Literally Flexing

Fresh Flex Work Force, Article, 2023

Text included in Fresh Flex Work Force, Alina Lupu (ed.)

A weird sense of strain on the calf, an inconspicuous discomfort while laying in bed, and finally an imprudent attempt at lifting a heavy piece of machinery. Result: Verlaagd signaal en bulgen van de discus L4-L5, L5-S1 passend bij dehydratie, met wortel aanraken L5 links en S1 beiderzijds. Or, in ordinary English, two herniated discs in my lower back.

The diagnosis came much later. Before that, I went through a month of dull nerve pain and stiffness of my left leg, particularly acute at night and in the morning. The first days I would limp my way to breakfast, engage in a millimetric struggle to wear trousers, and dread at the idea of sitting down for more than half an hour.

Soon after the fatal lifting I had to travel to Portugal. It was my first work trip after the pandemic and I didn’t want to miss it. Normally, I would get to the airport using my bike to reach the central station of Rotterdam and then take an Intercity train to Schipol, but this time, given the ungodly hour of the flight and the unpredictability of my body, I surrendered to Uber. Will I do this again? An emergency is often the trojan horse of convenience.

A few hours later, there I was, in Lisbon, welcomed by a colleague who helped me with the luggage. The same colleague helped me again when, before a class, I realized that I couldn’t really sit or walk so I decided to take my chances and see someone. She spared me more sitting time Google-searching doctors in Portuguese and came back to me with two options: a sighted physiotherapist and a blind one. I chose the latter. When I got there he was typing on his computer, a familiar image, with the peculiarity that the computer, even though it had a screen, was frequently beeping back at him.

Metaphorical Flexibility

This wasn’t the only eventful trip taking place during my pre-diagnosis period, a period in which the figurative flexibility of my job coexisted with the literal rigidity of my spine. During this time, a substantial chunk of my activity had to do with reconciling the rigid with the flexible: shipping ergonomic office equipment to various locations, reshuffling classes and appointments with the doctor, rethinking my daily routine to make room for one-hour walks.

All of this made me realize that flexibility is an odd metaphor. We speak of flexible work when there is room for altering when we do it and where we do it: a flexible work arrangement is, according to Wikipedia, one where people can “choose what time they begin to work, where to work, and when they will stop work.” We call this arrangement flexible, but there is nothing about it that “bends without breaking”, unless we refer to late hours, where time actually appears to expand.

Literal Rigidity

Whereas the notion of flexibility doesn’t really make sense metaphorically, it definitely does literally: in computer-mediated work, one spends most of their time bowed on the machine. Which part of the spine bends depends on the device: the neck for the smartphone, the upper back for the desktop computer, often the full spine for the laptop. Flexion is the medical term for this. If you’re able-bodied, whether you are at your office desk, in a car, in a train, or in a plane, you assume a similar posture induced by the inscription apparatus – generally a computer – in front of you. As this usually happens while sitting, we can consider the seated position the main rigidity complementing the flexibility of work. Specific activities don’t matter much, being always different (work, shopping, entertainment, even activism) and always the same – manipulating symbols. The on-screen generalist is in fact a virtuoso of the seat, with pets and toddlers and spilled beverages likely adding to the hazards of the challenge.

This is how writer Ellen Ullman describes the most extreme and explicit manifestation of such rigidity – the life of a programmer:

Real time was no longer compelling. Days, weeks, months, and years came and went without much physical change in my surroundings. Surely I was aging. My hair must have grown, I must have cut it; it must have grown again. Gravity must have been working on my sedentary body, but I didn’t notice. I only paid attention to my back and shoulders because they seized up on me from long sitting. Later, after I left the company, there was a masseuse on staff. That way, even the back and shoulders could be soothed – all the better to keep you in your seat.

Once again, it is time that appears to be stretching. In 2018, Italian novelist Alessandro Baricco published an essay about the “anthropological mutation” triggered by digital technology. There, he noticed something which might sound pretty obvious, namely, that when we interact with computers, we adopt a specific posture: human-keyboard-screen.

What is less obvious is the cultural value of such posture. According to Baricco, this human-machine arrangement is analogous to another one: man-sword-horse, a configuration that partially epitomized the worldview of medieval civilization. As man-sword-horse was the emblem of the Middle Ages, the human-keyboard-screen posture is “the logo of our civilization”. Such logo “represents the precise moment when we are sitting in the [physical world] and traveling through [the digital one].”

In hindsight, this mixture of stasis and movement can be interpreted as one of the defining features of the pandemic. The so-called zoomification of work granted us a sort of digital ubiquity, although at the expenses of one’s body, entrapped into the rigid layout of the passenger. More than an occasion to enjoy the comforts of one’s home, the long hours of remote work felt like being a car driver stuck in traffic. Go tell that to my Uber driver…

Metaphorical Rigidity

If flexibility is not a great metaphor for work – better maybe to speak of, say, work variability, autonomy, freedom – rigidity, its opposite, is instead a fruitful one. Deadlines can be rigid, bosses can be stiff, bureaucratic requirements can be inflexible.

These rigidities seems to pop up at the very heart of flexible work arrangements. It seems, in fact, that the more the arrangement is made quote-unquote flexible, that is, spatially and temporally diversified, the more metaphorical rigidity it will generate: it could be three at night, or you could have just lost your flight, but the deadline perdures, immovable like a tombstone. Thus, ironically, metaphorical rigidity generates metaphorical flexibility: the adamant deadline cast by the inflexible boss requires time to be bent and space to be stretched.

Literal Flexibility

Simone Weil once pointed out how easily we forget about the pain we endured. These days, I feel less stiff, the ache only rarely peeping out to remind me of the finitude of my existence. Sometimes I don’t even pay attention to my back or leg throughout the entire day. Of course, I’m glad to forget about pain (except when I have to convince my physiotherapist that I still need treatment) but I’d like to keep thinking in terms of what bends and what doesn’t. I’d like to think of those times when you have to stretch time and pull an all-nighter to meet a rigid milestone, keeping the same curved position until dawn. Sure, an illness is no metaphor, but when it comes to flexibility it is too late: a bodily capacity has been already turned into a figure of speech.

The Flexibility Compass.

Metaphors are meant to enrich our understanding, not to deceive us, but in the case of flexibility, the latter happens. Let’s get rid of flexibility as a metaphor then, so that a clearer picture can emerge where one simply works during changing times of the day in different places, because they want to. At the same time, let’s reclaim the literal meaning of flexibility, in order to acknowledge the body, the pain, the discomfort, but also that athletic push that makes us feel alive. I’m not there yet, but soon, hopefully, I will be able to touch my toes with my fingers again.