Stories from the show
Spanish software project
I have several bullshit job stories. The most scandalous one is this: I spent from 2010 to 2018 working on a gigantic software project that got finally cancelled. Its purpose was to manage a public Spanish university, and around fifteen well paid people worked full-time on it. This project was supposed to be deployed on production at January 1st 2012, but since it was so gigantic and complex, by that date only a tiny fraction was completed --let's say 2%. Despite the overwhelming evidence that this application was too complex to handle, our friendly Spanish government kept paying for it. 2012 passed by. 2013 passed by. 2014 passed by. 2015 passed by. 2016 passed by. It was just too much --there was no end in sight. It was the software equivalent of trying to build a whole city from scratch. Finally, in 2017, they decided to abort such mess; but because they didn't know what to do instead, we kept working on the project for months despite being already cancelled. We even kept having meetings with end users, showing them new functionalities, despite everybody knowing that they were not going to be used. It wasn't until February 2018 that our bosses, once and for all, told us to stop working on the project. Eight years of work were deleted and we have never talked about it since. Nobody was held responsible, nobody was fired, nobody was even publicly criticized. Officially, that project never existed and millions of euros weren't wasted on a horrifying, meaningless void.
Newspaper copy editor
I’m the copy editor for a small local newspaper. My job is part-time, but even then, I spend about fifty percent of my time in a stale, fluorescent office waiting for reporters to finish their articles.
But it gets better. I believe I catch about 99% of typos and stylistic mistakes, and I haven’t heard a single complaint about anything I’m responsible for from any readers since I began working here a couple of months ago, but my boss catches every last little mistake I miss—she always finds that last 1%. She then calls me into her office to explain myself. I once had to do this five separate times in a single day. This same boss recently published an editorial calling for people to protest immigration. She thinks she’s a moderate, but she’s actually a fascist.
But it gets EVEN MORE BETTERER. The newspaper depends on ad revenue in order to function. If even the slightest critique of local business makes it into the paper, we’re finished. Nearly every reporter has a family with young kids, and so these same reporters are rightfully scared of saying what they think and then losing their jobs. Though they’re nearly as left-wing as I am, they have to bend over backwards for the owners of local businesses. They do, however, believe in reporting both sides of an issue—even if one side says it’s raining, the other side says it’s sunny, and you look outside, and there’s a forest fire.
And so what really hurts, however, is the lack of context in this paper’s reporting. Sometimes we’ll publish stories about contentious issues, but we’ll never get the proper context. ... We can't get the proper context, because doing that gives your work an automatic leftist bent. As a result, not just fifty percent, but nearly every moment I spend at work is wasted. I’m either waiting for articles to come in, or I’m editing articles that lack the proper context. We’ll hear about what a government official wants to propose, for instance, but we won’t hear about how, last year, that official was caught taking bribes.
I have no control over the content of articles. I submitted an editorial about ... climate change ... but my boss took it, angrily told me she didn’t always have control over the editorials that are published (?), and then never spoke of it again.
Nonetheless, I attempt to fight back in a couple of ways. For one, being the copy editor means I know a lot about what’s going on locally because I have to read every article like four times. ... In spite of the lack of context, I know far more about local issues than I did a few months ago. All of these dovetail with national and international issues.
I also dream, daily, of unionizing the office, and think I might actually be able to pull it off. The only thing stopping me is the fear that I’ll get everyone fired.
(Private) ombudsman company
I work in a privatised ombudsman office dealing with complaints about power companies.
Nominally, my job is identifying trends in complaints, then working with companies to address the root cause. In reality, the companies don’t want to fix anything that’d hurt their profits or take any extra work, and my workplace is too conservative to pressure them effectively. Worse, we don’t actually get enough data to run analysis on, because we only see a small subset of all complaints.
So in reality, I repeat to my management what the frontline staff tell me about problems, and it gets left there. I’ve also ended up in charge of creating more BS reporting requirements for others in my workplace at my boss’ behest.
