Category Archives: Work

What Is The Point of Money?

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, May 1 2017.)

Wealth is necessary in order to live well, but it is not sufficient. You may have lots of money but live terribly if you have no friends or wisdom. You may have mistaken part of a good life—sufficient wealth to live—with the whole of the good life. For money isn’t an end in itself, it is merely a means to an end.

But let’s suppose that you realize all this. Let’s suppose further that you aren’t materialistic and you want to do good things for the world. Now imagine that you’ve been offered a well-paid position with a good company. We’ll assume your job doesn’t entail you doing anything immoral in the usual sense of the term. (We won’t consider participating in the world’s economic system to be intrinsically immoral.) Let’s further assume that the job isn’t your dream job, so you won’t be “doing what you love.”1 Finally, let’s suppose you are the kind of person who worries that money might corrupt you, or that the job isn’t exactly what you want. What should you do?

My advice would be to take the job. Obviously the job and its benefits—medical and dental insurance, retirement, etc.—help you to live well. But even more importantly for the idealistic, having some modicum of wealth allows you to help others. So while many people aren’t wise and think money is just a means to buy trinkets, the wise realize wealth can also buy freedom and the ability to do good. Money is power that can be used to benefit people—as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet do—or it can hurt people—as Donald Trump and the Koch brothers do.

So when offered a modicum of wealth you are essentially being offered a key that unlocks a door that gives you the chance to effect on the world, to having some power. That power can be used for buying frivolous possessions or for hurting others, but it can also be used for good. And with more power comes the ability to do more good. On the other hand, if you have nothing, you have nothing to give.

Of course this doesn’t mean that the only kind of power is financial. There’s moral and intellectual power too. But the way our world is set up, sometimes that’s just not enough. So I say be adventurous and accept a key if offered it. Go thru the door and you may find more keys that open more doors and perhaps, in some distant time, you will help unlock doors for others.

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  1. I have written previously about whether you should only do what you love.

Marcus Aurelius On Getting Out Of Bed

(Statue of Marcus Aurelius in the Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome. The piazze was designed by Renaissance artist and architect Michelangelo Buonarroti in 1536–1546.)

My brief summary of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations was one of my most popular posts last year with over 30,000 views. While re-reading the actual text, I was struck by the relevance to modern life of the first paragraph of Book V. Here is my modern translation:

At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I am rising to do the work of a human being. What do I have to complain about, if I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?” — But it’s nicer here …

So were you born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands? — But we have to sleep sometime… Agreed. But nature set a limit on that — as it did on eating and drinking. And you’re over the limit. You’ve had more than enough of that. But not of working. There’s still more of that to do.

You don’t love yourself enough. For if you did, you’d love your nature too, and what it demands of you. People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash or eat. Do you have less respect for your own nature than the engraver does for engraving, the dancer for the dance, the miser for money or the social climber for status? When they’re really possessed by what they do, they’d rather stop eating and sleeping than give up practicing their arts. Is not then your labor in the world just as worthy of respect and worth your effort? (Book 5, Paragraph 1)

Brief Analysis – If we love life we will do what’s necessary to preserve our lives, and that includes working. This isn’t meant exclusively in the modern sense of doing a job—although that’s part of it. Rather it implies that living demands physical activity. If you slept all the time you wouldn’t be living, and if you resist activity you act contrary to your nature, which is to say you don’t love yourself.

An immediate objection to Aurelius’ line of thinking is that some work is too demeaning, boring, or harmful to align with our natures or, to put it another way, it isn’t work that we were born for. Now our jobs may not be particularly satisfying, but I think Aurelius would consider almost any labor that enables our survival as aligning with our nature. Of course some work is so harmful to oneself or society that he wouldn’t recommend it, but I think he would say that most labor qualifies as good enough. (I’ve written previously about the idea of doing what you love.) The key for him is that we work with others, as he writes later: “When you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, remember that your defining characteristic — what defines a human being — is to work with others.” (Book VIII, Paragraph XII)

Another objection is that Aurelius’ advice doesn’t help, for example, the clinically depressed. I think this is a valid objection. If he is just saying “get up and get going,” that is bad advice for those suffering from diseases of the brain and body. On the other hand, a friend of mine who is a psychiatrist once told me that people often do better when they cease ruminating and work, volunteer, engage in a hobby, etc., Anything that focuses their mind is therapeutic. For some this may be impossible, but focusing on something other than introspection is a good strategy for fighting depression. I’m not saying it’s the best or the only strategy, but sometimes you might just be better off going to work.

