Exposing the workers in the modern-day shadows: us

Book review: Craig Lambert argues that technology has created a middle-class serfdom preventing us from enjoying life

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Craig Lambert

Here we are in the 21st century, with a host of amazing leisure options at our fingertips—so why do we have so little time to enjoy them? Lambert says it’s because we’re all bank tellers, travel agents, checkout clerks, data entry technicians, and brokers; technology encourages us to fill in for the people who used to have these jobs. Our devotion to multitasking has become all-consuming, and the unpaid work we do on behalf of businesses, he claims, creates “middle-class serfdom.”

Lambert’s evocative term for these tasks is “shadow work,” and his genius is in bringing together so many contemporary pet peeves, from unpaid internships to struggles with checkout machines to the co-opting of children’s sports by expensive, high-stress leagues. He historicizes such issues with case studies including the first clerk-free supermarket and the first self-serve gas stations (which happened to be in Winnipeg). A picture emerges of a culture of competitiveness spurred by consumers’ desire for efficiency and business owners’ drive to cut costs. In order to give ourselves and our families every advantage, we must take direct charge of our lives’ minutiae. As we do so, we download apps and sign up for services that make this possible, and data-mining companies track our moves to sell the information they gather. Our time is their money.

Lambert, a former editor at Harvard Magazine, also finds that in the U.S., relying on “servants clashes with our national ideal of equality” and uneasily evokes slavery. People cope by tipping (hence tip creep), but also by administering this care themselves. Shadow work is ideologically entrenched.

Some of it, such as recycling, is actually beneficial, but mostly we’re just complicit in bringing about what Lambert calls “the twilight of leisure”—not to mention the loss of countless jobs. What’s more, we’re being divided from our fellow humans (okay, maybe not so bad if you’ve been trying to avoid that one annoying bank teller) and submitting to having “corporations and other behemoths commandeer daily life.” Lambert offers no solutions; his book is more of a synthesis, with a series of jaundiced, wry observations, some admittedly more germane than others. But he’s an entertaining stick-in-the-mud and a valuable guide to contemporary culture—assuming you can find the time to read his book.

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