I’m at my most useful when I do odd jobs, like tech support, for others in the office. Most of my time is spent browsing news sites and listening to leftist podcasts like Ashes Ashes, while looking busy.
The highlight of my workday is my bowel movement, because it’s an escape from an open plan office. This message was typed from my porcelain throne.
I’m grateful that, for the most part, my job doesn’t actively harm anyone. It’s low pressure, and the people aren’t reprehensible. I’m planning to stay long enough that I can get some training on offer, and that it won’t look too short on my CV.
Digital phone books
I used to work for a company that helped phone books get on the internet. We'd make them an app/website to search their data, basically a klunkier and less complete alternative to Google Maps that only worked in one city. I could see their traffic numbers and most of them saw very little use. Our clients (phone book owners) were pretty tech-illiterate, and they knew the internet was killing their business, but had no idea how to deal with it.
If they got any real value out of our services, it was probably just being able to tell potential advertisers that their ad would also be online (neglecting to mention how few views it would get, if they even understood that themselves).
My specific job was to take the data from the phone book companies and and convert it to our format in Excel. Most of them used the same three or four formats with slight differences, so after a while I was able to automate most of it with Python. By the time I left the company, that part of my job was down to a couple hours a week.
I also did some customer support, which was less bullshit, but altogether I probably only spent 10-20 hours a week actually doing work. Even that was only needed because our customers of the company call into us when they can’t resolve complaints with the company. ‘We’ (really the actually-not-BS frontline staff) then open communication between them and the staff at the company. Eventually we help them come to a resolution. I talk more with the staff of companies than the complainants.
Thanks for doing this. I wholeheartedly believe in the BS jobs hypothesis, and this problem isn’t talked about enough.
Machine learning with protected data
I work at a tech startup and definitely have a typically bullshit job... What's... interesting to me is how much bullshit there is in the AI work we do, due to the artificial restrictions on how available data is shared.
My company provides a nearly unambiguous public good, which is rare in a field dominated by military-grade stalking technology and cheap ad optimizations. Nevertheless there's a bunch of competing startups basically all doing the same thing in the field. The programming needed to develop and deploy the models we use is minimal and mostly cribbed from established sources, such that one firm worth of labor could provide close to the same service as 50 competing firms full of developers.
The only real difference between the companies is their proprietary data. But models are more effective as they are fed more data, so basically the market incentive to hide that data from one another ensures that 1.) there are many firms worth of employees doing identical work on the same problem and 2.) all of their solutions are inferior compared to what would be possible if there was one firm working with all the different firm's data.
Obviously there are some limits to this, like the amount of work you need to gather and label data doesn't scale down the same way training AI over the data does. But the general idea is that in capitalist tech development, because everyone is incentivized to hide their solutions, there's way too many people working on the same problems. It's definitely "real work," in the sense that it's difficult and engaging and produces actual outcomes, but it's also bullshit in the sense that once a solution exists in code anywhere you can freely copy and distribute it without any of the same spatial/material limits you would have with, eg, factory production of a consumer good.
I really, really enjoyed this particular podcast as I have faced many of the situations described within it myself.
Currently a junior at a well-regarded engineering school. I've noticed, during my summer internship and even in many of my student friends' STEM-internships and full-time jobs, that many of the tasks they do are quite pointless. My field, for example, is the field of construction and project management. Within my internship, sometimes I do have to grind just to get a project bid done on time, but many other times, I literally have no work for days and I just sit there thinking, "What am I doing with my life?"
To be frank, I simply chose this field since it was the field most particular to my already-minimal interests in the STEM sector, and I would rather be training in arm-wrestling and MMA, alongside creating my world (/r/Worldbuilding) and writing a novel and manga adaptation based on it. I would rather find myself achieving creative pursuits rather than climb the corporate ladder simply for the accumulation of money (I don't want that much money anyway). I simply chose this profession to keep me warm, fed, and sheltered with quite an extra bit of disposable income and savings for my creativity and hobbies.
