• R E J Saunders

Minimum viable person and turbo Taylorism

One of the founding myths of industrial societies is that if you train for a role at school and university it should set you up for life. Indeed, the social stability that harnesses us to the capitalist system depends on a steady supply of labour, wages, and job security. Yet, over the course of the last twenty years we have seen a gradual erosion of all three, to the point that in this COVID age we are faced with precarity of opportunity, overly demanding permanent jobs that are ever more extracting, and a global job culture that glorifies long hours, productivity, and profit. It is easy to go chasing the dragon of more money, more opportunities, but how many of us actually find satisfaction and contentment in our working lives? Indeed, to co-opt a tech term, is it possible to subvert the hustle and become minimum viable versions of ourselves that give us all the extra time and life capacity to do the things we actually enjoy.

Bear with me on this, for the usual spiel is that we must work every hour in the day, monetarise our hobbies, and societally be as “productive” as possible. The first question I always think of is who benefits from this approach? If life is about maximising pleasure and the quiet moments it certainly is not those who break their backs on the wheel of labour. By over delivering on one project you set the bar for the new normal, by over exerting ourselves we set this expectation that our normal becomes the back breaking. What is normal about broken bodies and minds, physically and mentally burnt out to the point that life becomes the churn of work, recovery, and more work in an endless cycle.

This is not to decry labour, for earning money and living life certainly can be a virtuous circle in whatever economic mode you choose to dream up. Yet, when existence is live to work, not work to live, all we are left with is labour for labour’s sake. This is not to take an overly epicurean approach, that hedonism is the order of the day, yet in the general order of things surely more leisure time and pleasure are not holistic evils. Holidays are there for a reason, working time directives are set to ensure we get to benefit from the fruits of our labour, and technology has advanced so that our work is not physically destroying us.

Yet, one of the central issues of technology driven labour precarity is that we are all funnelled into this tech driven hustle to make ends meet. Be you a cab driver or lawyer, a doctor or a delivery driver your day is increasingly run by algorithms that seek to perfect the human condition in the most Taylorist ways imaginable. By codifying work and setting up databases, tech companies have turbocharged Taylor’s original managerialism to the point that productivity shifts beyond the average human’s capacity to deliver to the super median that somehow we can all achieve. Indeed, we are all Stakhanovite in this AI age.

This is where the minimum viable person comes in. Labour is not about superhuman agility or strength, it is about fair wages for fair labour, achieving what is expected of you and enjoying the fruits of your labour. The minimum viable person delivers the minimum required to fulfil their obligations, giving of their body and mind what is required and no more. To break our backs, to be Stakhanovite, is extractive and exploitative, for that labour benefits no-one except those who seek to extract. Bottles of urine in bins, being fired by algorithm, artificial productivity targets based on spurious evidence, and the incessant pings of emails after hours are just a taste of labour to come unless we find a way to move beyond the hustle.

Turbo Taylorism falsely assumes that increased productivity is a net positive, that just because you can push a person to achieve a higher target means that you will always get the higher target. Machines entered the work place because human bodies could not keep up with the ever increasing demands, yet as soon as the first machine came onto the shop floor humans were expected to keep up. Ford created his great production lines in the expectation that his workers would slog their way alongside the ever-turning machines he installed. Amazon amped this up in their warehouses, and bottles of urine are the least of their sins. Societally we are sold the gospel of growth and productivity, failing to account for the lives broken along the way. Every society does this, capitalist or not, yet by turning a blind eye to turbo Taylorism we simply go accept the broken lives and early graves.

That Taylor cheated, that Stakhanovite was a hero for one shift get left out of the headlines. That labour and hustle are fetishised, that most of the technology in our pockets and workplaces drives us beyond our physical and mental limits barely gets a whisper. Most societies venerate labour as this apotheosis of the soul, that to not work is the sin. Our school lives are spent preparing us for a work environment decades out of date, our universities have become bastions of employability, research must have impact to be meaningful. It all charges us up for a society predicated on the need to work, on the understanding that to not work is to extract from the rest of us. Work is a virtue, to be epicurean a sin.

This is not a capitalist/socialist dichotomy, for all societies have layered in work as the central ethos of what makes society tick. To be unproductive is seen as failure, to extract every ounce as a glorious marker of success. Bhutan and New Zealand have both ditched GDP for national happiness indexes, seeing exponential growth as anathema in Anthropocene. Climate change and endless growth cannot go hand-in-hand, and by using AI to turbo charge a Taylorist approach to work all we are doing is adding more to the climate debt that will someday have to be repaid.

This is not to demonise work, labour, or business. Rather, I suggest that by hitching our wagons to Taylor and Stakhanovite world views is to see us all as simply labour waiting to be extracted, and to do anything less than the utmost is somehow a failure. Life is lived once, we have 70 or 80 summers to enjoy, all the bounties that come from the societies we have built. You may say nothing comes for free, yet the vast majority of us would benefit from working less and becoming more minimum viable people.

You would think the easy solution would be to step back and let the machines fully automate the world to shape an epicurean dream, where Stakhanovite is finally retired. Who benefits, who gets to enjoy the fruits of this utopia, where does the power lie; three inherent questions in all conversations about labour and the coming algorithmic revolution. If labour is outsourced and pleasure onshored then is this next revolution any more equitable than the current modes of labour practices we currently enjoy? Or, could the better solution be the minimum viable person, disposing of Taylor and Stakhanovite as relics of the broken present? There is nothing inherently wrong with enjoying life, there is everything to be gained from breaking the wheel and purging the live to work mentality.


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