[ExI] On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs

Anders Sandberg anders at aleph.se
Tue Aug 20 12:02:07 UTC 2013

On 20/08/2013 11:46, Eugen Leitl cited:
> But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the
> world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and
> ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector
> as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole
> new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented
> expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration,
> human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect
> on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or
> security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of
> ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza deliverymen) that only
> exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all
> the other ones.
> These are what I propose to call “bullshit jobs.”

There are quite a few of those "bullshit jobs" that actually are valid 
services, but I think the core point is right: there are a surprisingly 
large number of people who are acting as mildly pointless intermediaries.

And this trend might accelerate. A colleague has analysed different 
occupations for the likelihood of them being doable by automation, and 
his model suggests that 44% of US jobs are in the top third of risk. 
Essentially everything routine that can be handled by big data and 
good-enough language processing might be in the next wave of 
losses/transformations - typically service and office jobs. Insurance 
claims clerks were top of the list. (Stuff that really requires 
perception, manual manipulation, creative intelligence and social skill 
is pretty safe; registered nurses were the least likely to be automated 
according to his model)

One reason we get so many intermediaries is that automation makes the 
core jobs - what Graeber would call the real jobs - productive enough 
that you don't need a lot of them to achieve the ends of the 
organisation. So rather than getting smaller organisations the surplus 
is absorbed by administration. Now if my colleague is right, we may have 
seen nothing yet in the bureaucratization of society. Note that this 
doesn't mean the university admins who currently process the forms they 
demand from us will just disappear: that function will be replaced by 
simple AI, but a new admin level involving some hard to automate skill 
(say media outreach or internal training) will balloon as a response.

Anders Sandberg,
Future of Humanity Institute
Oxford Martin School
Faculty of Philosophy
Oxford University

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