Pin money

Downshifting has largely been Emlyn’s recent experience.

My work life has always been more tenuous. Partly because I was pregnant one year out of uni. So there hasn’t been much time when I haven’t been a mum. Partly because I’ve had a few false starts. I did a B.A. in lefty kind of stuff. Good for talking about at coffee shops. But not an employable qualification.

So did clerk kind of work. And managed to teach myself to touch type, back in the days when people still wrote things by hand and gave them to the clerks to word process. And I wouldn’t last in a job for very long.

Then a grad dip in PR. And started working in marketing. And I didn’t last in a job for very long.

From time to time, I would get full time work and it would be a PITA with a family. I found it difficult. We are set up quite traditionally in some ways. Although while I’m typing this and can hear Emlyn in the kitchen, cooking tea… which shows that we are more contemporary than we used to be. Seems to have emerged out of downshifting. Yay. I never lasted in full time work for very long.

Mostly I found it hard to plug into offices. This sense of boredom, which I now think was a  low grade hatred at work settles into my mind. Where for so many hours a day, the view is the same. Emlyn and I often wonder if everyone just hates work.

In the past, I’ve been really irresponsible about work. Whenever I got the shits, I would just leave, and rely on Emlyn to provide. And my income was really bonus money for us.

A friend of mine pointed out to me that some people enjoy the status they get from work, the feeling of contributing to society, and the money.

I sort of work now. As a sole trader – peripatetic music tutor. I’ve got a lousy hourly rate. Which is on my mind more since Emlyn downshifted. And I’m not quite ready to figure out how to fix this. Which I will need to do sometime, if we are going to buy a house in the ludicrously priced Aussie house market. I try not to want one. But I do! It’s frustrating being a tenant, because you have no say over your house.

Pin money

The Free Economy #1

Just the other day I was watching a talk by Professor Lessig, here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hzFEbm1C0yU&feature=related . It’s known for being the speech where he said he’s done with the whole free culture thing, and is moving on to other stuff. Sad, but you really do have to live your own life, and his current much more partisan work does seem to be very constructive. I’m an unabashed fan of the man.

But what I’m more interested in talking about here is the concept of the Sharing Economy which is largely what Professor Lessig talks about in this speech. He talks about a Sharing Economy, and a Commercial Economy, as distinct entities. We live in both, but while the commercial economy is dominated by money, the sharing economy doesn’t use money. In the talk, Professor Lessig says “money is not just absent or rare, it is poison in these economies”. (The plural here refers to the idea that there is no single sharing economy, but many separate overlapping economies, for which it is an umbrella term).

The sharing economies include all kinds of volunteerism, the reciprocity economy at work inside small groups such as families, and any other environments of exchange which don’t use money. A subset of this is something not new under the sun, but which feels very new to us, which I will call the Free Economy.

What is the Free Economy?

The Free Economy is an economy of free things. It is distinct from the rest of the Sharing economy because what it trades in are non-scarce goods. Currently it is almost exclusively an information economy, because modern information technology has reduced the cost of copying to be free, or practically free, for many people (practically free because someone still pays infrastructure costs, ie: PCs, internet access, etc).

The Free Economy breaks into two parts, the formal and the informal. The Formal is that which is explicitly free. The Informal is that which is explicitly not free, but in fact behaves as though it were.

The content in the Formal Free Economy consists of that explicitly freed by its creators, using the Public Domain, or any of the multitude of Free licenses (the software licenses such as GPL, BSD, MIT, the creative commons licenses, etc). These licenses vary quite widely, largely around their interface with the commercial economy, but they are almost entirely unrestricted in the sharing economy (save perhaps attribution requirements, which is a relatively minor quibble, and possibly with the exception of the No Derivative Works subset of the Creative Commons licenses).

The content in the Informal Free Economy consists of that which has not been freed (in many cases explicitly not), but is behaving as though it is free. This is the body of commercial work which is currently traded amongst the participants in the informal free economy, as well as those works which fall outside of the Formal Free Economy simply because their creators never made a decision either way, and the default legal position is that they are not free. Here you are thinking of commercial movies and games available via the BitTorrent protocol, as well as the entire 1980’s world video clip back catalog on YouTube.

I am interested in the Free Economy because I see it as a good future for the world.

Other types of organisation

All the types of possible large scale economic organization I can think of (command economy, market economy, gift economy  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gift_economy, anything else important missing?) implicitly assume we are dealing with scarcity. Whether they worship scarcity or try to ameliorate it, that is their fundamental underpinning. Even a gift economy lives in a scarce world, attempting to encourage and use high trust social interactions and altruistic values to manage it.

