Against Productivity

This Essay Took Four Years to Write

Quinn Norton
The Message


Four years ago I temporarily moved to Puerto Rico. I went to PR to seek the New American Dream, a dream that had swept through American business culture, launched a billion dollar self-help industry, alienated my generation, and killed uncounted people through its wild pursuit. I went to escape the distractions and social obligations of the mainland and to try to truly capture the elusive quality that rises above all considerations in the contemporary American psyche: I went to Puerto Rico to work on being more productive.

My highly productive den of productivity

I had a place to stay, and I didn’t speak the language. I went with the idea that I would avoid distractions and get a lot of writing done. I would organize my time, my thoughts, and my notes. I would have to-do lists and subject clouds and create outlines and fill them in, everyday between 9 and 6 or 7. I would have a word count, discrete articles, a body of material. I could pitch them and massage them into house voices as needed on a schedule to woo editors. I’d make habits that let me produce content, on time, regularly, without last minute stress.

I didn’t do any of that. I got a little writing done, and I stared up at the beautiful old ceiling of my apartment a lot.

When I went to Puerto Rico I was, like everyone I knew, not only incredibly busy, but absorbed in trying to figure out how to produce more in my busy time. Even my leisure time had to be productive: Was I having enough fun? Was I sufficiently recharged for my next round of work? Was I getting enough out of the island? I had to be a productive learner as well: was I getting a good picture of PR’s culture? Was I mining my experience of this beautiful place for all it was worth?

These nice men taught me to play dominoes one day.

I visited with new friends, and tooled around on the net (albeit always at 2G speeds). I watched rain fall. I cooked. I considered the shape of the buildings a lot, and looked after cats periodically. I walked to old forts and lookouts. At one point I took pictures of doors for no reason I could discern. I berated myself for being unproductive, for wasting this precious time I’d set aside to put my professional life together. I spent hours anxious to craft my time to be quantitatively better for writing. Then it all collapsed, and the only habit I fell into was depressive empty afternoons when I was alone with the cats and the rain. But I also, and wholly by accident, thought the thoughts that would take my career and life in a new and unimagined direction.

In the end my trip to Puerto Rico didn’t turn out how I’d hoped. I barely wrote anything. I complained to myself about myself a lot. I took a lot of long walks and so-so pictures. I edited part of a book, but that didn’t take long. I sat around getting both anxious and bored from how little I had gotten done. I had no idea how vital that time was when it was passing.

The best latte artist I’ve ever met was at my regular San Juan cafe. This is a coqui, the Puerto Rican frog you hear singing through the nights

I have always had a flirtatious interest in the ever morphing American dream, from The Great Gatsby to Fear and Loathing, from the chickens and picket fences of the 50s to the foreign adventures and many attempts to bring democracy to ourselves and others. Every age of America reinvents and transforms the dream and thereby some part of the national soul. But sitting in Old San Juan in a tropical rain, trying to keep mosquitos off my ankles, I began to think no iteration was quite as vile as this one. Despite all the greed and hatred of the past iterations, no version of the dream had been so mechanical — so dehumanizing — as this dream of productivity.

We dream now of making Every Moment Count, of achieving flow and never leaving, creating one project that must be better than the last, of working harder and smarter. We multitask, we update, and we conflate status with long hours worked in no paid overtime systems for the nebulous and fantastic status of being Too Important to have Time to Ourselves, time to waste. But this incarnation of the American dream is all about doing, and nothing about doing anything good, or even thinking about what one was doing beyond how to do more of it more efficiently. It was not even the surrenders to hedonism and debauchery or greed our literary dreams have recorded before. It is a surrender to nothing, to a nothingness of lived accounting.

This moment’s goal of productivity, with its all-consuming practice and unattainable horizon, is perfect for our current corporate world. Productivity never asks what it builds, just how much of it can be piled up before we leave or die. It is irrelevant to pleasure. It’s agnostic about the fate of humanity. It’s not even selfish, because production negates the self. Self can only be a denominator, holding up a dividing bar like a caryatid trying to hold up a stone roof.

I am sure this started with the Industrial Revolution, but what has swept through this generation is more recent. This idea of productivity started in the 1980s, with the lionizing of the hardworking greedy. There’s a critique of late capitalism to be had for sure, but what really devastated my generation was the spiritual malaise inherent in Taylorism’s perfectly mechanized human labor. But Taylor had never seen a robot or a computer perfect his methods of being human. By the 1980s, we had. In the age of robots we reinvented the idea of being robots ourselves. We wanted to program our minds and bodies and have them obey clocks and routines. In this age of the human robot, of the materialist mind, being efficient took the pre-eminent spot, beyond goodness or power or wisdom or even cruel greed.

