Journalist + Author
Phoebe: Oliver Burkeman, thank you for sitting with me in this cubicle in Brooklyn!
Oliver: Thanks for asking me to be involved.
Phoebe: It's our shared adopted home as we were just discussing. The microcosm of Brooklyn. How long have you been living here now?
Oliver: Pretty much a decade. That's the simple answer.
Phoebe: Right. Without asking you to tell your entire life history, how did you end up here?
Oliver: So I grew up in York in the north of England and I went to Cambridge University. Then I did a single semester of a Political Theory PhD at Harvard University because I go onto a thing where I could do it for a year with funding, before trying to decide whether I really wanted to do it. And I really didn't want to do it, and I abandoned it. I was right, I think, to abandon it, but that was my first encounter with the US. I made some friends there who you can sort of trace my entire life in America since then, back to about two people that I was in dorms with at Harvard for that four month period of my life or something. It was absurdly short.
Phoebe: But it planted a seed?
Oliver: Yeah it did. So then I went away and started working as a journalist in London. In 2008, while I was on staff with The Guardian, I begged to be allowed to come and get involved in covering the election campaign. Obama's first election campaign. I did that in DC for a few months then I went to see the editor of The Guardian and said, "I really liked this little secondment in the US, please can I stay on staff and remain in the US?" And he said... "No!"
I was annoyed, but I decided I wanted to stay, so I went off staff and took a freelance contract. I'm really glad that's what he said in hindsight because it enabled me to do lots of other things and build my career in the way I've done since then.
Phoebe: I'd like to get on to your work with The Guardian more shortly but first I wanted to just retrace a bit because the overarching theme of this interview series is education - in the broadest sense of the word. I'm interested in how people's formal education informs what they do later in life, and also how it doesn't. Or how it leads them down a path, maybe in such the way that you described. So you went to Cambridge. What did you study there?
Oliver: I studied Social and Political Sciences at Christ College.
Phoebe: And what was that experience like?
Oliver: Well, I'd come from a comprehensive school, a state school. I don't mean to imply that I had a particularly gritty underprivileged childhood - that would be false - but relative to certainly what were then, maybe even now, the demographics of Oxbridge, I was a little bit of a little bit of an outsider. It was a bit of a sort of adjustment in that respect.
I think I got a lot out of being there. I don't want to make it sound negative - but honestly, the first thing that comes to mind is that I drove myself crazy as a hard worker, basically, in a way that I don't think was necessarily wise in hindsight. It was who I was at that time. I did a lot of studying and I got very good results and blah, blah, blah. But I kind of paid the price in stress.
Phoebe: Not great stats around mental health, at Oxbridge.
Oliver: No. I'm sure there were also people suffering worse than I was, but I guess it was useful in a way to sort of reach that kind of extreme of one's ability to buckle down, knuckle under, use your willpower to try to achieve the highest result you can, out of a feeling that you had to and that would be terrible if you didn't. I don't think it would have been, I think I got some benefits in my career from having gone to that fancy university, but I don't think that the very good degree result that I got has ever made an impact on anyone. Maybe it has, they wouldn't tell me necessarily, but I really don't think that helped in any way. So I was a bit burned by that experience, to be totally honest.
Phoebe: What were you honing in on? Were you like really just really excited about what you learning or...?
Oliver: It's funny because that subject - Social and Political Sciences, which has a different name now - was seen by other people at the university as like the easy subject. This is a standard cliche, right? If you're doing Natural Sciences, you think that people doing Sociology are having an easy time of it. But I didn't experience it in that way. I was, and remain, really, really interested in a lot of the subject matter. In hindsight, always more interested in the big, abstract, theorising philosophy-ish side of it than the concrete statistical real world side of that. And I think that maybe, has gone on to form some of the work I've done.
Phoebe: Even though you now presumably apply a lot of what you learned - or at least the style of critical thinking you learned at that time - to very practical, tangible, real life dilemmas?
Oliver: Yeah. But I think that if I bring anything to the party in terms of journalism, it will be a kind of more big picture way of thinking. Maybe not, maybe I'm flattering myself or someone would say that there was some other strength in what I'm doing. But to me, having a slightly theorising or philosophish kind of mindset within the world of journalism is kind of an interesting tension. It leads to some interesting things. So that's how I would think about that.
