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Monday, May 07, 2012

Is all 'work' work?

I watch cycle-van pullers sweating as they drag along huge loads in the blazing sun, and I watch government clerks lounging away in cool dark offices, I hear of schoolteachers chattering away in class about ‘interesting’ episodes from their personal lives and also of tycoons who spend their time drinking champagne and playing golf when they are not clinching hugely lucrative deals in five-star environs. ‘Workers of the world, unite!’ was the rousing rallying cry of the communists since the mid 19th century: partly through their efforts and partly through historical circumstances which they could not have predicted, the lot of the average blue collar worker, at least in the organized sector, at least in reasonably developed countries such as India – leave alone Germany or the US or the UK, where they talk of a ‘labour aristocracy’ – is far better than anyone could have dreamed around 1900 C.E. But looking at people working, or pretending to work, I have wondered ever since teenage: how many of these can be called workers in any meaningful sense?

Both make-work and finding elaborate ways to shirk work are so deep rooted in the human psyche, you see. I myself allow for a very broad definition of ‘worker’, much broader than traditional communists, who could only think of peasants and ill-paid, overworked factory workers when they first defined their beloved proletariat. I can consider a top flight surgeon to satisfy my definition – as long as he does his work well – and equally a housewife who does all the household chores all by herself every day. A teacher who really has to teach instead of fooling and boring and browbeating his wards for a living is a worker, too, and so is a shopkeeper, though much of his work might consist only of fighting off boredom when there are no customers, and keeping fit despite his totally sedentary occupation. The engineer who has to rush at all hours to attend emergencies at the power plant is a worker indeed; so also the sculptor hammering away at his statue, or the scientist keeping a sharp eye on a bacterial culture in his laboratory for months on end. But when you watch a bank clerk taking half an hour to do a little thing that should take five minutes, even as he chats away with his colleagues and is rude to the client who dares complain, yet gets paid 30- or 40,000 rupees a month for it, can you call him a worker? What about the man who keeps running away from the workplace to ferry his kids to and from tuitions, and is never hauled up by his boss for it? Can most PhD scholars honestly assuage their conscience with the thought that they are doing some useful work?

Then there are sinecures – from ATM attendants to the President of India – well paid or not, they do get paid (some, even after retirement) for doing virtually nothing, or nothing of any importance. And of course, bureaucracy at all levels is a byword for inventing work: the more the papers, the fatter the files (which go unattended for years on end) the more important they look, the bigger their budgetary allocations grow, the more the perks they can claim for themselves! I still don’t know whether fashion designers and models do any work by the traditional definition of the word. The same goes for a lot of currently ‘in’ professions that I shall  not name here…

In a world where work was much more rigidly defined, and Tolstoy’s dictum of ‘He who does not work shall not eat’ was sternly enforced, how many housewives and headmasters, CEOs and celebrities and secretaries to the government might go abegging!


Tanmoy said...

Dear Suvroda

Your post reminded me of an old post that I had written about one of our family friends here – Kit

As I have understood, perception of work is very different from country to country. Back in India this time, I did find people unusually “busy” or they think they are busy. Most people have smartphones (and most people have more than one phones) in India still they hardly reply to emails or return call. I for one have not really come across really busy people in India but I must admit that the weather/traffic/congestion and our eating habits do tend to make people far more tired. When I worked there, we used to be very late in office but most of my seniors wasted lot of time in idle conversation and long breaks.

Also, I do believe certain people are overworked in India. For example, here law allows a doctor to attend to only a certain number of patients in day as it is believed that he can do justice to only that many. So after 8 hours of work most doctors are free to do something else. In India, I can only call my fathers’ doctor after 11 PM (when we all prefer to go to bed), as he only has that time to provide me with. Now who is busy? Do we call a doctor in NZ, lazy? Here people would be scared to hear that the Doctor treating them talks about their progress while driving a car back home late evening!!

Here they have very large DIY (“Do it yourself”) stores selling various equipments which help to build a house, set up a garden etc. I am just providing the link to one such store for better understanding - http://www.mitre10mega.co.nz/. A large part of kiwi culture is to do your own work - one because labour is expensive here and two, they have grown up doing such activities. As and when, I build my house I doubt whether I can do it all by myself but then I am certain because I am here I would be much more aware and possibly end up painting our own house some day!

After coming here, since we do much more chores than we used to do back in India, sometimes I complain. My friends here laugh and sometimes make me feel like “Bidyabojhai Babumoshai”, forcing me to learn lot of things which I would not have bothered learning if I were in India. People also do lot of community service here – starting from helping to clean streets, beaches or helping out in voluntary organisations and fundraisers etc.