There’s so many casualties to this view of the mechanical human. Wisdom itself has vanished from the discourse, replaced by mere knowing. I don’t mean that these are less wise times, but that the very idea of wisdom has vanished from the culture. If I hear the word being discussed it’s generally as a game stat. Evidence is everything, but the context that gives it meaning is worthless. The very idea of the liberal education that was once the foundation of our Enlightenment culture is mystifyingly irrelevant, even for the rich rulers it was invented for. How, we collectively ask, does understanding history, philosophy, or art make us more productive? The vibrant life was replaced with mere health. Wonder became a pump for applicable creativity. How shall we get everything done? Despite having more labor-saving technology than anyone in history, we have made it so we have more to get done than any form of society before us. We even created a social obligation to enjoy ourselves with maximal efficiency, and called it a tourism industry.

Productivity, the word, was born at the beginning of the 19th century as the ability to bring forth. Land could be productive, or cattle, the sea, or a woman. But by the 20th century it was eclipsed by its new economic definition: the rate of output per unit. Productivity lost the implication of fertility and vitality and became something you could measure: put the output over the unit unit input. If you raise the numerator, you are more productive, no matter what the units represent. They can be almonds per field worked. Or fine furniture per Pennsylvanian Mennonite. Or profit per inmate-year in a private prison. To aggregate productivity, and therefore measure all that can be measured and produce a number to rationalize a civilization, numerators must be translated to the same basic unit: revenue. Very roughly, when we do this across a nation, we call the result GDP and use it to measure the health of a society.

How we all compare in GDP

By GDP, India and Canada are running neck-and-neck in national productivity. Your guess is as good as any for what this means in the lives of any particular Indian or Canadian. Whatever it is, they’re definitely beating South Koreans at something or other. We like GDP though, because like coordinates it seems to tell us where we are on a list. In the 20th century economics became a philosophy of life. We liked knowing what we knew, even if, as so many events in the last hundred years demonstrated with painful redundancy, no one knew what our knowledge meant. Productivity as measured never really told you much about what they call “outcomes.”

Starter knowledge measurement. It gets worse from here.

Knowledge is something you can measure. You can create metrics and universal evaluations that can fill the columns of accounting records. Above all we become interested in measuring ourselves. Word count/day, lines of code/day, hamburgers served/hour, steps taken/day, test questions/100, money earned/field’s average salary. We got quarterly reviews, job evaluations, and tested certifications. Productive people came to know exactly if they fit somewhere or not.

Wisdom is an airy-fairy quality that no one can quantify, like fancy, vitality, joy, hope, visions of far off times, and a worthy life. These things are metis — to be handled in literature but left as noise, canceled whenever possible, in society. Productive people, like productive machines, have no scores for metis, wisdom, or worthy life. So these things live on in poetry, and fantasy, and if we’re lucky, our sinful unproductive time. They are erased, and with them, the futures they contain. They are not creatures of now, which is what productivity is about. They only ever come up these days when all the other stuff inevitably collapses.

This is killing us. It’s starving our souls and stunting our intellectual pursuits into ever more stratified vertical slices.

Karoshi: Suicide Saleryman is a flash game where the goal is to kill yourself at work on every level.

Technically Americans work slightly more hours per year than the Japanese, but neither of those numbers include unpaid overtime or extra work you’re supposed to do around and for your regular job. Uncounted, this work remains unreal, though its consequences are harder to dismiss. The Japanese have defined a form of death-from-productivity: karōshi. Karōshi is when you are so productive your heart or head break and you bleed to death inside yourself. Conversely, if those organs have persisted but the mind has not, karōshi can become karojisatsu: suicide from overwork.

Karoshi Factory, a sequel to the original Karoshi.

America has no death from karōshi. We don’t count it as a category of death, and therefore in our measurable world it doesn’t exist. We are productive without price. Not because people aren’t dying, they surely are, uncounted lives and families are smothered with despair. There is no price because there’s no measure to quantify what we are losing.

Many people, especially in technology, say their productivity is changing the world, and this is irrefutable. But no one seems to know what they’re changing it into, because no one can measure the world. When no one can measure the world, how much can it really exist?

Meanwhile, back in Puerto Rico.

