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The work of disobedience


Cartoon by Chris Johnston shows modern works going against the grain of drone-like traditional workers.

On a recent trip to Singapore the clan gathered to feast, home-cooked favourites, bought delicacies and new fancies were spread all around us. Sniggers and much head shaking erupted from one corner. Jo, 13, had been caught red-handed by her sibling shaking her Fitbit on the sly.

What used to be fondly dismissed as puppy fat had not shifted and her school had issued the gadget that day to help the child. Tasked with racking up 10,000 steps every day as a key performance indicator (KPI), Jo was told she was being monitored for her sake.

Jo refused to buy into the project and tried instead to game the system. Rebel that I am, my first thought was, 'Good on her for refusing to bow to the powers that be', but it was swiftly followed by noting sadly how encumbered she was by excess weight.

As adults we deal with KPIs every day at work, targets defined apparently for one's benefit so we all know what needs to be achieved if our jobs are to be secured. Sadly, they also determine what, how and where we focus our efforts as these targets are internalised over time.

Helen Nowotny, in The Cunning of Uncertainty, uses the term vorauseilender Gehorsam (literally 'the obedience that runs ahead') to describe this effect because, as she explains it, KPIs 'induce compliance and implicit consensus with what is set out to be achieved'.

Technologies such as databases, algorithms, 'gamified' targets and gadgets that 'datafy' our every state from resting and walking to sleeping and dreaming play an increasing role in the notion of performance. Technology did not invent enumeration but technology cloaks enumeration's intent as benign so disobedience, failure to hit the targets seems like self-harm.

Yet even amid all the anxiety about technology creating job losses, there remain calls for technology, the culprit that killed jobs and replaced them with gigs, to be their saviour.

The issue, though, is not with work but what work is harnessed to. Feminist scholar Kathi Weeks writes in The Problem with Work that 'the willingness to live for and through work renders subjects supremely functional for capitalist purposes'. Yes, a sense of purpose is essential to meaning in life but work as a system that translates our efforts into capital stymies other ways of thinking about work.


"Like 13-year old Jo, Mel rejects the tacit KPI set for her and elects to make work a fraction of her life. She's not well off but she seems content with the modest work of helping others."


In Singapore, where everyone is encouraged to work for as long as they can, God forbid that one becomes a burden to others. Only the rich, the useless and the dissolute stop work. The notion that work might have purpose outside of capitalism is not to be countenanced if one is fighting for survival.

I don't imagine any of the experiments in universal basic income or wage currently being conducted in Finland and planned for Fife and Glasgow are going to make their way to hardnosed Asia or the Pacific region anytime soon. Nor do I expect working hours to be reduced from eight to six (with the same pay) in the near future even if it increases the number of opportunities for work. How else, then, might we think of work? If not for money, status or leisure after retirement, why do we work? I am with Kathi Weeks who, in The Problem with Work, argues we need to push further and ask: how do we undo the dominance of the work society to begin a fresh narrative, outside the confines of exchange value?

Is there a future for work?

I caught up with a childhood friend, Mel, who now works as a personal trainer in Singapore. Work is sporadic and often Mel spends more time working on her own fitness than that of her clients. Yet Mel confides that she prefers life this way, having tried the gamut of 9-to-5 jobs, outdoor work and sales desks. Like 13-year old Jo, Mel rejects the tacit KPI set for her and elects to make work a fraction of her life. She's not well off but she seems content with the modest work of helping others regain their fitness.

If there is to be a future for work, it is to be found in such disobedience, a rejection of the primacy of paid labour for work as, in the words of William Morris (cited in Weeks' book),  'pleasure in the exercise of [our] energies' — reclaiming our labours from the frames that KPIs, sales targets and objectives place around them. Whether as 'escape, tactical refusal and withdrawal' (Uberworked and Underpaid, Trebor Scholz) via platform cooperativism or the careful selection of what one expends energy on, the future of work is a stripped back one, where the work ethic loosens its grip on our lives so we may find again the joy of work. Weeks dubs this the post-work imaginary, I call it the work of disobedience.


Susan LeongSusan Leong is Research Fellow with Curtin University in Western Australia, School of Media, Culture and Creative Arts. Her work has been published in Peril Magazine, Critical Asian Studies, New Media and Society and Thesis Eleven. Susan's research interests include digital media in Asia, internet sovereignty and banal precariousness.

Topic tags: Susan Leong



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Existing comments

A good way to start the week with these questions in mind. My week will now include getting hold of Kathi Week's book! And I do love the quote about 'pleasure in the exercise of our energies.' Thank you.

