You Can't Optimize For Rest
The Convivial Society: Vol. 2, No. 21
Welcome to the Convivial Society, a newsletter about technology and culture. In this installment I write a bit about burnout, exhaustion, and rest. It doesn’t end with any neat solutions, but that’s kind of the point. However, I’ll take up the theme again in the next installment, and will hopefully end on a more promising note.
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Several years ago, I listened to Terry Gross interview the son of a prominent religious leader, who had publicly broken with his father’s legacy and migrated to another, rather different branch of the tradition. Gross asked why he had not simply let his faith go altogether. His reply has always stuck with me. He explained that it was, in part, because he was the kind of person whose first instinct, upon deciding to become an atheist, would be to ask God to help him be an atheist.
I thought about his response recently when I encountered an article with the following title: “The seven types of rest: I spent a week trying them all. Could they help end my exhaustion?”
My first, admittedly ill-tempered reaction was to conclude that Betteridge’s Law had been validated once again. In case this is the first time you’re hearing of Betteridge’s Law, it states that any headline ending in a question can be answered with no. I think you’ll find that it holds more often than not.
With the opening anecdote in mind, my second, slightly more considered response was to conclude that some of us have become the kind of people whose first instinct, upon deciding to break loose from the tyranny of productivity and optimization, would be to make a list. Closely related to this thought was another: some of us have become the kind of people whose first instinct, upon deciding to reject pathological consumerism, would be to buy a product or service which promised to help us do so.
And I don’t think we should necessarily bracket the religious context of the original formulation in the latter two cases. The structure is altogether analogous: a certain pattern of meaning, purpose, and value has become so deeply engrained that we can hardly imagine operating without it. This is why the social critic Ivan Illich called assumptions of this sort “certainties” and finally concluded that they needed to be identified and challenged before any meaningful progress on social ills could be made.
As it turned out, that article on the different forms of rest takes a recent book as its point of departure. The book identified and explored the seven forms of rest—physical, emotional, mental, social, and so on—which the author of the article sampled for a day a piece. Probably not what the book’s author had in mind. Whatever one makes of the article, or the book upon which it is based, the problem to which it speaks, a sense of permanent burnout or chronic exhaustion, is, as far as I can tell, real and pervasive, and it is a symptom of a set of interlocking disorders afflicting modern society, which have been exacerbated and laid bare over the last two years.
Others have written about this phenomenon perceptively and eloquently, particularly if we consider discussions of rest, exhaustion, and burnout together with similar discussions about the changing nature and meaning of work. The writing of Jonathan Malesic and Anne Helen Petersen comes immediately to mind. I won’t do the matter justice in the way they and others do, but this is a subject I’ve been thinking about a good bit lately so I’ll offer some brief observations for your consideration.
And I think I’ll break these reflections up into two or three posts beginning with this one. As I think about what we might variously describe as the exhaustion, fatigue, or burnout that characterizes our experience, several obvious sources come to mind, chief among them economic precarity and a global pandemic. The persistent mental and emotional tax we pay to use social media doesn’t help, of course. But my attention is drawn to another set of factors: a techno-economic milieu that is actively hostile to human well-being, for example, or a certain programmed aimlessness that may undermine the experience of accomplishment or satisfaction. So let me take aim at that first point in this installment and turn to the second in a forthcoming post.
Let’s start by acknowledging that we’re talking about a longstanding problem, which likely varies in intensity from time to time. I’ve mentioned on more than a few occasions that the arc of digital culture bends toward exhaustion, but it does so as part of a much longer cultural trajectory. Here’s another passage that has stayed with me years after first encountering it. It is from Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time To Keep Silent, the famed travel writer’s account of his stays at several monasteries across Europe and Turkey circa 1950. Early on, Fermor recounted the physical effects of his first stay in a monastery after recently having been in Paris. “The most remarkable preliminary symptoms,” Fermor began, “were the variations of my need of sleep.” “After initial spells of insomnia, nightmare and falling asleep by day,” he continues,
I found that my capacity for sleep was becoming more and more remarkable: till the hours I spent in or on my bed vastly outnumbered the hours I spent awake; and my sleep was so profound that I might have been under the influence of some hypnotic drug. For two days, meals and the offices in the church — Mass, Vespers and Compline — were almost my only lucid moments. Then began an extraordinary transformation: this extreme lassitude dwindled to nothing; night shrank to five hours of light, dreamless and perfect sleep, followed by awakenings full of energy and limpid freshness.
