Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Yesterday I stumbled upon a book by Richard Sennett, an American sociologist, called The Culture of the New Capitalism. In it, Sennett looks at how our constantly evolving economy shapes the way we live—how we attempt to manage the constant uncertainty; how we try to adapt to a life of "migrating from job to job, task to task, place to place;" how we make efforts to live up to a new cultural outlook on talent and merit and ability; and how we fail at all these things.

One of Sennett's most engaging ideas is what he calls the "specter of uselessness." Depression-era photos still disturb us, Sennett argues, because the specter of uselessness still continues to haunt us, though it's character is different in the modern age. Now the uselessness we face takes the form of the jobs that are being shipped overseas; or the hyper-intelligent automation systems that are making human labor cost-ineffective; or the emphasis on fresh skills and new talent versus experience and seniority that threatens the job security of the ageing.

Stated after the fact, it almost seems like common sense. After all, our higher education system is built entirely around innovation and discovery; our politicians constantly talk about "remaining competitive" and "staying ahead;" our TV shows are all about finding the next star; our companies are always racing to outdo each other...and while everyone is marching ahead, how will there not be anxiety about being left behind?

But I think that this "specter of uselessness" is not just peculiar to modernity, but rather a part of the human condition. I think Adi Shankaracharya put it best (that is, starkly and plainly) in his Bhaja Govindham:

यावद्वित्तोपार्जनसक्त्तस्तावन्निजपरिवारो रक्त्त:
पश्चाज्जीवाति जर्जरदेहे वार्तां कोऽपिं पृच्छति गेहे।।
As long as there is the ability to earn and save so long are all your dependents attached to you. Later on, when you come to live with an old, infirm body, no one at home cares to speak even a word with you!

I don't read this verse as a lament, but rather as a sober recognition of the way relationships work. Humans relations involve give and take: we give our attention, our affection, our time, and our effort; and in return we expect money, affection, wisdom, love, intimacy, interesting conversation—something. There comes a time though when we no longer have anything to give, and at that point these relationships naturally dissolve.

In this spirit, I have heard that our job in life is to learn to enjoy our own company, to be at peace with ourselves, to figure out what to do with ourselves before the world has no more use for us. The specter of uselessness will always loom, but it becomes less scary when we confront it directly.


  1. Kunal

    Great post and thank you for sharing.


  2. Thanks David! I read your blog, and I really like the post on the cost of using search engines.