Awry, Amiss, Amok


The following is a Work in Progress. Comment is more than welcome. Choice!

Matt got me reading Small is Beautiful by E. F Schumacher and it is reminding me that everyone has almost everything almost completely wrong.

Find ten people you don't know and ask them, "How was your day today?". One of them will say, "Fantastic! There aren't words to express...!". Two or three will be holding back the tears as they tell you that to one degree or another, their life is craps. The other six or seven will say something along the lines of, "Oh, just average..." with one of those straight-faced emoticon faces; or "Same shit - different day." with some zen c'est la vie stiff upper lip going on; or "The usual. Life doesn't really start 'til the weekend, does it mate?" the glint of alcohol and sports and birds in their eye.

The first person, Mr. Fantastic, is probably a student, on holiday, or self-employed. The next two or three are usually just broke. But what bothers me is the huge majority of people that answer "How was your day?" with "Oh... just average." Those are the people that do those jobs with names I don't understand in buildings I don't recognize.

I realised today I don't have a clue what most people do all day. I go to classes and do research and write reports during the day, and play guitar and watch TV and play with the baby and draw fonts at night. I like it; I'm learning about things I'm interested in - when I get bored of learning, I do other things I like. But most of the people I pass in the street, what do they do all day?

Sit in cubicles. Go to meetings. File invoices. Write technical documentation. Process loan applications. Inventory the office consumables.

I don't know what any of that crap means! I can't relate to anyone who works as a secretary, in a bank or a call centre, or anyone who spends the majority of the day on the phone, for that matter. Office jobs - I have no clue.

According to Schumacher, Aldous Huxley said the point of technology is to provide ordinary people with the means of achieving independence from their bosses. Matt got himself a sweet laptop and now he spends his days cruising town, making people websites. He doesn't have a boss, so if he doesn't feel like making websites one day, he can spend it selling lemonade at the park instead.

There's no denying work has got to suck to some degree. That's why they pay you to go there. But the idea of taking 40 hours, painting them all grey, stacking them neatly in a box, and rubber-stamping them, "Work Time: caution - do not engage brain, creativity, or emotion!" and then putting them out with the recycling early every Wednesday morning is ludicrous to me.

Maybe I am missing something. Maybe I don't see the bigger picture like other people do. Perhaps technical support documentation resource analysts appreciate their role as a crucial cog in a beautiful machine, a tiny spring in an ornate pocket watch that will be running three hundred years from now. Could be that's where the average cubicle worker gets their daily motivation from. Could be.

But I don't buy it - and I'm not buying into it.

From what I can see, the majority of the economy is organised in this way; in the worst case, "...dividing up every complete process of production into minute parts, so that the final product can be produced at great speed without anyone having had to contribute more than a totally insignificant and, in many cases, unskilled movement of his limbs." (From Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, apparently.)

Now these guys (Smith and Huxley and Schumacher) are from various ages of the old school; as I understand it they used to kick it somewhere between the 1920's and the 70's. So I assume that when they were talking about division of labour and all that jazz, they had manufacturing in mind. These days (due to me and my ilk) we have robits to do most of that crap - I don't know anyone who works in a button factory, for instance. All those people that used to drill the holes to make your buttons are now working as bank tellers - or worse, one step further into the bank that doesn't even let you have contact with the customers. Consequently, the work output of the average individual office worker (just like the average factory worker from back in the day) is insignificant. I've never worked in an office, so I don't know, but I presume there is someone with the job of explicitly ensuring every worker is given just enough responsibility and just enough significance to pacify their ambition.

You see the modern ideal of work is to get rid of it! 'Advance in work procedure' is interchangeable with 'reduction of workload'. This is evident in the programme of advances from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution to the current Computer Age. Imagine the response of an Anglo-Saxon turnip-farming serf to the phrase "forty-hour work week".

The incidental consequence of this process of progress, of this reduction in work-load, appears to be a reduction of work-worth. To quote Schumacher again, this process makes work "...meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking...", and indicates "...a greater concern with goods than with people."

Schumacher's solution (which he identifies as being a Buddhist point of view) is to take "...the function of work to be threefold: to give a man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his egocentredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence." This is an acknowledgement of " of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure."

And it's not just office-work that is the devil. I'm a student living away from home, so there are a few months every year that I don't spend at university, and neither the government nor my parents want to support me, so I have to do real work now and then. I work for my cousin's joinery installation company - we install kitchens. Some of the jobs we do are very much like the Buddhist ideal, but some are upsettingly similar to the button factory.

Lately we have been installing tiny kitchens in tiny apartments in the city centre. At the end of the last holidays, before returning to uni, I had to train up my replacement. I managed to compress the entire sum of my knowledge of this job into a 4-page work procedure document. Remove panels from packing crate. Affix componentry. Assemble cabinets. Repeat 160 times. 160 soulless kitchens for 160 soulless apartments for 160 faceless clients. I spent most of the time wishing I was stoned - at least then I'd be enjoying the mindless fog. I might as well have been working in a button factory. After two weeks I had absolutely had my fill. But not all our jobs are like that.

