Shadow work – not the Jungian dumpster diving into the dark of your own soul which has the same name but the big, insidious hole in our lives when we are, all unknowingly, working for someone else, and for nothing, – is eating through our lives.
Shadow work is when you look out the window and there is the orphan refrigerator that’s been abandoned on the roadside for a month.
You reach for the phone to call the council helpline and there goes the next 40 minutes, more if there’s the infuriating, indefinable wait, followed by an often placatory explanation (who cares?) or, even more irritatingly, an accusatory fob-off and then a long wait to see if anything happens. Or not.
Once, the system – live workers with real job descriptions – would have taken care of the old car, increasingly stripped down, on the verge outside a friend’s house. Or the old oven, now on its side in Mako Street.
Or the long line of overflowing wheelie bins that collected around the aforesaid refrigerator over the Christmas weeks when the collection dates were an arcane mystery and dumpster diving into the dark soul of the council website might have been the only faint chance of getting them removed before the seagulls had unpacked them and passers-by quietly added in their own household rubbish bags.
Even after the unfruitful hours have been spent, the holed and abandoned 14-foot day sailor on my beach that was pink stickered by the harbourmaster’s office two summers ago is still there and will trail beach-bum rubbish next time it floats on a king tide or escapes entirely. At which point it will float out to sea like a half-tide rock, ready to take the bottom out of the first high-speed recreational vessel that doesn’t see it in time.
Shadow work – or ‘life admin’ as one new book has distinguished it – is what we do and do and do as all the people who once helped us pack the groceries, do our banking, answer business phones, or make a will are shucked in favour of digital nonsense that is leading us down a primrose path towards normalising talking to machines.
Big companies with call-back schemes expect us to accept this time banditry when, in reality, there are more callers than telephone answering personnel and they are just profoundly disrespectful to their customers.
A lot of this goes on while we are surveilled within an inch of our lives and barely aware how few normal, casual human interactions we still have over a bottle of milk, an interesting-looking joint of meat or while waiting in a post office queue. (There’s apparently even an online food delivery site called GrubHub that advertises “Everything great about eating combined with everything great about not talking to people.”)
Life admin is what we do when we aren’t doing life and we are – profligately, in Benjamin Franklin’s uncompromising view of wasting time – losing our social time to tasks that are making us busier and more stressed.
The sooner we bring our consumer spending to bear on the corporate culprits who not only shuck their labour forces but deprive communities of the health and internal wealth that goes round as a result of their labour, the better. Spark raised my ire with an insanely irritating website/customer interface that drained away hours (and repeatedly auto-responded with emails inviting me to say how happy I was with its product) before I went elsewhere.
By comparison, customer-centric Ikea removed self-serve cashier kiosks in its American outlets having noted lengthier checkout times and a diminished customer experience. Not long after that a Massachusetts supermarket chain chose to eliminate their self-serve checkouts that had been in place since 2003.
Among the factors was the sight of bewildered customers clogging up the self-serve lines, making robotic checkout actually slower than cashiers. The chain concluded that self-checkout technology simply could neither improve nor replace the value of a friendly cashier who would personally help each customer in ‘their’ lane.
Life admin or shadow work, it is an invisible scourge. We forget it exists, the world doesn’t value the labour and time involved and even time-management tips and tricks are no proof against its insidious demands on our time.
Time that – in the easier and more time-generous world my generation expected to flow from globalisation – we might have spent helping each other, contributing to society and generally helping save the world.• Liz Waters