The Free Economy is something different, because it is dealing with the explicitly non-scarce. It doesn’t really say very much, except that we should treat that which is not scarce as not scarce. Which, in fact, appears to be entirely controversial.

It is controversial because of the dominance of the market economy on our thinking. Under the capitalist world economic system, we don’t just adhere to commercial exchange as a necessity for managing scarce goods. Instead, we have internalised it as our personal value system, and this is incredibly pervasive. For evidence of this, you can see the shrinking of the sharing economy, which has been coexisting with the commercial economy all along. Volunteerism declines, and the service economy grows. What is the service economy? It is the act of performing a service for someone for money. So it includes serving someone coffee in a cafe, but doesn’t include delivering Meals on Wheels to the infirm. Volunteering is increasingly seen, I think, as something for those unfit to participate in the commercial economy; those on unemployment benefits, the aged pension, etc. The characterization of a full time able bodied volunteer as “unemployed” says something interesting about our attitudes.

The commercial economy impinges on parts of our lives that were never commercial before. We eat out more than we ever used to, we outsource all kinds of domestic jobs, we spend more on transport to travel further faster, because we work more than we used to, so we don’t have as much time for unpaid things. Why? Because without working more, we can’t afford these things. Really it’s a straight swap, the same or similar things end up being done (or some things don’t, but we forget we needed them), money changes hands where once it didn’t, the economy grows. That is, the commercial economy grows. But does the sum of the commercial economy and the sharing economies grow? I don’t think anyone knows. I suspect that it doesn’t.

I like to grumble about the commercial economy a lot, and I must come back a little from it here. The fundamental premise of the commercial economy is that there is scarcity, and it must be managed. That’s pretty likely true. That the commercial economy achieves this in a just way is questionable. It purports to be an efficient way, although by its own definition of efficient. What it does appear to do is to scale well, which doesn’t appear to be true for command economies and is fairly clearly false for gift economies.

However, it’s very difficult to regard it, at best, as anything more than a necessary evil. It encourages hierarchy, it encourages growing disparity in access to resources, and it forces us all to keep out primary focus not on the stuff of human greatness, but on the artificial and somewhat absurd task of making money. It is probably the best system for managing scarce resources in a low trust environment, but I think it encourages and reinforces low trust, making it very difficult for us to reach any higher.

Something I need to research: I suspect very strongly that we currently produce enough to meet the basic needs of humanity with a small fraction of our activity. I think the rest of our activity is largely a tail chasing exercise, producing things or services which will encourage the exchange of money but have little other benefit. We work increasing hours and there is a lot of sound and fury, but what if anything is it signifying? Yet it is very difficult for the individual to opt out of this exercise; we all have to eat.

——

This wasn’t going to be a multi-part post, but it’s gotten quite long. So in part 2, I’ll talk about how the Free Economy and the Commercial Economy look when viewed through each others lenses, about how they can coexist, about the power of values, about what kind of society we could live in if we set our minds to the task, and about how we might get there from here.

The Free Economy #1

Self indulgent drivel, and some thoughts on part time work

It’s Monday, blog day.

I have the morning to myself on Mondays, so I’ve assigned myself the task of writing a blog post on Monday mornings. I haven’t written that explicitly in this blog before, but there you go. 

Why did I decide to do that? It’s weird, it’s hard to explain. On the face of it, it makes not a lick of sense, because I’m swapping potential paid work time for time which I’m still obliged to spend in a fixed way, doing something that can feel a lot like work. I feel it this morning, when I’m not really too inspired. And, instead of labouring toward a dubious and most likely ultimately unsuccessful commercial goal, I’m grinding out a post which will reach a, well, fairly exclusive audience, shall we say?

It feels different. I think it’s self determination, you know? In the end, I choose what to write, I make all the final decisions, I post (I was going to say “I edit” in there, but no one would believe that). And I *could* decide not to post. In posting, I am freely deciding not to not post.

This is crucially different to paid work. Paid work is qualitatively different to coercion, clearly; I can decide not to go to work. However, it’s different to this, because if I don’t go to work I have strict material consequences (no job, no money, no food/shelter/clothing). That still feels like coercion, even if it’s only the universe itself directly oppressing me. It motivates me to do it, but not to like doing it. It makes me want to rebel! Bloody universe.

Ok, so that’s the fire in the belly department taken care of. Now a little riff on part time work. Thanks to Fergus, my brother in-law, for the chat that this derives from.

