In a provoking post, Matt Welsh—a successful tenured professor at Harvard—left his academic job for an industry position. It created a serious malaise: his department chair (Michael Mitzenmacher) wrote a counterpoint answering the improbable question: “why I’m staying at Harvard?” To my knowledge, it was the first time a departement chair from a prestigious university answered such a question publicly. Michael went even as far as arguing that, yes, indeed, he could get a job elsewhere. These questions are crazy if we consider that for every job advertised at Harvard, there are probably hundreds of highly qualified applicants.
But let me get back at Matt’s reason for leaving a confortable and prestigious job at Harvard:
(…) all of that extra work only takes away from time spent building systems, which is what I really want to be doing. (…) At Google, I have a much more direct route from idea to execution to impact. I can just sit down and write the code and deploy the system, on more machines than I will ever have access to at a university. I personally find this far more satisfying than the elaborate academic process.
In other words, Matt is happier when his work is more immediately useful. But where does the malaise about his decision comes from? After all, he will probably make as much or even more money at Google. Matt is not alone, by the way, Matthew Crawford—a Ph.D. in philosophy—left a high paying job in an American think tank for a job repairing motor bikes. His book Shop Class as Soulcraft tells his story.
I think that Matt’s decision might be hard to understand—at least, his departement chair feels the need to explain it to us—because he is putting into question the very core values of our society. These core values were explored by Veblen in his unconventional book The Theory of the Leisure Class. He argued that we are not driven by utility, but rather by social status. In fact, our society pushes us to seek high prestige jobs, rather than useful and productive jobs. In effect, a job doing research in Computer Science is more prestigious than an industry job building real systems, on the mere account that it is less immediately useful. Here are some other examples:
- The electrician who comes and wires your house has a less prestigious job than the electrical engineer who manages vague projects within a large organization.
- The programmer who outputs useful software has a less prestigious job than the software engineer who runs software projects producing software that nobody will ever use.
- The scientist who tinkers in his laboratory has a less prestigious job than the scientist who spends most of his time applying for research grants.
Note how money is not always immediately relevant. While it is normally the case that manual labor has lower pay, it is almost irrelevant. And indeed, plumbers make more than software developers in some parts of the world (like Montreal)… Even though software jobs are usually considered more desirable.
There are at least three problems with this social-status system:
- Nature is the best teacher. Working on real problems makes you smart. The German philosopher Heidegger famously made this point with a Hammer. To paraphrase him, it is not by staring at a hammer that we learn about hammers. Similarly, scientists who do nothing but abstract work in the context of funding applications are missing out. The best scientists work in the laboratory, in the field; they tinker.
- By removing ourselves from the world, we risk becoming alienated. We become strangers to the world around us. Instead, we construct this incoherent virtual reality which has often much to do with soviet-era industrialism. We must constantly remain vague because truth has become subjective. Whereas the hammer hits, whereas the software crashes, whereas the experiment fails… projects are always successfully, marketing is always right and truth is arrived at by consensus. Yet, we know deep down that this virtual reality is unreal and we remain uneasy, trapped between reality and virtuality. The perfect example are the financial markets which are creating abstract products with agreed-upon values. As long as everyone plays along, the system works. Nobody must ever say that the emperor is naked. Everyone must accept the lies. Everything becomes gray.
- Human beings like to make their own stuff. We value considerably more what we did ourselves. You may be able to buy computers for $200, but nothing will ever replace the computer you made yourself from scratch. It may be more economical to have some Indian programmers build your in-house software, but the satisfaction of building your own software is far more than what you get by merely funding it. Repairing your own house is a lot more satisfying than hiring handymen.
To summarize: trading practical work for high-level positions is prestigious, but it may make you dumber, alienated and unhappy. Back when I was a graduate student, we used to joke about the accident. The accident is what happens to successful professors: they suddenly become uninteresting, pompous, and… frankly… a tad stupid.
Thankfully, there is hope. The current financial crisis, mostly because it couldn’t happen according to most economists, was a waking call. The abstract thinkers may not be so reliable after all! The millions of college graduates who are underemployed in wealthy countries all around the globe have unanswered questions. Weren’t these high-level abstract college degrees supposed to pay for themselves?
How do we fix this broken caste system and bring back a healthier relationship with work? Alas, we cannot all become plumbers and electricians. But it seems to me that more and more people are realizing that the current system, with its neat white collar jobs and rising inequalities, could be improved upon drastically. The Do it yourself (or Do it with others) wave has been a revelation for me. Yes: Chinese factories can build digital thermometers much cheaper than I can. But making your own digital thermometer is far more satisfying. Saving money by abstracting out reality is not a good deal. And of course, building real systems is not the same as finding money for your students to do it for you.