The Severance Between Life And Work In Tech
5 min read
Severance as a term can be traced back to the early 15th century from Old French sevrance "seperation, parting" from sevrer. From Latin separare "to pull apart".
As a modern noun, severance is a personal or social seperation (as between opposing factions). The first question then is - Do work and life form opposing factions, such that we need to sever them?. Yes, but not entirely. What actually matters is who benefits most from the severance. In this article, we are going to move from one extreme end of the spectrum to the other.
One of the earliest literature to depict how tech companies hope to practice severance was written by Neal Stephenson in his futuristic novel 'Snow Crash'. The lead female character YT, who is described to be a Deliverator, the futuristic version of couriers with smart wheels and other fancy gadgets. The focus is on Y.T's Mom, who happens to work for the Feds. In the old days, she would have written computer programs for a living. Nowadays, she writes fragments of computer programs for the Feds. These programs are designed entirely by her superiors. Does that remind you of how the big tech microservice scheme works? Yes, they look almost the same. The Feds are not actually the 'Feds' in the context of these novel, they are more focused on private ownership, controlled by other big private conglomerate. "When you're working for the Feds, everything you do is the property of the United States of America. You do your work on the computer. The computer keeps a copy of everything, so that if you get sick or something, it's all there where your co-workers and supervisors can get access to it. If you want to write little notes or make phone doodles, you're perfectly free to do that at home, in your spare time."
The Feds have a fetish for loyalty—since they don't make a lot of money or get a lot of respect, you have to prove you're personally committed, by taking weekly administred Polygraph tests. She has gone through this procedure so many times that she had bruises just above her elbows, caused by the blood pressure cauffs. To top it off, her house is bugged and tapped. This is all done in a quest to ensure work secrets are not leaked out to the public. The whole setup actually points to an extreme form of mass severance - but on the employers' term; dosed with a handful mass surveliance practises, just to make sure your work is seperated from your life. If you think this method is inhumane and intrusive, you are mostly right. But wait till I take you to the other end of the spectrum.
On a more moderate level, the pandemic encouraged working from home. At first, working from home seems like the most ideal setup until you oberserve that you actually work more when you work from home, if it were your 9 -5 job schedule , you know you are probably done for the day after 5. The uproar started when companies started to monitor employees' computer and web cam just to know if they are working,imagine that! . After some protests they did back off for a moment.
Although new legislations and laws in some countries have been created to forbid employers from contacting their employees after work hours for any work-related stuff, the practice has not been widely adopted. And I presume many of the big companies will oppose, since now the severance is on your own terms, you just dictated when you work and when you dont.
Now to the other extreme side of the spectrum, the ultimate severance- some sort of middle ground for the company and the worker.If you have been paying attention to new media, you would have probably heard of a new TV series "Severance", financed by Apple TV+.
In this bleak futuristic world, a prospective "Lumon" worker will sign an agreement to be implanted with a brain chip that bifurcates the brain, creating a permanent severance from work and life. Lumon is the name of the company. After this operation, you resume work, the details of the work is still sketchy at the moment. Here is the crux of the whole setup, this brain implant kind of make every memory related to the work you do and the entire workplace inaccessible the moment you leave the workplace. It does this so clinically, that when workers converse at work, they 'wonder' who they are on the outside(outies), where they sleep. They can't even recognize their co-workers in the outside world.
If you try to play smart by writing secrets notes to yourself of what you do at work, so that you can read when you get home, you will definitely get caught, because the surveliance system is that strong to detect secret notes. Try smuggling something in to the workplace, won't even work, because you have to change your entire clothing, watch, even shoes before entry to your workplace. When you enter, you dont know who you are on the outside. When you are outside, you dont know who you are on the inside.
This future might seem far fetched, but I tell you with the appropriate marketing budget, many people will gladly accept it. No more poaching my workers for trade secrets or even knowledge per se, they cant remember anything. For the workers, no more worries about work after workhours, when you cant even remember what it is you do at work.
For me, the most genuine type of severance is "actual freedom". When I say freedom, I mean total freedom. The freedom that affords you the liberty to wake up when you want, work when you want, read books, have hobbies, and doing all this without fear of hunger because you have enough to survive. In Nassim Taleb's words some "Fuck you money". I sure don't know the formula for achieveing such freedom, but i definetely know limiting your skillset is one way to fall into the trap. Have many talents or at the very best gain many skills such that you decide when you work, who you work with. I started as an newbie web designer, it didn't take long before I learnt some stuff about the backend of the web, now I spend my days horning my writing and product management skills. All I am saying is, be so damn resourceful!.You can't know it all, but know enough to be able to dictate the terms of your employment - the severance between your work and your life.
PS: I'm not a Luddite. I just believe maintaining a healthy work-life balance should not involve such drastic measures. kapish