Busy Work

Walk around any big company and you will find lots of people that appear to do nothing but busy work. They have titles and responsibilities. They perform all sorts of activities, but it is nearly impossible to figure out how these activities help the company. In tough times, these are often the people who get let go and everyone who is left moans about having to do their work, but in a month or so no one notices anymore.

Government and the academy are loaded with people that do nothing but busy work. I once knew a guy whose mother was a year from retirement from the government. Her department was closed and instead of transferring her elsewhere, they just let her run out her time in an office. She spent her days making scrapbooks of the grand kids. They even gave her an office with a window.

I knew a guy who worked for the city of Boston and all he did was attend meetings. His day would start with a meeting and he would go from meeting to meeting all day with breaks for lunch and answering voice mails and so forth. I had some fun trying to pin him down on what he actually *did* every day. The best I could tell, he’s gift was in never answering the question.

Maybe the reason the workforce participation rate is at all-time lows is because of a side effect of automation. That is, there’s no need to automate busy work. The process of automating essential work is making it harder to add extra people who spend their days keeping busy. As companies automate essential work, there’s less waste, as in the guy in the cubicle who spends all day on Facebook.

The area I notice this most often is in IT departments. Companies of any size will have at least one IT person. Often they have several. One guy handles desktop support, while another manages their software and corresponding database systems. Some other guy is the boss and he usually spends his days in meetings, not actually doing work. All of these people appear to be essential when something goes wrong, but things don’t go wrong very much anymore.

These jobs could be and used to be combined. I’m old enough to remember when there was not much of a need for desktop support because everyone used dumb terminals. This can be done today with things like Citrix and thin clients. Similarly, the IT guy was never in management meetings. Like engineers, these were guys who did work, not talk about it. We’ve created a lot of busy work in IT.

The place where you see endless busy work is the academy and the “think tanks” that have sprouted up like dandelions all over the Imperial Capital. In the academy, the study of the obvious has become a staple of life. Every day we see something in the news feed that can be classified either as the “study of the obvious” or the “study of the imaginary.” The latter pretty much keeps the economics departments around the country going.

I think it is part of what is driving the replication crisis in the soft sciences. Most of these studies are cooked up in order to fulfill grant funding conditions. The government doles out money and part of the deal is a paper on some topic. The result is loads of “research papers” that are simply gibberish.

The old saying that idle hands do the devil’s work applies to busy work. My suspicion is most of the people rattling around the academy are better at fraud than anything academic. Take for example this guy who did a guest post on the Ron Unz site. Ron posted it mostly because it conforms to his view that biology does not exist. Ron is a denier!

Anyway, look at the bio of the writer, Chanda Chisala:

I am from Zambia, Africa. My formal educational background is in Biochemistry, but I have never practiced it or worked in that field. I started my web company immediately upon graduating in Biochem at the University of Zambia. I also formed Zambia Online in 1998 and it is still the most active Zambian web site today (see Zambia Google rank).

“Human Supremacism” is what I call my philosophy. It simply means that man is the highest kind of being possible in reality, and it means that every individual is absolutely the highest kind of being in the universe. This is the only logical foundation for the ideology of human rights. No one has a right to control another human being, not government, not society, nothing, because nothing is above any human being. So, observing human rights simply means that you can’t involve any human being in any kind of interaction without their permission. And this interaction means interacting with any of their property. Governments exist solely for the purpose of sustaining this principle. Anything they do above that is not their duty and it is usually a violation of human rights itself. Human supremacism.

In 2008, I was granted the Knight Fellowship by Stanford University to study “the impact of the internet on the future of African journalism, and the philosophy of human rights.”

In 2009, upon completing my Knight Fellowship program, I was invited back to Stanford by the Hoover Institution as a Visiting Scholar.

At the risk of sounding uncharitable, Mr. Chisala has no business being on a college campus. The reason he has never worked in biochemistry is there is no one in Zambia in need of a biochemist and no one outside of Zambia would hire a biochemist from Zambia. STEM fields are notoriously un-PC because they are right answer fields. Checking the right boxes does not trump getting the wrong answer.

Having figured this out, Mr. Chisala set about a career as a hustler that has taken him all the way to Stanford. His personal philosophy reads like something you see in high school yearbooks, but that’s not what matters. He’s checking the right boxes at Stanford and that’s what matters. He gets to fritter away his day writing nonsense about the Internet in Africa, a topic no one cares about, including Africans. This is busy work.

The assumption by the robot future guys is that we will reach a point where the robots either wipe us out of become our caretakers. We will become Eloi and the machines will be our Morlocks, without the harvesting and eating part. A world kindergarten where humans are free to play like children, while their robot overseers look out for their safety.

