Rhythms of work

Later today Dodo.ry are organising a public discussion on the theme of the built environment and its rhythms in Helsinki, with a short but interesting-looking line-up of speakers. No doubt the benefits of ecologically sustainable construction, cycling, flexibility and a reliable and green transport infrastructure will crop up, and Vancouver will once again be used as the exemplar of a green metropolis.

But the thing that makes an urban rhythm stick, and that recent strikes have reminded urbanites of, is the routine requirement for economic activity. You’ve got to work, basically. And if you can’t find paid work that you’re qualified for or able to do, or you’re discriminated against because of a recognised, not valued identity, or because of ill health, or because you’re doing upaid work looking after someone else, or because you have a disability, well, all those things shape your urban rhythms too.

So while Dodo are, we think, interested in flexibility from the point of view of making life for ordinary people better and, in the process, of saving the planet (they are, after all, an environmental NGO) the headlines are about the cost of globalization to those needs: the employer in the food sector is requiring more flexibility from the workforce. From The Usual today:

Elintarviketeollisuuden mukaan tuonnin kasvaessa ja kauppojen aukiolon laajetessa yritykset tarvitsevat joustavuutta työaikojen järjestelyyn: työ on tehtävä silloin kun sitä on. [according to the food industry as imports grow and shop opening hours are extended, enterprises need flexibility in organising work shifts: the work has to be done when it’s available]

So, will the Dodo folks pick up on the fact that the law was changed only a few months ago to allow for longer opening hours, and thus (in)advertently supporting the big chains and weakening alternatives like market halls and small shops? The new law was bemoaned then not just by religious leaders but by shop keepers, people on low salaries being drawn into ever more anti-social working hours, and types like me who just think that non-stop consuming is bad for the soul, the planet and for a decent city life. And will they be able to talk about the negatives that come with these inherently positive-sounding things like flexibility without sounding nostalgic for times that never existed or throwing out the good with the bad? Or sounding judgemental or moralising, a HUGE problem in today’s Finland, we have to note.

But clear thinking is possible, and better understanding is possible as well as desirable. I read a great article by an ‘environmental ethicist’ on something along these lines yesterday. The American Robert Kirkman writes for a journal on technology studies (that’s about all the material, physical, technical and thus seemingly less negotiable bits of the world are actually social and cultural as well), that he is interested in what people hope for, but that to find out more, he has to work out what are the:

limits on what people can see, what they can imagine, what they can want, what they can choose

and later about the fact that in our understanding of ethnics it is:

the individual who judges and acts and the individual who is to be judged. If there is anything that ethicists should learn from social scientists who engage in technology studies, it is that the efficacy of ethical action has to be understood at least partly in social terms, not just individual terms.

(Kirkman, Robert (2009) ‘At Home in the Seamless Web: Agency, Obduracy, and the Ethics of Metropolitan Growth’, Science Technology and Human Values, 2009; 34; 234.)

I’ll leave it there except to say that Finland perhaps more than other places I know, has some very hard work to do in trying to understand that ethics and civil life are fundamentally, utterly, irreducibly social. In fact, Finland could do with a concerted effort to create something like a metropolitan ethics – in all its dimensions!

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