Just finished "The Burnout Society" by Byung-Chul Han.
It's a very short, but dense philosophical book about some obvious, but overlooked trends in recent times. I decided to share some of them here because I think we developers have an especially large blind spot when it comes to them. (If the essence of writing is re-writing, then the essence of reading philosophy texts is re-reading philosophy texts, so here comes the first quote:)
"Twenty-first-century society is no longer a disciplinary society, but rather an achievement society. Also, its inhabitants are no longer obedience-subjects” but “achievement-subjects.” They are entrepreneurs of themselves".
"... after a certain level of productivity obtains, the negativity of prohibition impedes further expansion. The positivity of Can is much more efficient than the negativity of Should. Therefore, the social unconscious switches from Should to Can. The achievement-subject is faster and more productive than the obedience-subject."
Sounds familiar? What side-projects are you working on? What new tech stacks are you exploring in your free time? What books to read, which courses to take, what open-source project to contribute to...
And the best part - you CHOOSE to do that. Nobody is forcing you. You are developing into the best possible version of yourself. In short, you win. And society wins because of your increased productivity and commitment to your passions which translates into more and better products and services a.k.a. growth and development.
So everybody wins?
Well, not quite according to Byung-Chul Han:
"The achievement-subject stands free from external instances of domination forcing it to work and exploiting it. It is subject to no one if not to itself. However, the absence of external domination does not abolish the structure of compulsion. It makes freedom and compulsion coincide. The achievement-subject gives itself over to freestanding compulsion in order to maximize performance. In this way, it exploits itself. Auto-exploitation is more efficient than allo-exploitation [other's exploiting you] because a deceptive feeling of freedom accompanies it. The exploiter is simultaneously the exploited. Exploitation now occurs without domination. That is what makes self-exploitation so efficient."
The compulsion (the action or state of forcing or being forced to do something) is still here, it's just self-inflicted. We push ourselves with our guard down. As a result we allow levels of exploitation that we will never ever put up with had they come from outside.
Byung-Chul Han mentions some factors that exacerbate this dynamic even further:
- the gratification crisis
"A definitive work, as the result of completed labor is no longer possible today. Contemporary relations of production stand in the way of conclusion. Instead, one works into the open."
This is especially relevant for developers. Our work is perpetual work-in-progress almost by definition. There is always more to do. (1)
- less reflection and more ...
" [...] hyperattention. A rash change of focus between different
tasks, sources of information, and processes characterizes this
scattered mode of awareness."
I am pretty sure all of us have felt the tremendous pull towards hyperattention and the almost Sisyphean effort it is to battle it. We forget to pause. (2)
- (1) + (2) = hyperactivity
"If one had only the power to do (something) and no power
not to do, it would lead to fatal hyperactivity."
For me the costs of this sneaky dynamic for a number of instances over the years were diminished health, failed relationships and friendships.
What I have learned and forgotten and re-learned is that the power NOT to do (negative potency) seems to be the only weapon. Most importantly, it has to be exercised consciously and continuously or it will lose its vital strength. The best catchy one-liner (mantra) I have heard is that "We have to have the discipline not to have discipline".
Have you felt the self-exploitation? It is really that bad?
What do you do when you should do nothing :) ?