Phoebe: To me it seems there's been a sort of like a big trend within journalism in the last 10, five years where people who can do that big picture thinking seem to have a bigger voice now. If you look at someone like Alain de Botton, in terms of being able to provide this philosophical, contextual analysis of current dilemmas. For anyone who maybe hasn't read your column....Has it always been called 'This Column Will Change Your Life'?
Oliver: Yeah. I thought it was such an obvious joke when we started it. I thought everyone's going to think either this is really funny or they're not going to think about it at all 'cause it's obviously a joke. I spent the first five years of that column fielding emails from people who felt it was...It strikes some people as an extraordinarily hubristic or kind of arrogant claim, that I was going to change their life with a single column. And I was like, it's like a reference to the over promises of self help culture?!
Phoebe: So the original premise was to explore self help culture.
Oliver: Yeah. My editor on Guardian Weekend at the time noticed that I was always geeking out on these kinds of books. It was just the beginning of this parallel trend to self-help and productivity advice, which is just self-help books but aimed to a male audience instead of a female one, when it gets down to the stereotypes of it. I was into these partly as a kind of phenomenon - thinking that they were strange - but obviously partly because I wanted to learn all their wisdom and achieve more.
Phoebe: I mean I've written a part- self help, part- productivity career guide for young women a couple of years ago. And naively, it's only looking back that I realised that my complete fascination with that is because I, too, was an academic overachiever. Journalism gives you the opportunity to pretend you're explaining things objectively, but really you just want an excuse to read loads of self-help books.
Oliver: Yes. One thing I will say in my defense, I think I was fairly honest about that right from the start.
Phoebe: You had a self-awareness that I lacked!
Oliver: The column has evolved since then. It's fun to like mock terrible stuff, but the audience for this column is kind of primed for that. They agree, I think, that a lot of the extremes of self-help culture are absurd. The more interesting part is when you get to tell those people that actually there's something really valuable hidden among the ridiculousness or that there are some books that are actually worth their while. Even if you might cringe at the title of a book like 'Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway', there might actually be serious wisdom between those covers. This has all changed a bit because I think people are way less embarrassed talk about wellbeing than they were even a decade ago.
Phoebe: I guess it is a Guardian reader, so there's a certain level of cynicism for that type of thing...
Oliver: I'll say skepticism. I'll defend them!
Phoebe: Yes! I am a Guardian reader. and I'll read all the self help and productivity books I can find. I'm interested in how that shifted in the time that you've been writing the column... When you started writing it, what types of books and ideas were you interested in exploring or commenting on?
Oliver: It's difficult to track this, because I've changed as well. It's really odd to actually to think that over a completely crucial period of my life I've been emitting this weekly indication of what I'm preoccupied with. But firstly in the beginning I went, back over some classics of the genre, just as a sort of an exercise.
Phoebe: Which are?
Oliver: How to Win Friends and Influence People. The work of Tony Robbins is still going strong to this day. In the productivity genre, it was only a few years after Getting Things Done by David Allen had been published - very, very influential and in many ways really good book that had a big effect on me at time. I tried to put that system of getting things done into practice and I learned some really good things from it. It's just this basic idea that you shouldn't rely on your mind to keep track of all the plates that you're trying to keep in the air or whatever the metaphor. You should put everything onto lists and paper and then have a system for kind of bringing one or two of them into your attention when you need to do that and relaxing about all the rest to the extent possible. It's good for people who like making long complicated lists, but the principal is a very good principle. It's just that I think his system takes too much maintenance.
So you know, various different things like that. All still, I think fairly clearly classifiable as self-help. Is the fact that I'm now more likely to write about philosophy or some psychotherapy book or something like that, is that because the climate has changed or because I've just got interested in a slightly deeper level of stuff? I think the climate has changed clearly, both in terms of people being willing to talk about mental health as a completely mundane topic and then in the last few years, the sort of awful fusing of people's mental health with current affairs in a way, and the Internet, and social media. Just living in the news stream in a way that we didn't use to. I don't think it's just journalists who feel that now. It's the effect of a combination of political and environmental feelings of catastrophe and doom.
There was a sort of general sense that the news used to be almost like escapism, even if it was terrible. It was like some other worlds that you were just sort of dipping into to get away from your own personal stresses and strains, and then it just totally flipped.
Phoebe: I don't know about news as escapism. It feels the kind of broader political, social landscape does feel like it's seeped into our personal lives in this not very pleasant way that has made people feel constantly overwhelmed. It feels right here and in your face.
