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Notes on 'Shadow Work'

Aug 16, 2015

Notes on Craig Lambert's 'Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day'. Short: just read the article version - doesn't gain much from book length.



I ADAPTED THIS term from the 1981 book Shadow Work by Austrian philosopher and social critic Ivan Illich. For Illich, shadow work included all the unpaid labor done in a wage-based economy, such as housework. In a subsistence economy, work directly answers the needs of life: gathering food, growing crops, building shelters, tending fires. But once money and wages come into play, we encounter a whole range of tasks that do not address our basic needs. Instead, such jobs enable us to earn money to buy necessities and, if possible, luxuries. That is paid work, not our subject here. This book will identify and describe the unpaid jobs (like commuting) that an industrial economy spins off for its citizens. Such jobs go unnoticed because they take place in the wings of the theater while we are absorbed in the onstage drama of our lives. They exist in the shadows. Yet they are every bit as real as anything in the spotlight.

'Adapted' is probably the right word - the critique of self-help is a bit more fierce in in Illich's original. Illich's definition of shadow work:

I call this compliment to wage labour 'shadow work'. It comprises most housework women do in their homes and apartments, the activities connected with shopping, most of the homework of students cramming for exams, the toil expended commuting to and from the job. It includes the stress of forced consumption, the tedious and regimented surrender to therapists, compliance with bureaucrats, the preparation for work to which one is compelled, and many of the activities usually labelled 'family life'. (p 100)

The false virtue of self-reliance

Yet, unquestionably, it gives us more to do. Minor tasks like returning our supermarket shopping carts to a holding pen or busing our own Starbucks tables have become routine. “Why am I doing this?” asked Daniel, a philosophy professor in western Massachusetts, wheeling his empty shopping cart to the collection area. “What happened to those teenagers who used to collect these things? I kind of liked watching them push about twenty carts, all nested together, across the parking lot.”

A sign a few pages in that I'm not necessarily on the same wavelength. Almost the idea here that tidying up after yourself  (and this being framed as a virtue) is a con so companies don't have to pay people to clean up after you (and selfish of you because you're denying them jobs). Possible I'm just socialised into finding that odd but mechanically, it's only a short jump to the broken window fallacy.

Social Mobility

If these bankers had gone out on hundreds of mortgage appraisals like my dad did, seeing the actual houses for which they were lending money and meeting real, live borrowers, would the 2008 banking crisis have happened?

Probably? I think it's hard to argue that no bad decisions were ever made before people put their own trolleys away?

But how does an aspiring banker work his way up from the teller’s window if ATMs and shadow-working customers have displaced tellers? How does a secretary become the office manager and later an executive if shadow work eliminates support staff— so there are no secretaries?

Here we get to interesting questions about social mobility. I'll come back to this.

For those without education and skills, these low-level positions often are their careers. If such jobs vanish, a throng of unemployed young people will find themselves with little money and too much spare time. This is a dangerous development in any society. Unrest and violence throughout the Arab world have erupted from streets teeming with young men lacking jobs— angry youths who congregate online through social media. Such mobs can become unruly. In 2003, the dissolution of the Iraqi army put 400,000 young men out of work , triggering a bloody insurgency that still continues. In today’s global village, where citizens network and congregate in political flashmobs, we cannot risk creating an immense underclass of idle youth.

De-Ba'athification and self-checkouts seem like extreme companions. Is the issue of this situation no means of support (money can be exchanged for goods and services) or spare time (Victorians standardise football to attempt to control spare time, mixed results)? One is better to intervene in than the other. Are there better solutions than just maintain rubbish jobs?

House Work

Illich argues that this unpaid work is a necessary shadow component to allow wage labour to exist at all and comes back to the unpaid work of women again and again - "The amount of shadow work laid on a person today is a much better measure of discrimination than bias on the job"(p 101).  Lambert takes this to an extent, discussing medical students where female doctors in training were found to spend far more time performing household duties compared to their male counterparts but pulls back from this at the end:

There is a place for amateur work. Those domestic chores ground you in daily realities that sometimes go by the name of life. They connect you with your home, those rooms and furnishings that serve you without complaint. They bond you to your family, because the shadow work of housekeeping can be a tangible form of love. The fact that my mom cooked our meals, washed our clothes, and hung them on a clothesline to dry—even in winter— and kept our home clean and orderly, meant so much to my father, sister, brother, and me. Mom wanted us to have the conditions for a healthy and happy life. Keeping house remains the most meaningful form of shadow work. When a paid cook, laundress, nanny, or maid does household tasks, the jobs may be executed very well, but they’re done for a salary, not from love of family. Inevitably, the work of servants has a different feeling.

