Lessons from the Deep History of Work

We must, of course, take care with any such investigation. The human brain is malleable, making it hard to distinguish between activities for which humans might be fundamentally wired, and those for which our minds are simply adjusting to meet the demands of the moment.“Anthropologists are wary of assuming that a particular cognitive ability represents an adaptation to a particular task,” Dyble explained. But, even with these caveats in mind, we can approach this exercise as an interesting thought experiment. We need new ideas about how to reform knowledge work, and comparative anthropology seems to be as good a place as any to seek some original thinking. It didn’t take much reading into this literature before I identified several places where modern work significantly differed from our ancient past. Intriguingly, these friction points, once isolated, are remarkably effective at both highlighting why modern work has become so alienating and exhausting, and surfacing ideas about how to fix it.

Around the same time that Lee travelled to the Kalahari, another young anthropologist, named James Woodburn, found his way to Lake Eyasi, on the Serengeti Plateau of East Africa’s Rift Valley. He was there to observe the Hadza people, who, like the Ju/’hoansi, still largely depended on hunting and gathering as their primary means of obtaining food. Woodburn returned to Lake Eyasi frequently for many decades, using his observations as the foundation for his pioneering research on social organization.

Drawing from this field work, Woodburn argued that hunter-gatherer communities like the Hadza often relied on what he called an “immediate-return” economy. As Woodburn elaborates, in such a system, “People obtain a direct and immediate return from their labour. They go out hunting or gathering and eat the food obtained the same day or casually over the days that follow.”

If we now jump forward to our current moment, and consider the daily lot of our protesting Apple employees, we discover a rhythm of activity far different from our immediate-return past. In modern office life, our efforts rarely generate an immediate reward. When we answer an e-mail or attend a meeting, we’re typically advancing, in fits and starts, long-term projects that may be weeks or months away from completion. The modern knowledge worker also tends to juggle many different objectives at the same time, moving rapidly back and forth between them throughout the day.

A mind adapted over hundreds of thousands of years for the pursuit of singular goals, tackled one at a time, often with clear feedback about each activity’s success or failure, might struggle when faced instead with an in-box overflowing with messages connected to dozens of unrelated projects. We spent most of our history in the immediate-return economy of the hunter-gatherer. We shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves exhausted by the ambiguously rewarded hyper-parallelism that defines so much of contemporary knowledge work.

Another point where work in hunter-gatherer societies differs from our modern efforts is the degree to which the intensity of work varies over time. A 2019 paper in Nature Human Behavior, on which Dyble is a lead author, describes a research study that set out to gather the same style of time measurements made by Lee so many years earlier. Dyble’s team observed the Agta of the northern Philippines, a community well suited for the comparison of different models of food acquisition, as some of them still largely depended on hunting and gathering, and others had shifted toward rice farming. All of them had the same culture and environment, allowing a cleaner comparison between the two strategies. Dyble’s team diverged from the work-diary approach used by Lee, in which the researcher attempts to capture all the activities of their subjects’ day (which turns out to be quite hard), and instead deployed the more modern experience-sampling method, in which, at randomly generated intervals, the researchers record what their subjects are doing at that exact moment. The goal was to calculate, for both the farmers and foragers, the relative proportion of samples dedicated to leisure versus work activities.

“The group engaged entirely in foraging spent forty to fifty per cent of daylight hours at leisure,” Dyble told me, when I asked him to summarize his team’s results, “versus more like thirty per cent for those who engage entirely in farming.” His data validates Lee’s claim that hunter-gatherers enjoy more leisure time than agriculturalists, though perhaps not to the same extreme. Missing from these high-level numbers, however, is an equally important observation: how this leisure time was distributed throughout the day. As Dyble explained, while the farmers engaged in “monotonous, continuous work,” the pace of the foragers’ schedules was more varied, with breaks interspersed throughout their daily efforts. “Hunting trips required a long hike through the forest, so you’d be out all day, but you’d have breaks,” Dyble told me. “With something like fishing, there are spikes, ups and downs . . . only a small per cent of their time is spent actually fishing.”

Once again, when we compare the work experience of hunter-gathers with that of our contemporary Apple employees we find a wedge of insight. Modern knowledge workers adopt the factory model, in which you work for set hours each day at a continually high level of intensity, without significant breaks. The Agta forager, by contrast, would think nothing of stopping for a long midday nap if the sun were hot and the game proved hard to track. When was the last time an Apple employee found herself with two or three unscheduled hours on her calendar during the afternoon to just kick back? To make matters worse for our current moment, laptops and smartphones have pushed work beyond these long days to also colonize the evenings and weekends once dedicated to rest. In the hunter-gatherer context, work intensity fluctuated based on the circumstances of the moment. Today, we’ve replaced this rhythm with a more exhausting culture of always being on.

The final point of difference I observed concerns the nature of the work occupying our time then and now. “[H]ow do you become a successful hunter-gatherer?” Lucassen asks in his magisterial “The Story of Work.” “You must learn it, and the apprenticeship is long.” Drawing from multiple anthropological sources, Lucassen presents a common “schema” for training competent hunters. Young children are given toy hunting weapons to familiarize them with their tools. Next, between the ages of five and seven, they join hunting trips to observe the adults’ techniques. (In general, Lucassen notes, observation is prioritized over teaching.) By the age of twelve or thirteen, children can hunt on their own with their peers and are introduced to more complex strategies. Finally, by late adolescence, they’re ready to learn the details of pursuing larger game. An entire childhood is dedicated to perfecting this useful ability.

Gathering, of course, is just as complex as hunting. Dyble told me that the Agta possess detailed knowledge of dozens of different plant species, including their spatial distribution in the forests and fields surrounding their villages. Other everyday skills, absolutely critical for survival in times long past, require similarly demanding levels of training. I recently watched some of the early seasons of the History Channel survival program “Alone,” some of which were filmed in notoriously damp British Columbia. It struck me how often the contestants, many of whom were world-class survivalists, struggled to get fires started, even with the help of modern ferro rods, which spew showers of sparks. For hundreds of thousands of years, one can assume, humans consistently conjured flames, under all types of demanding conditions, and without the benefit of modern tools. The frustrated survivalists on “Alone” regularly practiced the art of fire-starting. Early humans mastered it.

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