On Bullshit Jobs and Enshittification

I’m working on a new series about a country bumpkin who reverses the enshittification of magic.

So I just read and reviewed Bullshit Jobs, a nonfiction book that touches on a phenomenon that a lot of Westerners can observe. Big business seems to have a reverse Midas effect, where it turns good things to crap instead of to gold. Cory Doctorow wrote about this and the term entered pop culture. On a related note, an awful lot of people are employed doing meaningless tasks, ticking boxes and generally doing nothing more than covering the collective asses of their bosses. The number of middle managers in America has skyrocketed in recent years.

It’s great that so many people are recognizing this as a societal problem. It’s validating to know I’m not crazy. But I don’t think there is common agreement on the root cause of the problem. 

From my point of view as a lifelong artist and writer… everyone is an artist and writer these days. Everyone believes they have something worth saying to the world. And for the first time in human history, everyone has the means to do so. In an attention economy, the people who are able to buy or beg the most attention from the masses are the winners. These are the people who influence everyone else. It’s all about popularism. 

A CEO of a big conglomerate wants to claim they are a force for good in the world. Their junior executives feel pressure to help make that boss look good, and their underlings feel that same pressure to make their bosses look good. So we have an economy of ego-soothing. Let’s say the CEO had a power dinner with another CEO and they shake hands on a deal. It doesn’t matter if they made a good deal or a bad deal. It’s not about whether using Salesforce will be beneficial. It’s about pretending that it’s a win-win so the boss looks like they made a smart choice.  That is where all the true emphasis is. The junior executives will scramble to maintain that illusion.  If the fallout entails enshittification, it’s all about kicking blame to the bottom so none of the executives or middle managers take the hit.  Problems don’t get resolved.  They get duct-taped at best. There’s a lot of churn at the bottom. 

The book Bullshit Jobs advocates reducing the average work week to 15 hours or less, since so many jobs/careers are extraneous.  I think that would result in short-term happiness for a lot of people, and it might have longer term effects that are positive. The idea has merit on its own. However, I am not convinced it would solve the entrenched problems of an attention economy.  Everyone wants to be heard.  Social climbers will continue to exploit the attention of the masses—and if most people suddenly had a lot more free time, that would give celebrities a lot more leverage.  Taylor Swift’s fans might organize to make a fan film, and that’s harmless fun.  Or a dangerous cult leader might entice millions of bored young people.  In other words, I don’t think that giving everyone more leisure time solves the pernicious problems engendered by societal wealth. 

In a lot of ways, the problem of excess jobs/wealth is like the problem of excess calories available. Overall, people are living longer and are not likely to die from starvation, but yeah, obesity has skyrocketed. Likewise, people now have easy access to a lot of leisure time.  Overall, people are more creatively expressive and not likely to die as overworked slaves doing hard menial labor.  But yeah, busywork nonsense jobs have skyrocketed.  

The universal basic income scenario, I think, does not address the root problems of massive societal wealth and an attention economy.  If people are truly unhappy drawing a high salary while actually doing nothing useful, then I’m not sure how drawing a low welfare income while actually doing nothing useful will cure that.  It sounds worse. It sounds like a potential recipe for resentment and despair—especially from people who actually do useful things.   

I hope society stops incentivizing salaried drudge work by forcing that to be the only possible way for average citizens to get healthcare and family care. We need more people building their own dreams, or researching a cure for cancer, instead of feeling trapped in a paradigm where they need to sell the best years of their lives in order to afford children and care for elderly parents and get basic necessities met. Why do self-employed creatives or innovators have to jump through a zillion legal and financial hoops for mere access to the basic societal services that a salaried box ticking middle manager automatically gets? 

Home loans and mortages.  Credit scores.  Insurance plans that function as automatic gatekeepers.  I’m not saying these things should necessarily be gotten rid of or redistributed, but *access* to them should be equalized. There’s no reason to gatekeep it on the basis of whether you’re white-collar, blue-collar, or self-employed. There’s no reason to turn managers (and people who pretend to work) into an unintentionally privileged class. That’s incentivizing the wrong things in society and civilization. That’s the problem I would want addressed. 

Feel free to have at me in the comments or wherever! You know where to find me on social media and email.

The Wandering Inn, by Pirateaba

I just marathoned the audiobook editions of The Wandering Inn by Pirateaba, one of the largest web serials ever. I am agog.

10.1 million words, so far.
2.5 million of it is in audio, so far. That’s like 200+ hours of listening material.

The TWI series is actually bigger than my Torth series, which is a measly 1.1 million words in its entirety. TWI has more main characters, a larger world, and a bigger word count. It’s bigger than Game of Thrones and The Wheel of Time combined. The author is still putting out 2 chapters every week. They (no idea what gender the author is) have an active fan community, 4,000+ patrons on Patreon, and they (or their publisher?) hired the most talented female audiobook narrator I’ve ever heard.

And the series is awesome. I really got into it. Fair warning: The first book suffers from some amateur storytelling, including a main character that is hard to like or connect with until later on. I nearly quit a few times. But I’ve learned that my favorite series have problematic beginnings, so I pushed through, and I’m really glad I did. I’m ranking this one right up there with my all-time favorites. The author gets better and better, and the series is pure fun. It has the magical ingredient: Really outstanding interpersonal character dynamics.

It’s interesting that it remains addictive even without any majorly oppressive grimdark plot thread. Like Beware of Chicken and He Who Fights With Monsters and other SFF web serials that took off, TWI is light rather than dark. It’s fun rather than grim.

