Pluralistic: 28 Aug 2021

Today's links

Fiverr's infamous 'You Might Be a Doer' ad. The model's face has been replaced with a skull and she is clutching a scythe.

The "work ethic" is a dirty trick we play on ourselves (permalink)

In Nebraska – and elsewhere – the forced-labor camps that some prisoners are sent to have been rebranded. They're called "Work-Ethic Camps" now, and prisoners do 30-40h/week of hard labor for $1.21/day, interspersed with "intro to business" courses.

As Jamiek McCallum writes in Aeon: "If there was a formula for obliterating the work ethic, giving people undesirable jobs with long hours and barely paying them sounds exactly like it."

McCallum is reiterating the thesis of his 2020 book, "Worked Over: How Round-the-Clock Work Is Killing the American Dream," which presents discourse about work-ethic as "a severe anxiety about a fundamental precept of the American civil religion."

Americans fret that a failing work-ethic is symbolic of national decline. Which is weird: hours for all workers rose by 13% between 1975 and 2016, and millennials are more likely than their elders to say "hard work is important to getting ahead."

The white-collar workers who locked down for the pandemic increased their hours worked:

The precarious "essential" workers who risked their lives and stayed on the job contended with irregular schedules and low pay.

We have a "work ethic" problem – but it's not too little work ethic – it's too much.

McCallum: "overwork, unstable schedules, and a lack of adequate hours define the paradoxical time signature of the work life today."

But, McCallum argues, the work ethic doesn't create the bad working conditions. Rather, we dream up the work ethic to resolve the cognitive dissonance of unsustainable, brutal working conditions.

That's why surveys show workers who express a preference for shorter hours report satisfaction with their working conditions when their hours get longer – workers don't "get what they want" so they "want what they get."

This rationalizing of the bruising effects of overwork as the virtuous expression of good morals is essential to capitalism. Capitalism requires that we prove ourselves "worthy" – of food, shelter, education, leisure – by succeeding in the market.

It's not shocking that a Wisconsin school district is ending free school meals for young children in order to improve their work ethic. If you can't afford food, you don't deserve food.

The cult of the work ethic is the flipside of the aristocrat's leisure-as-status-symbol – the use of hobbies and "idleness" as a way to demonstrate your membership in the ruling class – think of preppie chic, with its emphasis on golf- and boating-clothes.

Early capitalists demanded leisure for themselves and hard work for the proletariat – but so did their enemies. Marxists valorized work and workers, creating the worker-hero.

The 1939 Soviet monument 'Worker and Kolkhoz Woman,' displayed at the Paris World's Fair.

But the left has also always had a pro-leisure/anti work ethic tendency, embodied by the likes of Woody Guthrie, whose "Talking Hard Luck Blues" is a smart and savage assault on the idea that overwork is a virtue.

I held 125 head of wild horses, put saddles and bridles on more that that

Harnessed some of the craziest, wildest teams in the whole country

I rode 14 loco broncos to a dead standstill and let 42 hound dogs lick me all over

Seven times I was bit by hungry dogs and I was chewed all to pieces by

Water moccasins and rattlesnakes on two separate river bottoms

I chopped and I carried 314 armloads of stove wood, 100 buckets of coal

And I carried a gallon of kerosene 18 miles over the mountains, got lost

Lost a pair of shoes in a mud hole

And I chopped and I weeded 48 rows of short cotton, 13 acres of bad corn

And cut sticker weeds out of 11 back yards

"All on accounta' cause I wanted to show her that I was a man a I liked to work."

In "Talking Union," Guthrie says the point is leisure:

You get shorter hours, better working conditions, vacations with pay, take the kids to the seaside.

The work ethic hustle hasn't just robbed us of time for leisure – it's transformed leisure into a self-Taylorizing time-and-motion hustle. Conquering Disneyland requires a project manager, a spreadsheet and a stopwatch.

This is why we call it "late-stage capitalism." It's not just precarious workers logging destructively long shifts and losing the leisure time to imagine, dream, love and live – it's also the 1%, who sometimes pay for the privilege. It's a system that punishes the winners, albeit less severely than the losers.

McCallum closes his essay with some remarks from Andrew Russell, an inmate at a Nebraskan Work Ethic Camp. Russell worked a series of sub-survival jobs before finding a living wage selling meth, a gruelling job that he worked long hours at before his arrest.

Russell actually escaped from the WEC but was turned in by a friend who needed the reward money, and had to serve an extra year as punishment. He served three years and was released in 2019, having earned "enough money to buy a bus ticket to his parents’ house."