Lambert's version of "Shadow Work" is noticeable less biting than Illich's. If we accept that supermarkets tricking us with 'self reliance' to do our own checkout is promoting virtue as a con, it's hard to see how "[k]eeping house remains the most meaningful form of shadow work" is any less so. Shadow work that dents the prospects of men like his father to work up the ladder is bad, shadow work by women that enabled his father the time to do that is good. I don't mind a definition of shadow work where it "just is" rather than being bad (giving free labour) or good (control and privacy)  - but when so much of the tone of the book is "You didn't realise you were doing other people's jobs for them you sucker" bits like this stick out.


The upshot is an army of young people doing full-time shadow work for months or even years, trying to break into the job market as unpaid trainees.

Say there's a good book about that...

The internship juggernaut represents a massive, widespread, institutionalized form of shadow work. The 2011 exposé Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, by Ross Perlin, offers a biting critique of the internship explosion.

Which Lambert has also read, so just go read that. Accept these are related problems but has to be a distinction between consumers taking on the work of the companies they buy from (doing work that reduces costs for free) and doing a recognisable job for free (internships). Is a definition of shadow work that encompasses both actually useful?

Servants and Service

In the United States, we feel a profound ambivalence about receiving personal service. In this respect, America differs from the Old World, where monarchs ruled for centuries. Europeans are accustomed to royalty, nobility, and aristocracies, settled in their palaces and great mansions with domestic servants. Indeed, hereditary monarchs still sit on thrones in Britain, Spain, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden. Europe has long lived with an entrenched class structure that included a servant class waiting on their “betters.” Consequently, Old World cultures feel a degree of comfort with personal service.

This is at best simplistic. Lucy Lethbridge's 'Servants: A Downstairs View of Twentieth-century Britain' has an excellent running thread on the aristocracy slowly learning to do things themselves. For a bit more historical background on how changes in available labour and funds led the upper-class to "shadow-work" read that (although "Hey what were the rich up to?" is not the point of the book). Small snippet:

Concessions were made towards slightly smaller numbers of household staff but also to a generation that had begun to enjoy some independence and was not quite as deficient in practical skills as its parents’ generation had been. Breakfasts in grand houses, for example, became increasingly self-service, the dishes arranged on the sideboard

Bringing the historical picture into it is exactly what a book on "shadow work" should do (and what Illich does at length with the rise of wage labour). Is "Removing entry level work reduces social mobility" just a modern variation of "but how will people become butlers if there are less entry level servant jobs?" If not, why not? What lessons does the decline of servants have for the decline of a service-economy?

Also Lambert's assertion that tipping is an Americanism resulting from an unease to personal service is obviously ahistorical. It's not only a European import but was resisted by Americans at the time.


This section of the book is pretty clearly padding to reach the word limit, but by extending the concept to dating it completely falls apart:

Traditionally, people met dating partners through family and friends, at work, or through hobbies and social events. Today, various businesses also facilitate linking up. Professional matchmakers introduce their clients for a fee. Printed or online personal ads, singles groups and events (not just drinking and dancing but singles yoga classes, cycling trips, and gardening clubs), and “speed dating” help make connections. The fact that these businesses exist testifies that traditional ways of meeting are no longer getting the job done.

[...]Dating-site questionnaires probe views and preferences to build personality profiles. The data archive that shadow-working customers create for free becomes (like Facebook’s content) a valuable capital asset that the sites can monetize. In one sense, providing this data is just the obvious ante: You have to pony up information to play the game. On the other hand, it’s a task that does not arise when people meet via real social networks rather than virtual ones. In this way it qualifies as shadow work, as the dating site puts it in place.

