Sometimes the name of something comes to you before the thing itself. I’ve had an idea floating around in my head for a few years, an essay titled “Just Work” based on a triple pun. I’ll sketch it out here, hopefully unlocking some energy to actually write it one of these days. Much of this needs more detail but I think it captures the main idea.

It just works

Programmers often say, as a compliment to some technical system, that it “just works”. “I love using Twilio – it just works”. As I understand it, this means it is a perfect black box: the inputs and outputs are well-defined, and the implementation is separated cleanly from the interface. You can plug it into a larger system and not worry about what’s inside it, how it functions. It’s a clean abstraction that you can depend on. The default behavior is good for you: it doesn’t require much customization. It doesn’t break, doesn’t require extensive debugging. You can focus on the things that you care about, rather than extraneous details. This is among the highest praise you can offer.

Work will set you free

You keep your head down, you focus on your craft. You get better and better, you measure your contribution to society through continued employment. Your value as a citizen and your own happiness are tied to the productivity of your labor. You work hard, you are rewarded. Just work harder, you think.

Your relationships suffer. “We just need to work on it.” You go to therapy.

Your health suffers, and you resolve to work out more.

Labor justice

You pour your energy into your job, but what is the effect on the world? What are your relationships with the company’s owners, with management, with your coworkers, with contractors, with your counterparties at other companies? With the workers who mine the rare earth minerals in your laptop?

What does it mean to have “just work”?


The first two meanings of “just work” crowd out the third. When you yourself are a pleasing abstraction in a larger system, and when you view others in the same way, you cannot demand justice. Justice is an implementation detail. It cannot be abstracted into a box on a diagram, it is about the rich texture of things. The abstraction mindset leads you to ignore justice and morality. This is, in some sense, its purpose, just as the complex global supply chain (itself a series of abstractions) has a major function of hiding working conditions and environmental destruction from end consumers.