By Andy Deck

"Living in America", as James Brown sang it in the 1980s, "everybody's working overtime."1 But The Hardest Working Man in Show Business wasn't down on his country. In "super highways, coast to coast," and "many miles of railroad track" he saw a "promised land," a cause for "celebration." In his 1880s pamphlet, Le Droit à la Paresse,2 Paul Lafargue expressed contempt for the Protestant work ethic and the evils of a 70 hour work week. Whereas the text is still published periodically as a Sunday supplement in French newspapers, the ideas he expressed are comparatively unknown in the United States, which has lacked a prophet of la paresse. This may explain, in part, why the French work hundreds of hours less each year than their counterparts in the United States.3
Paul Lafargue, French, author of Le Droit à la Paresse
James Brown, American, The Hardest Working Man in Show Business

Lafargue observed that workers were slaving to earn wages that they quickly returned to their employer by buying the products of their own labor. In the process, their brains and bodies turned to mush.

Dans la société capitaliste, le travail est la cause de tout dégénérescence intellectuelle, de toute déformation organique.
Lafargue was so moved by his distaste for work that he sounds almost nostalgic for slavery in extolling the Greeks of the "grande epoque":
eux aussi [n'avaient] que du mépris pour le travail: aux esclaves seuls il était permis de travailler: l'homme libre ne connaissait que les exercices corporels et les jeux de l'intelligence.

Lafargue concluded by recalling Aristotle's desire that machinery would usher in a new era of human rest: "if every tool could be used effortlessly, or move itself like the masterpieces of Daedalus or begin spontaneously their sacred work like Vulcan's tripods; if, for example, the weaver's shuttles did their own weaving, the head of the shop would not need any assistant, nor the master slaves." In this age of downsizing and globalization, one is left to wonder what happened to the technological dividend described by Lafargue. For in fact our tools are impressive, and weaving is largely automated today. But as I look around me (in New York City), I don't see the dawning of an age of leisure. We have not inherited the right of leisure, but rather the pursuit of speed.

Computerized stock trading algorithms can now amass fortunes from advantages of only a few milliseconds. Networking companies have marshalled a half billion dollars to lay a new fiber-optic cable across the Atlantic Ocean.4 Using a slightly shorter route than existing cables, this outlay will deliver a decrease of five milliseconds over existing transmission speeds. Attitudes about the arrival of such productive conditions have always been mixed. Many of Lafargue's contemporaries were unsettled by the way railroads and the telegraph were "annihilating" space and time, generating the sensation that the "mountains and forests of all countries were advancing on Paris."5 Still, legislators have been slow to comprehend the wreckage that transformations of speed can yield.

Since Frederick Winslow Taylor pioneered time studies, scientific management has been an orthodoxy in capitalist business culture. Time and motion studies are routinely deployed to maximize worker performance. Garment workers in sweat shops are measured in the thousandths of seconds per unit. Clerical workers are likewise measured per keystroke. Time is money, it is said, and so it is not surprising that business has followed this regime.

What is perhaps more remarkable is the way the public now consumes speed as a commodity — bandwidth — in order to experience leisure. Purchasing bandwidth is like buying time. Borrowing a term from hot rod car culture, an advertisement for broadband promises "turbo" speeds: download a "30 minute TV show in 2 minutes 11 seconds." In a vicious circle comparable to the one Lafargue identified, people are induced to work to buy their own free time. Ironically, this free time is channeled increasingly into producing the very content (reality TV, YouTube Web 2.0, SMS, blog and email) that one pays to consume through cable TV, telephone, and bandwidth fees.
Estimates for Time-Warner's Road Runner broadband services in the U.S.

It's worth reconsidering the luxury status of these services. While it's true that it costs money to build a fiber-optic network, much of the infrastructure is already in place. Since fiber-optic cables carry data at the speed of light, the potential for upgrade is trending toward zero, as is the cost of maintaining the flow of data. In the years to come, what will justify substantial monthly bandwidth charges? As Paul Valéry anticipated in the 1920s, images now stream to our homes.