[...]Late-night OkCupid work can mean sleeping less and finding yourself increasingly fatigued by the shadow work of dating. “Typically I would send messages back and forth via the site three times before one of us would suggest exchanging cell phone numbers to arrange a meeting,” Rachel says. “Once I had someone’s number I would probably exchange another three text messages to decide on a place and time and confirm meeting up.”

This is really, really pushing it. If "talking to people" is shadow-work literally anything that involves effort is now shadow-work. Is this unpaid work that makes wage labour possible? Is it even self-servicing what used to be done by wage labour? If we accept that amateur labour (doing work that others would be paid for) counts as shadow-work, then people match-making their friends is shadow-work because they're doing work that people are paying online sites to do. The concept as Lambert uses it means absolutely nothing.

Rent Control isn't scary when you already live in Worst Case London

Apr 26, 2015

A 2000 Paul Krugman article arguing the problems of rent control was going round twitter yesterday in response to Miliband rent control proposals in the UK. Ignoring the fact the Miliband's rent control is a controlled-rise system rather the the traditional set-up Krugman attacks, anyone who finds his San Francisco example scary doesn't really understand the current problems in the housing market:

On the other side, consider an article that appeared in yesterday's New York Times, ''In San Francisco, Renters Are Supplicants.'' It was an interesting piece, with its tales of would-be renters spending months pounding the pavements, of dozens of desperate applicants arriving at a newly offered apartment, trying to impress the landlord with their credentials. And yet there was something crucial missing -- specifically, two words I knew had to be part of the story.

Not that I have any special knowledge about San Francisco's housing market -- in fact, as of yesterday morning I didn't know a thing about it. But it was immediately obvious from the story what was going on. To an economist, or for that matter a freshman who has taken Economics 101, everything about that story fairly screamed those two words -- which are, of course, ''rent control.''

After all, the sort of landlord behavior described in the article -- demanding that prospective tenants supply resumes and credit reports, that they dress nicely and act enthusiastic -- doesn't happen in uncontrolled housing markets [emphasis mine]. Landlords don't want groveling -- they would rather have money. In uncontrolled markets the question of who gets an apartment is settled quickly by the question of who is able and willing to pay the most. And so I had no doubts about what I would find after a bit of checking -- namely, that San Francisco is a city where a technology-fueled housing boom has collided with a draconian rent-control law.

I find it hard to be too scared by this doomsday vision of prospective tenants at the mercy of strange landlord demands because this is pretty close to what I've actually experienced. I've written about it before but one place we almost moved the landlord, despite the fact the letting agent would do a reference check, demanded to see bank statements and have a meeting with us before accepting our offer.  This wasn't a friendly meeting, it was an aggressive "how do I know you won't leave early", "how stable are your jobs", "you don't have friends and parties right" meeting. You got the impression quickly he was of the "unexpected visit" school of bad landlords and having come from another bad landlord situation we got the deposit back and moved into another place. Here we spent the next year dealing with mould, rats, mice and cockroaches, but the choice we made was absolutely the right one. That would not have been a good landlord to have.

This can't be dismissed as "just one creep". Looking at bank statements is a practice defended on landlord forums because of the "risk" landlords take by being landlords. Another place wasn't even interested in renting a two double-bedroom place to a group of three because they were looking for "professionals" rather than people who knew each other - essentially they wanted people with few connections who would treat the place as a dormitory rather than a place to be lived or socialised in (with the "risks" that might entail).

But London doesn't have rent control - if the landlord had so many offers that they could afford to be picky why don't they just raise the price? Don't they just want money? The way to make sense of this is that the wrong people operate the private rental sector. In 2010 a private landlord survey found that:

  • Eighty-nine per cent of landlords were private individual landlords responsible for 71% of all private rented dwellings, with a further 5% of landlords being company landlords responsible for 15% of dwellings.
  • More than three quarters (78%) of all landlords only owned a single dwelling for rent, with only 8% of landlords stating they were full time landlords.

Small-scale landlords are the major player in the rental sector and they're not always going to be good capitalists. The ones that act like the above are risk-adverse and want their investment bothering them as little as possible. If the amount of money you are willing to accept to balance the greater perceived risk is greater than the difference between the price where you have one buyer and and the price where you have enough choice to chose less risky tenants, you will charge less than you can and screen.  People who will put up with this before even moving in are likely to be less troublesome, less likely to make demands of work that cost money/require attention, less likely to understand their legal situation, etc. This is a better and more comfortable position for the investor-landlord. The rate of return is still ridiculous regardless.

