Long before Google, the Soviets also had 20% time

There is a remarkable overlap between the ideals of the 1936 Soviet constitution  and Google’s employee benefits.  Both provide the right to productive work, rest, and leisure; health protection; care for your old age and during sickness; housing, education, and cultural benefits.  That one of those entities became a world-straddling superpower with an enormous impact on global culture, economic development, and thought, and the other folded up shop on Christmas Day 1991, is a testimony to the difference between Reward and Punishment as motivating principles of human achievement.

Interestingly, the Soviets even had “20% time”, the innovation that Google has made famous in our own era.

The Soviets wanted to create the “новый советский человек”, or New Soviet Man, who would transcend limits, achieve heightened consciousness, attain a new plane of human development, yadda yadda.

Inevitably, these types of experiments in forced utopianism devolve into a cult-like messing around with your food, sleep, and time-keeping: it makes it easier for the unenlightened noobs to get with the program if physiological exhaustion curtails critical thinking.

So it wasn’t much more than a decade after the Revolution that the Soviets experimented with altered bio-rhythms and heightened capital equipment utilization by introducing the five-day week, as seen in this 1930 calendar:

The immediate purpose behind the short-week calendar was enabling “continuous production” in which factories stayed open 365 days throughout the year.  Not closing for the weekends meant no wasteful idle time for the machinery. And more stuff produced meant more record statistics for the apparatchiks to hail.

To accommodate the all-too-frail human flesh required to operate that continuously-producing equipment, the Soviets created the five-color-encoded calendar above.  Under this calendar, 20% of the workforce had any given day off , depending, of course, on which color they’d been assigned.

Predictably, the whole thing didn’t work.  Human beings don’t perform highly under conditions of forced labor, forced productivity, or forced relaxation.  The Soviets fiddled around with the five-day calendar from 1929 to 1931, at which point a six-day continuous week was introduced, until finally scrapping the whole thing in 1940.

Instructively, the same workforce that failed to do much of anything during the forced-production-1930s became the actual engine behind the defeat of Hitler in the 1940s because their motivations became, well… their motivations: their own love of country and hatred of the enemy.

It is also, I think, why Google’s benefits (and 20% time), superficially similar to the Soviets’, nonetheless produce an entirely different outcome.  Humans motivated by their own desire to contribute, to create, to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” and to use to their own talents borne, developed, and mastered, to do so, will create beautiful, useful, delightful products for the rest of us.

Among free people, Reward will always, always defeat Punishment.

 

Write us your thoughts about this post. Be kind & Play nice.
  1. Ectopia2000 says:

    Your post missed an excellent opportunity to compare Google’s intentions to rule the world with those of the USSR. Just because Google pays its workers better doesn’t mean it doesn’t want to take over our lives. “Don’t be evil.” Yeah, right.

  2. Jim Shook says:

    Sorry but comments like this are just plain silly. Google has no intention to “take over our lives”. Just to create great products that organize the digital world and make money off from it. Nothing sinister about it.

Leave a reply.

You must be logged in to post a comment.