I wonder if also that's a lot to do with the fact that we live in Brooklyn which is a political bubble in one sense, but it's also one where people are highly conscious of the news. A lot of people work in media. There are a lot of writers and journalists. It's a very politicised borough in lots of respects. There's a lot going on here and sometimes I leave and I'm like, it is all bad, but it doesn't permeate the feeling of everyday life quite the same way as it does here in New York.
Oliver: Yeah, that makes sense. But I think that social media also has that effect to some degree on everyone.
Phoebe: I think what's really scary or dangerous is that people flip between engaging with public life through the news cycle and then engaging with their personal life through Instagram or whatever, and it feels like there's less outside of that.
Oliver: Yes. I think that must be true. I think maybe this is a sort of subtle generational thing or that I've been driven so insane by social media that I've taken certain self-protective measures, but I feel now like I do spend far too much time on Twitter and too much time thinking about the news and big issues but my social life and my parenting life is not online. My wife and I do not post photos of the kid on Facebook. I haven't been on Facebook for a year and a half.
Phoebe: It's interesting to me that having small children seems to be one of the few ways that people are actually ever able to detach themselves from devices simply because you physically cannot do both all the time. I mean, I've watched parents try and do both quite a lot, but you cannot physically parent a small child and be glued to a laptop or a phone all the time.
Oliver: Well, firstly there's just that practical thing. And then secondly, the thing I've really found, and am I'm totally still struggling with it - he's only two, I'm still learning - but it calls you to be a slightly better version of yourself. Hopefully. It's not just about whether you use your screen in his presence or let him have access to the screen, but you actually have to really be the person who you want to be! If you want to set an example, you can't just confine it to when you happen to be in the same room and interacting. I think you have to change who you are. So I'm really trying to become someone who, more days than not, does not have his attention totally addled by the Internet.
Phoebe: You have the benefit of being able to spend a lot of time exploring current and past thinking on how to manage time, and create boundaries, and create routine, obviously through what you write about. For me, a lot of what's in your column, especially more recently, seems to be about ways of thinking about the future and preparing, even if it's just psychologically sort of like getting used to what's going on, which I think is a lot of what people are concerned about right now. Things feel like they've change really rapidly and I don't think anyone feels equipped to cope. I would imagine that a lot of the kind of self help literature that you're reading for your column is reflective of that. Are there any books or ideas or thinkers working right now who you think have particularly insightful views on contemporary and future culture?
Oliver: Yeah, there's a book I've written about briefly a couple of times called Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport.
Phoebe: He seems to be the only one who's got it figured out.
Oliver: Well, yeah, I mean, I wonder how emulatable his actual life is.
Phoebe: Doesn't he live in a cabin or something?
Oliver: No, I think he lives in Boston, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Phoebe: What scares me is that I think he's about the same age as I am.
Oliver: He's a prodigy and he has a university post and I don't quite know the details of how his family situation is because I think he has several kids and I find I find one kid to be a huge amount. But anyway, I think the point that is so valuable in his work is not whether one can necessarily exactly copy his life or whether you'd want to, but this basic principle, that this is going to be something - digital media - that we have to think about in a different way. That maybe we'll come to see the last couple of decades as a time when just the sheer novelty of what we had access to blew our minds to the point that we just sort of weren't thinking clearly about it. You know, if some new app comes along, then you want to try that app. And if everyone has a phone and now everyone has a tablet and everyone has a smart speaker, obviously you're just going to get the next one. One of the most powerful arguments he makes is just for flipping that default so that you say: Let's start from the assumption that I have nothing in my life technologically, and then decide what to let in.
Phoebe: Like the Amish?
Oliver: Right, exactly. He mentioned that and I wrote about it referencing him. We tend to think about the Amish as refusing technology. Actually, if you go to Amish parts of America, you'll find that, they've got computer-controlled threshing machines on the farm, if that's what they need. Even cell phones. But they won't be using cell phones at home. They don't have personal cars in their private lives. Because they've made a judgment, right? They've said: we have certain values. The Amish values are not everybody's values. They're very, very community focused, but they're also socially conservative in ways I wouldn't go along with. But you have some values, a new piece of technology comes along - an app, a device, a way of being connected - and you make a conscious decision to assess whether it's something that fits with those. And if you get lots and lots of benefits that help what you're trying to do, then great. But if it's just a question of, well, it's kind of kind of fun to be on Facebook or something, you suddenly have to see there's a whole flipside to that. So maybe there's lots of things you don't do in your life that are a little bit fun because the downsides would be so huge.