There was a time when you could write a few poems, die of TB, and call it a life well lived. When one learned to wait for hard thoughts, when we took time to doubt, to question, to be unknowing in the face of a large question, when we had no lights at night and no smartphones and only our imagination to keep us company in the dark. We used to daydream about stars we could see because the nights weren’t obscured with light pollution. Then the questions got too big and scary. We got too good at math and engineering without really noticing that we weren’t actually good enough, and we don’t even know if good enough exists. We lost our useful doubts and forgot to ask why. It takes so long to ask these questions and maybe nothing at all will come of it. It’s a too-risky way to use your time these days. We lost the knack of dreaming of big futures.

There is more than one kind of thought. There are thoughts you cannot complete within a month, or a fiscal quarter, just as there are thoughts that can occupy less than a vacation period, a weekend, or a smoke break. Like the spectrum of photonic behavior, thoughts come in a nearly infinite range of lengths and frequencies, and always move at the exact pace of human life, wherever they are in the universe. Some thoughts are long, they can take years to think, or a lifetime. Some thoughts take many lifetimes, and we hand them off to the next generation like the batons in a relay race. Some of these are the best of thoughts, even if they can be the least productive. Lifetimes along, they shift the whole world, like a secret lever built and placed by the loving imaginations of thousands of unproductive stargazers.

This was the ceiling I stared at. I decided to save it for posterity.

Here is what really happened in Puerto Rico four years ago: I fell into a funk, beat myself up a bit, and spent the rest of the time wandering around (mostly to the same places) and daydreaming. I wrote a few strange blog posts which no one read. I went a bit further into credit card debt. My days themselves were pretty quiet. I began to really think hard about what the internet does to society by just being the internet. I wrote out some of what I’d seen, and replayed them in my mind while I wandered around the beach. I made a video about being a robot in a Japanese blues bar asking if anyone could really see a singularity from inside of it. I tried to imagine 2010 me without the net. I tried to imagine 1989 me with the net. I talked about how the internet does and doesn’t change things in a place like PR. I read about Rwanda, and about the trade union history of PR and read and talked more about the history of coffee. Puerto Ricans are big on coffee. And then I left. I don’t remember where I went next.

But it all means something else now. When I look back on not only the wasted time in PR, but the couple of unproductive years around it I see it differently now. When I wasn’t beating myself up for not being productive enough, I was thinking about and interacting with the world. I was laying the first stones of a new foundation, a new way of thinking about networked culture, and even about our place on this planet. Instead of getting things done I was learning, smiling at people I didn’t share a language with, and cross-connecting the notions of my brain and the experiences of my life. It all lay fallow in me for a long time, as notes on my blog, snatches of poems, story bits to never be written. The pieces of this change were pieces of lyrics I wasted time writing on post-it notes I promptly lost, and articles I read instead of working and bits of conversation and pop songs that clung like ribbons and buttons and bits of flowers stuck all over my psyche.

Puerto Rico is home to the world’s largest radio telescope, nestled in the jungle of Arecibo.

My wasteful and unproductive time was the only time I asked: What should I be doing? What is a worthwhile life? And so it followed that was the only time when I could start to answer those questions. What is good work? Is any of this worth it? What makes life worth living? What good can I do in this world?

What is this world anyway?

I am only now beginning to harvest what was sown in that wasted and unproductive time. But now there are so many threads and ideas from that time, I can’t possibly follow them all. I see the world differently now. I like it more, and I see, just a tiny bit better, how it fits together.

Wisdom takes time. It takes staring out into the rain, It takes service to others. It takes getting nothing done to make us human again. To see the connections between things requires studying the blank spaces between them, days that slip into boredom and loneliness with only a person and their senses and their imagination to keep them company. I can now see that much of what I’ve written in the past year started in 2010, in Puerto Rico. I can see how the time around it allowed me to work the stories of 2011 and 2012 with an insight and understanding that I couldn’t have gotten without the failures to produce that shaped my 2009 and 2010. I can now see that my productive work — at least the good stuff, comes from my unproductive time, from my empty yearning to understand the world.

In many ways foolishness isn’t the opposite of wisdom, but its absence. Productivity is the opposite of wisdom. Humanity is a creature of time and imagination. From these things our fruits are born more than manufactured. Productivity is a quality of perfect robots. Stories, adventures and all new things still have to come from messy humans.

We should spend more time wasting time. We all need to be bored more. We all need to spend more time looking quizzically at birds we don’t recognize. We all need a little more time to connect the dots and see if they matter. I don’t know how much more, but sometimes you have to do things without knowing how much you need.

As for me, I want to go back to Puerto Rico.

The view from the dome above the Arecibo Radio Telescope, taken on a visit this summer.



Quinn Norton
The Message

A journalist, essayist, and sometimes photographer of Technology, Science, Hackers, Internets, and Civil Unrest.