Douglas Adams has a tale for us. Long ago, on a distant planet, it became generally recognized that there were quite a lot of bullshit jobs around. The planet's inhabitants devised a plan to get rid of these pointless jobs ... as well as the people who performed them.
Oddly enough, the plan involved a poet, who told a tale of the coming apocalypse. The people with the pointless jobs -- mostly management types, although also some telephone-sanitizers etc. -- were packed off to colonize a backwater planet. "We'll be right behind you," everybody else shouted into space, and of course they weren't. Ha ha ha! There was no apocalypse coming after all! ... or was there?
Anyway, can you guess which planet was colonized? That's right, prehistoric Earth. And yes, we humans are the descendants of the pointless jobs people. This is demonstrated not so much by shared genetics, so much as by shared attitudes and agendas. Witness our wise and noble ancestors, in the weeks after planetfall:
"[...] Since we decided a few weeks ago to adopt the leaf as legal tender, we have, of course, all become immensely rich."For other money trees, by the way, see Kendrick Lamar, Nalo Hopkinson, Clifford D. Simak, and Adam Roberts. The leaf currency is not the only (supposedly) impractical currency in Adams's novel:
Ford stared in disbelief at the crowd who were murmuring appreciatively at this and greedily fingering the wads of leaves with which their track suits were stuffed.
"But we have also," continued the management consultant, "run into a small inflation problem on account of the high level of leaf availability [...] we are about to embark on a massive defoliation campaign, and ... er, burn down all the forests. I think you'll all agree that's a sensible move under the circumstances."
"[...] Its exchange rate of eight Ningis to one Pu is simple enough, but since a Ningi is a triangular rubber coin six thousand eight hundred miles long each side, no one has ever collected enough to own one Pu. Ningis are not negotiable currency, because the Galactibanks refuse to deal in fiddling small change. [...]"However, a credit theory of money might say there's nothing wrong with the Ningi/Pu system. Owning a Ningi wouldn't have to involve re-locating a physical object: a record in a ledger of who owns what should be enough. That way, I don't need to actually carry it around with me; in the words of A.A. Milne, "Wherever I am, there's always Pu / There's always Pu and me." Compare the famous stone money of Yap.
But back to those bullshit jobs. As a postscript, it's worth pointing out that the civilization which rids itself of its superfluous workers ends up perishing from an infectious disease contracted from an unsanitized telephone. The point of Adams's satire might be a slightly Burkeian one: OK, there is certainly a lot of labour which is superfluous or a hindrance to human happiness and flourishing ... but figuring out exactly what labour that is is a difficult and risky business. (Perhaps the Bullshit Work Inspector can help?)
- How does the proposal to get rid of bullshit jobs differ from the kind of ruthless, supposedly efficiency-driven restructuring that is sometimes proposed by management consultants?
- How might pointless jobs be defined, identified, and removed?
- Why might getting rid of the people feel easier than getting rid of the roles?
- Is there a slightly genocidal edge to jokes about getting rid of an economically parasitic stratum of society?
- How does a job alter the way you think and act in a non-professional context? How do "jobs" relate to "social types"?
- How should we consider Adams's fable from the perspectives of various post-work theorists and activists?
- Do you have a pointless job? (BBC)