Having said that shirkers are there everywhere. Here too there are lot of people who live their entire life on subsidy.

I sometimes get frustrated here when I see shops close after 6 pm in Auckland, the banks are not open on weekends, other than in hospitals there are hardly any private physicians available on Saturdays. However, over time I have learnt that doing things after hours does not make anyone (or a country) efficient. Hence I control my anger and manage my time/work accordingly.


Debarshi Saha said...

Respected Sir,

Warm regards.You have pointed out a very important fact,a fact that is so obvious to the curious onlooker,yet one question which remains virtually unasked all through one's life-"What work is truly work?Can all work be equated or measured using the same yardstick?Finally,if all work were to be classified according to their impact factor,which ones would count for nought?"

Very important questions,I feel,Sir-ones which demand deep introspection into our lives,and ones which might force us to prune all trivialities,for maximum efficiency.India has always suffered from a lack of work culture,with passing the buck frequently being an accomplished habit of the 'in' crowd,and a deep sense of inadequacy coupled with an unwilling attitude to accept responsibility.I do not blame any generation for this,Sir.All along in history,silent,diligent workers have passed the burning torch down the ages-with more techniques to 'manage' them,instead of managing their own selves.In India,a belief,the biggest excuse to shirk work,borders on obstinacy and superstition wherein it states that so-and-so ritual/sacrifice must yield so-and-so result,if offered to a specific deity!Work shall not be required!

Swami Vivekananda taught us the way to work,what work to pursue,and how to remain unattached from the results of one's work.In today's age of gizmos,glitz and false glamour,where real-time tweets rule the roost,and the best way to appear busy is to swat flies diligently-his message has gone largely unheeded.Money is worthy of worship,it seems,and not work.A nubile fashion model/fashion designer has much greater 'status' than any doctor/engineer/teacher/industry worker/chemist/any profession that contributes meaningfully can ever have...This is the world where all play and no work makes Jack a clever boy,and all work and no play makes him a mere toy,never to be acknowledged.

With best wishes,

Sayan Datta said...

Dear Suvro Sir,
This is a topic I feel very strongly about; and these are my thoughts in a nutshell-
He doesn't work who works only for money. Work, interpreted in a way, means service to others. Service with the right attitude is work as far as I am concerned. He who can discern right from wrong independently, and works in a way that is useful or at least least detrimental to the society as a whole, does work. Hence, the rickshaw puller who uncomplainingly takes people from A to B in sweltering heat does work. The businessman, who doesn't sell adulterated goods and charges the right amount, does work. The private tutor who knows his subject, doesn't hoodwink people, teaches not just what the pupils expect but also what he knows he should teach (parents be damned!), tries to make his students more humane and sensitive and charges in the right proportion, works.

In the same vein let me say that the celebrity who doesn't make meaningful films (the sort Satyajit Ray used to make) at least once in a while doesn't work. The scientist, who loves to talk about light cones and event horizons but believes that one works only if displacement is not perpendicular to the force applied, DOESN'T work.

Lastly, I believe that he doesn't work who doesn't fall asleep as soon as his aching back touches the bed after yet another hectic day of religiously and meticulously taking care of all the chores.

At the end Sir, let me boldly say that though I do not know how I would have fared had Tolstoy's dictum been enforced, I certainly wouldn't have gone hungry.

Great post, Sir. Loved it.

Sayan Datta

nkr said...

Dear Sayan,

what you have said makes perfect sense. However, I did not quite understand your comment about the scientist. Did you mean that the scientist talks of relativistic stuff but believes in classical physics only, or did you mean that in a more direct sense - that is the scientist literally disdains any other form of 'work' (say household chores) apart from that defined by physics formulae?

There is value in classical physics, no matter how sophisticated or close to truth relativistic physics is. If you meant otherwise, people sometimes talk as if they want to shirk work or they hate work but then those people are still quite efficient in their chores. And generally scientists worth their title are good managers of time more often than not.

Sorry, I may seem picky here but theoretical work in the sciences is close to my heart. I am not at all suggesting that scientists are beyond such critical evaluation, but they may speak in a more sloppy manner than they actually behave. Would appreciate if you could clarify.


Sayan Datta said...

I lost a large part of my respect for scientists when I understood how narrow their spheres of interest(s) actually are. They dig themselves up in infinitesimally tiny holes and get terribly flustered if someone ask them to take a look outside - a classic case of frogs in the well if you ask me. I don't know if you have heard of the term 'scientific superstition' or not, but judging from what I have read and heard of them, I do think a majority suffer from that very disease.