"I know how to work just fine, been doing it as a kid. What are they trying to prove? I like to work hard, but there’s gotta be a point, so I don’t feel I completely wasted my time. I wanna do real work. What really matters is everything we do outside our jobs to strengthen our community – that's the real work."

A silhouetted head behind prison bars; the bars are being pried apart by Facebook 'Thumbs Up' icons.

Facebook's war on switching costs (permalink)

If you took a drink every time an economist used "network effects" to explain why Big Tech is so big, you'd get very, very drunk.

To be fair to economists, network effects are important to the Big Tech story.

A system is said to have network effects if it gets better when more people use it. That certainly describes Facebook – you join FB because of the friends that are already there, and then someone else joins because you're there.

But network effects are how FB gets big, but not how it stays big. Because even though you might join FB to talk to your friends, the reason you stay there – despite surveillance and FB's many abusive tactics – is that leaving FB will cut you off from those friends.

There's no technical reason you couldn't stay in touch with FB friends without being an FB user. You can switch phone companies or email providers without walking away from the family, community and customers you're connected to.

FB deliberately engineers its system to block "interoperability" – the ability to plug rival services into its network.

Interop would let non-FB users connect with FB users, and make it so FB users don't have to choose between their community and Facebook's abuses.

The economist's term for this is "switching costs." A "switching cost" is whatever you have to give up to switch between products or services – switching from Audible to a rival platform would cost you all your audiobooks, for example, thanks to Audible's DRM.

Facebook deliberately engineers its products to have high switching costs so that it can impose more pain on its users without losing them. So long as the pain of staying is less than the pain of leaving, Facebook calculates it can maintain its dominance.

Network effects are how Facebook attracts users, but switching costs are how it holds them hostage.

The higher the switching costs, the bigger the shit sandwich Facebook can force you to eat before you leave.

That's why interoperability is such a big deal – because it lowers the switching costs. If you can take your apps or friends or files or media with you when you leave a service, then the service has to treat you better, lest you depart.

Now, I've been accusing Facebook of deliberately raising its switching costs for years, based on the obvious external evidence of this conduct. But to be honest, I didn't have any proof that this was going on…

…Until now.

In its amended antitrust complaint against Facebook, the FTC draws on the internal communications it compelled Facebook to give up in order to build up a factual record of FB's abuse of switching costs, which go all the way to CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

I published a collection of these for EFF's Deeplinks blog, under the title, "Facebook’s Secret War on Switching Costs."

Here's some highlights:

Para 87: Zuckerberg's M&A chief writes to him to say, "imo, photos (along with comprehensive/smart contacts and unified messaging) is perhaps one of the most important ways we can make switching costs very high for users…

"…if we are where all users’ photos reside because the upoading [sic] (mobile and web), editing, organizing, and sharing features are best in class, will be very tough for a user to switch if they can’t take those photos and associated data/comments with them."

Translation: "I figured out a way to get our users to eat a very large shit sandwich indeed. Just take all their family photos hostage!"

Para 187: An exec explains how FB is preventing G+ from succeeding: "[P]eople who are big fans of G+ are having a hard time convincing their friends to participate because…switching costs would be high due to friend density on Facebook."

Translation: Our users would rather be on G+ but we've stopped them because leaving means leaving behind their friends, because we won't interconnect with Google's service.

Para 212: One of Zuck's execs sends him a memo reading, " if we are where all users’ photos reside . . . will be very tough for a user to switch if they can’t take those photos and associated data/comments with them."

There's that shit sandwich again.

I'm so excited to see this stuff in the FTC complaint – not because it vindicates me (it was obvious that this was going on, though having the receipts is nice), but because it suggests that US antitrust enforcers are homing in on switching costs as an anticompetitive force.

The problem with the network effects story is that it's a counsel of despair: "Well, this company has attained scale and now there's no way they can lose."

That's bullshit. You don't search Altavista with your Cray.

Network effects inflate services, but low switching costs let the air out again. Interop is the escape valve that keeps big tech firms from sucking up all the oxygen and asphyxiating their rivals.

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Cameron Diaz to star in biopic

#20yrsago Copyist religion with DRM-breaking as a holy rite

#15yrsago I, Row-Boat

#15yrsago BPI demands criminal enforcement against pirate CDs

#1yrago Outdoor education beat TB in 1907

#1yrago Principles for platform regulation

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (

Currently writing:

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Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

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  • The Shakedown, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press 2022

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