Schrödinger’s worker

For the last twelve years, I’ve worked as a union official. To make sense of what I’ve seen – the uncertainty, fragmentation and loneliness of contemporary working life – I have turned to physics to provide some explanation for what is happening in Australian society today.

My job has led me to conversations with thousands of workers from around the country. In a Brisbane warehouse, I spoke to a worker whose hands were big enough to break me; he yelled words wrapped in old cigarette smoke, frustrated at how the manager’s mates got the cushy jobs. A middle-aged call centre worker in Melbourne, her eyes grey behind smudged lenses glancing between me and the lunchroom door in case a supervisor entered, complained about how the shifts were being rostered (that lunchroom smelled of instant coffee and mothballs, with an undernote of sour milk). Then there was the young dad who welcomed me into his home in Narre Warren South. As I took my shoes off, two young children shrieked with excitement about the arrival of a guest. Despite the ground-level chaos of crayons, paper and beeping toys, the dad appeared grateful that the union had come to talk. He was upset: he wasn’t allowed to speak Vietnamese to his workmates during his breaks because management didn’t want workers talking behind their backs.

Whether anger, anxiety or gratitude that another person is listening, these emotions emerge from a common experience: these workers float mostly alone in the ocean of uncertainty that passes for Australian society.

Employing some principles of physics is one way to give a new perspective on how Australia has changed since the 1970s. For me, economic growth from the Hawke years on has been powered by a process akin to nuclear fission. The tearing apart of the social bonds that bind us together has powered growing corporate and elite wealth. The fracturing of workplace, union, community and familial ties has ripped apart the collective bonds that once held Australian daily life together. The resulting fallout from this rift is that we go about our daily existence as free-floating individuals: social subatomic particles randomly bumping into one another through market transactions. Food comes from the push of a button on an app, work arrives from a text-message notification and friendship is mediated through advertising platforms.

Using physics to understand human behaviour is hardly original. Back in 1971, Australian scientist LF Henderson was one of the first to see the social ripples caused by the laws of physics. Henderson found that the movement of microscopic gas particles is a good way of understanding crowd behaviour. In the present, Australian professor Peter Bruza is part of an international team of researchers applying the principles of quantum mechanics to human cognition.

This connection between social life and physics is rooted in the fact that physics is concerned with the material – the study of matter and energy. Society itself is embedded in the material world. We depend on our land, sea and climate. The extreme drought in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria wreaks havoc on the lives of farmers and their crops. Even mining bitcoins rests on processors powered by electricity generated in the real world. Meanwhile, the cost of energy, in terms of both its price and impact on the climate, has caused fracture lines in successive Australian governments. Matter and energy’s impact can be read into signs as diverse as the price of bananas in the supermarket after a hurricane in North Queensland, or the sight of the deposed Malcolm Turnbull on holiday in New York after his Coalition parliamentary colleagues sank his National Energy Guarantee.

As Australian society has atomised, the concepts of quantum mechanics – specifically, principles of interactivity, superposition and uncertainty – provide new insight into contemporary working life. Quantum mechanics best explains physical reality at a micro level; and, after all, it is at the small-scale where we actually live our lives.

Quantum physicists contend that subatomic particles do not have an independent existence as ‘things’, in the way we would commonly understand it. Rather, particles, such as an individual electron, appear to exist only through interactions with other particles. They exist as a process jumping seemingly in and out of reality between one interaction and the next.

It seems to me that, in this era of late capitalism, Australians commonly float in and out of social reality between market transactions. To further explore this idea, I reached out to the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union to speak with one of their members. Darren, who sounded smart and young, described his social experience as an unemployed worker: ‘You can’t hang out with your friends.’ For Darren, it was his lack of money that stopped him engaging with his mates. ‘You can’t say you want to but you don’t have any money.’ Unable to pay for a meal or a movie ticket, he could not engage in the market interactions that made him real to his friends. Instead, he became a ghost. Fading out of social reality, Darren was invisible as he spent his days on his own in the library, walking or riding his bike.

In this regard, he is not alone. There are millions of other invisible Australians at any one point in time: a homeless person tucked under a bridge; a pensioner who can’t afford to go out sitting at home alone; a refugee unable to find work legally. The ghosts of daily life haunt our present.

Social relationships are breaking down. According to an OmniPoll survey from July 2018, the number of close friends Australians have has declined from an average of 6.4 in 2005 to only 3.9 today. In other words, the rate at which relationships break down no longer keeps up with the rate at which they form. In turn, more and more Australians are becoming ghosts in their own communities. Statistical data on social relationships is one way to measure the presence of those who would otherwise go unseen, the number of whom is so large that we can’t even collect each individual story.