Riff Part 1:

Part time work has a funny social status at the moment. There seem to be two competing trains of thought about it. Formally, there is this thread that says part time workers are more productive, at least as dedicated, bring less of their crap to work, are happier, and generally make better employees. The informal thread against which this is set says part time workers are less committed layabouts, who can do peripheral stuff but shouldn’t be given any real responsibility, they must be out on the fringes. As with any formal/informal conflict, the informal line wins. People use all kinds of bullshit reasons to justify that, but the result is, part time generally equals doing the shit work.

There’s a new type of part time worker though, even in fields which have traditionally been all full time, and that’s the skilled professional family person. That person has power in negotiations with the employer; they can call the shots to some extent. And it’s become acceptable to work part time so you can “spend more time with the family” (a phrase previously only used by politicians who’d been sacked or were forced to resign), a nice golden bridge for employers who otherwise might feel as though they’ve been forced into the arrangement at gunpoint. 

I think we’re seeing a slow shift in attitudes, which is taking some fraction of generational time to filter through, from full time work being seen as the only serious option, to part time work becoming a valid lifestyle choice. We’re right in the middle of it now, where some people can do it (people in shit work, or already skilled professionals), but early career track professionals are excluded. (disclaimer – I’m writing this in Australia, and I think we can be quite backward about such things, I’ve noticed there are some very different, progressive things going on in the EU). It’s got the feel of a cultural attitude change in progress. Just hang in there, keep pushing here and there, and the good stuff will happen eventually.

Riff Part 2:

I think many of our problems with work may stem from an over simplistic valuation of our time – the linear model. We say “how much are you worth?” “$X per hour”. But that’s not true, is it? Is 11am to 12am on Wednesday worth the same as 10pm to 11pm on Saturday? Is 4pm to 5pm worth the same amount if you worked 20 hours in the week so far, as opposed to 60 hours? Is doing something you love and are skilled at worth the same as scrubbing the floors?

Now we do in fact have this non-linear  patchwork infrastructure to correct this. We have the standard work week, overtime (well we used to have overtime), weekend and holiday pay, etc. You can charge different rates for different employers, which roughly equates to different types of work (although not always, just think of those times you’ve been sold on a job by the promise of cool work, only to find the reality was an avalanche of crap).

But that’s very patchworky. Kludging around a bad model. We can do better than that.

Drop all the patchwork, and let’s look at $/hour. An example of the standard outlook would be working at $40:

  

Well ok, but what’s going to hurt more? The 50 hour weeks or the 10 hour weeks?

What other criteria could we capture? Common ones might be:

  • I need a minimum amount of work (let’s say 15 hours)
    • This isn’t really a minimum amount of work, it’s a minimum amount of pay, 15 hours * $40/hr = $600.
  • I don’t want to work past a maximum (let’s say 30 hours)
    • Now here I might modify this to say that there is a level of remuneration at which I’d be willing to do it, but that it’s higher than our $40 hour. In fact, I’ll say it’s an exponential-looking function. For fun, let’s say it’s $80/hour for the first 5 extra hours, doubling thereafter for each extra 5 hours.
So the graph looks like this:
Pretty crazy big money there out past 40 hours per week. Which makes sense to my hypothetical employee. It’s what people colloquially refer to as f*ck-off money. Whenever you think “I don’t want to do X”, you can profit by instead asking “How much would I have to be paid for X so that I’d feel ok about it?” There’s usually a number.
This is just a start, because I haven’t even begun to incorporate the other factors I mentioned above into this system (eg: there is no consideration for type of work, or when the hours are to be worked). I’ll leave that to a subsequent post…
(btw, my lovely graphs took me a couple of minutes to whip up, here: http://nces.ed.gov/nceskids/createagraph/ )
Self indulgent drivel, and some thoughts on part time work

STATUS

So what do marketers call the consumers who are sucked in by a brand, and buy something because it is expensive on priciple?

They are called STATUS oriented and marketers LOVE them. Oh, there it is some lovin flowing back to the consumer. Well well well.

PRODUCT X emerges from the factory along with it’s twin PRODUCT Y.  PRODUCT X is destined for the high end market. So it is put in swanky packaging with words like “exclusive” “luxury” etc. And then given a corresponding price tag. If you think of beauty products, sometimes exclusive, luxury high end face goo is worth about a hundred times as much as cheap end moisturiser. Can it be one hundred times better?

I remember speaking to a marketer in the 90s about this. She was so excited about how marketing was going to come into its own in the 21st century. Because the products wouldn’t differentiate themselves, being essentially identical. Marketing would have this new and exciting field of creating difference in the packaging and advertising of the products.

Status oriented folk. Be careful. 