I will be out of university (hopefully) in 1.5 years, if things don't go majorly wrong. And I can't wait to better further myself in my working life, mostly towards my creative endeavors!
Thank you both very much for this episode!
I never considered my job a bullshit job until this episode. It largely isn't (I'm a nurse), but you definitely caught my attention when you started talking about how traditionally non-bullshit jobs are subject to more and more bullshit tasks within them. So much of my time is spent doing bullshit tasks to please management that have nothing to do with patient care, and may actually cause harm. Here's a great example:
The other day, I was told to get a patient up to a chair. It's not good for the lungs to be in a lying position 24/7, so on the surface, this seems to be a reasonable request. Well, this patient was intubated and sedated. To get a sedated person out of bed, you have to use a chair that goes flat, slide the patient over, then adjust it to a reclining position so they aren't truly sitting (the chair is kind of like this one, but you wouldn't put the back all the way up to that 90 degree angle because the patient would fall out). But we have these fancy new beds (like this) that allow us to get the patient into the exact same position without having to spend all that time and effort sliding them over. How exactly does it provide greater benefit the patient to spend a ton of time and energy sliding them all over the place to a sitting position as opposed to just putting them in a sitting position where they're at? I'm told, well, it doesn't, but if we move them to a chair, we can check a box that says we got the patient out of bed and this makes our hospital look good. Well, I tried putting this patient in a sitting position using the fancy bed before actually getting them up and it's a good thing I did because their vital signs did not tolerate it at all. This led to further interventions for that patient to re-stabilize them. I would have wasted a good chunk of time sliding them over only to have to slide them back over and probably had to do even more interventions when they didn't tolerate the activity. Not to mention what could have happened to tubes and wires with us sliding them, or what could have happened to our other unstable patient while we were busy doing this bullshit task.
Like teaching, medicine is full of this kind of bullshit-ification, box ticking, and charting tons of things we don't actually have time to do, and it is getting bad enough to burn out medical professionals from doctors to nurses. The idea, of course, isn't that we actually do them, but that if something happens because we don't do them, people look at the individual nurse or physician instead of the system that created too many tasks for the staffing ratios they pay for to do. I've personally seen nurses fired for not having enough time to chart or do things correctly, then something bad happened because of it. For a more national example, just look at the medical error that killed the patient at Vanderbilt when the nurse pulled vecuronium instead of versed. No one is asking why she didn't follow protocol, just crucifying her for not doing it. Should she lose her license? Probably. Should Vanderbilt as a system be off the hook for the actions of a "rogue" nurse? Definitely not. Most of the time, when you see something in the news that seems to target an individual medical professional, there is something systemic behind it, and a lot of it is just because we spend so much time on bullshit that we don't always have time to get done what truly matters.
I would say that I have a semi-bullshit job. I work in the legal sector and would say my job most closely resembles a little of flunky and a lot of flack catcher. I had no idea going into the job the degree to which I would become the whipping boy. I don't want to go into too much detail as to preserve my identity but it's my job (partly) to ensure that my employees' reputation remains untarnished.
When I do my job well, my employees look great, when my employees do their job badly, I look inept, sometimes negligent. Sure, we work for money but there is something peculiarly soul-draining in taking responsibility for other people's mistakes when you have absolutely zero culpability. But this extra duty is not recognised, of course. It's purely an administrative position and has absolutely nothing to do with reputation management. And because it's tacitly assumed you will behave accordingly it's not something that could enter into an assessment of your value to the organisation.
The bullshittiness of the bullshit jobs is not taken into account. You are, of course, expected to be grateful to have a job and if you have a little time to scour the web for amusing cat pictures then more power to you. We are reluctant to draw attention to the bullshittiness as we worry that this might give our employers excuse to reduce our wages. As an employer, why would you consider the bullshittiness as reason for a raise? You don't find your job rewarding? It's not called a job for nothing.
And that's why UBI is such a brilliant idea. You see that degree of suffering? We can put a real value on that. I do not find filing records fulfilling and a manifestation of my life's purpose. Perhaps we can talk about that?Published