When people say that rent control means that properties won't be maintained and landlords will have invasive and offensive tests of potential tenants I'm not scared of rent control - I'm scared people don't seem to understand the full extent of the problem. We clearly do not live a housing market where tenants are only discriminated against on the size of the wallets - when your uncontrolled situation is pretty close to the controlled bogeyman something has gone very wrong.

Reporting on Suicide Notes

Jan 01, 2015

An article went up on The New Statesman today arguing that people sharing the suicide note of a trans-person were actually endangering the very people they were trying to raise awareness of. This is based on The Samaritans guidelines that journalists should not print the content of suicide notes because of the idea of 'suicide contagion' - arguing that including details of suicide notes can make it more likely people will try and emulate the note's author.

My opinion of the Samaritan’s guidelines is they offer good generalised advice that should be read and often followed. That said, specific guidance is often detached from supporting evidence and shouldn't be used as an authority to beat people with. There are circumstances where blindly following guidance has the potential to do harm and I think this is one of them.

To understand why the contagious understanding of the suicide note is a bit narrow we need to know a bit more history. I go into this in far more detail in the finished piece but my basic premise is that over the last few centuries’ media coverage of suicide played a significant part in making us a better, kinder society more understanding of those amongst us most in pain.

To quickly summarise historian Michael MacDonald’s argument [1] - newspapers secularised suicide by making it a mundane fact of life. The syndication of suicide stories made the fact of suicide a constant low-level noise as opposed to something that would happen in smaller communities incredibly infrequently. From stories of the devil stalking the earth and taking lives, suicide was enveloped in statistical reporting. Coverage was often (but not universally) sympathetic. The focus on the stories of individuals and a large written audience for stories about suicide created the literary genre of the suicide note (sometimes helped along by journalists providing them when absent). Through these notes people tried to shape the narrative of their death for their community and the wider world.

In step with these developments came near total resistance to sanctions for the deceased or their survivors, which led to subsequent law changes. Naturally social change was more complicated than that but the role of newspapers was important. They made the reader’s world bigger and the quietest voices louder.

Working from that history I am uncomfortable with the idea that it is always wrong to print suicide notes and that no good can come of reporting suicides.

There isn’t a reason given in the Samaritans guide as to why suicide notes shouldn’t be reported, but working from the general theory of suicide contagion the fear is that it risks increasing identification with the deceased and identification might lead to imitation. I dislike the view that suicide notes should only be seen as infectious spores. They might also be the last way to understand a person available.

While the evidence for suicide contagion exists (more patchy than often stated, but still worth taking seriously) this doesn’t apply to all guidelines proposed. Restrictions on printing suicide method are well evidenced, most other areas are more theoretical (and I suspect often derive from backwards engineering terrible reporting – printing suicide notes is in most cases tacky).

There is a small scientific field concerned with analysing suicide notes but there is very little published on their effect on suicide contagion. Niederkrotenthaler and colleagues[2] did investigate if citing a suicide note effected suicide rates but found no effect – and this lack of outcome merited no discussion. It’s just not a particular active question in the field. The only area where a suicide note was discussed at length I can find was an instance where releasing extracts from a suicide note was seen as positive. I don’t buy this but it’s worth looking at to understand solid ground is very hard to find here.

The idea of suicide contagion is best established with celebrity suicides (Stack’s 2005 meta-analysis of the literature found no ecological effect on suicide rates had been definitively proven outside of celebrity studies[3]). As such after Kurt Cobain’s suicide there were a few attempts to detect an effect in suicide rates. These failed to find an effect (which is a good thing), and the explanations given for this in the literature are interesting.

