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.

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.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

Wheel Of Time: Ep01—03 on Amazon Prime

I watched the first three episodes of the Wheel of Time, which is an adaptation of one of my favorite book series. Is the internet ready for my hot take?

First off, let me acknowledge that a lot of time and work went into creating this show. That is true for any show, but it is particularly true for a big budget epic fantasy with an international audience. They spent that budget. Efforts were made. It is easy to be an armchair critic. But…

I am a writer who went to pro fiction boot camps and film school, and my inner critic never shuts off. I wish someone would hand me that budget to create my own series, because yes, I thought they made a few mediocre and poor decisions.

Without giving away spoilers? Here’s my take. 

Their writing team forgot that rule number one is to make heroes likable. It’s a simple guideline, but it’s easy to overlook when you’re juggling ten thousand other concerns. The film adaptation of my favorite series made the main heroes kind of … meh. They’re not admirable. They don’t do anything that would cause a viewer to root for them. To the contrary, a few of the heroes seem like pouting ingrates. A few of them make stupid decisions without any explanation given on screen, such as shouting in a situation where bad guys might hear and then attack them. That sort of behavior is not going to win over viewers.

The show also takes itself very, very seriously. Too seriously. Every song is mournful. There are no moments of levity between tense scenes. There is no wit, no jokes, not much fun. The books had a tone of playfulness and sense-of-wonder and adventure. The show would have done well to break up the tension with a few moments of kindness or fun moments (not only emo moments) between characters.

Even the scenes where crowds are laughing come across as false, like advertisements for a Renaissance Faire. It’s like the cliche of “women laughing while eating salad.” If the background bystanders in every tavern are having an apparently uproarious time, it doesn’t seem believable.

HBO’s Game of Thrones had its own problems, but one thing they got right was the artistry. GoT went above and beyond with costume design, sets, and musical score. I don’t see that in Amazon Prime’s Wheel of Time. The costumes, sets, and music are okay. They work for the show. But they’re not outstanding on the same level of GoT, despite having a similar budget.

The WoT characters look like they went shopping at only the best outlets for faux woolens. Instead of living in a remote medieval-style village, they look like tourists who enjoyed a spa day and who are now hanging out at a high end Renaissance festival.

I don’t have a problem with the show’s pacing. I see reviews complaining about that, but I think it’s a factor of other problems that can look like pacing issues. They are sticking to the books in a loose way, and that’s fine.

On to my specific problems, solutions, and thoughts about each hero.

 

Spoilers ahead.

 


Perrin

I get why the TV writing team chose to make Perrin axe his pregnant wife by accident. They’re setting up his central character conflict, which is whether he should use the axe (be a violent warlord) or forge a hammer (be a gentle blacksmith). The goal is to make Perrin afraid of his own violence. It’s a good idea to set that up as soon as possible with his character.

But they could set it up in a way that makes Perrin look heroic rather than dangerously and stupidly reckless.

For instance: Have him go into berserker mode while killing Trollocs, using up all of his finely forged weapons and then seizing crude implements to continue the slaughter. Have someone he loves (his wife or his mother) look at him with absolute disgust. Show how that look cuts him and makes him ashamed. Show that loved one flinch away from him. Then show his guilt and shame.

There are several problems with setting up his conflict by making him a wife-killer.

1) Wife slaying is not a good look for a hero.

2) Perrin’s wife on the show seems way more competent than him in every way. She’s a better blacksmith, and she’s better at killing Trollocs. In contrast to that, Perrin comes across as a loser: a dangerous, reckless person who should not be trusted with weapons.

3) The show undermines his Axe vs. Hammer inner conflict in the second episode, when Mat gives Perrin his dagger. Clearly, the writing team thought that was a clever way to set up Mat’s need for a new dagger. But when Perrin accepts a weapon of violence which was forged by his dead wife, that implies that he is already accepting of the violence within himself. It also signals that he has emotionally moved on from “oops, I murdered by wife by accident.” It doesn’t make him look good.

Rand

Rand starts to become likable in the third episode. He steps up by taking responsibility for himself and Mat both. That is a glimmer of heroism right there. Yay! Finally.

It’s canceled a bit due to his apparent helplessness against an aggressive female innkeeper. He’s terrified of her. He can bust through an iron door, but he can’t face a woman who stole his sword?

