on the multiplication of labor

Golly, it’s been almost 2 months since my last post. What can I possibly offer as an excuse?

The standard one would be “I didn’t have time”—but I don’t believe in that excuse. For we all have the same amount of time: 24 hours in a day. What differs are our priorities. That implies that I have assigned a lower priority to posting to this blog than I have to other things. And this despite the fact that I recognize that keeping up with one’s blog is a core activity for the modern writer. What’s wrong with me?

There are a couple of things that are wrong with me, but I suspect that they might actually resolve down to just one thing. One of these things is the need to scare up some revenue—a livelihood. For, like most writers, and especially like most fiction writers and other artists of language, I don’t make my living by writing. I have done so in the past, off and on during my career. I’ve even done quite well at it, working in television and in the corporate world as a technical writer. But in the long (long, long) process of getting The Age of Pisces written and published, I have run down my resources and have been obliged to look for ways to keep body and soul together. And this has taken time.

Another thing wrong with me is the fact that being a modern, self-published writer, I have many other duties to attend to besides just writing my books and keeping up with my blog. Ever since the beginning of the e-book revolution a few years ago, the cognoscenti have been insisting that now the writer must wear many more hats than formerly. As publisher as well as writer, the author must now see to the editing, production, and publication of his book, plus all of its marketing. And thankfully there are many intelligent and low-cost ways of doing these things—but they take time. For each task there is a learning curve and an investment of time to get it accomplished. And many of them are ongoing—not unlike the blog itself.

But there’s even more wrong with me, for the dispersion of my attention occurs not only across the various tasks that make up the preparation of my book series; it occurs also across activities that do not directly relate to that project. I continue to study the art of writing itself, and I continue to work on my own liberal education. I continue to read about subjects that do not directly relate to my work in progress, just because I’m interested, or because I want to be informed about the world I live in. Right now, for example, I’ve resumed reading a book I put down in 2013 called The Capitalist Manifesto by Louis O. Kelso and Mortimer J. Adler. I was spurred to do this by reading an article (on a nifty little app called Flipboard) about how machine intelligence is progressing so fast that in just a few years’ time 80% of all jobs in the developed world will be performable by computers or robots. An important topic for a world citizen to pay attention to, surely—but not related to my fictional world of the Eastern Mediterranean of the 1st century B.C. I even try to pick up the guitar once in a while. And all these things take time.

A couple of thoughts. One is that all this has made a slow writer (guess who) even slower. For the piling-up of new job functions on the book author is working directly against the flow of economic history as first observed by Adam Smith in his The Wealth of Nations. Smith’s work launches from the observation that the increase of human material wealth springs from a single cause: the division of labor. Book One begins with his discussion of the industry of pin-making. He notes that a workman not educated to the business, working alone, could probably turn out scarcely a single pin in a day, and certainly not 20 of them. But he saw an indifferently stocked and staffed factory of 10 men making pins, and they were turning out 48,000 a day. Such is the wealth-multiplying power of the division of labor, and it applies to every field of human endeavor.

The forward march of electronic technology, though, has caused the modern writer to do an about-face and march backward in economic development, away from the division of labor to what I suppose would have to be called the multiplication of labor. And just as the process of specialization, which is the purpose and point of the division of labor, leads its practitioners to higher levels of expertise and productivity, so the process of generalization to an expanding array of job functions, which is the effect if not the purpose of the multiplication of labor, leads its practitioners in the opposite direction: to lower levels of expertise and productivity. Certainly, I can confirm this from my own experience. I’m doing more things—or trying to do them—and getting less done.

I think that there was much that was irrational and wrong about the publishing industry on the eve of the e-book revolution. But it at least had this going for it: a division of labor. In that one respect, at least, it was rational. And for this reason I expect to see a return of the division of labor to the e-publishing world; no doubt it is already happening. But in the meantime, those of us toiling on the margins, far from the mainstream, have a newly extensive set of hats that we have to keep changing, and this hat-switching must perforce slow us down, no matter how clever the technology is that we might use to perform our new job functions.

So there you have it: a slightly expanded excuse for why I haven’t been doing my blog posts. But there’s more to be said about this. For in talking about the division of labor I’ve only really been talking about the writer as an industrial concern—as a business. And that, to me, is the least interesting part of writing. For the writer who is also an artist, a whole other set of considerations comes into play.

But more on that next time.

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