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 self-checkout 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.
US sociologist Craig Lambert discusses the hidden jobs that colonise our leisure time in an episode of Talks at Google.
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