The Myth of Productivity: Interrogating Forest through the lens of Barthes’ Mythologies
by Nathaniel Ogle
Polyphony, Volume 2, Issue 1
First published April 2020, Manchester
This essay examines the modern myth of productivity through the lens of the French literary theorist, Roland Barthes. By applying his model of myth to an app designed to increase one’s productivity, we can clearly see how productivity has been framed by businesses as something that is necessary to our wellbeing. In reality, productivity has been artificially constructed to increase our rate of production as the human machines that churn capitalism and mass culture. I also utilise German philosopher, Theodor Adorno’s theory on free time to reinforce the argument that our balance between work life and free time is manipulated by those in power. Ultimately, productivity and work life have been mythologised in order to fuel our economic system which depends on rapid production and mass consumption of goods; worryingly, we seem to be entirely blind to this corruption of society that exists before our eyes.
(see note 1)
Productivity, defined as ‘producing...large amounts of goods, crops, or other commodities’, is a contemporary myth (see note 2). Predominantly utilised from the 20th century onwards, ‘productivity’ has now become a defining feature of modern capitalist society (see note 3). Analysing the definition above, Barthes states that myth is an ideology that, over time, is perceived by society as a natural and intrinsic aspect of the world despite its artificial origins (see note 4). In his collection of essays, Mythologies, Barthes presents 20th century myths that often relate to mass-culture and accessible media that can be easily consumed by large populations. Although Barthes’ essays in Mythologies are seemingly anachronistic, applying to specific aspects of 20th century French society, the concepts behind his analysis are increasingly relevant in a swiftly developing capitalist society. Rapid demand for mass produced goods and a quick overturn of profit has led to productivity in every aspect of one’s life becoming necessary. Karl Marx theorised that humans manufacture in order to survive; as society is organised around production, high levels of productivity increase one’s wealth, and therefore, one’s chances of survival (see note 5). However, the flaw in Marx’s argument is that as capitalism itself is an ideology, productivity cannot be perceived as a natural human instinct. As depicted in the advertisement above, productivity has become a euphemism for increasing the time an individual spends working, ultimately to generate more profit for the elite. Instead of productivity being a natural human desire, it is a myth constructed by those who gain revenue through the exploitation of labourers.
The ideology behind the myth of productivity is capitalism. Governments and businesses encourage productivity in aspects of everyday life in order to increase the efficiency of their workers who will generate more profit. The image above is an advertisement for Forest, a smartphone app which is designed to assist the user in focusing on their work for a given period of time. It uses the incentive of a growing virtual tree which flourishes when the user does not touch their phone but is killed when the user breaks their focus. Forest assumes that one’s work is “more important in… life” (see note 6) than other uses of a smartphone, such as to connect with friends and family or to play a game. Undoubtedly, smartphone usage can be problematic as it removes human contact and tends to connect the user’s mind with anaesthetising virtual platforms. However, the advert dismisses the potential personal importance of activities associated with “free time”. It encourages the user to devote more time to work than to other activities deemed “unproductive”. Despite the potential detrimental effects on one’s mental and physical health from overworking, the app disguises this modern epidemic as something rewarding and natural. Employers and companies incentivise their employees with the apparent ‘fulfilment’ felt through productivity. Hidden behind the veil of productivity is capitalism, a system that has reduced human fulfilment to “a mere money relation” (see note 7). Barthes focuses on the ability for a myth to produce a “natural image of… reality” regardless of its artificially constructed roots. The Forest app is centred around nature; its arborescent features form an illusion that productivity is as inherently natural as a tree itself. The app’s virtual orchard provides a false sense of nurture- the user becomes responsible for a tree dependent on their productivity levels. By imitating the real life consequences of unproductivity in the workplace (potentially damaging those dependent on you), capitalist values are reinforced: hard work equals survival. Productivity appears natural as the institutions that constructed this myth have distorted what is considered a natural human instinct. The consequences of complacency, such as unemployment, ensure that workers continue to produce. What is not displayed in the advert for Forest but is promoted on the company website is a tool that allows users to spend virtual coins which are donated to the NGO, Trees for the Future. The website states that “when our users spend virtual coins they earn… on planting real trees, Forest team donates our partner and creates orders of planting” in developing countries. By adhering to the myth of productivity through this app, one is given a false sense of charity. Although the user may feel that their productivity is assisting those in need, productivity directly links to capitalism-- a force which exacerbates global inequities-- thus, the concept is counter-productive. Incentivising workers through the promise of bettering the world, caring for a natural feature, and the promise of self-fulfilment ensures that employers are able to present productivity not only as natural, but as a necessity. If one unpicks the elements of productivity that are supposedly beneficial, you are left with nothing more than a method for sustaining capitalism.
Juxtaposing the myth of productivity is the myth of free time. The two are mutually incompatible, with productivity actively discouraging any act of leisure. Free time is defined by 20th century German philosopher, Theodor W. Adorno, as “the privilege of an unconstrained, comfortable lifestyle.” He argues that “free time is shackled to its opposite” (see note 8) work. Increasingly, there is an imbalance of time devoted to work and time spent ‘free’. As the development of capitalist society quickens, companies, such as the Forest app, encourage workers to devote more time to their work than to their free time. If the time spent engaging in arduous labour disguised as productivity increases, the more time workers will spend producing, and thus, generating profit for the capitalist state. However, Adorno argues that free time in itself is an entirely mythological concept. In his essay ‘Free Time’ (1969), Adorno proclaims that the time we spend “free” is not easily divisible from work. By engaging in consumerism during our free time (for example, through shopping), we are constantly turning the wheels of capitalism even when we are not at work; our “private life” becomes “colonised… by the face of consumption.” Adorno’s writings on free time directly support Barthes’ concept of a societal myth by reinforcing the presence of a capitalist economy. Free time in itself has been defined throughout history by the pleasure we obtain from engaging in leisurely activities. Nonetheless, the activities we regularly engage in such as sport, media, and reading, are only designed to increase our productivity as workers. As supported by Adorno, by engaging in leisure activities that are designed to stimulate the mind and body and relieve stress, we become more efficient and productive when we return to work. Both myths are intrinsically interlinked. What is more disturbing is that productivity is now being advertised as a free time activity. To confront the concerns that employees are being overworked and avoid accusations of exploitation, companies have advertised productivity as a desirable goal. The Forest advert encourages users to “put down” their free time and instead engage in “productive” work. The unremitting nature of work is disguised as rewarding, as we are granted a false sense of freedom after our work has been completed. Instead of spending our leisure time conventionally, we instead chase the ongoing promise of freedom and stress relief which is an unattainable goal.
In conclusion, productivity and free time have been mythologised in order to maintain levels of production and support the ongoing desire to increase profits. Companies in capitalist society have marketed productivity as a feeling of catharsis, a stress release. Instead of longing to spend more time engaging in activities unrelated to work, productivity is now being advertised as the new free time activity. What is most troubling is that a society which so greedily consumes is unable to question itself about the consequences of capitalism and rapid consumption. Until workers realise the detrimental effects of overworking, the myth of productivity will continue to thrive under the capitalist system.
1: “Forest”, Forestapp.Cc, 2018 <https://www.forestapp.cc/en/>
2: "Productive | Definition Of Productive In English By Oxford Dictionaries", Oxford Dictionaries | English, 2018
3: "Google Ngram Viewer", Books.Google.Com, 2018
4: "Roland Barthes’ Definition Of Myth", Whitedeer.Earth, 2018
5: “Summary: Ideology According to Marx- Definition and Explanation” Blogspot 2012
6: “Forest”, Forestapp.Cc, 2018 <https://www.forestapp.cc/en/>
7: Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998).
8: Theodor W. Adorno Free Time in Reading Literature Course Booklet (University of Manchester: School of Languages, Arts, and Cultures, 2017)