Adams, Douglas. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980). How easy is it to distinguish socially useful labour from activities which are pointless, parasitic, counterproductive, or downright violent?

Douglas Adams has a tale for us. Long ago, on a distant planet, it became generally recognized that there were quite a lot of bullshit jobs around. The planet's inhabitants devised a plan to get rid of these pointless jobs ... as well as the people who performed them.

Oddly enough, the plan involved a poet, who told a tale of the coming apocalypse. The people with the pointless jobs -- mostly management types, although also some telephone-sanitizers etc. -- were packed off to colonize a backwater planet. "We'll be right behind you," everybody else shouted into space, and of course they weren't. Ha ha ha! There was no apocalypse coming after all! ... or was there?

Anyway, can you guess which planet was colonized? That's right, prehistoric Earth. And yes, we humans are the descendants of the pointless jobs people. This is demonstrated not so much by shared genetics, so much as by shared attitudes and agendas.

Witness our wise and noble ancestors, in the weeks after planetfall:
"[...] Since we decided a few weeks ago to adopt the leaf as legal tender, we have, of course, all become immensely rich."
      Ford stared in disbelief at the crowd who were murmuring appreciatively at this and greedily fingering the wads of leaves with which their track suits were stuffed.
     "But we have also," continued the management consultant, "run into a small inflation problem on account of the high level of leaf availability [...] we are about to embark on a massive defoliation campaign, and ... er, burn down all the forests. I think you'll all agree that's a sensible move under the circumstances."
For other money trees, by the way, see Kendrick LamarNalo Hopkinson, Clifford D. Simak, and Adam Roberts. The leaf currency is not the only (supposedly) impractical currency in Adams's novel:
"[...] Its exchange rate of eight Ningis to one Pu is simple enough, but since a Ningi is a triangular rubber coin six thousand eight hundred miles long each side, no one has ever collected enough to own one Pu. Ningis are not negotiable currency, because the Galactibanks refuse to deal in fiddling small change. [...]"
However, a credit theory of money might say there's nothing wrong with the Ningi/Pu system. Owning a Ningi wouldn't have to involve re-locating a physical object: a record in a ledger of who owns what should be enough. That way, I don't need to actually carry it around with me; in the words of A.A. Milne, "Wherever I am, there's always Pu / There's always Pu and me." Compare the famous stone money of Yap.

But back to those bullshit jobs. As a postscript, it's worth pointing out that the civilization which rids itself of its superfluous workers ends up perishing from an infectious disease contracted from an unsanitized telephone. The point of Adams's satire might be a slightly Burkeian one: OK, there is certainly a lot of labour which is superfluous or a hindrance to human happiness and flourishing ... but figuring out exactly what labour that is is a difficult and risky business. (Perhaps the Bullshit Work Inspector can help?)

Talking points:
  • How does the proposal to get rid of bullshit jobs differ from the kind of ruthless, supposedly efficiency-driven restructuring that is sometimes proposed by management consultants?
  • How might pointless jobs be defined, identified, and removed?
  • Is David Graeber's way of understanding bullshit jobs (see below) the best way?
  • Why might getting rid of the people feel easier than getting rid of the roles?
  • Is there a slightly genocidal edge to jokes about getting rid of an economically parasitic stratum of society?
  • How does a job alter the way you think and act in a non-professional context? How do "jobs" relate to "social types"?
  • How should we consider Adams's fable from the perspectives of various post-work theorists and activists?
  • Writing prompt: "Augeas's Stability." Someone is tasked with removing all the pointless work from an economy. Somehow they are allowed several goes -- time travel, a simulation, or just a number of planets to try it out on. At first they run into a lot of problems. What kinds? Does it all work out in the end?
  • Do you have a pointless job? (BBC)
In Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (2018), David Graeber develops a quite particular category of "bullshit jobs." This is heavily based on whether the person doing the job believes it has any social value. Graeber acknowledges that the approach has limitations -- for instance, sometimes tasks are broken up and distributed in ways which disguise what they are really about -- but it's probably good enough, since they are in the best position of anyone to know, and nobody has really worked out a way to measure the social value of work (as opposed to the mere market value).

It also doesn't really capture another tier you might want to send to another planet, the upper echelons surrounded by flunkies and yesmen, who may well convince themselves that their jobs are not pointless. This sort of works quite well in Graeber's theory, though, since it is mainly the upper echelons who generate the structural opportunities for bullshit jobs. Graeber suggests five broad categories of bullshit jobs: flunkies (who do little except increase the status of their bosses), goons (who convince people to buy things they don't want), duct tapers (who fix the mistakes of senior people who could have just done the things themselves), box tickers (who allow organisations to claim they're doing something that they aren't really), and taskmasters (who create and supervise bullshit tasks and bullshit work). Graeber's book includes a fairly detailed discussion of The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. He takes issue in particular with Adams's choice of hairdresser as a pointless occupation. Here's an extract:
Now, it’s obvious why this story might seem relevant to those who first hear of bullshit jobs, but the list is actually quite odd. For one thing, professional telephone sanitizers don’t really exist [...] and while advertising executives and used-car salesmen do—and are indeed professions society could arguably be better off without—for some reason, when Douglas Adams aficionados recall the story, it’s always the hairdressers they remember.

I will be honest here. I have no particular bone to pick with Douglas Adams; in fact, I have a fondness for all manifestations of humorous British seventies sci-fi; but nonetheless, I find this particular fantasy alarmingly condescending. First of all, the list is not really a list of useless professions at all. It’s a list of the sort of people a middle-class bohemian living in Islington around that time would find mildly annoying. Does that mean that they deserve to die?30 Myself, I fantasize about eliminating the jobs, not the people who have to do them. To justify extermination, Adams seems to have intentionally selected people that he thought were not only useless but also could be thought of as embracing or identifying with what they did.

[...] Before moving on, then, let us reflect on the status of hairdressers. Why is a hairdresser not a bullshit job? Well, the most obvious reason is precisely because most hairdressers do not believe it to be one. To cut and style hair makes a demonstrable difference in the world, and the notion that it is unnecessary vanity is purely subjective: Who is to say whose judgment of the intrinsic value of hairstyling is correct? Adams’s first novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which became something of a cultural phenomenon, was published in 1979. I well remember, as a teenager in New York in that year, observing how small crowds would often gather outside the barbershop on Astor Place to watch punk rockers get elaborate purple mohawks. Was Douglas Adams suggesting those giving them the mohawks also deserved to die, or just those hairdressers whose style sense he did not appreciate? In working-class communities, hair parlors often serve as gathering places; women of a certain age and background are known to spend hours at the neighborhood hair parlor, which becomes a place to swap local news and gossip. [...] It’s hard to escape the impression, though, that in the minds of those who invoke hairdressers as a prime example of a useless job, this is precisely the problem. They seem to be imagining a gaggle of middle-aged women idly gossiping under their metallic helmets while others fuss about making some marginal attempts at beautification on a person who (it is suggested), being too fat, too old, and too working class, will never be attractive no matter what is done to her. It’s basically just snobbery, with a dose of gratuitous sexism thrown in. 

 Graeber, David. Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (pp. 20-21). Penguin Books Ltd.

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