Vals 2 Typology was still being used when I did my study in Corporate Communication. Can’t garauntee that it’s still in vogue. It split the STATUS oriented types into two groups, the successful ACHIEVERS and the try hard but not really successful STRIVERS. Both types will live beyond their means to get the right brand.

STATUS

Big Brother – 2008 not 1984

I liked watching Big Brother on TV –   like I like greasy pizza. It doesn’t all have to be about homegrown coriander and chickpeas and magazines discussing arts show with black skivvied men.

Reread 1984, to see if the world which gave us Big Brother TV is like the totalitarian regime of 1984.

Nah. We got it good. Life sucked for Winston.

Was inspired to think about DOUBLEFEEL. you may recall how Doublethink worked? You could hold opposing views, in particular your own sense of reality and any completely contradictory party line. And quietly absorb this duality, to the point where you don’t notice you’re doing it.

So what’s Doublefeel?  Take advertising. Advertising pushes our emotional buttons. Evoking whatever emotion research indicates will be most manipulative. Guilt seems to be a good one. Advertising evokes a feeling for us, and we associate it with the product or the brand. But this feeling has been artificially created within us, specifically to motivate us to buy PRODUCT X. We have one layer of double feel here, where we have layered on top of whatever feeling we were authentically feeling, the evoked feeling from the ad.

An unpleasant example of this is the fashion for creating LOVEBRANDS. Apparently consumers must now love the brand. I think Emlyn mentioned on here that this is a cruel, unequal relationship where one party – the consumer gives love, loyalty, money, devotion for which the other party – the brand gives flashy ads and the actual product. Brands are the beautiful, cruel, aloof, unobtainable high school ice queens, that the boys fawn over. I imagine they turned out to be lesbians.

Anyway I digress. So there we are, having had some advertising thrust upon us. We become emotionally charged. Buy PRODUCT X. Engage in the exchange. The emotion lingers for a little while. And then PRODUCT X becomes just whatever it is, the artificial emotional excitment gone. And of course this exchange, in our heightened emotional state involved buying with easy instalments. And these remain with interest.

But we are savvy consumers. We know it’s a jungle out there, and advertisers are full of shit. We know that. So perhaps we concurrently know they are full of shit, and find ourselves manipulated. At once we feel aware of the tricks and manipulation of the ads, well aware that it’s all shit AND at the same time we find ourselves falling for the product – and responding to the ad, just as we are supposed to.

Double feel.

Ever bought something with a picture on the packet. And you get the actual PRODUCT X inside the product. And reality is inferior. And we knew it would be. But we still hoped. Maybe they wont lie to us this time. Maybe it will be as good as the picture?

Doublefeel.

Well triplefeel because then you feel stupid for your niavity. I mean come on. It’s never going to be as good as the picture. And we know it. But unsquashable hope, the noble human sentiment, remains.

Or maybe quadruple feel. Because then you get POMO. Pretend that you are buying PRODUCT X as a parody of a consumer. As POMO art.  

Can’t help but worry that if my mum read this she’d say “well stop whinging and throw out the TV.”

Ouch. how will I watch Big Brother then?

UPDATE. Big Brother has been cancelled. Couldn’t get enough advertising. hee hee.

Big Brother – 2008 not 1984

Downshifting blues

Woke up this mornin’
I was feeling blue,
had a crazy big stinkin’
hole in ma stinkin’ shoe

etc.

Someone mentioned to me recently that they’d love to downshift, but they couldn’t afford it. Yep. Here’s my shoe:

I’ll have to buy some new ones next time I get paid. They were maybe $30, have last me dunno, at least a year surely. On the downside the poor bastards that made them probably got ripped off if they weren’t in fact slaves.

I started walking to work. It takes 45 minutes. It’s about 5 minutes by car (unless it’s peak hour, in which case it’s about 20 mins), 15 minutes by bike. Crazy.

Walking, though, is awesome. The key is that you really need to not be worried about when you’re going to arrive. Get into the journey. Hippie stuff. Here are some photos I took on the walk one day:

These are some initial shots of the walk, wandering down the first few streets. I forgot to take a photo of the beautiful old church which is on the way, that Jodie runs a choir in.
This is a cool old house, I like the look of it. Also, there’s another bit of street.
It’s always the 80s in this place. Pat Benetar, and shrieking personal trainers, omfg.
A bridge over the railway, and some shots of the light industrial suburbs around it. Chaos, it’s good.
Full zoom for this lovely old train station.
What’s the yellow thing? Again full zoom. It’s over in the suburbs somewhere. I’ll go check it out one day.
More walking, past a sports field/reserve thing, busy road too.
This is outside the West End brewery. Serious landscaped weirdness. Inside, dark satanic mills.
The duck just loves the lens. Come on ducky, hussle for the camera!
A beautiful old bridge over the Torrens. It used to be a rail bridge I think, and then for cars/trucks, now it’s a footbridge. It’s really this beautiful.
Behind the weird landscaping, the dark satanic mills themselves.
and this is the Uni/business precinct that I work in. Cute, ey?