In Amish communities, it's a question of what the elders of their community decide is going to be allowed or not and we're not going to be in that situation. So where I'm at at the moment with some of these things is that I'm trying - we're both trying at home really hard - to sort of leave our smartphones on the table in front of the front door when we get in and not use them around the house. I'm looking into whether we can get a landline installed. And then right now, and maybe my self discipline will crumble in a year or two, but right now it seems like an easy decision where we're at in the development of this technology to not have a smart speaker, to not have Echo or Google Home or anything voice activated. I get especially kind of fuddy duddy about the voice interactive stuff, maybe just because that's the technology that's come along at the point at which everybody is really starting to see how problematic some of this stuff is, but so far, there's any two people in our house who have an opinion on the matter, but you know what I mean? It just seems obvious. Like, why would you do that?
Phoebe: Yeah. I do think there's something in what you said about, it's just the timing of it. Because we all - I mean certainly did - quite willingly gave away our privacy rights to these assorted digital platforms without thinking twice about it, in ways that proved since to be incredibly destructive. Not just to ourselves personally, but to society at large. The fact that we've all just willingly given away our data protection rights...
Oliver: I think framing it as privacy has always been a problem because I don't think I was ever that bothered about data privacy in the way that phrase immediately implies, which is that somewhere there's a big server that knows what I do. I mean, I think it's important. I think there are contexts in which people absolutely, you know, would care deeply about it. The problem is is that that data gets used to feed the most addictive content. Right? So the problem is that the data that I'm giving to Twitter curates my Twitter environment in a way that makes it harder and harder to just stop using it the next few weeks.
Phoebe: Have you noticed the Twitter algorithms have changed in the last few weeks? I just see the same ten tweets from the same ten people.
Oliver: Yeah. There's a limited degree to which you can adjust that back I think, but it's very limited. It's not in their interests to give you that right.
Phoebe: They've basically have done what Instagram did, which is they got rid of the timeline and replaced it with an algorithm. The whole point of Twitter for me is that it's in real time.
Oliver: If you really will stop looking at it then you are an excellent counterexample to what what they're doing, which is they figured out that actually making the the heroin that they're injecting into you ever purer.
The other person who's written really well on this stuff is Jarod Lanier, who's a computer scientist. He's got a book out now called 10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. One of the points that he makes in that is this is not Luddism. This is not like 'all technology is bad' or even 'digital connectivity is bad', or 'the internet or the web is bad'. It is a specific set of platforms that operate on a specific business model, which involves corralling as much of your attention and time as they possibly can within what has been called by someone else in this field as 'a race to the bottom of the brainstem' - just the stuff that makes you angriest; that collapses rational debate in the public sphere, and probably has lots of very bad effects in terms of fueling nasty politics. Like it's not everyone is like Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin and a few others.
Phoebe: So what - I mean, I should read the book myself - but what's 'alright'? Are emails alright?
Oliver: Oh yeah, no, absolutely. He's just making the case of: Just take the platforms that follow this logic and leave them and everything will be fine. Part of what they're designed to do is make you think that it won't be fine if you quit them. I'm obviously being a total hypocrite here because I remain on Twitter far too much. But I think the logic of it really stands. It's a bit like vegetarianism. I can't find a flaw with the argument now.
Phoebe: Absolutely. One thing I think about quite a lot is the contemporary anxiety around avoiding distraction, and this feeling of a need to absorb massive amounts of information but still retain some clarity of your own outlook, is that it's very much the perennial journalist's dynamic and has been even before all of this was going on. As a journalist you have to find a way of being very conscious of what's going on in the world, taking huge amounts of information, trying to digest and synthesise them – but then also like flipping into complete focus mode to actually say something about what you've absorbed.
You've been writing your column for a long time now and I wondered what process looks like for you?
Oliver: It goes through phases. I interviewed Matt Groening, who makes The Simpsons and I don't wish to draw any parallels of artistic merit between my work and that landmark of television, but he talks very vividly about how it was easy to make the first couple of seasons, and then it was incredibly hard to make the next couple, and then something clicked. I had a slightly similar experience. It was basically the first year or two I was following a kind of notional idea that I was on a journey through the world of self help and so there were various points of calling where you needed to stop.
