Fulfilling Work, or not

I’ve been finishing up some big projects this year, and I’ve begun to look to the future. One can’t look too deeply into the new projects before finishing the old, lest one get distracted. But still, the faint outlines of new work can become a little less faint while wrapping up existing projects. (Nota bene: the epistemic certainty of this post is very low.)

It’s become clear that I am (still) most interested in the effect that emerging technologies have on the workplace. While my first love will always be independent professionals, recent projects concerning organizational responses to emerging technologies have broadened my focus.

My doctoral project focused on how digital tools enabled independent musicians to conduct the work that organizations would otherwise do for them. This allowed many musicians who did not have the support of an organization to create careers for themselves in a space where an organization was deemed deeply important, if not essential. Yet my 2018 JTWC article showed that what made their careers possible was not necessarily fulfilling work; the goal of many of the artists I talked to was to make enough money doing it on their own to hire someone else to do the work for them.

As a person who valued (and values) independent careers for the professional fulfillment they can bring, my findings were a challenge. How can we go beyond enabling functional capacity and enable conditions for fulfilling work? My first thought when turning to “conditions” was to think of policy, and I continue to mull over how one can best produce good ends with policy in complex, flexible spaces. (The complexities of California’s AB5 law are an instructive case.)

I am also beginning to ponder several trains of thought that I didn’t pursue in 2017 and 2018 when I first encountered this issue. For example:

  • If I’m really interested in professional fulfillment, how can that be studied directly? For instance, “happiness” and “fulfillment” are metrics of success that may not correlate with financial success; the most financially successful professionals may not be the most fulfilled professionals, and vice versa. There’s a whole literature on “meaningful work” that has things to say on this front.
  • What are the variables of fulfillment? I would imagine that professionals bring personal and professional expectations to professional engagements; what are those expectations? How do they relate to being independent or being in an organization?
  • When considering independent professionals, I see that there are different distances between organizations and independent professionals. Some professionals are very far outside the organization; in a professional capacity, they deal with a single person in the organization and have no insight into what goes on in the organization. Other independent professionals are close to their organization or organizations. While not being a full-time employee of an organization, they are deeply invested in the organization that they are working with and do have insight into the working of the organization. How do these different distances relate to people’s sense of fulfillment? I would imagine that, again, expectations are a mediating factor here; how much and how so?
  • Related: I see all professional individuals as existing within networks of relationships; some individuals have relationships that cluster in or around one organization that they are employed by. Some individuals have relationships across many organizations that they work with as an independent professional. How do these networks of relationships effect people’s fulfillment or lack thereof?
  • Sometimes it really is just finances that make work good or not. Brooke Erin Duffy’s (Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love seems like it would have some things to say on this front, although I’m sure there’s more complexity there. Definitely want to read that one. Alexander Frenette‘s work seems also related to this topic and is something I’ll be checking out.
  • And then, without being techno-utopian or solutionist, what do we do about this? What can we meaningfully change so that we can produce conditions that are better to produce fulfilling work (while acknowledging that work is hard, and that some work is always going to be fraught on this side of the eschaton)? As I mentioned above, policy is one new angle I am considering and pursuing. But also, my background is in DIY: making do with what we have. How can we use existing tools in new ways to make things better? How can we ethically implement emerging technologies to make things better (and not worse)?

All of these points do circle back to that last point: I do believe that emerging technologies can make things better. However, I also believe that emerging technologies can make things much worse. If there was any takeaway from 8 years of running a tech ethics podcast, it’s that just because something is reasonable (i.e. there are identifiable reasons a thing happened) does not make it justifiable (i.e. this thing is a good thing to do). Just because we have reasons that we want to make technologies does not mean that everything we do with them is necessarily going to be good. We have to be careful with technologies. And thus we live with a double-edged sword of emerging technologies: that which can improve conditions can also be used in different ways to make conditions worse. (Consider Twitter.)

None of these thoughts (except that last paragraph) is particularly more than a fuzzy-outlines idea that I’m kicking around. I like it when people like their jobs, and I like helping more people like their jobs. I’ll keep trying to make that happen.