And a final thought. Remember to get enough sleep too!

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(Translations by George Long, available online from the Internet Classics Archive of MIT. These would be closer to the original Greek.)

In he morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present- I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world? Or have I been made for this, to lie in the bed-clothes and keep myself warm?- But this is more pleasant.- Dost thou exist then to take thy pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion? Dost thou not see the little plants, the little birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees working together to put in order their several parts of the universe? And art thou unwilling to do the work of a human being, and dost thou not make haste to do that which is according to thy nature?- But it is necessary to take rest also.- It is necessary: however nature has fixed bounds to this too: she has fixed bounds both to eating and drinking, and yet thou goest beyond these bounds, beyond what is sufficient; yet in thy acts it is not so, but thou stoppest short of what thou canst do. So thou lovest not thyself, for if thou didst, thou wouldst love thy nature and her will. But those who love their several arts exhaust themselves in working at them unwashed and without food; but thou valuest thy own own nature less than the turner values the turning art, or the dancer the dancing art, or the lover of money values his money, or the vainglorious man his little glory. And such men, when they have a violent affection to a thing, choose neither to eat nor to sleep rather than to perfect the things which they care for. But are the acts which concern society more vile in thy eyes and less worthy of thy labour? (Book 5, Paragraph 1)

When thou risest from sleep with reluctance, remember that it is according to thy constitution and according to human nature to perform social acts, but sleeping is common also to irrational animals. But that which is according to each individual’s nature is also more peculiarly its own, and more suitable to its nature, and indeed also more agreeable. (from Book VIII, Paragraph XII)

Summary of “How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds — from a Magician and Google’s Design Ethicist”

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, November 11, 2016.)

I recently read an article in The Atlantic by Tristan Harris, a former Product Manager at Google who studies the ethics of how the design of technology influences people’s psychology and behavior. The piece was titled: “The Binge Breaker” and it covers similar ground to his previous piece “How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds — from a Magician and Google’s Design Ethicist.

Harris is also a leader in the “Time Well Spent” movement which favors “technology designed to enhance our humanity over additional screen time. Instead of a ‘time spent’ economy where apps and websites compete for how much time they take from people’s lives, Time Well Spent hopes to re-structure design so apps and websites compete to help us live by our values and spend time well.”

Harris’ basic thesis is that “our collective tech addiction” results more from the technology itself than “on personal failings, like weak willpower.” Our smart phones, tablets, and computers seize our brains and control us, hence Harris’ call for a “Hippocratic oath” that implores software designers not to exploit “psychological vulnerabilities.” Harris and his colleague Joe Edelman compare “the tech industry to Big Tobacco before the link between cigarettes and cancer was established: keen to give customers more of what they want, yet simultaneously inflicting collateral damage on their lives.”

[I think this analogy is extraordinarily weak. The tobacco industry made a well-documented effort to make their physically deadly products more addictive while there is no compelling evidence of any similarly sinister plot regarding software companies nor or their products deadly. Tobacco will literally kill you while your smart phone will not.]

The social scientific evidence for Harris’ insights began when he was a member of the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab. “Run by the experimental psychologist B. J. Fogg, the lab has earned a cult-like following among entrepreneurs hoping to master Fogg’s principles of ‘behavior design’—a euphemism for what sometimes amounts to building software that nudges us toward the habits a company seeks to instill.” As a result:

Harris learned that the most-successful sites and apps hook us by tapping into deep-seated human needs … [and] He came to conceive of them as ‘hijacking techniques’—the digital version of pumping sugar, salt, and fat into junk food in order to induce bingeing … McDonald’s hooks us by appealing to our bodies’ craving for certain flavors; Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter hook us by delivering what psychologists call “variable rewards.” Messages, photos, and “likes” appear on no set schedule, so we check for them compulsively, never sure when we’ll receive that dopamine-activating prize.

