How did we arrive at the present moment of obsession with productivity and self-optimization?
First, I want to say that someone whose productivity is being measured on the job or someone who is self-employed might appear to be obsessed, but it’s because they need to be. Some of that is coercion, or the way that the workplace is designed. Some of it is wanting to stay afloat or make a better living. So it’s complicated.
I would say our overall fixation on productivity has roots in the Protestant work ethic, where work was a moral equation: You are not a good person if you are not busy all the time. You’re not even really supposed to spend the money that you make. In the US, there was an early-20th-century obsession with applying Taylorism—a scientific method for increasing productivity—to things outside the factory. Even to bodies, which dovetailed with eugenics. It was an obsession with perfecting a machine to certain standards. This idea is still very much with us.
How do you see readers using your book to push against this idea?
I’m trying to offer something like a birdwatching guidebook. I have the Sibley Birds West field guide, and it tells me what birds I might see and helpful ways to recognize them. Someday I won’t need that guidebook anymore—but if I went to a new place I would need it. The guidebook format gives a shared vocabulary, so you can talk about the things you’re seeing with other people.
I really respect the type of book that takes something that feels pathological to an individual, or like a personal shortcoming, and puts it in a broader context. And in that broader context are other people who have the same feeling.
And these feelings aren’t new. For example, your book cites the hippie movement of the ’60s as a big cultural push to opt out. But it didn’t last. Do you see the current conditions as more fruitful for people to opt out and make it stick?
Every generation has people who exist at odds with cultural assumptions. It doesn’t always leave lasting effects on policy, but if you look in art and culture, it’s there.
One of the things I’m trying to do is connect all those previous iterations of this same feeling, this desire for a meaningful life and a sense of autonomy. My students could pick up Processed World, a magazine I love from the ’80s and ’90s, and recognize everything in it—the humor, the sarcasm as a response to this stultifying culture. They would recognize themselves in it.
I want to help that message get through so that someone now who is having those feelings realizes that they’re not alone. They’re not alone in the present. They’re also not alone in history.
Over the time that you taught digital art at Stanford, I wonder if you noticed a trend in how your students were talking about their time.
I taught from 2013 to 2021, and over that period of time there was definitely more conversation about burnout and mental health. There were students who gravitated toward an entrepreneurial mindset—sleep at your desk, work is your passion—and others who totally rejected that. Certainly the rejection of those values is something that was talked about more in the last years of my teaching, because certain things were starting to seem so unsustainable.