Then again, I have heard a lot of them speak inanely on things they either know very little or nothing about, and that puts me off greatly. One can claim to be a pursuer of knowledge not only when one genuinely has large and varied interests, but has also cultivated them with fierce passion lifelong; and such a person, rest assured, will never belittle other fields of knowledge (I am not saying all scientists do that; but even in their praise of other spheres of learning I have never seen them sincere enough – which in my opinion can arise only out of ignorance).

My line was directed at those closed minded scientists who have as little humanity in them as a laptop, who equate beauty on the one side with gigabytes on the other; and it is the work of these people I have criticized in my previous comment.

Lastly, I would like to say that even I see beauty in science and I manage this contradiction (between ‘science’ and ‘scientists’) by keeping ‘science’ and the present day ‘scientists’ separate in my mind; that is to say that I don’t mix up the two. Science, to me, is a great form of art; it is the present day artists whom I find repulsive.
Please bear in my mind that this is my personal opinion and obviously you are not required to subscribe to it. I hope I have made myself sufficiently clear.

Sayan Datta

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Hahaha, Nirman and Sayan... you reminded me of some anecdotes about some scientists' snootiness. Rutherford became (in-)famous for the remark that 'there are two kinds of science, physics (his pet subject) and stamp collecting' (by which he meant everything else which dared claim the tag of 'science'): which makes it a delicious piece of irony that he himself got merely the Nobel Prize for chemistry! Whereas Richard Dawkins is a specialist in a certain branch of biology, which Rutherford would not have considered 'real' science at all, yet Dawkins claims it is so interesting that he cannot imagine why people should want to study anything else at all. Doesn't it speak far more about his ignorance combined with arrogance than about the whole vast vista of all that has been considered knowledge through the ages? Look at our own doctors and engineers... how affronted they would be, most of them, if they were told they are not students of science at all, but mere mechanical applicators of the knowledge that scientists have accumulated over the ages. And all those who have bothered to read the history and sociology of science know well, of course, how resistant scientists are to any kind of threat posed by really 'new' thinking to their pet theories. Barring the odd exception, scientists as humans should hardly be expected to be better than their fellow human beings; sometimes, their pretensions to superiority only make them worse.

But let's get back to the subject matter of this post: is all 'work' really work?

Pritam Mukherjee said...

Dear Sir,

I agree with most of what you say, especially about what happens in banks. I remember I had to run around from counter to counter requesting and appealing to the clerks' sympathy for one poor soul - who had to leave for the US the next day - just to transfer my account - a job which, as it turned out, actually took about ten minutes, just because the person who usually handled account transfers was on a vacation at that time.

While I am not sure either about whether fashion designers and models do any 'real' work, I think as long as one remains honest to oneself and one's profession, it is work - even if it is just sitting by the ATM all day - and should be paid for it, though the amount of the pay should be in proportion to the importance of the work. Also, sometimes we underestimate the importance or the amount of work some professions require. I have an uncle, who is in one of the high rungs of management in a private company. While most of his time is spent in five-star environs, doing little physical work, it is hardly the case that he works any less - indeed, the burden of responsibility, the breathless days and sleepless nights that lead up to the clinching of the lucrative business deal make him more than eligible to receive the fat paycheck he receives at the month's end.

As far as PhD scholars are concerned, I, being one of them, can attest to the fact that most of us, I included, do little 'important' work (by which I mean work that directly and tangibly affects the society). Also, as Sayanda aptly put it, most of us are frogs in a well as far as our research directions are concerned. But I do not think that it is necessarily a bad thing - even our small wells are so deep that it takes substantial time and effort for most of us to explore. You could, of course object that this is only because I am not smart enough; I do not have an answer to that, but I believe that small contributions, though individually insignificant often add up over time to produce something that is actually quite significant. For me however, research is a luxury, with more opportunity to learn and explore than most other professions I could have taken to after my B.Tech.

Contrary to Sayanda's experience, most good researchers I have met, do have a deep understanding of their respective subjects and while they are often partial to their subjects, I am surprised that Sayanda finds it strange - when one has spent a few decades of one's life in one field, one tends to develop some level of attachment to it - it is just human nature. Also, most of them do appreciate and acknowledge other fields of knowledge besides their own (in fact interdisciplinary research is the new 'in' thing in academia nowadays) and even if they do tend to exaggerate the importance of their fields when talking to a prospective graduate student, I can forgive them for that. Also, I think the fact that scientists are resistant to radical new ideas is only to be expected and is a good thing. If I take the recent example of the 'faster than light' neutrinos, it was only appropriate for the scientific community to be skeptical about it. There is no logic in accepting a radical new idea in favour of a well tested hundred year old theory, just because it is new and radical.

