The Intensification of Normal
By now, everything is disrupted. But the disruptions have gone on long enough that new varieties of normal have sprouted around broken routines. As in any disaster, the misfortune is not distributed equally.1 But my world is the white-collar existence of the “knowledge worker,” which has been allowed to continue. In fact, the continuation of knowledge work has only made it more clear what this type of work actually is:
- Knowledge work is always-one-more-thing work. This worker always has something nagging at him; since the work itself is usually immaterial; or rather, its material byproducts are not immediately apparent. There is always one more memo to write, one more task to complete. All it takes is more energy–just a little more. Since the material byproducts of energy and attention are also never apparent, either, to the knowledge worker it feels like one ought to have a little more–even when you don’t.
- Knowledge work is tedium. Those who sell their intellectual skills know that thinking always overspills its proper boundaries. The reflective mind usually continues, unbidden. And so knowledge workers have developed a self-awareness of their own work, and they can’t help from knowing how much of it is superfluous, or unnecessary, or necessary but meaningless. Nonetheless, the work continues, and with this tedium comes the specter of distraction. Videos. The news. Social media. Videos. The news again. No resolution will ever stop the distraction. No limits on distraction will ever be respected.
- Knowledge work is control. Why is it that some people can stay at home, producing conceptual documents and plans and strategies that have value on a market? Largely because we are telling others what to do. Knowledge workers lose some of the satisfaction of seeing the effect of their actions on the world. Or they redefine action in terms of strategy and planning. But the knowledge worker learns the patterns of action, how to arrange it so that it is taken only when necessary, and in the most efficient way possible.
- This is perhaps even more true for a disaster as widespread as this one. Because so many people have been touched by the pandemic is some way, the examples of unequal effect are all the more numerous and easier to generalize.