Essays on Technology and Culture

Whether the Lean Lifestyle

There’s a sense that the Valley thinks we should run our lives with the same brutal efficiency as a lean startup. Constant work, with an intense focus on quantification. Instead of a hobby, you have a side hustle. If you’re lucky, that side hustle is something you’d like to do anyway, but if you’re into something unprofitable like fiction writing, macrame, or stamp collecting, you can be a Lyft driver or a TaskRabbit. You take the income from your side hustle, and invest it in self-tracking gadgets that help you eat, sleep, and exercise more efficiently. You can experiment on yourself with different diet and fitness regimens for optimum efficiency—or just switch to an all Soylent diet so you don’t have to eat, let alone cook. All the more time to devote to your side hustle(s), and I guess your full-time job, if you’re lucky enough to have one.

Should we be living like this? Is the end goal of our lives to just be efficient machines, churning out our widgets, working at peak productivity, and constantly hustling to monetize everything? I worry when I see the latest new app or service for logging yet another set of numbers that’s supposed to represent something about us. As the American economy stagnates, more people push going into business for yourself. “Make an app,” they say, even if the app gold rush is over. Now, the only people making it rich are the people selling the Kim Kardashian game, or the people selling how-to guides for making smartphone apps. Be a freelancer, or a consultant! How soon before that market becomes saturated, too?

And who benefits from all this efficiency? The quantified app makers, the how-to book sellers, the weirdo who makes Soylent, and advertisers, advertisers, advertisers. Because, of course, our downtime—if we’re lucky enough to have it— can be spent on social media, Netflix, and ordering crap from Amazon to fill up the rooms we’re not renting out on AirBnB. We’re not that far from THX–1138, when you think about it, right down to roommates that just occupy wasted space. “Work hard, increase production, prevent accidents and be happy” could be any “sharing economy” company’s advice to its workers. The better a worker you are, the more your reputation grows, and even that can be quantified. And someone takes a little off the top to keep it all going. If you question it, they’ll tell you that good jobs are gone for good. It’s either be an entrepreneur, work the sharing economy, or to hell with you.

I don’t necessarily believe that good jobs are gone for good. I do believe there are things we can’t do with Big Data and algorithms, that there will always be a place for real human beings to do real human things. What I write above is a worst-case scenario, but it’s important to think about. Can we be human if we’re just constantly working away, whether it’s at our day jobs, our side hustles, our “sharing economy” gig, or all of the above? It’s even possible that we could quantify our social interactions, earning Whuffie for conversing with someone who’s algorithmically determined to be on our wavelength. (Don’t laugh, that’s how Tinder works!) If you’re an awkward geek, that might make interaction easier, but then we lose the human ability to fail and learn from our failures to communicate. The brutal quest for efficiency means that we never get to truly live. Let’s not be afraid to examine the assumptions of the Valley’s ideal of what work will be in the future—at least for non-programmers and CEOs. We have a lot to lose.