It's funny how the unspoken assumptions of a religion you don't follow mediated through the zeitgeist of a political culture you don't agree with can nevertheless determine your reaction to news.
In this case, I'm taking exception to the conventional wisdom that the devil makes work for idle hands, and that work — any work, dammit — is good for the soul. Some work quite obviously is not good for you. One of my friends is descended from a family of Scottish coal miners; it's an industry that doesn't exist any more. But, as he puts it, it isn't a job you'd wish on anyone you liked — dirty, hard, dangerous work that eventually kills many of the men who worked down a pit (usually from silicosis, emphysema, black lung, or similar nasty respiratory diseases). If a clean, safe alternative was available it would be infinitely preferable to do without that kind of employment.
And there are other jobs that aren't worth having. Not necessarily dangerous ones, but ones that shouldn't be necessary — jobs that exist solely because of an existing human-made cock-up, applying human energy to deal with a problem that shouldn't exist in the first place. Sure digging a hole in a field and filling it in is economic activity if you're paying the guy on the other end of the shovel to do it — but once you get beyond the basic incentive of earning a living and putting food on the table, what's the purpose of the enterprise? People are generally happier if what they are doing is appreciated, at some level, or if they feel they're achieving something. There is a category of jobs that are, strictly speaking, unnecessary — and I don't think adding to them is a good thing.
Of course, the usual analysis of employment trends we get in the press doesn't usually go as deep as to question the need for jobs (that jobs are virtuous is taken for granted) so it shouldn't be any surprise that ZDnet's report that Microsoft Windows Vista could create 50,000 jobs in the EU alone is framed in tones of breathless approval.
Stop and think about it. The PC market is pretty much saturated in the developed world; we are no longer buying our first PC, we're just upgrading regularly for the faster processor/new features. So what does this really mean?
Microsoft are predicting that this ravenous new operating system will demand the sacrifice of 50,000 extra human lifetimes to keep offices across the EU running. That fifty thousand people are going to be sucked into the thankless task of software support and system administration for no functional gain — not to bring the benefits of computing to new users, this is simply to keep the wheels turning. It's money for digging holes in a field and then filling them in again: pointless make-work that should be automated out of existence rather than lauded.
The reason for this weird non-news piece is buried some way down the article: "In recent years, Microsoft has funded a number of studies highlighting the positive side of its near-monopoly in the market for desktop operating systems (it faces significant competition on servers, notably from Linux). The studies have appeared as Microsoft has faced antitrust actions in the US, the EU and elsewhere, with regulator attention most recently beginning to focus on Windows Vista ahead of its scheduled January launch."
One of the dirty little secrets of the computing industry is that staffing ratios are supported by Microsoft. It takes roughly one support person per forty desktops in Windows environments (one person-hour per working week wasted on coaxing balky software into doing its job, is a more accurate way of describing this), while large-scale UNIX desktop installations have staffing ratios between 1:200 and 1:1000. But bureaucratic politics is such that in any organization, an inefficient department with forty employees has far more clout, prestige, and (ultimately) money assigned to it than an efficient department of four ... because most managers are woefully inequipped to judge the relative merit of computing proposals and interpret human activity as productivity, rather than as evidence of inefficiency. We have therefore fallen into a situation where less efficient solutions competing in the marketplace are preferentially selected.
So much for the cult of employment ...