It is with some irony that, since Margaret Thatcher instructed us there is no such thing as society – only individuals and their families – we have venerated the individual while tearing them from their social bonds. This threatens the very idea of a person as a discrete subject, existing independently from their market interactions. Darren would flash from his isolation back into social reality when interacting with his private employment-services provider. It was, however, a reminder of where he thought he stood in Australian society. ‘It’s demeaning … I feel demeaned every time I have to go there and explain myself.’

The experience wrecked Darren’s mental stability. As he explains, ‘I told my consultant that I was depressed, I couldn’t get out of bed, and that I was having suicidal thoughts. He told me to just grow up.’ It took Darren six months to convince his employment services provider to grant him access to a clinical psychologist. ‘Just dealing with them. It does something to your self-esteem. You walk away feeling you are no good and you will never amount to anything.’ After each interaction, Darren would return to his relative invisibility.

The sum of multiple possible positions combining to form another valid position, known as a superposition, is the second principle of the quantum theory of work. Subatomic particles are capable of existing in multiple states at once. Likewise, people now find themselves simultaneously in multiple states, and they experience daily life as the sum of these states. As an example, many Australians exist in a state of both work and non-work. For some, the smartphone is an instrument of workplace simultaneity. There is a blurred line between checking a personal social-media account during the day and replying to office emails and phone calls long into the evening. For others, there are the nervous moments at the family dinner checking their phone to see if they have been given a shift at short notice.

Unemployed workers like Darren exist in this state of work and non-work, concurrently and at multiple levels. Unemployed workers play a critical role in maintaining corporate profits. The long atomisation process began in the 1970s with the shutting down of industry and the subsequent spike in the number of unemployed workers. Jobs lost in blue-collar industries like manufacturing, metalwork and textiles were never made up in the new and growing industries of education and health services. At the same time, there has been a declining labour share of national income coupled with rising corporate profits.

While Darren’s non-work is part of a process that nonetheless works for increasing elite wealth, his interactions with his employment-services provider are also a form of work. The federal government funds the provider for the processes Darren performs. At a minimum, he has to look for twenty jobs in a fortnight as well as meet his provider on a monthly basis. As Darren describes, ‘They can make you go to an appointment every day now if they think that’s what you need.’ After six months of receiving Newstart payments, Darren had an obligation to either participate in a Work for the Dole program, study or engage in volunteer work. According to Darren, his employment-services provider did not tell him about the latter two options. They might have earned money from monitoring and reporting his activities, but they did not receive funding for his study or volunteer work. ‘They wouldn’t recognise my study for six months. It took a lot of disputes.’

Darren’s work, and that of his provider, appears to have its own logic completely removed from actually assisting an unemployed worker develop meaningful skills that might lead to a job. Anything that might assist an unemployed worker enter a new vocational pursuit such as further study, volunteering or work experience in a chosen field does not earn income for an employment-services provider. ‘They are there to make sure you are jumping through all the boxes rather than actually getting a job.’ Darren would test them. He included roles as a tugboat operator and Michaelia Cash’s policy advisor on the list of jobs he had applied for. No-one ever said a word to him about it.

This multiplicity of states extends to those with jobs. On more than one occasion in my union work, I have listened to what it is like to work in labour hire. These arrangements mean being an employee of the host employer when it suits them, and not their employee when it does not. A labour-hire worker might be regarded as an employee for the purposes of taking direction and getting the job done, but not an employee when it comes to what pay and workplace rights go with the job. The daily reality is commonly getting paid less – between $5 to $10 per hour – for the same work in the same workplace as directly engaged workers. Even a direct casual worker exists simultaneously as employee/non-employee: at work today when required, and gone tomorrow when not. The same pattern repeats through other forms of insecure work, from individual contracting to the gig economy. Insecure work, therefore, can be viewed as any engagement in which a worker experiences the sum total of being both an employee and a non-employee at the same time – it is the superposition principle extended to the employment relationship itself.

I have visited work lunchrooms like the one where I was told by a union member that a group of workers on a break huddling in the corner were not worth talking to, as they were ‘just the casuals’. Their very presence at work is contingent and precarious, and so permanent workers sometimes struggle to form an ongoing bond with insecure workers. There is ‘normal’ work, and the casual, labour-hire or precarious varieties. But fewer people than ever now work these ‘normal’ jobs.

Superpositionality also extends to permanent employees. David came into my orbit through his efforts to build a union at his workplace. Tall and slender, he resembled a well-groomed undertaker on holiday: his long black hair tied back into a ponytail and tightly groomed beard matched his black t-shirt and jeans. However, his work is not death, but taxes. On the Australian Taxation Office’s (ATO) behalf, David provides advice and assistance to the public, although he is engaged permanently by an outsourced call-centre provider for a few cents per hour above the award minimum wage.