Finally to put in a word in defense of engineers and engineering , while I agree that engineering is merely application of the knowledge, it is often quite a challenge to turn a scientific theory to a practical application. Quantum electrodynamics probably explains the motion of each electron in an electronic circuit, building a computer using that knowledge is no trivial accomplishment. The same goes for those trying to finds ways to manufacture carbon nanotubes or artificial organs.

I think I have veered quite far from the topic in my ramblings and I should stop now. I apologize for this rather long and I guess mostly off-topic post.


Sayan Datta said...

All I have tried to say is that I don't find scientists, as human beings, appealing any more. I can't, for example, respect a scientist as much as I can a Tagore or a Bertrand Russell. Russell left behind such a huge body of work on subjects as varied as geometry to mysticism to socialism and anarchism to morality, reality and perception to relativity that I can't even imagine an Einstein to do.
Secondly, Pritam, science didn't start in the 20th century you know. You speak of quantum computing; I say the wheel was at least as significant an invention, and I really believe that.
Thirdly, scientific revelations don't exclusively occur to scientists alone. A poet may have the very same revelation which he/she may express in the way he/she knows best, while a spiritual seeker may actually experience it.
Fourthly, Pritam, a person truly attached to his own work can't demean others' work. It is as simple as that. The way a Tagore can speak on science, an Einstein can't on poetry- get what I mean?
Lastly, as far as PHD students are concerned, I believe they work, as long as they work for the sake of intellectual fulfillment and not for the degree. The highest sort of worker, I believe, is he who works for the attainment of wisdom alone. And this is my personal opinion, anyway, and one I have arrived at after some thought. You may challenge it, but you won’t be able to change it.
Sayan Datta

Shilpi said...

I've been carrying this post around in my head. This 'work' part of life has been bugging and perplexing me for more than half of my life. What counts as 'work'? And that other bit that I knew about was there were no free lunches or showers or shelter, and yet all work is not paid, so should only paid work be called 'work' and how do we decide upon the amount paid? And does the payment involve some form of money - and can it only then be considered to be work? And if I don’t work – I don’t eat – agreed but how do people decide whether what I do or can do should count as work?

As you point out there's so much work that is paid highly (fashion designers, photographers, models for instance), and yet I'm not sure why the given people are paid so highly - apart from societies deciding that they do very ‘valuable’ work; a top fashion model gets $150,000 for doing one show.

And you’ve said elsewhere (in that speed/time post among other places), doing anything well - writing, painting, playing a musical instrument, reading, thinking, making connections, dancing, nurturing relationships involve work – but people don’t always get paid monetarily…

I’ve had and still have a strange relationship with household chores and outdoor errands and I've been doing them for more than two decades. I myself shift in saying whether chores count as work but if done with zen-like meditation or some profound love – one can end up adoring the same.

I somehow think that one of the issues that’s been a knotted question in my mind for decades is what sort of work should be paid with money, and who are the workers who should be paid and how much? I know that doing sociology for two decades certainly hasn’t answered this question for me. And that takes me to one of your old posts regarding values and prices. http://suvrobemused.blogspot.com/2008/06/values-prices-incomes.html

Shilpi said...

So while reading the few comments that have come in, I’ve got to wonder how on earth do people know so well that particular work should receive a particular payment? How do people know the fair and just price of work? I only know of a couple of rare and clear instances of what is too little and what is too much. I would add 99% of the humble PhD students in the second category (no matter how loudly most of them and even very well-meaning professors protest that they are "overworked" and that they are contributing meaningful stuff) even though their earnings do not make them millionaires.

As for Pritam’s comment about his uncle – no disrespect intended but how do you know your uncle deserves the fat paycheck for ‘clinching lucrative deals’ – what deals does he ‘clinch’? As for the 99% of PhD students and research scholars – this one deserves a separate comment but please don’t tell me that the majority of them do anything significant in terms of knowledge building, and as for a ‘deep understanding’ of their subjects and knowing about other fields and appreciating inter-disciplinary research – I’ve got to ask you – how many research scholars have you come across and from how many fields? You’re in the sciences so if you read a bit of Robert Merton, Ian Hacking, Thomas Kuhn, Thomas Gieryn, Michael Polanyi, and even the rather annoying Bruno Latour and Steeve Woolgar – you might find out a little more about the many ways in how science gets done. And have you not come face to face with the issue of publishing research papers as yet and do you not know how things get published? I’m not even talking about ‘quality’ of work here – just the sheer quantity. All PhD students from the beginning should remember and never forget that priceless quip, ‘…when you know nothing about nothing – they give you a PhD’ (I forget who said that – but Suvro da will know).. This is the only thing that might help them to not become pompous buffoons by the time they finish their PhD. If nothing else they’ll have some remaining bit of humility or at least acquire some by the end of it.