You're going to do the column on procrastination, you're going to do the column on affirmations. If I'm entering this world for the first time, there are obviously key things that you want to go and look at. But then there was apparently appetite for me keeping going beyond that and it was difficult for a little while. I've basically just massively relaxed - not, I hope, my filter that wants an idea to be interesting and original - but definitely my filter I've tried to get rid of everything except that question. Like, you know, is, is this an interesting idea that says something true and that the readers will be interested to read about and think about?
I probably shouldn't be admitting to this in public, but I've all but abandoned this journalistic obsession with very immediate topicality. This idea that, if a study I'm writing about it hasn't been published in the last couple of weeks, or if I'm not responding to a news event that's happened in the last few days, that you can't write this stuff. Now, of course, evergreen content is the order of the day. I think I slightly was maybe ahead of the game with that. I want to tell people what I think is the most interesting thing to tell them. Not because it's the most interesting thing after I've imposed this filter of: "It's got to have a really good hook."
Phoebe: I think that ties into what we were talking about at the top of the interview, how now if there is a trend, it's that people look very far back for ways of thinking about contemporary issues, simply because it doesn't feel like beyond a couple of exceptions here and there, like Cal Newport, that anyone working in our current time like has any clue. So it's like, OK, I'd rather actually look at what Seneca said about this or that.... What schools of thought, maybe even from like going back to what you learned when you were at Cambridge or thinking and reading that you did much earlier in your life, do you find particularly relevant or interesting right now?
Oliver: That's an interesting question. I've been very, very influenced in a way that annoys some more sort of science-based writers in the space by old school psychoanalysis, by Freud and Jung, as ways of thinking about the world. Not necessarily as theories with massive scientific backup–certainly much of the stuff that Freud is best-known for turns out to not be true– but this way of thinking about people as not being fully aware of everything they feel. Having desires that clash with each other within the same person. Projecting the hangups you have with yourself into the criticism you make of other people, which seems to be the sort of basic mode of operation of the American presidency at the moment. Denial and all these kinds of mechanisms that [Freud and Jung] formulated and just the basic idea of the unconscious. You know, just this stance of not assuming that our conscious will or the ego, at any moment, is all there is. And that if you decide to implement some plan with your conscious mind, then it's just going to happen because actually you sort of contain a whole lot of different forces that are going to get in away.
Phoebe: Like the methodology - I use that term very loosely - offered up by books like The Secret?
Oliver: I think that's an extreme because that really does cross over into a kind of really magical thinking approach.
Phoebe: I do a lot of that stuff as well but I think I've had really mixed results with it. My intellectual academic brain is getting to a point where I'm like, this is all a bunch of fucking nonsense and it's dangerous nonsense as well because it insidiously feeds into an idea that if you don't get exactly what you want out of life it's because you did not believe it enough, which seems like to me a psychological counterpart to the American idea that if you didn't get what you want 'cause you didn't work hard enough. It basically puts it all back on you. And it's really like, is that how the universe works? If you don't get everything you want is because you personally did not do enough to make it happen?
Oliver: I think you're totally right. I think that's a broader theme as well, which is to do with like the relentless trend toward individualism in the wider politics and economy. So there's a critique even of something like Cal Newport's work, and of this idea about imposing rules on ourselves to limit our sort of enslavement to the digital attention economy. There's a very strong argument to be made that nobody should have to be doing that. This idea that you're going to take these massive corporations who are basically mining your attention for profit and everyone's just going to say it's your job to defend yourself against this force, as opposed to: Let's all band together and demand extensive regulation of these industries.
Phoebe: There's a parallel thing going on now that I'm watching and feeling myself, which is that a lot of people of my generation specifically, are like, "Hmm, Capitalism, it's not great! It's not really working for us." But to me what's problematic is the idea of trying to establish a system outside of Capitalism. If you're living in a major western city, especially. I love the idealism of it, but it's not gonna work!
Oliver: That was the other thing I was going to say when I mentioned that the influential thinkers. I think quite a lot of the useful critiques of where we're going with this stuff I am probably a little bit literate in, just because of doing a couple of terms of university, studying basic Marxist theory – just the basic logic of how Capitalism works and the ideological messages that it gives rise to, that persuade people that they have to only that they have to fend for themselves, but that it's kind of right that they have to fend for themselves. And that's very evident as you say, in, in self-help culture.