Martin, Graham. “Media Influence to Suicide : The Search for Solutions.” Archives of Suicide Research 4, no. 1 (2007): 51–66:

One major difference appears to be the attitude actively promoted by Cobain’s widow Courtney Love, by his family and subsequently by the media. Immediately following the death Love made an audiotape containing excerpts from a note left by Cobain; she commented in a negative fashion on each part (Gaines, 1994, p. 107). For instance; “I don’t have the passion anymore, so remember – (And don’t, because this is a f…ing lie) – It’s better to burn out than fade away (God, you asshole.) (Sandford, 1995, p.244)”

Gould, M S. “Suicide and the Media.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 932 (April 2001): 200–214 :

Yet, celebrity suicides do not always yield imitative suicides, as evidenced by the lack of a significant increase in suicides following the death of Kurt Cobain. [...] [T]he substantial efforts by Kurt Cobain's widow, Courtney Love, to present his suicide in a negative fashion may have counteracted any potential glamorization of his death.

The argument essentially goes “there was no imitative effect, therefore the response did something right”, yet I suspect if you asked Martin if we should be printing but dismantling suicide notes he wouldn’t argue for that forcefully. This argument is grasping at straws a little and paints an overly progressive picture of the media response to Cobain’s death. If it really was a good response we might need to change media guides more. After all, the Seattle Times printed a front page image of Cobain's dead bodythe next dayon the grounds that:

[T]his picture met that test by establishing an essential reality about Cobain’s death. Our concern was that Cobain’s suicide would be romanticized by some – suicide, the ultimate high.

As one editor said, the photo showed, ‘This wasn’t cool, it was death and that’s the result of suicide.’

Naturally, media guides would advise against such a thing but they’re essentially working from the same hymn sheet that you shouldn’t glorify the dead. Why are the Samaritans right and the Seattle Times wrong?

I want to dismantle the idea of expert opinion a bit here. I don’t think anyone has any particularly good evidence why there was no detectable effect after Cobain's suicide and I don’t think anyone has any evidence that you shouldn’t print suicide notes. I trust well-intentioned people working at charities trying to save lives a little more than I trust well-intentioned people who also like to sell newspapers, but simply having the right intentions is not enough.

Take this situation; we have two sets of well-intentioned people – one set want to bring wider light to a story in the hope of saving lives, the other set think this is dangerous because telling this story could kill more people. This is important stuff, who is right?

Here are the key questions. The Samaritans explicitly state their guidelines are only advisory; has suicide contagion been demonstrated to such an extent that there can be no exceptions to guidance? I'd argue not. Is there any evidence suggesting suicide notes in particular cause harm? Again, the answer's no.

By all means, be concerned - but let's not pretend anyone knows which course of action saves more lives.

A side point, but after The Samaritans’ Radar controversy worth thinking about.

My thinking on this hasn't solidified yet, but there’s a touch of a paternalistic attitude towards the mentally ill in the advice not to print suicide notes. We’re told “avoid the suggestion that a single incident […] was the cause” - after all suicide is complicated and often involves mental illness - but also not to report why they said they did it. The implication here is that these people were not qualified to tell you why they were suffering. This is even more unsettling when written by a member of a group who specifically highlights their treatment as part of that group: “They can’t know what they’re talking about, they’re ill." I think this is accepted uncritically a bit wider than it should be.

[1] MacDonald, Michael. Sleepless Souls: Suicide in Early Modern
England. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.
[2] Niederkrotenthaler, Thomas, Martin Voracek, Arno Herberth,
Benedikt Till, Markus Strauss, Elmar Etzersdorfer, Brigitte Eisenwort, and Gernot Sonneck. “Role of Media Reports in Completed and Prevented Suicide: Werther v. Papageno Effects.” The British Journal of Psychiatry : The Journal of Mental Science 197, no. 3 (September 2010): 234–43. doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.109.074633.
[3] Stack, Steven. “Suicide in the Media: A Quantitative Review of
Studies Based on Non-Fictional Stories.” Suicide & Life-Threatening Behavior 35, no. 2 (April 2005): 121–33. doi:10.1521/suli.

From Grub Street To Fleet Street

Sep 28, 2014

Bob Clarke's 'From Grub Street to Fleet Street: An Illustrated History of English Newspapers to 1899' (#booksthatgooglegivesyoudirectionsfor) is a fantastic guide to the development of English newspapers but importantly also very funny.  Clarke has a gift for bringing some of the more absurd features of the early profession.:

What was Grub Street?