If your experience is anything like mine, that last line will be the most unrelatable bit of prose you’ll read today. So to what did Fermor attribute this transformation? “The explanation is simple enough:” he writes,
the desire for talk, movements and nervous expression that I had transported from Paris found, in this silent place, no response or foil, evoked no single echo; after miserably gesticulating for a while in a vacuum, it languished and finally died for lack of any stimulus or nourishment. Then the tremendous accumulation of tiredness, which must be the common property of all our contemporaries, broke loose and swamped everything. No demands, once I had emerged from that flood of sleep, were made upon my nervous energy: there were no automatic drains, such as conversation at meals, small talk, catching trains, or the hundred anxious trivialities that poison everyday life. Even the major causes of guilt and anxiety had slid away into some distant limbo and not only failed to emerge in the small hours as tormentors but appeared to have lost their dragonish validity.”
There’s a lot that’s worth lingering over in that paragraph—how digital devices have multiplied the automatic drains, for example—but I want to focus our attention on this one phrase: “the tremendous accumulation of tiredness, which must be the common property of all our contemporaries.”
Now there’s a relatable sentiment. I emphasize it only to make the point that while, as Petersen wrote in a 2019 essay, burnout may be the “permanent residence” of the millennial generation, it can also be characterized as a more recent iteration of a longstanding condition. And the reason for this is that the dominant techno-social configuration of modern society demands that human beings operate at a scale and pace that is not conducive to their well-being—let alone rest, rightly understood—but by now most of us have been born into this state of affairs and take it more or less for granted.
For example, in a recent installment of her newsletter, Petersen discussed how existing social and economic structures make it so we always pay, in one way or another, for taking time to rest, and, of course, that’s if we are among those who are fortunate enough to do so. In the course of her discussion she makes the following pointed observation:
The ideal worker, after all, is a robot. A robot never tires, never needs rest, requires only the most basic of maintenance. When or if it collapses, it is readily replicated and replaced. In 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, Jonathan Crary makes the haunting case that we’re already training our bodies for this purpose. The more capable you are of working without rest of any form — the more you can convince your body and yourself to labor as a robot — the more valuable you become within the marketplace. We don’t turn off so much as go into “sleep mode”: ready, like the machines we’ve forced our bodies to approximate, to be turned back on again.
This is yet another example of the pattern I sought to identify in a recent installment: the human-built world is not built for humans. In that essay, I was chiefly riffing on Illich, who argued that “contemporary man attempts to create the world in his image, to build a totally man-made environment, and then discovers that he can do so only on the condition of constantly remaking himself to fit it.”
Illich is echoing the earlier work of the French polymath Jacques Ellul, to whom Illich acknowledged his debt in a 1994 talk I’ve cited frequently.1 In his best known book, The Technological Society2, Ellul argued that by the early 20th century Western societies had become structurally inhospitable to human beings because technique had become their ordering principle.3 These days I find it helpful to gloss what technique meant for Ellul as the tyrannical imperative to optimize everything.
So, recall Petersen’s observation about the robot being the ideal worker. It’s a remarkably useful illustration of Ellul’s thesis. It’s not that any one technology has disordered the human experience of work. Rather, it’s that technique, the ruthless pursuit of efficiency or optimization, as an ordering principle has determined how specific technologies and protocols are to be developed and integrated into the work environment. The resulting system, reflecting the imperatives of technique, is constructed in such a way that the human being qua human being becomes an impediment, a liability to the functioning of the system. He or she must become mechanical in their performance in order to fit the needs of the system, be it a warehouse floor or a byzantine bureaucracy. It’s the Taylorite fantasy of scientific management now abetted by a vastly superior technical apparatus. The logic, of course, finally suggests the elimination of the human element. When we design systems that work best the more machine-like we become, we shouldn’t be surprised when the machines ultimately render us superfluous.4
But only under certain circumstances can the human element be eliminated. For the most part, we carry on in techno-social environments that are either indifferent to a certain set of genuine human needs or altogether hostile to them.5 For this reason, Ellul argued, a major subset of technique emerges.6 Ellul referred to these as human techniques because their aim was to continually manage the human element in the technological system so that it would function adequately.
“In order that he not break down or lag behind (precisely what technical progress forbids),” Ellul believed, “[man] must be furnished with psychic forces he does not have in himself, which therefore must come from elsewhere.” That “elsewhere” might be pharmacology, propaganda, or, to give some more recent examples, mindfulness apps or seven techniques for finding rest.