Every morning when David comes to work, he has to log in and wait around on unpaid time at his desk while the ATO’s software loads. ‘It can take anywhere from maybe three minutes to sometimes plus twenty minutes. There is never any real solid excuse as to why it varies so much or takes so long.’ To leave the computer while it is starting up to make a tea or coffee is itself a ‘disciplinable offence’. David told me that ‘a lot of timid people will get there fifteen or twenty minutes early’. This work time goes unpaid. It is time stolen from David’s life. In his call centre, which is timed to the second, work and non-work time exist simultaneously.

In relation to workplace policy and procedure, employees experience multiple positions simultaneously. David and his co-workers often find themselves simultaneously compliant and non-compliant with policies. It can be for everyday matters, like a conflict between ATO instructions to not follow a script verbatim and a managerial directive to always follow scripts as written. Sometimes, it involves navigating complex situations. In David’s experience, ‘every two days we would get a call from a taxpayer reporting some sort of fraud’. It could be a spam email that is designed to look like a government communication, or a threatening phone call supposedly from the ATO. Yet, whenever a new ATO enforcement campaign starts, according to David, his team often ‘learn of this through calls from the public’ rather than from their bosses. This means that an unbriefed operator might need to make a fraud/non-fraud decision without proper information.

One of David’s co-workers found themselves in such a situation when a member of the public called in to verify the identity of ATO agents who were attempting to interview her in person. Unable to access the relevant information, David’s co-worker ended up calling the police on the agents. David laughs, with a gallows humour that matches both his clothing and his experience: ‘They were actual ATO agents, and it was pretty embarrassing.’ It was the wrong decision. Management judged the operator non-compliant, and they were never seen at work again.

In effect, David and his colleagues are Schrödinger’s workers. In such a state, it is a manager’s gaze that forces this dual possibility into any single outcome as the need arises.

Darren’s absurd job-search forms and David’s waiting around for a computer to load are examples of quantum mechanics at work in an atomised Australia. Quantum computing promises to be exponentially more powerful than binary computing, in the same way a workforce in which people like Darren and David exist in a sort of social quantum state provides for a far more efficient extraction of profit. The entire Australian workforce, whether seen as unemployed, underemployed or employed, occupies multiple and contingent states that all work to capital’s profit.

Australian workers form a network of interactions that has continuously expanded capital within Australia over the twenty-eight years since the last economic recession. This exponential growth in the midst of an atomised society carries unknown consequences.

The unknown is where I will finish my quantum theory of work. The uncertainty principle is a key part of quantum mechanics. This principle poses that the more precisely the position of a particle is determined, the less accurately its momentum can be known. In Australia today, the positions of ordinary people, like Darren and David, has never been more precisely observed and measured. The federal government holds our metadata, human-resources departments monitor the social-media usage of their employees, many workers start their shifts with thumbprint scanners and warehouse workers scatter around with GPS trackers and headsets barking orders about what goods to pick where to load up a pallet to dispatch to some store. To be an ordinary person in Australia is to be surveilled.

Yet all of this monitoring comes at a cost. The more Darren’s employment-services provider focused on making him jump through a punitive set of processes, the less they could actually help him fulfil his full economic potential. David’s employer’s micromanagement came at the expense of quality advice and attention for taxpayers. The cost we all feel, however, is that Australia’s corporate and political leaders are unable to grasp the momentum of change. Drowning in data about the present, Canberra can no longer grapple with the future.

Conversely, the ways in which people can change and form new relationships with each other remains forever unpredictable. Whether it is a North Queensland fisherman offering asylum seekers a beer, dairy farmers linking arms with vegans to stop fossil-fuel companies or construction workers campaigning for marriage equality, fragments of a better future flash into the everyday in often ordinary but unexpected ways. People seek new bonds in surprising circumstances. And just as the strength and characteristics of a given molecule comes from the way atoms relate to one another, the resilience of Australian society comes from the new ways people converge.

As a union official, I find that it is people’s capacity to be unpredictable that keeps me fighting. The momentum of change in the experiences, feelings and actions of ordinary Australians is an unknown. Daily life is lonely, fragmented, uncertain and liable to rupture at any moment. Within this state of affairs, the full range of human behaviours – from the terrifying to the uplifting – is possible. Changes bloom in this space.




Godfrey Moase

Godfrey Moase is an Executive Director, United Workers Union. He’s previously written for the Guardian, Overland, Jacobin and New Matilda.

More by Godfrey Moase ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays