Sand for the Idol

Sunday Letter | #342

Of the several big ideas undergirding Samuel R. Delany’s 1968 novel Nova, I keep coming back to this one in particular, about work:

If the situation of a technological society was such that there could be no direct relation between a man’s work and his modus vivendi, other than money, at least he must feel that he is directly changing things by his work, shaping things, making things that weren’t there before, moving things from one place to another. He must exert energy in his work and see these changes occur with his own eyes. Otherwise he would feel his life was futile.

Delany is responding to industrialization, and anticipating the second, third-order effects of widespread automation. Henry Ford’s five-dollar day might have created the middle class, but the frenetic, repetitive assembly line also resulted in low morale and a high rate of injury. (A slight digression: it seems to me one particular large company that touts itself as “customer-centric” generally uses the phrase as a shorthand for delivering more, faster, and cheaper stuff – and that this type of customer-centricity often comes at the cost of decentering workers; is a myopic view of customers only as customers, without recognizing that they may be, in other aspects of their life, also workers somewhere else.)

I’m in a cranky mood because of the humidity here.

Anyway, I was thinking about Delany again in the context of last week’s letter about my experience driving a Lyft, and I realized that our non-fictional timeline’s solution to Nova’s dilemma is gamification—that is, to give workers an additional, virtual layer on which they feel like they are effecting change or doing something of meaning. In the rideshare case it’s ticking countdowns and bonuses for making pickups at high-demand areas in high-demand times. In the big customer-centric company’s case it’s arcade-style mini-games, which I doubt is what Delany had in mind when he was writing.

In fact, I know it’s not what Delany had in mind, because this is what he had in mind: spinal ports through which humans interface with the machines they operate – a “whole basic technology by which a machine could be controlled by direct nervous impulse, the same impulses that cause your hand or foot to move.”

There was a revolution in the concept of labor. All major industrial work began to be broken down into jobs that could be machined ‘directly’ by man. There had been factories run by a single man before, an uninvolved character who turned a switch on in the morning, slept half the day, checked a few dials at lunchtime, then turned things off before he left in the evening. Now a man went to a factory, plugged himself in, and he could push the raw materials into the factory with his left foot, shape thousands on thousands of precise parts with one hand, assemble them with the other, and shove out a line of finished products with his right foot, having inspected them all with his own eyes. And he was a much more satisfied worker.

This sounds, to me, like art. Or at least some sort of craft, or sport. The word “uninvolved” jumps out to me in that graf; maybe a defining characteristic of art-making is the directness of the connection between the artist and their materials—how deeply involved you are when you are in it. With this in mind, I can’t help but feel like gamified work is a bag of sand we’ve been left in place of the idol.

That’s no argument against games by themselves, particularly ones that blur the lines between playing and creating (ie. Minecraft). Nor is it to say that gamification can’t be a transition into a technology like Nova’s (or a less-invasive version). I think gamification can even be a useful way into the making of art, so long as it doesn’t become a substitute. To paraphrase a favorite tv show, they can’t be the thing, but they can be the thing that gets you to the thing.

He took a deep breath. The ship surged at his fingertips. Still blind, he urged The Black Cockatoo into the bursting sun.

Somewhere in the ship one of the cyborg studs was crying …