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PERSPECTIVE | MAGAZINE

The life-changing power of boring jobs and mindless work

Automation may one day replace our most tedious tasks. I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Images from Adobe Stock/Globe staff photo illustration

W hen I came home to Boston in between semesters in college, I supported myself by putting books on shelves and pulling them off again. It’s a job that might not exist in the same form it once did. Back then, I could drop a note to the associate librarian at a university in Cambridge and say I’d have three idle weeks next month, and could I escape into the stacks for some hours of feeling useful?

I wasn’t, of course. I was a terrible librarian’s assistant. I would sit on one of those low, rolling step stools in the neuropsychology section and read all of Paul Broks’s Into the Silent Land. I opened it because I liked the title and the mysterious blinking eye that filled the cover. I don’t know how many hours it took, hiding in the shadow of my trolley; it was a quickish read, and temps at the school were only nominally paid, which made it feel less like stealing. The book shook me out of my collegiate depression, the sense that I would never do or make anything worthwhile.

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I also read some books on architecture — learned what cusping and ogee meant — and smatterings of pretty much anything that passed through my hands that didn’t look like it contained actuarial tables. I learned, slowly, by feel, how society attempts to get ahold of itself by naming and categorizing information and piling it up. It was a random and inefficient education, and I was a random and inefficient employee.

This was a decade ago. Now big data and high ideals have made over the library as a tech hub, a coffee shop, a seat of resistance, a toolbox. But back then, my library was distinctly unhip: It was musty and inefficient, and I am profoundly grateful I was allowed to work there.

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In the zeal for greater productivity, I sometimes wonder if those of us who are excited to redesign the future remember that softer, more forgiving time of minimal data and arbitrary friction — the glorious inefficiencies of some of the jobs we’ve held.

I never found the library work boring. Or, rather, when the work was boring, I found myself making mental paths around it.

When I had, inexplicably, shelved all the returned books, I’d be directed to truckloads of donations. We’d receive whole collections from professors who had died or moved into rest homes. If we already had a copy of something, I’d punch it with my big, red DISCARD stamp.

But first, I’d try to figure out who had owned the collection, based on the letters and scribbles I came across. Famous physicists; obscure researchers of even more obscure anthropological concerns. Paging through what they were given; who had given it to them and what tender or chummy notes were left in the front; what they’d read and evidently not read — it all seemed like secret knowledge.

Those who fantasize about endless remote work, optimal human productivity, or the concept of “fully automated luxury Communism” — they would doubtless call this sort of work drudgery. The World Economic Forum, in declaring that 85 million jobs would be lost to automation by 2025 — particularly those in data entry, bookkeeping, inventory, and factory and mechanical work — excitedly promised that those would be quickly replaced by “higher-value” jobs. Tech entrepreneurs, positioning themselves as liberators, describe automation as “freeing” the human mind from the yoke of mundane and repetitive tasks.

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Calvin’s father in the Calvin and Hobbes comics might have said that these tasks “build character.” I found this sort of work to be a lightly-paid escape that made me feel just a little more useful, a little more capable, at a time when I needed it.

During longer college breaks, I earned $7 an hour in a service job in New Hampshire’s White Mountains huts. We hauled food to shelters, took out trash, cooked great vats of lumpy oatmeal, then scrubbed the pots, swept bunk rooms, and refolded filthy blankets. You could easily call it menial labor, but we played broken instruments and danced to industrial pop at night and snuck off in pairs into the surprisingly prickly alpine tundra.

There is some magic in making bad jobs into good jobs, a sort of creative caper that I suspect might be important in the passage from impatient childhood to a more developed adulthood.

There is also a psychological benefit in having to sit with your mind in quiet, not looking at a screen. In neuropsychological terms, activities that allow your mind to actively wander seem to support the parasympathetic nervous system, or your body’s rest and heal mode, and ultimately improve performance on more cognitively demanding tasks.

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The work that we now wave off as soon-to-be-eradicated drudgery — it was rich soil for my life. Anybody could have done it, and I’m grateful that it was me. But if that work has become less easy to come by, some of the responsibility is mine. Part of my job in those later years was to use my DISCARD stamp on books that rarely circulated in the school’s early attempts to make the space more useful, to digitize everything and cut down on human labor. Those volumes were sold at the quarterly dollar sale or placed in cold storage.

With fewer books, the library today feels to me echoing and denuded, like a public square where a forest once stood. Clean, efficient, safe, sensible, useful, and optimally productive. It once smelled dank and mysterious — like a wilderness, like soil.


Caty Enders is a journalist and scientist researching the ways technology is changing the brain. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.