So, it’s really this good on the walk. Later, I’ll post some photos of the walk of an evening, with the sun setting, although my camera sucks in that lighting.

Walking! Yeah.

But there’s a hole in my shoe 😦

Downshifting blues

A tale of Downshifting #2

Ok, I reread A tale of Downshifting #1, and it kind of rambles off at the end. Eventually I figured out that I finished at the point where I was plateaued out as a senior developer / architect / what-have-you.

What happened next was that I kind of stayed doing the same thing for a while. But I wasn’t really ever very happy with it, so I moved jobs quite a bit. That’s ok to do in IT, it means you get exposure to a lot of ways of doing things, you get a lot of different technologies under your belt. I found myself extremely employable, because I had deep knowledge of some core technologies, and an unusually broad exposure to related technologies. A good combination.

OTOH, I also got to see that it’s mostly a bit lame everywhere. This principle of excellent mediocrity is pervasive, combined with delusions of grandeur, unfortunately. The stronger the delusions, the more wrongheaded the general approach to software development, and the more strongly doomed any project is from the outset.

So clearly I eventually became disillusioned with this. I could keep moving jobs every time stuff began to give me the shits, but it would just be to the next shit. The honeymoon period has gotten a lot shorter for me too, I start noticing the problems a lot sooner now. What I came to realise was that doing the same things wasn’t resulting in different outcomes, it was resulting in variations on the same outcome. Well duh.

So I tried some other stuff. I tried kicking off a little micro business fixing people’s PCs, but that didn’t work. Pretty much everyone I knew thought it was a stupid idea, and I reckon I probably did too. But, it did have a function, which was to kick me out of my rut. It also got me into working part time, in that I quit my job, but after some negotiation on their part (lucky for me) I instead moved to working part time (3.5 days/week).

Working part time is interesting. When you work full time in IT, it’s not full time (or rarely stays that way), it trends towards all the time. But when you are part time, you have a set amount of hours, which underscores the per-hour nature of your work agreement. You can work more at times, but you get paid for the extras, which full timers usually don’t. It’s like contracting in that way. Because of that, you have a lot less pressure on you to put in extra work, given that it costs money.

So that’s all kind of banal at the moment. “I started working part time and voila, happiness”. Well that’s not quite right.

In reality, it caused me a great deal of stress. I was used to working all the time, and it had affected me psychologically. It didn’t help that my workplace at the time had a culture of overworking. There was a real work-harder-not-smarter mentality, which built up from insecurities on the part of a bunch of the technical people I think, and while I’m usually pretty good at not doing that, it does seep in under the skin eventually.

What kind of stress? I just couldn’t relax.

When you are overworking, you have two modes, Working and Passed Out. It’s not an accident that this happens; people overworking seek that situation. It comes as the end of a feedback loop, which starts with a person in a situation where something (sometimes their work) isn’t working out, and they feel stressed about it. No one likes to be anxious, and they discover, I think, that when they are working they are not anxious because they are occupied with something else. Ah-hah, a way to avoid anxiety, we all want that! Plus working is seen as a virtuous activity in the west, despite just about any evidence to the contrary. Plus, sometimes if your anxiety is work related, a little extra effort can help. So the person begins to work a little more, gets mostly good feedback from all round, spends less time feeling anxious.

Except, of course, the anxiety gets stronger. It’ll do that if you don’t figure out why you are actually feeling anxious, it sucks that way. So the unwary person now tries doing a bit more of what helped before. Spends a little less time feeling anxious, but the anxiety again eventually gets worse. Hmm. Try working more. Things start going wrong, because now the person is overworking, getting tired out and overwhelmed. Also, the stress is bleeding into work time, and blotting it out requires a more manic approach to work. Work harder! Thinking time becomes anxiety time, so no more thinking time.

And by this point, all leisure time is stress time, all non-working time is stress time, and most working time is also stress time. Fail.

Now I don’t think I quite got this far, but I was definitely on the right track (Jodie can probably expand on this 🙂 ). So I changed, and that’s good. But it doesn’t make the stress disappear.

Next time I think I’ll talk about the process of de-working (while still working…).

A tale of Downshifting #2