By comparison, I’m worried about how my series will fare on RoyalRoad. Mine just isn’t that light. It has a majorly oppressive galactic empire that needs to be defeated. One of my main characters goes super dark in Book 1, and spends the rest of the series on a redemption arc. Readers love that character–but only if they get past the beginning “gauntlet” of evil oppressive crap that he gets involved in.

I do have length on my side. 450+ chapters ready to go. But mine is finite. It has an ending.

I want a career like Pirateaba’s! They are incredible. They are the Brandon Sanderson of the web serial world.

You know what else? I think this whole web serial phenomenon speaks to the state of the publishing industry. The Wandering Inn is just as good and just as much fun as The Wheel of Time. If this was the 1990s, it might be the new Wheel of Time. Yet here in the 2020s, it’s an underground fandom instead of a trad pub juggernaut.

I think that’s due to the way algorithms are causing readers and literary agents to overvalue trends and books that are already popular, while also tamping down emergent stuff with unrealized potential. Pirateaba’s series has great word-of-mouth, which is allowing them to break out of the underground niche a bit and realize some of their vast potential. I’m sure 4,000+ patrons has enabled them to write full-time and hire an assistant and all that. But they only got there by writing an addictive series with millions of words and consistently adding new chapters. And even with their success, their fandom is still quite underground.

We live in unfortunate times for the arts, I think.

I’m really glad to have discovered Pirateaba, even if it was through underground channels where adventurous readers hang out. I think they have a great career ahead of them.

Beware of Chicken, by CasualFarmer

Beware of Chicken: A Xianxia Cultivation NovelBeware of Chicken: A Xianxia Cultivation Novel by CasualFarmer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As a writer, one can learn a lot from this breath of fresh air in the Fantasy genre.

One can write secondary world fantasy without war. Without prison scenes or gladiator scenes or slogging through a hellscape scenes. That doesn’t mean this book lacks suspense or escalating stakes or power progression. They’re there. There’s a magic system and fun characters, including a very proud rooster who was unexpectedly uplifted to sapience.

As SFF writers, we learn that our heroes are only as powerful/smart as our villains. In other words, we’re supposed to create strong villains to challenge our heroes. In this book, the strong villains are implied off-screen. They’re … somewhere, causing wars and stuff on some other continent. Sometimes local villains or bullies show up, thinking they’re badass and that they can easily defeat the simple farmer. Jin defeats these with ease, sometimes without even realizing it, because he’s so powerful. Then he goes back to farming or planning weddings or building snowmen and playing with friends. He is the Hidden Master. So cool.

Watching a supposedly simple farmer defeat bad guys with ludicrous ease is unexpectedly satisfying. It’s like that scene with Mat and his quarterstaff in Book 3 of the Wheel of Time.

I never thought I’d enjoy a book that’s all about mundane stuff, albeit in a fantasy world with magic. But this was just cute. And engaging. It’s like I got a book version of Stardew Valley instead of World of Warcraft or something. I would actually like to read the next one, when it comes out.

Consider me a disciple of CasualFarmer.

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Book Review of “The Circle” by Dave Eggers

Mob rule with constant surveillance

The glamour of a Silicon Valley tech utopia rings true, and so does the emerging mob rule, and the shifting values of society, and the wedding of big corporation with surveillance government. These are all things that I think about a lot, since I explore mob rule and constant surveillance in my own writing. I am thrilled to see a successful author who dares to dig deep into those themes. I want to hug Dave Eggers just for that.

The Circle brings up great discussion points related to privacy, the spread of information, the peer pressure of social media, and public sharing of everything. The dialogue is very well-written and plausible, and the prose is smooth sailing, pulling me right along as a reader.

But there are some deeper flaws. The point-of-view character is Mae, and the author made her unreliable, lacking in personality, and sort of stupid. He clearly made her that way on purpose, and I’m guessing he did it to emphasize how an “ordinary person” can drink the Kool-Aid of a seeming utopia that exists at the expense of privacy. I like that character choice. It should have worked well … except Mae is barely plausible as an ordinary person. She accepts every suggestion and opinion of her bosses, and she’s oblivious to other people’s pain. She values privacy at first, but then capitulates without any thought or rationale. She has casual sex with strangers, without any of the worries that real women have. She’s just shallow. She comes across as a generic hot chick as written by a guy who probably views women with condescension.

This is a cautionary tale. In my opinion, it could come across as a stronger wake-up call to society if 1) the main character had stronger “nice-but-naive” traits, and 2) if the pro-privacy people in the book used stronger arguments. Not a single one of them mentions the major problems inherent in mob rule. Everyone in this book assumes that sharing everything ensures that crimes can be avoided, yet no one brings up the obvious argument that society decides what a crime is. In some countries, it’s a crime for women to laugh in public, or to get urgent medical care without a male chaperone. They never talk about that in their visions of a global utopia. The whole society is just apparently derp-de-derp oblivious.

It’s still a really good book, and a really relevant tale for our times. Please read it if you’re on the fence. I’d be happy to discuss it.

The Circle by Dave Eggers

Book Review: Groom of the Tyrannosaur Queen

Groom of the Tyrannosaur QueenGroom of the Tyrannosaur Queen by Daniel Bensen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book explores domination/subordination in a light-hearted way, there is some truly brilliant dialogue, and it also teaches you about dinosaurs. It’s not your typical rah-rah-brah testosterone fueled sci-fi, despite the pulpy cover. There is enough action to oversaturate a Michael Bay film, and there are cavemen and sexy princesses and high tech powersuits and, yes, a tyrannosaurus rex on a rampage during a stormy battle scene. And time travel. But come on, those things are all necessary to the story. They really are!

You know an author’s got amazing talent when they can tie all of those elements together into a coherent story that’s satisfying and fun to read.

© 2024 Abby Goldsmith