September 14, 2023
Recently, I bemoaned how Orwell is often invoked in support of an argument by people who haven’t read him. They are usually drawing on some laundered misperception of his work, and especially Nineteen Eighty-Four. Well, this month I witnessed somebody misapplying the work of Kafka in a similar attempt to make a middlebrow point about the so-called return to office.
Their argument was that it is just as impossible for an office worker to understand why a business would think they need to be around other people as it is for the protagonist of The Trial to make sense of what is happening to him.
Now, to be fair to the person making this argument, Kafka indeed felt crushed by his own mundane office job and the subject crops up a lot in his writing in one way or another. But that was the nature of the grinding work Kafka had to do and the need to be in a particular place to do it.
Things are different now. So, I don’t think that was really the point the commenter was making. He was doing what you see all the time now. Catastrophising and misrepresenting something needlessly as a way of arguing against it. He is the inverse of those who make similarly weak arguments about the problems with remote working.
This is how so much discourse goes these days, especially online. Conversations on any topic often regress to a dualistic, Manichean battle between two groups of people with megaphones, trying to drown the other out and portray them as inherently bad, but doing more to silence moderate views rather than those of the person on the other side of the room, because they are doing the exact same thing.
As it happens, there are good arguments in favour of in-person work, though they’re not always made very well, just as there are plenty of good arguments in favour of remote work. And the good thing is that, for all the yelling and hysteria at the extremes of the debate, we don’t have to choose. All we need do is get the mix more or less right.
Image: Workers at the offices of the Central Social Institution of Prague with the largest vertical paper file in the world, 1937. More at rarehistoricalphotos.com