What Work You Agree to Do: Recommended Reading

Suzman, J. (2021). Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots. New York, Penguin Press.

You can hear a sample from the book (here).

Why do you work? Who are you working for? What, even, is work? In the book Work, anthropologist James Suzman takes us through a deep history, back to the early days as hunter-gatherers, looking at how what we consider to be work has shaped what we think it is today and how that determines, in great part, what we agree to do. Maybe it is all a choice. A choice that different peoples across the globe make differently, based on different assumptions that evolved from different circumstances.

The work we do also defines who we are; determines our future prospects; dictates where and with whom we spend most of our time; mediates our sense of self-worth; molds many of our values; and orients our political loyalties.

Work, p2

From an ecosynomic perspective, Suzman’s simple observation, from scanning anthropology’s observations of thousands of groups over the history of humanity, includes the 4 big questions of how much resource we have (the economic lens), who decides and enforces the allocation of resources (the political lens), the criteria used to decide what is valued (the cultural lens), and the rules of the game of how we interact (the social lens). How we understand what work is and what we agree to with work influences all of that. That seems like a significant choice: one we seldom are aware we are making.

One of the key factors in determining what we seem to accept in the definition of our work, through these 4 lenses (economic, political, cultural, social), is the underlying economic assumption of scarcity. Suzman points out that, according to the economist Keynes, the most pressing problem of the human race is the economic problem of scarcity–“there are simply not enough resources to satisfy everybody’s wants, everything is scarce” (p4).

But the problem of scarcity offers a bleak assessment of our species. It insists that evolution has molded us into selfish creatures, cursed to be forever burdened by desires that we can never satisfy.

Work, p5

While mainstream thinking suggests this scarcity-based view is the only one, Suzman observes that anthropologoical studies now show that “hunter-gatherers had few material desires, which could be satisfied with a few hours of effort. Their economic life was organized around the presumption of abundance rather than a preoccupation with scarcity. And this being so, there is good reason to believe that because our ancestors hunted and gathered for well over 95 percent of Homo sapiens’ 300,000-year-old history, the assumptions of human nature in the problem of scarcity and our attitudes of work have their roots in farming. Acknowledging that for most of human history our ancestors were not as preoccupied with scarcity as we are now reminds us that there is far more to work than our efforts to solve the economic problem” (pp6-7).

When economists define work as the time and effort we spend meeting our needs and wants, they dodge two obvious problems. The first is that often the only thing that differentiates work from leisure is context and whether we are being paid to do something or are paying to do it [for example, painting, gardening, writing]…The second problem is that beyond the energy we expend to secure our most basic needs–food, water, air, warmth, companionship, and safety–there is very little that is universal about what constitutes a necessity.

Work, p7

Suzman then defines work, “the closest thing to a universal definition of ‘work’–one that hunter-gatherers, pinstriped derivatives traders, calloused subsistence farmers, and anyone else would agree on–is that it involves purposefully expending energy or effort on a task to achieve a goal or end” (p8). This gets us to the choice of who is engaging your will, your purposeful energy, towards what purpose.

To understand how we got here, Suzman then takes us on the long journey of two pathways. “When it comes to charting the history of our relationship with work, there are two intersecting pathways that are the most obvious to follow. The first maps the story of our relationship with energy. At its most fundamental, work is always an energy transaction and the capacity to do certain kinds of work is what distinguishes living organisms from dead, inanimate matter. For only living things actively seek out and capture energy specifically to live, to grow, and to reproduce…The second pathway follows the human evolutionary and cultural journey… The journey down this pathway reveals how, as our ancestors developed the capacity to master many new different skills, our remarkable purposefulness was honed to the point that we re now capable of finding meaning, joy, and deep satisfaction in activities like building pyramids, digging holes, and doodling…But it is the points where these two pathways converge that are most important in terms of making sense of our contemporary relationships with work” (pp9-10). Suzman identifies four such convergences: when humans mastered fire; started storing food and farming; gathered in cities; and industrialized work in factories and mills.

In trying “to describe, measure, and compare accurately the capabilities of things like water wheels, cart horses, steam engines, and human beings” (p26), Gaspard-Gustave Coriolis coined the term “work,” and developed equations to describe it, basically as the transfer of energy. This solved the hard problem of being able to characterize and compare different forms of transferring energy, whether people, horses, or machines. This form of work is measured in joules or calories. And we see another form of energy, in our minds. The mind uses a different form of energy, according to George Armitage Miller. “‘Just as the body survives by ingesting negative entropy [free energy].., so the mind survives by ingesting information…(It) is now clear that all living things, from prokaryotes to plants, are informavores…Much of the energy captured by complex organisms with brains and nervous systems is used to filter, process, and respond to information acquired through their senses…With our super-plastic neocortices and well-organized senses, Homo sapiens are the gluttons of the informavore world…Our brains only constitute 2 percent of our total body weight but they consume around 20 percent of our energy resources…for most other mammals it is between 5 and 10 percent” (pp87-88, 104).

As you can tell, from the extensive quoting from this book, I found this to be a fascinating look at why we see work the way we do, how there are currently on the planet many different, evolved forms of how people see work, and this gives us the chance to choose how we engage with work. There is not one right answer for everyone. That would be a law of physics. Suzman shows anthropologically that there are many different answers, depending on your context, and what you choose to include in your context. Your choice.