I think we're in funny time right now because yes, lots and lots of people are clearly seeing that we've come to the end of the road with this. It gets so extreme, the demands placed on individual people in a system like this that firstly it just exposes itself as being ridiculous. And secondly, the number of people who are just truly feeling secure and happy get smaller and smaller, so that actually people on big salaries - but just not the very biggest - have a kind of common cause with Uber drivers and unemployed people. There's a certain amount of solidarity is created because everybody is feeling precarious.
Phoebe: Do you get feedback from your your readers? Do you have a sense of how your readership is feeling right now and the kind of things that they want to be explored?
Oliver: I don't know how far I think of them as a single group. I think that might've been true in the earlier days, right? Because now, and it constantly surprises me which ones but fairly unpredictably to me, a given column will have a long life online.
Phoebe: What have been the big hitters in the past few years?
Oliver: I wrote a column about Morning Pages.
Phoebe: Why do you think that resonated?
Oliver: I don't know, I don't know that it's been one of the techniques I've written about that has persisted with me.
Phoebe: You do Morning Pages?
Oliver: Not religiously, but probably more mornings are not.
There was one I wrote about how everybody, like literally everybody, at every level of society is just winging it the whole time and nobody has a clue what they're doing. That clearly seemed to resonate. I'd say the most fulfilling thing I find about writing that column and writing the book and other stuff is much more in the one-on-one responses. The very specific responses from people in unique positions who were never going to be like typical of a demographic or something. I think I'm really lucky in that regard because I think that you can be a far more prize winningly-celebrated journalist than I am, writing kind of incredibly important investigative things and celebrated in a certain way, but I think a lot of those people, from what I hear, can work on something for six months or a year and then basically nobody gets in touch with you afterwards. But when you're writing about these personal issues occasionally and more than often enough for it to be a really meaningful part of the job, a particular column will reach someone just at a time when it was really helpful to them or something like that.
I mean, it's really moving to me the most sort of amazing thing about the feedback to the book. I don't want to imply I get like an email, every day or anything but, somebody going through something really bad or they've been through something really bad or difficult. They found the book that I've written or occasionally column that was written really useful or consoling or in some other way meaningful. I am about 99% sure that if I had gone through the thing that they were going through, I would be totally terrible at dealing with it. I would go to pieces and not at all manage to put any of my own advice into practice, but the ideas have a life of their own.
Phoebe: I sent you some questions where I quoted the opening line in front of your column where you said something like: work isn't working. And I just wondered if you could just expand on that a bit. What do you think are the main issues with contemporary work culture, if you can put it like that and, and what do you think are some antidotes?
Oliver: I'll do my best. It's a big question. I think that there's been a whole crop of articles, just literally in the last three weeks from when we're recording this, pushing back against this idea that like work will save you. A sort of resurgence of this idea of resistance to work. I've always been very torn about this stuff because I actually have largely considered most of the work I've been fortunate to do so far to be really interesting and fulfilling. Right? And you want to be careful not to be telling people who don't have that experience of work that they should just buckle down. But you also I don't have all that much time for the kind of pieces that get written just completely in favour of just hating work and minimising it as much as possible, because I feel like we should be able to aim a bit higher than that. I guess what it all comes down to it at the macro level is this stage of late stage capitalism, right? It's a level of efficiency that turns everybody into freelancers -
Phoebe: I really do think that the way that you have to think and work as a freelance journalist is like a primer for what's going on now on so many levels.
Oliver: I think it's a really good point.
I I think that maybe that means there is promise in the situation as well as peril. And so because my mindset is naturally to be disagreeing with whatever is the prevailing wisdom, when everyone is talking about how great it is to be super productive, I pushed back. But then when a certain segment of thinkpiece writers are then saying like: "Work sucks and we've got to admit that work sucks", I want to say, well I hope it doesn't have to and I don't think that my experience of work is that.
Obviously freelancing and creating your own hours and combination of projects has amazing potential, partly because of the freedom but also because you're sort of forced to figure things out. Like, you know: What do I actually want to go after? And how do I try to strike the balance between things I wasn't getting paid for versus things that I'm doing to subsidise the other things. I've always enjoyed some of the entrepreneurial side of that. But I think it's basically reaching a relentless place.
