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The stresses of 24 hour creative work: How much would Aristotle blog?

New York Times writes about the stressful
lifestyle of for-pay bloggers
. The bloggers get rewarded for being
prolific and quick to comment, but since the Internet never sleeps they feel a
pressure not to sleep either. The result is physical and emotional stress that
never lets up – especially since often the home is also their workplace. This
is just one example of the high stresses of many new creative class
occupations. Is there any way out of knowledge-economy workaholism?

In traditional industrial-era jobs tasks
had well-defined endpoints or worked in cycles, set by handing over parts to
the next person, the closing of the factory/office or regular deliveries. But
in most creative tasks there are no predetermined endpoints – it is up to you
to determine when your work is good enough to be finished. Thanks to modern
communications we can work from home or anywhere, dissolving the boundaries
between work and free time. By nature a global society is a 24 hour society
where something that might be important is happening every moment. And for most
creative jobs the job itself is immensely rewarding: you do not want to stop.

That is the central paradox of this kind of
creative stress: it comes not from a lack of freedom and resources, but a
surfeit of them. There is no harsher boss than one’s own interests.
Unfortunately we humans are amazingly bad at recognizing and doing what makes
us happy
, and increased choices often makes us unhappy through irrelevant

Some might argue that
bloggers and blog-readers alike would be better off if we just agreed to blog
on office hours (similarly for programmers, inventors, media…); let people in
other time zones care about the news while we sleep. But that is unlikely to
happen – inspiration strikes at any time of the day and the logic of
competition would undermine the scheme. While we may take collective action to
avoid the most destructive incentive schemes, it seems problematic to stop society’s
most creative and entrepreneurial elements from doing that they like. We just
want to avoid them overdoing it.

Maybe a more feasible way
would be the culturing of virtue. The problem with creative stress is that one
normally good aspect of life crowds out other aspects of life due to our
habitual (but freely chosen) actions. Virtue ethics deals with the habits and
behaviours that allow a person to live a good life; these are virtues.
Aristotle argued that each moral virtue balanced between excesses or
deficiencies – having a good work ethic is somewhere in between
laziness and workaholism. But this is something we have to learn by habit and
experience: we cannot usually figure out how to work the right amount before we
begin a job. That is why we need better ways to observe our life and whether it
is actually going in the right direction. This may include technological monitoring, but the key issue is  both paying attention and acting on it – a habit we have to train and culture.

Traditional virtues such as
prudence, justice or courage also had supporting cultural structures: stories
about virtuous heroes, examples of real problems and how people had dealt with
them, education, ways of socially recognizing and rewarding people showing (or at least
striving for) the virtues. Today we need to invent new virtues: equanimity in
the face of choice, temperance in the face of information flooding, the ability
to quit something deeply engaging when it is time, accurate estimation of how
much something is worth to us, recognizing cognitive biases affecting our
judgement and many more. In order learn these virtues we need to build up the
cultural structures acknowledging the new virtues, collect the stories about
bloggers showing info-temperance (and the horrible fate of the info-gluttonous
blogger) and recognize that we are still far away from a mature information
society – we are inventing it as we go along.


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1 Comment on this post

  1. “The bloggers get rewarded for being prolific and quick to comment”

    *chuckles* And that is quite often the same problem as we see in the MSM: volume and quickness, usually work against accuracy and thoughtfulness.

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