# Pseudowork and real work

1. [3]
patience_limited
Aside from a cool model for mechanical analysis that you might not have known about (I didn't), the article is actually a story about the difficulty of shifting an established paradigm in basic...
• Exemplary

I have a story to tell about pseudowork, the integral of the net force along the displacement of the center of mass, which is different from the true work done by a force on a system, which must be calculated as the integral of the force along the displacement of the point of application of that force. If the system deforms or rotates, the work done by a force may be different from the pseudowork done by that force. For example, stretch a spring by pulling to the left on the left end and to the right on the right end. The center of mass of the spring does not move, so the pseudowork done by each force is zero, whereas the real work done by each force is positive. Because the total pseudowork is zero (which can also be thought of as the integral of the net force through the displacement of the center of mass), the translational kinetic energy of the spring does not change (more generally, the work-energy theorem for a point particle shows that the change in translational kinetic energy is equal to the total pseudowork). Because the total work done on the spring is positive, the internal energy of the spring increases.

Aside from a cool model for mechanical analysis that you might not have known about (I didn't), the article is actually a story about the difficulty of shifting an established paradigm in basic physics education (hello, /u/kfwyre). The author has been trying to get introductory physics textbooks past the "consider a spherical cow" level of inaccurate abstraction for 40+ years.

At the same time, "pseudowork" has entered the vernacular to describe the accretion of seemingly meaningless tasks that grows around "real" work - documentation, communication, planning, testing, meetings, reporting, accounting, customer relations, etc.

In a way, Sherwood's model is a useful metaphor for "bullshit jobs". The complexity of a system is equivalent to deformability, or "squishiness". The more information you need to build it, and the greater the level of risk from errors, the more pseudowork is necessary to make the system behave as if it's a rigid and predictable unit. It's precisely the reduction in pseudowork that gave us the Boeing 737 crashes, the lead in U.S. water supplies, the laughable "self-driving" cars, and a host of other examples where insufficiently packaged squishy systems behaved in dangerous ways.

Engineers, scientists, architects, and craftspeople may be temperamentally inclined to hate pseudowork tasks (I'm the third generation in my family that's used the term "pseudowork" on a near-daily basis) and consider them unnecessary. And there's definitely a component of semi-intentional time-wasting by people who don't understand or don't desire to engage with the unfulfilling parts of a job.

I got to this meandering shower thought via /r/antiwork. On a long journey through the squishiest parts of healthcare technology, I've had to contemplate exactly how much of my time has been spent on the fun building tasks vs. figuring out what to build, how to deal with constraints, documenting, reporting, budgeting, etc. There's been maybe 10-20% of my time spent on meetings, reports, or e-mail chains that could have been a three-sentence Slack. And that 10-20% accounts for 80 - 90% of my daily job dissatisfaction.

Antiwork as a philosophy engages with the rage of people who spend 80-90% of their time on the pseudowork tasks, as well as people who are just plain powerless and exploited. I don't know if respecting and rewarding necessary pseudowork appropriately would make any difference to the lives of people who have to perform it, but it definitely needs to be redistributed. Corporations need to budget for enough reasonably well-paid hands to do necessary pseudowork, the training and job redesign to let workers find more fulfillment, and the life balance needed to recharge from all the ways that paid work can't deliver purpose and community.

Also, craft work and self-employment can't deliver all the complex goods and services required to sustain 8 billion people. I don't want to hear inhumane arguments about how it should be otherwise right now. Socialism, yes please, but anarchism or libertarianism don't work in this world.

Anyway, I'm throwing this essay-let out for discussion.

1. kfwyre
There’s a pretty big philosophical split in education about this sort of thing. One camp says that we should teach the complexity and indulge discovery, particularly as a method of introduction to...

One camp says that we should teach the complexity and indulge discovery, particularly as a method of introduction to a topic. Oversimplifying things teaches to the wrong target and often drains the topic of its hooks and interesting edges.

The other camp says that too much complexity initially, especially when someone’s understanding of a topic is forming and fragile, can be detrimental. It can lead to learning the basics wrong, and the hooks and interesting edges of complexity often don’t land because the person doesn’t have the framework in which to appreciate them.

I don’t think there’s one right camp, and I think it varies depending on the person, discipline, and level of study. I personally lean more towards the “introduce complexity only after leaving fragility” mindset, as it’s been my experience that genuine “aha” moments only have that quality when they have a foundation on which to stand. Without that, it can just seem to a student like everything is new and nothing is noteworthy, and the desired “ahas” just sort of come and go without fanfare.

With regards to work, I used to describe teaching as a sort of fractal of work, in which you can continue to spiral down into minute parts which blow up into full-size demands, each with smaller parts of their own. The job allows for a constant and unending unfolding, which is why so many beginning teachers overwork so much (I sure did). Part of growing in this career is learning when to exit the set rather than continuing to indulge its ever further demands.

It’s not exactly pseudowork (though some of it is, like our bullshit meetings and documentation), but more that a mindset of “wanting to do right by the kids” can lead to thousands of different actions across dozens of different fronts without satisfaction, because it’s always, always possible to do more for kids, especially those who need it.

This is what burned me out after a decade of low-income education, and why I sold out to a school in the suburbs. I’d spent so much effort hoping that, in time, the fractal would stop, or I’d get better about navigating it. Instead, I just got told that more and more of it was my responsibility or, even, my fault. Also, I was given less and less. Poverty created a fractal of need and an absence of resources, then held people like me responsible for both its creation and resolution.

After a decade I saw how unwinnable this situation was — how permanent it would be — so I exited the recursion and took a position where my view is more rigid and unchanging. It is much easier and more manageable, but it is also less complex and, honestly, less beautiful. Though I would never go back to the fractal, I do still miss it frequently.

There’s a depth there that I don’t get experience anymore — a dizzying yet breathtaking perspective I don’t get to have anymore. In my current job my actions can feel like they have a limited surface area, which is easy and manageable and what I wanted when I took this position in the first place.

But in the fractal, where there is the greatest need, there is the greatest potential for impact, and it was there and only there where my actions, at times, felt truly lasting — truly infinite.

2. skybrian
I think the physics demonstration is interesting in itself, so thanks for sharing it! And so is his story of the difficulty of changing educational practices. However, the analogy between these...

I think the physics demonstration is interesting in itself, so thanks for sharing it! And so is his story of the difficulty of changing educational practices.

However, the analogy between these two definitions of "pseudowork" seems rather strained to me, and perhaps more confusing than helpful? It probably wouldn't be worth teaching the physics to make a point about why writing documentation, attending meetings, or doing planning seems difficult.

I think one reason writing documentation sometimes seemed hard is that often I have no immediate audience, and the likelihood that it will be used fades over time, so I expect that nobody will read it. Often this is justified. An extreme example of this would be someone writing a PhD thesis that nobody reads. Or, for me, perhaps spending time documenting a software project that is abandoned. It's often only in retrospect that you know that a project will have lasting impact.

I find that even writing notes to myself often doesn't feel helpful because I think I'll remember. You need some experience with the regret of not writing things down or not taking pictures before it really sinks in.

Similarly for spending time on coordinating the people on a team - important, but sometimes people expect it will happen on its own.

Answering the question of "is this really necessary" is itself important work, which might for some seem like a distraction from the task at hand. Can't people do what they're told? But this leads to alienation from work.

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