Column | Just doing it – Has big tech become a big waste of time?

Bloated with unnecessary departments, products and staff, Big Tech is slimming down and workers fear for their jobs. But for many workers, or many companies, those jobs are nothing but a waste of time or money.

Photo from Unsplash

Photo from Unsplash

By XIAO Fang


I learned a lot working in an internet company for a year, mostly stuff I didn’t want to know. One unwelcome and unexpected lesson was that people may look busy, but they’re not. That’s probably the top secret of success at a tech giant.

Then there is the last-coworker-standing contest. My leader set some work for the team, then went home herself, but not before telling us to finish our work in our homes. Of course, a few always insist on working in the office: don’t they have homes to go to? There is widespread group psychology in East Asian workplaces – one stay, all stay. These late-stayers oblige all their coworkers to grind relentlessly on alongside them, even long after their individual task is complete. That’s teamwork!

Into the cloud

Wu, my friend, found out that a particular colleague always stayed as late, if not later, than the boss! Her job was to deliver a late, end-of-day report. Angry and self-loathing, Wu began to camp out at his desk every night until the office was completely deserted. But both leader and model coworker left without saying goodbye, unseen, by alternative routes. No one noticed Wu at his desk. No one knew nor cared.

The show is more important than the work itself: I’m in a meeting, I’m on the way to a meeting, I’ve been here for more than 12 hours, I didn’t see you on Sunday.  

Massaging data is easier than collating and analyzing it. Pleasing data is reported upward, smiled upon, and moved further upward and farther away from its dubious source. Everyone knows what’s going on, no one says a word: The Emperor's New Office Practices.

And they are, genuinely, working hard. Or at least they are putting more effort into looking busy than is required to actually do what needs to be done. How can you work hard at a pointless task when it has the same result no matter how you do it? What actually needs to be done?

The good times in big tech were very, very good indeed, and the tough times have come blisteringly hot on their heels. We’ve gone from triple-digit growth to double-digit sackings in just a couple of years, or less.

During the bonus years, it was hard, especially for those in the thick of it, to tell what was going on. Tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of the nation’s best-and-brightest graduates were sucked into the wistful big-tech cloud of salaries and expectations. Dream jobs were imagined and created – often out of nothing and for nothing. Shining office buildings grew up around fountains in second-tier cities. Coffee shops prospered.

Alien attack!

So much for yesterday. Today, stagnancy stalks the sector. So-called work doesn’t seem to have the same pleasing effects on superiors. Getting up early and staying up late, polishing the data till it reflects the boss’s smile… The time has come for every worker to actually prove his or her individual worth. Big Tech is no longer a moral and spiritual quest to change the world as it was two years ago, in ancient China.

Despite the vast momentum of the country’s stable growth, developed countries are still running far ahead. Gen-Z and the Millennials – everyone’s favorite superheroes – are creating a more open and inclusive culture that recognizes the equality and status of everyone. Respect for everyone’s ideas creates a relaxed working environment and encourages collaborative innovation. This is a culture entirely alien to China’s hallmark stratified bureaucracy.  

Big Techs adopted such corporate culture well at first. There was a time when people saw hope of surpassing the West.

Sohu and Baidu were once the cultural heights of the Chinese job market. Sohu advocated a culture of being good people, aiming to stimulate such good people into entrepreneurial action – good action. Boss Charles Zhang actively listened and adopted no airs and graces.

Baidu, on the other hand, was tech-driven – a geek business. There was no need to punch a clock in the early years. It was fine to play games or doze off at work. Techies adopt pretty flexible schedules in any case – this is not nine-to-five work. The culture was far from groveling, more like goofy. Employees were able to discuss anything on an equal footing with anyone, including founder Robin Li, who, like Zhang, put himself at the center of the business, rather than the top.

So much for yesterday. Things have changed a lot since the money started (and stopped) flooding in. With investors having a much bigger say in management style, Sohu dismissed its lazy slackers and demanded that employees be more “conscientious” – which amounted to nothing more than an epidemic of last-man-standing contests and blaze of burnouts. Baidu, on the other hand, became a rapacious market predator, gobbling up all it could.

Bestiary of business models

It is not incomprehensible that growing competition in the marketplace would change corporate culture. The culture is now chiefly one of fear - our slightest misstep is a giant leap for our rivals. The employers’ solution comes as a surprise to no one, and is one that no one seriously expects to solve the problem – work harder or get fired.

Collaboration (chatting) and working flexibly (shirking) are seen as massive wastes of resources. Playing games or dozing off are things of bygone dynasties. Employees have no choice but to discard their individuality, kowtow and join the 996 schedule (72 hours a week).

The absurdity of years of lavish hiring may ultimately prove less ridiculous that it seems now. There are simply far too many people and the idea was always to stop the best people being snapped up by competitors. The notion of actually utilizing these people rather than corralling them in “teams” of less adequate individuals is beginning to take hold.

However, the sector is not composed exclusively of giants. There are unicorns, dwarves and many other mythical beasts in the marketplace, many that missed out on first-mover advantage, if it is an advantage. These companies need talented staff too, and presumably are aware that a more humane work environment is a big draw for the truly creative.

World without cares

We are good at reflecting on the past, but we are often unaware of our present situation. Some have achieved financial freedom, but many have gained nothing but restlessness and heartbreak and the pressures on their employers are increasing. People are being forced to examine their true worth – worth to the company – and have no choice but to realize that many of them are worth nothing at all. Delving into the value and significance of the work itself can be soul destroying. Yes, you are doing nothing of any value. Yes, your days are surely numbered.

Panic sets in. Act busy, the boss is coming. Internet giants have moved away from the innovation that once defined them: no one cares about changing the world anymore. No one cares about what value their work creates. People worry over trifles -- whether they can grab more resources, get a promotion or a raise, pass the buck to someone else. Almost everyone is doing the one thing at any given tech giant today, and one thing only: trying to avoid the axe. It has nothing to do with any kind of “new economy.” It is no longer a moral quest.

Modern Times

Describing the attitude of Gen-Z, writer LIU Zhenyun said they claimed to be very modern and their clothes are obviously ahead of their time, but their look is no different from the assembly line workers of the world’s factory.

Assembly-line workers are mechanized, driven and enslaved by machines. It’s been more than 80 years since Charlie Chaplin warned of what happens when the means of production become masters of the producers. Humans are irrelevant screws in a huge contraption of their own making, their creative spark snuffed out by the social division of labor and their automated overlords.

When work itself loses intrinsic value – social rather than monetary value - the criteria for evaluating it change. Objective indicators such as performance and contribution turn out not be very objective at all and the whole matter becomes more one of prejudice and instinct. Everyone loses the level playing field, which may be no bad thing.

Sisyphean employees repeating fake, pointless tasks in a groveling workplace have no dignity. Small wonder they are frustrated and dissatisfied! At Maimai, a career and social networking platform, they call themselves the “migrant workers of the new era.”

Please justify yourself

Anthropologist David Graeber refers to “Bullshit Jobs” - utterly meaningless, paid employment. Unnecessary and even psychologically destructive nihilism leaves workers unable justify their existences. Pretending to love your job – a premeditated act of profound dishonesty - is a prerequisite for employment. Receptionists, administrative assistants, telemarketers, PR practitioners and middle-level managers are all Bullshit Jobs according to Graeber. Society, he claims, would be better if those jobs suddenly disappeared. This scenario was played out in Douglas Adams’s The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy, when such workers were convinced to depart to the Earth and explore the universe, leaving the worthwhile behind to get on with their meaningful lives. It worked out well for everyone.

ByteDance closed its talent development center in December, having unearthed numerous departments and teams populated with bright and busy employees doing nothing whatsoever of any real substance, wasting the company’s resources and the workers’ time.

Yet still, Sisyphean to the last, the young people stream out of university and pointless internships and into dream jobs that become nightmares before they even learn the words of the company song. How long can this gravy chain continue to sustain the ambitions of a generation of Chinese who expect more – and less – from their employers than any that came before?