prob­a­bly have made me go and fetch it from the de­pot my­self.

Self-check­out ma­chines are one small but glar­ing ex­am­ple of what the Aus­trian philoso­pher Ivan Il­lich called “shadow work”: un­paid labour that ben­e­fits some­one else. It’s noth­ing new: house­work and child-rear­ing are both ma­jor cases of shadow work, since paid work would be im­pos­si­ble with­out them. (Com­mut­ing is a slightly sub­tler ex­am­ple: a per­sonal ex­pen­di­ture of time and re­sources that con­trib­utes di­rectly to your em­ployer’s bot­tom line.) But as Craig Lam­bert ex­plains in his book Shadow Work: The Un­paid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day, it’s rapidly on the rise. This may help to ex­plain the puz­zling fact that we feel so much busier these days, de­spite not work­ing longer hours. We’re not work­ing longer paid hours; it’s just that get­ting through life en­tails more work. It’s ironic, Lam­bert notes, that tech­nol­ogy should bear so much blame for this. Au­to­ma­tion was al­ways sup­posed to take care of the te­dious jobs, so we could en­joy more leisure time. In re­al­ity, it’s taken paid work away from hu­mans, while also in­creas­ing their bur­den of shadow work, by trans­fer­ring tasks from em­ploy­ees to con­sumers.

These days, we serve not only as our own su­per­mar­ket clerks, but our own travel agents and air­port check-in staff, our own sec­re­taries and petrol sta­tion at­ten­dants, and our own providers of jour­nal­ism and en­ter­tain­ment, in­so­far as we spend hours cre­at­ing con­tent for Face­book, Twit­ter and YouTube. (Near me, there’s even a “self-ser­vice dog wash”, though I al­ways think that’s ask­ing a lot of a dog.)

There can be ben­e­fits to shadow work – saved time, in­creased au­ton­omy – but as Lam­bert points out, one huge down­side is that it’s so­cially iso­lat­ing. That’s ob­vi­ous in the case of the elderly per­son who’d strug­gle to book a trip on­line or col­lect train tick­ets from a touch­screen ma­chine but it af­fects us all: ev­ery ex­change be­tween a shop­per and a check­out worker, a bank teller and a bank cus­tomer, “help[s] glue a neigh­bour­hood, or a town, to­gether”.

Do­ing things for each other, even when it’s paid, is “an es­sen­tial char­ac­ter­is­tic of a hu­man com­mu­nity”. But in a self-ser­vice world, you’re on your own

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