[Note though that because we may become addicted to technology, and many other things to, doesn’t mean that someone is intentionally addicting you to that thing. For example, you may become addicted to your gym or jogging but that doesn’t mean that the gym or running shoe store has nefarious intentions.]

Harris worked on Gmail’s Inbox app and is “quick to note that while he was there, it was never an explicit goal to increase time spent on Gmail.” In fact,

His team dedicated months to fine-tuning the aesthetics of the Gmail app with the aim of building a more ‘delightful’ email experience. But to him that missed the bigger picture: Instead of trying to improve email, why not ask how email could improve our lives—or, for that matter, whether each design decision was making our lives worse?

[This is an honorable view, but it is extraordinarily idealistic. First of all, improving email does minimally improve our lives, as anyone in the past who waited weeks or months for correspondence would surely attest. If the program works, allows us to communicate with our friends, etc., then it makes our lives a bit better. Of course email doesn’t directly help us obtain beauty, truth, goodness or world peace, if that’s your goal, but that seems to be a lot to ask of an email program! Perhaps then it is a case of lowering our expectations of what a technology company, or any business, is supposed to do. Grocery stores make our lives go better, even if grocers are mostly concerned with profit. I’m not generally a fan of Smith’s “invisible hand,” but sometimes the idea provides insight. Furthermore, if Google or any company tried to improve people’s lives without showing a profit, they would soon go out of business. The only way to ultimately be improve the world is to effect change in the world in which we live, not in some idealistic one that doesn’t exist.]

Harris makes a great point when he notes that “Never before in history have the decisions of a handful of designers (mostly men, white, living in SF, aged 25–35) working at 3 companies”—Google, Apple, and Facebook—“had so much impact on how millions of people around the world spend their attention … We should feel an enormous responsibility to get this right.”

Google responded to Harris’ concerns. He met with CEO Larry Page, the company organized internal Q&A sessions [and] he was given a job that researched ways that Google could adopt ethical design. “But he says he came up against “inertia.” Product road maps had to be followed, and fixing tools that were obviously broken took precedence over systematically rethinking services.” Despite these problems “he justified his decision to work there with the logic that since Google controls three interfaces through which millions engage with technology—Gmail, Android, and Chrome—the company was the “first line of defense.” Getting Google to rethink those products, as he’d attempted to do, had the potential to transform our online experience.”

[This is one of the most insightful things that Harris says. Again, the only way to change the world is to begin with the world you find yourself in, for you really can’t begin in any other place. I agree with what Eric Fromm taught me long ago, that we should be measured by what we are, not what we have. But, on the other hand, if we have nothing we have nothing to give.]

Harris hope is that:

Rather than dismantling the entire attention economy … companies will … create a healthier alternative to the current diet of tech junk food … As with organic vegetables, it’s possible that the first generation of Time Well Spent software might be available at a premium price, to make up for lost advertising dollars. “Would you pay $7 a month for a version of Facebook that was built entirely to empower you to live your life?,” Harris says. “I think a lot of people would pay for that.” Like splurging on grass-fed beef, paying for services that are available for free and disconnecting for days (even hours) at a time are luxuries that few but the reasonably well-off can afford. I asked Harris whether this risked stratifying tech consumption, such that the privileged escape the mental hijacking and everyone else remains subjected to it. “It creates a new inequality. It does,” Harris admitted. But he countered that if his movement gains steam, broader change could occur, much in the way Walmart now stocks organic produce. Even Harris admits that often when your phone flashes with a new text message it hard to resist. It is hard to feel like you are in control of the process.