Julie Perrin | 22 May 2017  

KPI's serve the same function as the recruitment and selection process - to weed people out. Sad, as even ordinary people have tonnes of unrealized potential that is worth something. Practitioners of management are hopeless at living up to the richness of management theory. KPI's, with their inherent threat of job loss and further coercion and intimidation don't work. It's a broken system because the skewed implementation of good management and economic theory fails to see the human in 'human capital'. Yet there is a sense that there is little time left to ensure we all have enough work to earn a living before robots and AI take too many jobs. The race to the bottom of economic rewards that is the gig experience is not going to get us there. There is an urgent need for government to do something now before too many become socially and economically dislocated. Yet as recent cuts to tertiary education show, it seems the government is hell bent on running in the other direction. Australia is expected to see 60% of jobs affected by technology. The very people who will be affected cannot see what is coming and the carnage will be brutal. This discussion needs to happen now!

Matt | 22 May 2017  

Fascinating well-written account of the damaging effect of "business studies" on human society

john frawley | 22 May 2017  

Three cheers for publishing such a perceptive and critical article in a Jesuit and, ipso facto, a Catholic journal! Catholics, sociologically located at the opposite end of the behavioural scale to Calvinists, ought better to recognise and encourage the importance - nay the human necessity - of transgressive behaviour. Often it is a matter of survival: just ask anyone in the LGBTI community!

Dr Michael Furtado | 22 May 2017  

Thank you Susan for this essay. I believe KPIs and data gadgets diminish rather than enhance quality of life. Workers and Singapore Students Beware!

Christine Choo | 22 May 2017  

Pleasure in the exercise of our energies - what a great phrase. Being monitored, assessed and corrected is no way to work. Prodigious work is the result of finding one's niche. And then things fall nicely into place, even Fitbits.

Pam | 22 May 2017  

There is work and those who have no work or are underemployed. The heritage of the Singaporean families comes from a fledgling city state that negotiated it's existence and endured incredible hardships to survive. Now the current generation wants to enjoy the fruits of their parents. These discussions have little meaning when you are poor or dispossessed and we remark from the comfort of our full time employment. I was reminded every day when I worked in Indonesia as factory manager of a large site- that those people crowding outside the gate selling food snacks and transport, looked inside the site with envy, at those who had jobs. KPI's were a little inconvenient, but having no food on the table is also an indicator that does not need to be measured.....

Peter Stanton | 22 May 2017  

Before I read the article, my reaction to the introduction was the same as that of Peter Stanton. It's easy to be disobedient if your family is well-fed. Now, however, I see it differently. In Australia at least, working for 'the man' will not be a possibility for many of our children. The need for human labour is fast diminishing, and capitalism's value for the human person diminishes with it. If you're defined by your employment status, you are a lesser kind of person if you are unemployed. (The poor shouldn't have children, I often hear). Perhaps we need to take a leaf from the LGBTI book. Refuse to accept the definition of a valuable human being. Resist the algorithm, insist on our own KPIs, don't accept Mammon as God. Or our children and grandchildren will be 'proles' in an unimaginable urban hell. Turn back, O man...

Joan Seymour | 22 May 2017  

That's why we used to have the sabbath, one day of the week when the world was obliged to leave you alone so you could do something meaningful for yourself.

Roy Chen Yee | 22 May 2017  

A very pertinent article in this New World Order of targets, KPI's, league tables and much else in the MBA lexicon. For myself I chose to study an area in which I was interested and got myself a job which kept me comfortable but not wealthy. Working for the WA Geological Survey I saw much of the outback and kept myself far away from the MBA's. Back in the office, if I needed to think about a problem I went for a walk round the park next to the WACA. I had a very good working life and fortunately I retired 20 years ago on a pension which still allows me time to sit and think. I probably wont make the next 20 years, but the MBA's haven't thought of measuring that yet and thereby raising my temperature and shortening my life. The real answer to Susan's "problem with work" is to sack all the MBA's and let them find some useful work, while releasing the rest of the workforce from their chains.

John Lewis | 23 May 2017  

As erudite as she intends to be, Joan Seymour has, with respect, somewhat addled her discourse. The disobedience of LGBTI persons, who are indeed as human as the rest of us and to whom I referred in an earlier post, appears to be another example of the intransigence needed to reclaim the kind of dignity increasingly denied to so many in the global workforce, as Dr Leong so passionately and elegantly argues.

Dr Michael Furtado | 23 May 2017  

If you're a self-employed fitness trainer or being paid a "piece rate" (which is a concept commonly being used to replace KPIs), then KPIs are irrelevant. Questioning capitalism in 2017 is like doubting he theory of evolution and preferring a more mythical creation story. Work is for profit (for the employer first, the employee second). If we need to be nurtured, seek a therapist, counselor or spiritual advisor.

AURELIUS | 24 May 2017  

Thank You Susan for these words that encourage me to step up and speak out on my beliefs on work and society.

Ted | 24 May 2017  

Great article. I am fortunate enough have found a career where I get to DO stuff I enjoy. I make things for research scientists. I enjoy making things and dont for one moment imagine stopping . But I do look forward to retiring. FROM the KPI's that I am expected to meet and TO the workshop at home where I get to find that 'pleasure in the exercise of my energies' for their own sake. I wish more people could see the value in that

geoff | 25 May 2017  

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