And he acts not-so-bright in the beginning of this episode, shouting for Egwene where Trollocs might hear him. That sort of thing makes viewers lose respect for a character. And Rand isn’t doing anything smart to counterbalance his brainless moments. 

Unfortunately, Rand is quite unlikable in the first two episodes. The show gives no reason for his bitter distrust of Moiraine, after she literally saved Rand’s father from death. Rand shows zero gratitude for that. To the contrary, he accuses Moiraine of being manipulative and possibly evil.

And his character is all about pouting after being friend-zoned. Rand and Egwene have zero chemistry on screen. They are a crying emo mess, and Rand doesn’t come off as respectful and kind. He comes across more like a stalker than a friend.

Mat Cauthon

I totally get why the show’s writing team chose to establish Mat’s kindness right away, rather than wait two full seasons for Mat to get healed from that ruby dagger. His character doesn’t become a fan favorite until Book 3 of the book series. Until then, he’s an adolescent prankster who turns bitter and nasty due to an enchanted dagger. So the show went for the quickest and easiest way to set Mat up as a hero: Have him selflessly protect his impoverished little sisters from his terrible parents. Voila! Now he is an instant hero.

It was just too quick and easy. To a jaded viewer, it comes across as a cheap way to work in some character dev. 

Like Rand, Mat comes across as not-too-bright several times, particularly when he goes off exploring by himself in Aridhol (ep02). Not a good look for a hero. That kind of behavior needs explanation, or else it just looks stupid.

Egwene

Of all the heroes on the show, Egwene comes across as the best one so far, and that is only in contrast to the rest of them. She hasn’t done anything egregiously wrong. She isn’t reckless with an axe, no bad life choices, no pouting or blaming the wrong person for her situation. But she is bland. She hasn’t done anything heroic or kind, either.

Nynaeve

I like how protective of her people she is. That comes across, and the actress has enough fiery passion to sell it. But she has a moment in ep01 where she freezes in the battle, and it makes her look cowardly. The show could have handled that better. Her hatred of Moiraine also seems irrational, and could use more of an explanation.

Thom

They gave Thom a theme song. Or a guitar chord, anyway. That seems hokey, and it contrasts weirdly with the tone of the show, which is otherwise somber and taking itself ultra seriously. 

Moiraine and Lan

No comment for now. I think they’re doing all right. Lan looks very Samurai, and I think the show would have done better to give Borderlanders more unique fantasy costuming. But I would say the same for all of the costuming on the show.

Missed Opportunities 

Where did all the Trollocs go after the heroes escaped from Aridhol? In the books, Mashadar (the creepy black stuff that turned that horse into dust) killed the Trollocs who had been driven inside to grab the heroes. If they had done that on screen, it would have emphasized how badly the Dark One wants the Dragon Reborn. What a missed opportunity. Instead, the viewer is left to surmise that Trollocs aren’t such a big threat, since apparently they just randomly give up when the plot calls for it.

At the end of ep01, Moiraine flat-out tells the heroes, “The Dragon has been reborn. And it’s one of you.” This would have been a great opportunity for character development plus exposition. “The Dragon has been reborn.” Then have the characters react, like “Blood and bloody ashes!” (or “WTF!”) and “Do you mean the guy who broke the world 3,000 years ago? That Dragon?” Reactions such as these would show what our heroes know of the world lore, as well as how seriously they take it. Then Moiraine could say, “Yes. That Dragon. And I believe it’s one of you.” That way, it ratchets up unspoken tension between the characters. It’s more dramatic. But the opportunity was missed.

Overall, the show feels very scripted. The world seems to be conveniently full of adventurers and significant people who are fated to teach our heroes what the Whitecloaks are, what a Gleeman is, and what an Aiel is. I’m sure that is a byproduct of promising a short TV season. The solution would have been to make the first season ten episodes instead of eight. Oh, and to prioritize a few scenes meant to lighten the mood and seem fun and spontaneous.


I will continue watching, of course. One can learn a lot about cinema and storytelling from watching adaptations, whether they are good or bad!

To be clear, I don’t think this one is abysmal. It’s functional. It could be better, it could have been worse. Three stars. Maybe the characters will gain some interpersonal chemistry or fun moments in later episodes. 

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