Maybe the alternative is a world composed of busy work. The robots will figure out that humans need to feel important and that means performing work. The robots will create a world where it appears all of us are doing important stuff, but in reality we are just spinning our wheels, killing time in busy work, like maintaining blogs.

18 thoughts on “Busy Work

  1. One day in the early 70’s, I was hard at work at my very specialized job, when I flashed back to the one semester computer course I was required to take in business school. I realized everything I was doing could be done by a computer. Now, only a few decades later, that job has indeed been automated, and I’m retired.

  2. I think that you will simply see more middle class people added to the government rolls as they get automated out of their jobs. The last thing the state wants is millions of unemployed, middle class blokes sitting around coffee shops sharing their grievances and plotting sedition. Orwell and Burnham once again raise their ugly heads.

    If I was twenty years younger, I’d buy a farm, spend five years learning how to be productive enough to feed my family, and make myself as useful as possible to the local gentry. If I was ten years older, I’d be counseling my kids to do the same. In terms of catastrophic failure, I do not believe that things have been this bad since 1962.

    Re the inter office mail throw away. I had a boss who did the same thing. He was enormously successful and retired near the top of his field.

  3. You’re correct, of course, though I’d add that great hilarity and frustration can result when the guys in charge of hiring and firing are unable to tell the difference between busy work and essential work. The low level employees usually know the difference, but the folks upstairs can be hilariously clueless.

    I’ve observed this all my working life, though things were particularly sad/funny back during the worst years of the Great Recession, when everyone was tightening their belts and companies were suddenly discovering they had entire departments right under their noses that were completely useless and had been for years.

  4. Sums up a lot of what I see in healthcare and hospitals. If “truly necessary” was the standard of care, we could send two thirds of our employees home immediately, and boot half our patients. On the other hand, most of this country doesn’t know the difference between health insurance and health care, so who knows.

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  6. “STEM fields are notoriously un-PC because they are right answer fields. Checking the right boxes does not trump getting the wrong answer.”
    Not in the government and in government contract work. True story: I once saw an experienced NASA engineer ask why the Delta IV, with a single engine first stage, needed a separate roll thruster.

  7. When I worked (oh, the joys of retirement) I had to do regular reports that I knew full well no-one would read. I would list this and that and compare the newest numbers with previous lists — the system we had was things had to be a percentage above or a percentage below, you just couldn’t have bare numbers — and be prepared to answer questions on it. But, no questions were ever needed as no one really cared. Reports were duly submitted, filed away and eventually discarded unread.

    When I went into education briefly, all students’ work (as they didn’t actually study and just copied and pasted from wikipedia, that was a misnomer) had to be stored away for five years. No one ever wanted it, never cared about it and then it had to thrown away. But storing it was an art!

    Of course the best busy work is a meeting as you get to sit down, drink coffee, laugh at the boss’ pathetic jokes and then go away without anything being done. But us report writers… now that was hell.

    • I knew a guy back in the days of inter-office mail who had a great system. Every day the mail room would drop off his stack of mail and he would place it on the credenza, moving the previous day’s mail down a spot. He had seven stacks on the credenza and when he got his eighth day of mail, he would push the oldest pile off into the waste basket. He never bothered opening any of it unless some one called. When someone called about something sent to him, he would ask when they sent it and then fish it out from the corresponding pile.

      His theory was that most of it was crap and no one waited more than seven business days to follow up on something of any importance.

      • Z man,

        Read a biography of Napolion and you will find he used that technique to filter his work. He ignored mundane memos day by day and only handled ones that were a repeat of ones sent earlier which demonstrated their importance. These were administrative memos not war fighting ones.

        Dan Kurt

  8. Funny, but sad. But try to find someone to fix your toilet, and you can go whistle. They’re all too busy.

  9. Wow! This one doesn’t hit too close to home! I, of course am not one of the busy workers. Too busy. I know a professor of science (real science, although this person also believes in SCIENCE!) who is doing research in the arctic; when I asked what the outcome of the research was the reply was ” we got 40 papers out of the project.” In other words, busy work.

  10. Very funny. I had to laugh out loud. Busy work is the definition of ‘government work’ as we have orders of magnitude more government at every level than needed. Almost every government worker is redundant and expendable.

  11. “Maybe the alternative is a world composed of busy work. The robots will figure out that humans need to feel important and that means performing work. The robots will create a world where it appears all of us are doing important stuff, but in reality we are just spinning our wheels, killing time in busy work, like maintaining blogs.”

    This is the plot of the Matrix movie, the machines first created a virtual reality paradise for humans but they rejected this and died, so the machines created the busy work world of the Keanu Reeves character.

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