And with Sayan’s comment I’ve been thinking about one of his bits: it’s a good thing Sayan that you’ve never suffered from insomnia, and for more than most of us we get back aches because of our sedentary lifestyles!

sayantika said...

Dear Sir,

From what I have experienced in office, the idea that most have is that more the time one keeps sitting on his or her chair (although the person might be indulging in idle gossip), the more work one does. On the contrary, if someone is efficient and completes the work that takes a meagre 2-3 hours (which others take about eight hours and often missing the deadline), and doesn't spend so much time in office, is considered to be not doing any work. Efficiency is hardly valued in most offices of our country. Last week, I had a similar experience in a public sector bank. A person next to me complained about the service and the ones behind the counter promptly asked him to go to other banks where the service was more efficient. (The latter was chatting with his colleague all this time). Ironically, the bank has framed a quote of Mahatma Gandhi on its wall which says, "A customer is the most important visitor on our premises, he is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption in our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider in our business. He is part of it. We are not doing him a favour by serving him. He is doing us a favour by giving us an opportunity to do so."

I believe everyone should be paid for every bit of honest work he or she does. But when fashion models get paid such absurdly high amounts, does that mean our society is giving more value to them rather than the sincere teacher who makes students learn the fundamentals of maths or grammar or the hardworking doctor who toils at a government hospital who deals with a huge number of patients beyond his capacity?
Thanks and with regards,

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Pritam, I incline to Sayan's point of view. He happens to be a teacher of science, too, and it hurts him to see how trivial and narrow the interests of both teachers and students (at all levels) have become. And that is helping neither the cause of science nor that of teaching! As for senior business executives and their pay packets, I hope you will not be foolish enough to take this personally, but I strongly recommend you (perhaps once again!) to my earlier blogpost titled 'Good CEOs, bad politicians?'

Sayan Datta said...

I probably did go a bit overboard with that one, Shilpidi, in the way I said it, but I did not mean it that literally. I wanted to say that the satisfaction that arises from a job well taken care of is unparalled.
And I have suffered from insomnia :)
Sayan Datta

Nishant Kamath said...

Dear Sir,

I have often wondered about this. Specially when I am in my air-conditioned room watching a movie or reading a book, and I see the newspaperman going around on his his bicycle in the sweltering 42 degrees heat delivering newspapers and magazines. He's been working every day of the week for as many years back as I can remember. Come to think of it, I don't remember anyone else delivering newspapers in his stead all my life. I don't know if he's ever taken a vacation. And his pay is terrible. Oh God, I feel bad for him now.

I think it's probably economics and societal thinking that assigns a certain status to a job and determines the monetary reward associated with it. I am not sure if certain professions, like modelling, can be termed as jobs. I am sure models too have to make sacrifices and their career lasts just a few years if they are lucky. But dishonest businessmen, gangsters and hired individuals who are lazy are definitely not workers.

Because of the 'publish or perish' mentality, publishing papers and getting a Ph.D. is not really that difficult now. I remember seeing a cartoon on facebook whose message was this: Newton published a paper which explained that an apple falls because of gravity. A student now publishes a paper which says that oranges also follow the law of gravity. I just returned from a Consortium meeting we had. We met all our sponsors and it was interesting to meet a good mix of people. There were veterans who still seemed to be extremely enthusiastic about what they were doing and the breadth of their knowledge was also quite large. One of them had brought a telescope with him to observe the night-sky since it's much clearer in the mountains. Just to give you an example. There were also some who reminded me of typical government employees, who slept through the entire meeting and were awake only for wining and dining. I have also seen professors who work on a small micro-topic, try to portray it as being the most interesting thing in the world and try to squeeze out every bit of results from it in the name of research. It's like flogging a dead donkey. They are not even interested in anyone else's research. It really makes one cringe. But I suppose it's up to me to choose who I want to look up to.


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thanks for commenting, Nishant. You of course should know better than most of my readers where my sympathies lie, and why. As I said, there is far too much make work and shirk work in this world, and it's a cruel truth that those who are clever at either of the two generally tend to make much better money than those who do any kind of solid, necessary but unpretentious labour. One of the nasty ironies of life. Tolstoy and Gandhi didn't make themselves popular by insisting on this blunt truth, but they couldn't change the world much. As for someone like Einstein, if I respect him, it is not so much because of his incredible scientific creativity but the facts that a) he knew that wisdom wasn't coterminous with physics (see Ideas and Opinions) and b) that despite the iconic fame and adulation, money could never turn his head.