Severance and the Disutility of Work

For those who were unaware, we are apparently a Severance blog now, a trend made all the better since nobody else is talking about the show anymore. Like all high concept fiction, the show can be consumed as a metaphor, in this case usually as a metaphor for modern office work. While I consume more than my share of metaphors, I usually find speculating about the “true” underlying metaphor driving a piece of storytelling to be more fun than useful. Instead, let’s talk about what the central conceit of the show actually is, namely a return to explicit slavery. Not almost slavery. Not wage slavery. Not “I’d rather be playing Minecraft on Twitch than making pivot tables in Excel ” slavery.

Actual slavery. The hook, through a clever bit of science fiction, is that it is slavery through a channel that allows a person to enslave the only person that we can imagine the world allowing to pass as anything but grossly criminal: themselves. The person you are enslaving to toil on your behalf happens to be a partitioned-off portion of your own consciousness (known as an “innie”) who continues to operate within a now shared bodily meat sack while your “outie” consciousness goes into a apparent blacked-out stasis. The innie does all the work, while the outie reaps (nearly all) all of the material rewards.

One take away is that there are people so desperate to not have to go to their jobs that they will carve off 8 hours a day out of their own claim to existence, a full third of their life, grant independent sentience to that third, and then enslave it. Putting aside the moral repugnance of such a decision for a second, one can’t help but ponder the preferences being revealed by an individual paying such a price.

Never trust a “unified theory” of damn near anything. It’s usually bullshit from the first moment, a cheap trick for gaining attention while grotesquely overreaching for importance in what is either a relatively mundane insight or a bit of intellectual sleight of hand designed to misdirect the reader from a deep underlying fallacy.


The price we’re willing to pay to not do something we don’t like often reveals more about ourselves than the prices we pay for the things we do like. The cost we’re willing to inflict on others reveals it all the more.

One of my little mental tricks when trying to understand human behavior that I can’t quite grok is to swap out a “utiliity maximizing” model for a “disutility minimizing” model. Trying to understand why a person would enslave a portion of themselves within the framework of “what are they maximizing?” lends itself to complex speculation on dimensions of their lives we can’t observe. Flipping it around, however, and asking what they are minimizing is immediately more intuitive. Without getting too deep into spoilers, there’s clearly a motive to minimize the disutility of work itself. Of toil, tedium, and drudgery. Of being told what to do and doing what you are told.

The hypothesis of Severance is that people will create an enslaved conscious person and explicitly deny the humanity of that person if, in doing so, they can minimize their own disutility of work. The corporation that creates these institutions in this fictional world will probably turn out to be either decadently evil in pursuit of pure profit or banally evil in pursuing some sort of yet unseen greater good. Even if they have rich and tragic back stories, the middle management that keep the plantation functioning are morally wretched individuals who have chosen to enable slavery to preserve their own status quo. The corporation, the managers, these are the bad guys. The heavys. The bullys who gain from the suffering of others.

But they’re not the monsters. The only monsters in the world of Severance are the individuals who made a choice to create and enslave another person solely so they themselves might enjoy a life without toil or tedium.

The cost that you are willing inflict on another in an effort to minimize your own discomfort reveals a lot about you. Whether you’re a socialist preaching “solidarity”, an economist who knows that Smithian “sympathy” is the glue of modern society, or just someone who thinks that it all comes down to coping with the prisoner’s dilemma, how a person values the suffering of others is a defining attribute.

Which brings me to a question I think only the creaters of Severance can answer. Is the conceit of their show to show that people will enslave a portion of themselves because they deny the humanity of their creation? Or is it that an office job is so abhorrent that opportunity to offload that burden to another while keeping the rewards for themselves overcomes any sympathy they might have for the other?

This show isn’t a metaphor. It’s a model. In this sense, Severance may be the most misanthropic hypothesis of humanity in the economically developed world I’ve ever observed. That humans, freed of the disutility of possible starvation or annihilation, will take any opportunity to minimize their own discomfort, even at the cost of a third of their lives and moral rot that comes with the enslavement and denied humanity of another. Somewhere, in the deep dark noughaty core of this piece of fiction is the consideration that, freed from our need for one another, our antipathy for discomfort will birth an idle, half-drunk decadence that will lead us to literally eat away at ourselves.

Or maybe the creators just all had office jobs while they were trying to make it in hollywood, and they really, really hated them.

2 thoughts on “Severance and the Disutility of Work

  1. Joy July 18, 2022 / 9:31 am

    I love the way you ended this. Is this a profound comment on human nature or do the writers just REALLY hate office jobs?


  2. Scott Buchanan July 19, 2022 / 8:23 am

    Especially liked: ” …Never trust a “unified theory” of damn near anything. It’s usually bullshit from the first moment, a cheap trick for gaining attention while grotesquely overreaching for importance in what is either a relatively mundane insight or a bit of intellectual slight of hand designed to misdirect the reader from a deep underlying fallacy….” [[ though, may want to edit “slight” to “sleight” ]]


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