Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Labor and Publishing

I was thinking of my last post, about how many jobs have been lost in our rush to all things digital, as I watched this video on how books were made, circa 1947:

It's amazing to see these workers putting together each piece of the book, signature by signature, page by page, word by word, even letter by letter. This was just such an enterprise for so many people, in a way it simply is not now. I was also struck by the gender division, which was obviously backwards by today's standards but also interesting to note, how women provided certain services - they don't make an appearance until 7:35 in the 10 minute video, where they appear in "the gathering room," putting pages into bins.

A couple things then came to mind regarding this video.

First, the reactions from people to this video on Youtube. Lilia1992 noted, "So much work. I'm so glad my graphics design teacher in high school didn't make me watch this video. I nearly fell asleep!" n52nimbus had a similar response:

Two things come to mind: The precision and complexity of the machinery and the mind-numbing repetitiveness of the labor.

Robotics may have eliminated lots of jobs, but are they really jobs anyone would want???

Someone a bit more sane then stepped in - Bokai responded, "If it puts food on the table and clothes on your back, I would say yes!" But n52nimbus was not to be won over: "Sorry, Bokai. . . but for me, a bullet through my cranium would be preferable to this kind of work."

Incredible. What is particularly intriguing is that this attitude toward supposedly tedious work has a consumerist slant to it. These viewers are watching and feel empowered to decide they would not pursue this work because it looks boring. They would choose something else, just as they would decide what kind of deodorant to use or what vacation to go on. They can only offer an opinion based on their personal reactions, without a sense of what these people are accomplishing, and how these workers might fare in today's more limited economy.

There has been a few big books published recently about work - I'm thinking of Matthew Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, as well as a book from 2005, The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker, by Mike Rose. I suspect there is a tension between the technologically enhanced future we'll all supposedly experience and the decline in manual labor outside of the service industries. Perhaps I should leave this discussion to economists and sociologists.

For my two cents, I would connect these discussions of labor with ongoing discussions of how we value the goods we consume - I'm thinking of Ellen Ruppel Shell's recent book, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture as well as Raj Patel's brand new The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy. I'm also thinking of a friend who recently announced that anything over $5 was too much for a tea kettle. Places like Walmart have convinced us that 1) we're all consumers, all the time; 2) that this position is somehow empowering rather than a subservient position, and 3) that we should value quantity over quality in every instance.

So take this position over to the bookstore and see where it gets you. (Of course, the Amazon-Macmillan debacle springs to mind.) Consumers want the most bang for their buck, and many commentators are saying publishers are fools who deserve failure if they don't give these consumers what they want. Give it to them cheap, give it to them in every form they want (and they all want digital, dammit), and give it to them now not later. Workers, including writers, are not the ones who decide, because the consumer rules. And some commentators even frame this as some form of democracy.

Again, I just think we need to go back to the drawing board, at least some of us (I'm staring at my fellow workers at indie/university presses), and think about what's best for readers, writers, and workers, knowing full well that these are not exclusive categories but rather ones that often overlap. Each segment, however, needs to be heard and respected. Many forms of publishing can co-exist, I like to think - from expensive, limited edition hardcovers, painstakingly produced, to cheap mass markets, all blotchy with thin pages, to digital. And fair prices need to be assigned to each, prices that do not reflect merely consumer demands, but also the work that went into each book.

You can think about these issues, or you could just watch the video for 20 seconds, pause it, and write "SNOREFEST 2010" in a comment beneath it. Your call.

(Thanks to BookNinja for link.)

PS: It's interesting to follow this post up with this article from the Guardian (UK) in which Irish novelist Aifric Campbell writes about fiction-writing and portraying work.

1 comment:

Drew said...

This goes a long way toward explaining why I eschew places like Walmart (and Target and, when possible, the big-box booksellers). I prefer things of substance, of quality, and when possible a traceable origin. I love that when I lost one of my earrings, I could email the woman who made them and pay her to make me a replacement. I'm not sure I'd want tea from a $5 tea pot. I don't desire an e-reader and I can find used books cheaper than a digital copy (plus, I can share the used copy with my friends if it turns out to be a great book).
Of course, those things tend to cost more, which means more work to support the work other others. Then it becomes a question of the type of work you do and whether it's worth doing to afford the things you need or want. Most jobs are filled with "boring" and "repetitious" activities, even those that require advanced degrees and years of experience. The guy at the end of the movie "Office Space" decided at the end that he'd rather shovel debris than sit in a cube all day. It's all about finding the repetition you can live with, I guess.