Comme l'eau, comme le gaz, comme le courant électrique viennent de loin ... ainsi serons-nous alimentés images visuelles ou auditives 6
But will the data stream be administered like water, provided as freely as light to street lamps, or metered like gas? And will the data flow freely in both directions?

For the minority of the population that is seriously concerned with broadcasting data streams on the Internet, cheap broadband services are enviable. Without affordable bandwidth, it is impossible to compete with commercial content providers, many of which, like Time-Warner, actually own the network infrastructure over which they freely distribute their movies and music. The creeping merger of media content and communications corporations is part of the Net Neutrality power struggle, the results of which are bound to have a profound effect on the media landscape of coming decades.

Although Al Gore spoke vaguely of the necessity of "public access to the information superhighway," the network pioneered with public resources quickly became a service extension of the existing telephone corporations. Despite the early advantages enjoyed by American telecommunications corporations, they have now fallen well behind many foreign competitors. For example, although far from free, fiber-optic bandwidth in Hong Kong is significantly faster and cheaper than anything available in New York (approximately 14 times as much bandwidth for 1/3rd the cost according to figures published in 2005).7

Business press chatter has focused on how this lag could threaten American and European standing in the knowledge industries, driving businesses to countries with less expensive service. But many workers fare poorly in any case. The rise of broadband networking has enabled job flight through the spread of Internet telephony: the globalization of information labor is well underway. Anglophones having trouble with their computers are liable to speak with technicians in India or the Philippines. Airlines are closing call centers and paying workers to answer calls from their own homes, where workers cover the utilities. These developments are characterized as gains in "productivity." As James Brown, the Sex Machine, put it,

The way I like it is the way it is,
I got mine 'n' don't worry 'bout his 8
Of course one man's productivity is another's lower paying job.

Wave after wave of technological innovation has sustained the concentration of wealth, as well as widespread economic insecurity. These are not the work-free mechanized conditions that Lafargue had hoped for, to be sure. Then again, he was hardly alone in underestimating capitalism's power to transform dreamy potential into scarcity and discord.

Nikola Tesla was confident that wireless would be "very efficient in enlightening the masses, particularly in still uncivilized countries and less accessible regions, [adding] materially to general safety, comfort and convenience, and maintenance of peaceful relations." 9 This utopianism, later echoed in McLuhan's "global village" rhetoric, has been revived repeatedly, and won't disappear any time soon. But with the collapse of the Internet bubble and prolonged economic recession, the demands of global productivity have extinguished the exuberance of 1990s techno-utopianism. It's hard now to envision new technology bringing an age of peace and progress. While rest and leisure remain elusive for most, the pull of le droit à la vitesse lies in getting to the next thing as quickly as possible, or, as Mr. Dynamite put it, getting to the bridge.

Publication historyA version of this essay was printed in the Greek Free Press in 2010. Konteiner section.
  1. "Living in America" was part of the Rocky IV soundtrack. It was performed by James Brown and written by Dan Hartman and Charlie Midnight.
  2. Le Droit à la Paresse by Paul Lafargue
  3. Annual labor statistics
  4. Fiber-Optic Transatlantic Cable Could Save Milliseconds, Millions by Speeding Data to Stock Traders
  5. Heinrich Heine quoted in The Railroad Journey by Wolfgang Schivelbusch, p. 37
  6. From La conquête de l'Ubiquité (The Conquest of Ubiquity), 1928, by Paul Valéry. Translated by Nicolas Nova.
  7. HongKong Broadband Network's fiber-optic offerings in 2005
  8. "Sex Machine" lyrics written by James Brown, Bobby Byrd, and Ron Lenhoff in 1970.
  9. Nikola Tesla quoted in When Old Technologies Were New by Carolyn Marvin, p. 193