[There is much to say here. First of all there are many places to spend time well on the internet. I’d like to think that some readers of this blog find something substantive here. I also believe that “mental highjacking,” is a loaded term. It implies an intent on the part of the highjacker that may not be present. Yes Facebook, or something much worse like the sewer of alt-right politics, might highjack our minds, but religious belief, football on TV, reading, stamp collecting, or even compulsive meditating could be construed as highjacking our minds. In the end we may have to respect individual autonomy. A few prefer to read my summaries of the great philosophers, others prefer reading about the latest Hollywood gossip.]

Concluding Reflections – I begin with a disclaimer. I know almost nothing about software product design. But I did teach philosophical issues in computer science for many years in the computer science department at UT-Austin, and I have an abiding interest in philosophy of technology. So let me say a few things.

All technologies have benefits and costs. Air conditioning makes summer endurable, but it has the potential to release hydrofluorocarbons into the air. Splitting the atom unleashes great power, but that power can be used for good or ill. Robots put people out of work, but give people potentially more time to do what they like to do. On balance, I find email a great thing, and in general I think technology, which is applied science, has been the primary force for improving the lives of human beings. So my prejudice is to withhold critique of new technology. Nonetheless, the purpose of technology should be to improve our lives, not make us miserable. Obviously.

Finally, as for young people considering careers, if you want to make a difference in the world I can think of no better place than at any of the world’s high-tech companies. They have the wealth, power and influence to actually change the world if they see fit. Whether they do that or not is up to the people who work there. So if you want to change the world, join in the battle. But whatever you do, given the world as it is, you must take care of yourself. For if you don’t do that, you will not be able to care for anything else either. Good luck.

The Monotony of Work

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, June 8, 2016.)

I corresponded with an old friend yesterday who was communicating the tedium of his work as a software engineer. He is thankful that he earns a six-figure salary, and he understands that most people in the world would happily trade places with him, but that doesn’t change the fact that a future filled with a lifetime of coding doesn’t excite his probing and restless mind. Minds like his need stimulation, and they could contribute so much to the rest of us if they were freed to follow their interests . Moreover, while technology companies pay some of the best wages in the United States, they expect more than 40 hours of work in return, which leaves my friend with less time with his children than he would like.

It is just so hard to know how to balance the responsibility we have for taking care of our kids with our desire to elaborate or express ourselves through our labors—that is to have more meaningful work. Hopefully we can do both, but the fact is that most of us will have to do things we don’t like in order to survive. I wish it were different.

There is a lot to say about all this and I have written many posts about work on this blog. Rather than rewriting that material, I provide these links in the hope that they might provide my friend some comfort. I’d say that the post “Fulfilling Work,” best expresses my views on the topic.

Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose: What We Really Want From Our Work

A Summary of Bertrand Russell’s “In Praise of Idleness”

Karl Marx for Dummies

Rethinking Work

Friendship is Another Reason to Work

Fulfilling Work

Should you “Do What You Love?”

The Problem of Work-family Conflict in the US

Overworked

Kant: Should We Develop Our Talents?

And I’ll have more on the topic in my next post.

Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose: What We Really Want From Our Work

The basic ideas of Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us have entered the intellectual mainstream, but they haven’t had much impact upon the world of work. This is a shame.

The key insight of Pink’s research is that money only motivates employees up to a certain point, beyond which it no longer works as a motivator. This does not mean that employees do best when paid low wages—everyone needs enough to live a decent human life—but it does mean that beyond a certain point people aren’t motivated by more money. After a certain point, intrinsic motivation, which comes from within yourself is much more powerful than extrinsic motivation, which comes from outside sources like money.

What people really want from work is: 1) autonomy: self-directed control over their work; 2) mastery: the chance to get better at our work; and 3) purpose: a reason to be motivated to do our work. The key is to pay people enough so that they aren’t thinking about money but thinking about work. And once you do that, the science shows that giving workers the autonomy to master and find purpose in their work will lead them to being happier and more productive. Here are links to all of Pink’s books about work: