"Productivity culture" is a dystopia machine

Cost savings and productivity growth are easy wins for automation. We must challenge ourselves to focus on lifestyle improvement as a top priority. And that requires more than technology.

At Automatter, we usually talk about automation on an individual scale. VC firms tend to be small partnerships and emerging managers often work alone, so we have the luxury of writing for people who control their own calendars and whose outputs don’t necessarily map neatly to time spent “doing work.” In this context, automation is an unalloyed good that lets us spend more time on work that animates us!

When the people making process decisions are not the same people whose jobs are being automated, the script flips. A manager who runs a factory or is responsible for a P&L and has their compensation tied to quarterly profits can tell all the stories they want about productivity growth through automation; if they can increase profits and hit their goals by simply cutting costs, they’re going to do it. It’s an antisocial, unimaginative outcome, and never mind that the company might lose resilience in the name of efficiency. That’s the next manager’s problem.

(If you want to see automation have a net-positive impact, tie compensation to anything but short-term profit. Revenue milestones, revenue growth over time, volume, new accounts, customer satisfaction… almost any other metric or combination of metrics is better.)

Thankfully, there are fewer of these folks than you might think, even in venture (though many of these folks do self-select into careers that put an unhealthy distance between capital and labor). Most people don’t go into business to cut costs and fire people. They go into business because they see a way to make money while putting something net positive into the world.

I have seen this firsthand. My personal history with automation didn’t start with Zapier and the no-code movement. It started with manual labor in high-attrition, low-wage work environments that haven’t seen serious automation in decades.

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In 2016, I co-founded a company that builds physical automation for restaurants, caterers, and other foodservice and hospitality companies. (That’s right! I’ve been on the automation beat for five years now!) When we started the company, we worried that chefs and restaurant workers would feel threatened. But we learned that the opposite was true. Most kitchen staff, from the folks working at local greasy spoons to the celebrities running Michelin-starred restaurants, are extremely serious about process, but are not precious about “tradition.” They saw an opportunity to feed more people -- including themselves and their families, of course, but literally everyone else too. That’s the primary motivation for people in the food industry. The more people they can feed, the better.

While cost savings gets most of the attention, the real story is about productivity gains. It’s “You don’t have to do anything and up to 250 pizzas per hour are going to appear out of nowhere. Do you think you can do something with that? Can we find hungry folks who will eat that? Can we schedule people for reliable 8-hour shifts doing prep, cleaning, and customer service instead of 4-hour shifts doing physically-demanding, time-sensitive manufacturing?”


Beyond cost savings and productivity gains, there’s a third story about automation that deserves more attention: lifestyle improvement. To put it plainly, people should have a realistic option to work less.

And yet our economic circumstances push us in the other direction. The data is clear. The American minimum wage has kept up with neither inflation nor productivity.

Anne Helen Petersen’s essay on the diminishing returns of productivity culture has been living rent-free in my head for weeks. This is the crux of it:

The vast majority of people are not paid enough for the productivity that is demanded of them. More money can be stabilizing — and quiet the financial stress that interferes with productivity. But it doesn’t solve the fundamental problem: human productivity has a ceiling. Technology attempts to modify that reality, but it can only do so much. The body, and the mind, begins to falter.

So why do we keep pushing even as we falter? Are we that obsessed with work? Perhaps we are motivated by a sense of mission?

Jack Walsh, then director of telecommunications and office services at Avon, said that some secretaries had felt empowered by the new tech, and even gained additional skills. They conducted a study that found that 10 percent of a manager’s work could be delegated to a secretary — and that the secretary’s role was thus “enhanced.”

Nussbaum’s reply was cutting: “Technology can enhance the work, but that’s not what’s happening for the large majority of office workers,” she said. “I’d be interested to know whether Mr. Walsh increased the pay of any of those secretaries who are now doing the work of some of those managers.”

This is the dystopian reality of productivity culture. Its mandate is never “You figured out how to do my tasks more efficiently, so you get to spend less time working.” It is always: “You figured out how to do your tasks more efficien[tl]y, so you must now do more tasks.”

Oh. That’s why.

The working class -- including everyone who has to work for a living, from blue-collar to big tech -- is on a survival treadmill, trying to keep up with the increased cost of living (or on a hedonic treadmill to keep up with our ever-shifting material goals). And as long as the lion’s share of productivity dividends accrues to the capital class, most Americans will only keep up by working longer hours.

A lot of folks in tech and venture have utopian ideals about automation. They envision a future of robots and AIs that attend to our every whim and systems that decouple essential outputs from the amount of human energy we pour into them. The triumph of automation and abundance over drudgery and scarcity.

But that can only happen if people regain control over their economic destinies -- and regain access to the dividends of productivity gains. That’s what’s at stake in the political fight over raising the minimum wage and the dream of universal basic income. Automation for the sake of “efficiency” is a dead end unless we raise the floor for the worth we place on our shared humanity. Without that, our clever hacks and beautiful machines will ultimately serve creative class careers at the expense of broader human needs. And all the while, the economic pressure to increase productivity will push us ever closer to burnout and dystopia.