Some of the book I'm trying to write at the moment is touches on this stuff about this weird situation historically that even within traditional job structures, the higher up you get, the busier you are. The basic idea that the reason you want to become rich is so you could sit around all day, which is a historically longstanding idea, has been broken. People at the bottom of the ladder are really except the long term unemployed who aren't busy enough for their wellbeing. And then everyone at the top of the ladder is just too busy as well. Even if you want to have a hard charging competition the most productive one, what's this for? If when you get there, you'll still being sort of hollowed out.
Phoebe: The death of the idea of leisure. Which is of course ironic in the sense that technology was supposed to provide us with leisure. And in some ways it has, but then it's just filled them up with other nonsense.
Oliver: This is definitely in the midst of this stuff I'm trying to write in the moment. You probably know that Keynes predicted that by about nowish we'd be working 15 hour weeks, because the growth of wealth would mean that we didn't need to work on more than that. But new needs get created.
Phoebe: Right. I think regardless of whether we could all work less, like there's been this idea of work as spiritual salvation, purpose, vocation. It's not a new idea, it started with like, I guess the Protestant Work Ethic, but it now has reached fever pitch.
Oliver: There's this analysis that I kind of like - I'm not an expert in it, but I will sound off nonetheless; it has this Jungian feel to it - that every time in culture is incredibly religious, it's just a question of like where that religiosity finds a home. The fact that it's not happening in what we think of as religions anymore doesn't mean that humans aren't sort of deeply religious people. And if you're trying to find that kind of salvation in something that is not set up to provide it... I think work is one example, but I think politics is another example. One of the things that doesn't get talked about enough when people are arguing about identity politics - all these increasingly toxic debates I think are partly explained by people trying to satisfy that religious urge through, through politics.
Phoebe: Another thing to me that's really overwhelming people are now is: "What is even real anymore? Is it what's on my phone?" In some ways it is real. I think denying virtual reality as a form of reality is weird and not helpful, but at the same time, obviously it doesn't have a tangible...
Oliver: I think the one thing I would say about that is that I don't think that what you encounter online is not real, but that it's is an environment structured according to the logic of the attention economy. It's structured to bring you the things that you want to see, or the things you really don't want to see, because they make you very angry. Or the things that scare you the most, or the things that push whatever button of yours the most. And that's part of why fake news is rampant, right? Because truth is not one of those criteria. If a story is extraordinary, it'll spread among people who find it extraordinary, regardless of its truth value.
I think that's biggest reason to make sure that offline remains a sort of massive component of your life. Although you, to some extent curate your offline environment, you know, I walk from here to my apartment and I don't get to decide who crosses my path or whether there are obnoxious drivers. I meet life in a way that I have to negotiate.
Phoebe: Yeah. I used to live in Los Angeles and one of the main reasons I left was because I felt like I was living in an algorithm of my own determination. I already live in a virtual algorithm. So I was like, if this happens in my real life as well, there's...
Oliver: That's a really interesting point. So I'm saying this is in favour of the physical world, but you're saying it's in favour of like walking and not being in a car all the time as well.
Phoebe: Yes, and not to go off on a massive tangent about LA, but of course because of car culture, you do curate your daily experience of life much more so than you do in New York where you're getting on the subway and someone's like spitting on your neck or something. I mean it's why a lot of people like LA - because you are detached, you don't have to engage with public life in a way that you do in New York, for example. But for me it felt that on top of already being very immersed in internet culture, to live in a place where I didn't really encounter minds or faces outside of my own personal universe - except literally through the screen of my car - was bizarre to me. I grew up in central London as well, so that experience of urban life is much more comfortable.
Oliver: That makes me think about arguments that have been made about road rage. You know, I think it would follow from what you're saying that that you live in that kind of bubble to the point where you consider your car to be an extension of your fully curated environment. The idea that's the only time any thing ever breaks through that is when like someone cuts in front of you in the street, and it is, as a result, a thousand times more enraging than it otherwise would be. I kind of struggle with this as a pedestrian in New York. I boil with rage at bad drivers in a way I shouldn't, but then when I get to my little cubicle and fire up the Internet, I've got too much power over my own world. And so ultimately I'm glad that I've ended up in situations where at least, to some extent that gets challenged.
Phoebe: Well, thank you so much for taking some of those bigger questions for humanity!
Oliver: I thought was really interesting. Thank you.
Phoebe: So did I. Thanks so much.