06 May 2013

How Do You Define Work?

danah boyd poses an interesting question over on LinkedIn: "How would you define work in a networked world?" The article is a thought-provoking read and worth the time for the issues it raises.

Here's what I had to say in the comments in response:

Labour became an Industrial Age concept, enshrined in Western modernity, as the product of the "doers" as opposed to the "thinkers" in an organization. It hearkens back to medieval service to the Church, revised and revamped in a post-Enlightenment context to essentially become service of the masses to the privileged. When Marx (and all the subsequent labour process theorists like Braverman, etc.) wrote about alienation of the worker from his/her labour, indeed it was the identification of this "in service to the privileged" aspect from which he charged the proletariat of the world to unite and cast off their chains.

In the latter part of the 20th century, the Boomer generation (largely) conceived of the notion of "work-life balance," once again reproducing Marx's alienation concept in the distinction between one's "work" and one's "life." Life is not so much what happens when you're making other plans, but rather it's what happens when you've returned home from your daily commute to the glass-and-concrete, high-rise salt mines.

Today, the idea of work-life balance gives way to the contemporary generation's experience of "work-life integration." This reconceives our relationship with the stuff we do for material sustenance noting that we have only one life, parts of which we engage with for economic remuneration and parts of it we engage with for remunerations of different sorts (like psychological/social, identity, knowledge, etc. - essentially the Valence Theory relationships). Thus one could say that there is no work for the person with integral awareness of their life (to borrow from Marshall McLuhan). In that sense, danah, most of the time you don't work in the traditional sense. Rather you engage in a whole bunch of activities of your choosing, some of which you get paid for, and ALL of which (or close to all) you integrate in knowledge, socio-psychological affect, identity construction, as well as material benefit.

From Understanding Media, an interesting insight that might inform the conversation (and not to be taken literally, and remember, this was published in 1964): "'Work,' however, does not exist in a nonliterate world. The primitive hunter or fisherman did no work, any more than does the poet, painter, or thinker of today. Where the whole man is involved there is no work. … In the computer age we are once more totally involved in our roles. In the electric age, the 'job of work' yields to dedication and commitment, as in the tribe."