“The human being,” Ellul writes,
is ill at ease in this strange new environment, and the tension demanded of him weighs heavily on his life and being. He seeks to flee—and tumbles into the snare of dreams; he tries to comply and falls into the life of organizations; he feels maladjusted—and becomes a hypochondriac. But the new technological society has foresight and ability enough to anticipate these human reactions. It has undertaken, with the help of techniques of every kind, to make supportable what was not previously so, and not, indeed, by modifying anything in man's environment but by taking action upon man himself.
In his view, human techniques are alway undertaken in the interest of preserving the system and adapting the human being to its demands. Ellul explained the problem at length, but here’s a relatively condensed expression of the argument:
[W]e hear over and over again that there is ‘something out of line’ in the technical system, an insupportable state of affairs for a technician. A remedy must be found. What is out of line? According to the usual superficial analysis, it is man that is amiss. The technician thereupon tackles the problem as he would any other […] Technique reveals its essential efficiency in discerning that man has a sentimental and moral life which can have great influence on his material behavior and in proposing to do something about such factors on the basis of its own ends. These factors are, for technique, human and subjective; but if means can be found to act upon them, to rationalize them and bring them into line, they need not be a technical drawback. Of course, man as such does not count.
One recurring rejoinder to critiques of new or emerging technologies, particularly when it is clear that they are unsettling existing patterns of life for some, usually those with little choice in the matter, is to claim that human beings are remarkably resilient and adaptable. The fact that this comes off as some sort of high-minded compliment to human nature does a lot of work, too. But this claim tells us very little of merit because it does not address the critical issue: is it good for human beings to adapt to the new state of affairs. After all, as Ellul noted, human beings can be made to adapt to all manner of inhumane conditions, particularly in wartime. The fact that they do so may be to the credit of those who do, but not necessarily to the circumstances to which they must adapt. From this perspective, praise of humanity’s adaptability can look either like a bit of propaganda or, more generously, a case of Stockholm syndrome.
So let’s come back to where we started with Ellul’s insights in mind. There are two key points. First, our exhaustion—in its various material and immaterial dimensions—is a consequence of the part we play in a techno-social milieu whose rhythms, scale, pace, and demands are not conducive to our well-being, to say nothing of the well-being of other creatures and the planet we share. Second, the remedies to which we often turn may themselves be counterproductive because their function is not to alter the larger system which has yielded a state of chronic exhaustion but rather to keep us functioning within it. Moreover, not only do the remedies fail to address the root of the problem, but there’s also a tendency to carry into our efforts to find rest the very same spirit which animates the system that left us tired and burnt out. Rest takes on the character of a project to be completed or an experience to be consumed. In neither case do we ultimately find any sort of meaningful and enduring relief or renewal.
In the opening of the talk at an event to honor Ellul and his work, Illich opened with this moving tribute: “Professor Ellul - I would much prefer to say, ‘Master Jacques’ ... I have been moved by your comparison of a master with an ox which, in pulling the plow, opens a furrow. I have striven to follow you in a filial spirit, making all the false steps which that implies. I hope you accept my harvest and can recognize some flowers among what might seem a mixture of noxious weeds. I can thus express my gratitude to a master to whom I owe an orientation that has decisively affected my pilgrimage for forty years. In this sense, my debt is unquestionable […]”
The original French title reads La Technique: L’enjeu du siècle. The subject of the book is not technology per se, but what Ellul called technique. Ellul associated technique with the relentless pursuit of efficiency in all areas of life. The subtitle translates literally as “the stake of the century” and suggests something like technique being what the 20th-century society has staked itself on. One Ellul scholar has suggested that “The Society of Efficient Techniques” would be a better title.
Ellul, whatever else could be said about him, was no fool. He knew that life in pre-industrial societies could be harsh and precarious. He also spent the better part of the Second World War in exile in southern France, subsisting on potato farming and joining the French Resistance in helping Jews escape the Nazi regime, for which service he was honored as one of the “Righteous among the Nations.” He was under no Romantic illusions.
From a 2015 post: “In a system that works best the more machine-like we become, the human component becomes expendable as soon as a machine can outperform it. To give it another turn, we might frame it as a paradox of complexity. As human beings create powerful and complex technologies, they must design complex systemic environments to ensure their safe operation. These environments sustain further complexity by disciplining human actors to abide by the necessary parameters. Complexity is achieved by reducing human action to the patterns of the system; consequently, there comes a point when further complexity can only be achieved by discarding the human element altogether.”
This is not the whole story, of course. Modern society manages to meet many needs and relieve much suffering, although these boons are unequally and even unjustly distributed. For more on the variety of relevant human needs, see this earlier discussion of Simone Weil, Ivan Illich, and Albert Borgmann.