Grub Street is a metaphor for the hack writer. The word ‘hack’ derives from Hackney, originally meaning a horse for hire and later a prostitute, a woman for hire. Finally, it was applied to a writer for hire, a newspaper writer or a literary drudge. Paid by the line, scratching a precarious living from the lower reaches of literature, including journalism, the Grub Street hack received no public acclaim, other than the sneers and jibes of his more successful contemporaries who, by a mixture of ability and sycophancy, had found the security of a patron.

Newspaper Corrections

Surely one of the best newspaper correction in history belongs to the Reading Mercury in 1765 - as provincial papers would print pages as news came in during the week they could end up with corrections on page 2 for content on page 1.

Page 1 - The following melancholy accident, we are informed, happened on Friday last, at a principal Inn on the road to Reading, viz. As a Gentleman was going up stairs he met the Landlady coming down, when he insisted upon a kiss, which she complied with; but the Gentleman not content with that, attempted to put his hand into her bosom, which she resented, and pushing him from her, he unfortunately fell down the stairs, broke his neck, and expired soon after.

Page 3 -The story propagated about town (and which is inserted in the former part of this paper) of a Gentleman attempting too great a freedom with the Landlady of a great Inn on the road to Reading, and that she pushed him down stairs, whereby he was killed, is without any sort of foundation, no such circumstances having happened or been attempted; but is supposed to arise from envy; on account of the great resort of genteel company to the said Inn.

The wonderful reason 'The Times' is 'The Times'

It was founded by John Walter as the Daily Universal Register in 1785. Because the title was so long, people tended to ask for ‘the Register’, and were likely to end with the Weekly Register, or the Annual Register, or even Harris’s Register, the list of Covent Garden whores. So in 1788 Walter remained his paper The Times.

Some traditions started early

Finally, there was the series of semi-pornographic newsbooks produced by John Crouch: The Man in the Moon (1649-50), Mercurius Democritus (1625-43); and Mercurius Fumigosus (1654-55), which contained a mixture of genuine news and dirty jokes disguised as news.

Embedded Journalists (or chaplains) in the Prison System

Fuller accounts were to be found in the threepenny or sixpenny broadsheets of Dying Confessions that were hawked about the street after, and sometimes during, the execution. Many of these were the work of the Ordinary or Chaplain of Newgate. The Ordinary would try to obtain a full account of the life and crimes of the prisoner in the condemned cell under the pretense that the prisoner ought to confess all his sins to make his peace with God. If that did not work, he would travel in the cart with the condemned man from Newgate to try and wring some serviceable copy out of him. Naturally the publicity value would not be so great if the prisoner was reprieved. The Rev. James Villette once tried to prevent the last-minute reprive of a fifteen-year-old boy by telling the hangman to get on with it, as it was too late to worry about such details.

The whole thing is well worth the read if you ever find yourself with a copy.

Renter Registration

Sep 21, 2014

I set up a quick website to act as a portal for renters to the electoral registration page -

Thought behind this: I had problems voting this May which I've gone into more detail on here(short story: moved late, was registered, administrative screw-up, couldn't vote - but long story is more fun) and I've been thinking about the problem of renters and elections in general.

The gulf in registration rates between private renters and homeowners is huge (56 % vs 87%) - the political process is vastly weighted in favour of current homeowners for various reasons but this bit seems like a fairly tackle-able handicap.

Registration drives are not really a thing in the UK (while being huge in the US), the annual canvass does a fairly good job at finding people who are in the same place year after year - but is terrible at finding the renters who are in a different place each time (data matching experiments have been equally unpromising for renters).

The new online voter registration system is a massive improvement on the previous way you had to register out of cycle (which to remind you: you had to print off a pdf, write down all your stuff, post it, where someone else would re-type it in) - this is now a five minute job anywhere with an internet connection.

This gives a point of an entry for a sectional registration drive. A scheme targeted at getting private renters on the register should be able to make an impact on that number.

There's a digital divide issue that'll need to be addressed at some point (registrations forms are still printable and I created a very basic flyer as an intermediary thing) but as digital is easier and the hole in renter registration has a lot of young people who (technically) use the internet there's a lot of scope in digital before needing to expand offline.

This increase in renter registration would need to be converted into greater salience for renter-friendly policies, but that's a slightly harder problem.

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