Unnecessary Work Blights Modernity


A friend of mine once observed that most of his cell phone bandwidth was caused by automatic downloads of updates to applications he never used. He cannot get rid of them because they are part of the default installation, and so removing them leads to them re-installing themselves.

Why, one might ask, do we have constant updates to just about everything? The suits have an answer: for security, or better performance. And yet, these applications are rarely used, and with each update, they grow bigger and lose focus on whatever it was they did originally.

The companies force us to have them. The applications force updates. And then, the cycle begins again. At each iteration, the phone works more slowly and has less space because of the increasing bloat.

This process resembles most of the work in the West now, which is unnecessary, pro-forma “make-work” created by the management structure.

A company decides it needs an application. Its business managers make the right deals to get it included with an operating system. Then, a manager is appointed to develop the application. She hires programmers, and because the higher-ups have imposed unrealistic requirements and limited the budget, cuts corners.

The resulting application is bad, but that is good. Otherwise, the manager could not get more money approved. More money comes in, but she must demonstrate it is necessary, so she hires more people. Now these people need reasons to stay employed, so she begins introducing feature creep.

At first, the changes are to improve obvious non-functional parts of the app. However, the really big fixes have to wait, because those are hard and could go wrong. Instead, the team focuses on window-dressing and adding unnecessary function to cover the buzzwords of the day. This is why all apps connect to the dying Twitter platform.

The incentive is on the manager to invent nonsense “needs” that will keep her team employed, and break the app so that future updates are needed. They add Twitter function, but now email does not work. They fix email, but now Twitter does not work. On and on, to keep the project alive long enough.

Long enough for… what? For the manager to declare victory and get hired elsewhere. The project now passes to a new manager. In the eyes of upper management, the app is a success, so his job is to do essentially nothing. This means that he can add new features, as long as they are not used, because that way, he cannot be wrong.

The higherups look down and approve.

Five years later, the app — say, a weather update or address book — is the size of an operating system in the late 1990s. Huge parts of it either do not work or work so badly that no one uses them, which means that no error reports come in and these parts are on that basis judged to be a success.

At this point, The Peter Principle kicks in. Any manager who is good enough to fix this app will cause conflict by pointing out that it has major problems, needs an overhaul, and by implication, that past shining progress reports were nonsense and bloviation.

Management cannot have that. Instead, they appoint people who are easy to control, so that higher management jobs are not at risk. This means that the person overseeing the app now is incompetent, or of such limited options that he will never rise above this point. His goal then is to never touch the important stuff, and focus on the unimportant.

At every level of our society this process repeats. The idea of “accountability,” which is the notion of responsibility reduced to appearance to others who do not understand the process, ensures that any action with risk will result in a firing, but the usual incompetence and mental laziness will make a thriving career.

If you wonder why every aspect of our society seems to be simultaneously glitching, this is why: people are risk-averse due to accountability, and simultaneously motivated to address trends and buzzwords, which means that the essential task of any product is just about forgotten.

People tolerate it until another option becomes available because complaining is like screaming at a wall. The complaint form does not have the right options, or it goes to fifteenth-tier technical support, which can only make a note in the complainer’s personal file which no one else ever sees.

On top of this, our society has piled burdens. Regulations consist mostly of paperwork requirements, so the team spends most of its time on that. Fear of lawsuits means that rigorous processes exist for every change to anything, so most changes are never attempted because they are both risky and mind-numbingly tedious.

Add to this unions whose goal is to ensure collective reward, which means that the incompetents get rewarded and cannot be fired, right along with the competent ones. This drives the competent away because they cannot exercise their skill, which is fixing things, because fixing things endangers management and unions.

Then we throw in affirmative action. A company can be sued for not hiring a woman or minority, so when the choice involves one of those, they always hire. This pads the rolls with people who, it is discovered after they are hired, have only one competence, which is being from a protected group. They now cannot be fired.

Further, women in the workforce tend to focus on details at the expense of the whole. They will ensure that every single aspect of the non-working function to the non-working app is precisely as demanded, and spend all of their time on that, while ignoring the basic fact of its dysfunction.

In the meantime, workers are bored out of their minds because their tasks are incremental. Management and regulations love this because it separates everything out into little boxes which can then be managed directly, instead of through a chain of command or organically, like by seeing what works and keeping only that.

This fosters a Soviet-style bureaucracy onto the free market. Our fear of job instability leads to something worse, which is useless jobs, which are then more unstable because when the time comes to cut, who cares if the app gets lost — they can farm it out to India for the useless updates, save money and duck unions, lawsuits and regulators.

The workers, like panicked monkeys hearing a leopard cry in the night, demand more unions and regulations. Management approves because these make business more expensive for the little guy, which makes blatant incompetence less likely to get displaced.

It all goes on like this, a sick circus of people wasting their irreplaceable time with useless activity, until the economy collapses. Then everyone gets fired, things get reshuffled, and they can start the process all over again.

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