Last year we did a job in the pristine Greta Valley, installing a hundred-thousand dollar kitchen into a multi-million dollar mansion. Every curve, every bow, every warp of the 100-year-old house had to be matched perfectly by minute curves of our cabinetry. Minute curves that we shape with innovation and skill and attention to detail and finesse. It would have taken my boss at least two years to train me to be his replacement. It is difficult to teach the things that make this job worthwhile. How to warp and shave and shape cheaply-built, modular, square joinery into a home without right angles, without compromising structural or aesthetic integrity. How to work with clients that are real people with very specific expectations yet very loose ways of expressing them. How to make an accurate evaluation of the value of your labour. How to identify the most effective process to complete a non-repetitive task. These are the skills of a craftsman. Jobs like these allow my boss to utilise and develop his faculties; to join with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence. And of course you don't need to be a millionaire to appreciate craftsmanship; nor should you have to be a millionaire to afford it.

Evidently, my experience has validated what Schumacher says. Furthermore, he resonates repeatedly with my (soon-to-be-composed) list, Things That Almost Everyone Has Almost Completely Wrong. But the question remains: when I finish this degree in twelve or sixteen of whichever frighteningly small number of weeks it is, what am I going to do with myself?


david said...


but, you see, in order for that redirection to work, you need technology and people combined and people like me (office job sit downs with ergo chairs in cubicles who laugh at dilbert) for all that to happen. This office work that I do (which you happened to call 'the devil'... and which I won't challenge as no doubt you will freely apologies of your own accord) is a 40 hour job that is a piece of a puzzle that when pieced together makes a picture of a machine grinding away. In a teeny tiny way, my 'evil' work is important and necessary (if NZ people want their mail redirected - or even have a mail system at all) and I enjoy it as my employer is thankfully a good employer... best thing is, the grey 40 hours I do = means to provide my family/community with bread and water. woot. The loverly five grain sourdough bread that you enjoyed partaking of on saturday afternoon was a result of some minutes of 'evil' officeness. I do hope you spat it out in disgust!
consider this... man sinned, he fell, God said tut-tut now things are going to be much harder for you, especially your 40hour toil, but don't worry, I'll fix it one day. phew.
man was made to work yet we are good at making work hard for ourselves. yet that does not make work or office jobs evil or wrong.

so the question you put remains... what are you going to do with yourself?

if you wanna talk about it, please do talk it through with others (or to me even). work/career choices are not easy and the are a big deal... I remember having to make my own choices 'back in the day'.

Richard D. Bartlett said...

Thanks for your comment David, very fair.

If I extend this essay, I think I should address the issue you have raised: the legitimacy of office jobs. Your's is an example of a pretty neccesary one, I think.

I suspect you derive a large portion of your satisfaction/meaning/etc not from your work but from your family and other interests. I'm not familiar enough with your job to make a statement on this, but I assume your office job does little to satisfy your ambition.

You seem to acknowledge at least in part that your work life is quite separate from you leisure/everything-else life. And that works to some degree; your situation is the perfect example of it working. But I don't think it is ideal, espescially not on a large scale.

When your work is your passion, your productivity goes up by hundreds of times. A programmer with a good idea is an example of this. 6 months of enormous effort and commitment to an idea can make you enough money for the rest of your life. Don't be tempted to think that getting rich quick is a neccesarily bad thing - the guy who invented Google initially deserves to be wealthy, for instance.

Apologies for the effect of me not finishing this piece completely: I've not gotten round to the balance so it probably sounds like I think all office-workers are scum. I don't mean to sound anti- the people who are doing the work, I'm just anti- the structure that makes the work necessary.

amber said...

perhaps acknowledging your middle class, 'developed' world position would also be useful. Huxley's ideas on technology and work (despite his'buddhist' influences) are quite obviously western specific...not too many citizens in developing countries have the kinds of technology we take for granted and the idea of working to eventually be independent/free labour ideology is never going to be a reality. working in a button factory is perhaps the only option. (so that we can buy nice clothes.)

Anonymous said...

Anyhow.....I read the other day that Huxley was an agnostic and not only that but invented the word so there that was a good days work wasn't it!

Sambo said...

GUYS who invented google.

Without some office jobs, you wouldn't have a blog to rant on.

clonar22 said...

I agonized for months about what I'd do
after college. It was impossible to bear the thought of the drudgery. After YEARS
of false starts I'm in a halfway decent situation. Far be it from me to give you advice. However, as a man 30 years your senior (not your Dad, don't turn away)this is the sum of my experience: the slots that are ready-made for you will be arduous. On the bright side, there are fulfilling alternatives. It will take time, as it's impossible for you to know who you are or what you really want. But it will happen. People only become permanently trapped if they go for the
money. PS Don't marry too young. Best
of luck to you.

david said...

nice reply rich. However you were wrong on the point where you assumed my office job does little to satisfy my ambition. My ambition is to be a Christlike husband, father, friend, brother... and working in my job provides me provision that helps me to accomplish that ambition.
Also, my work is not just 8-5 work, then go home to live. Work is part of life too and an opportunity to make friends and bear witness of the One who we really work for. Sounds very Christian and 'boring' but the workplace is a very real place to live and partake of the ambition that Christ wants to to achieve.

david said...

um, maybe you want to detail why you are anti the structure that makes the work necessary?

Jett Superior said...

This is quite a tidy bit of writing thus far.

My job is to work myself out of a job. It will never happen: Humanity will always have its large chunk of fuckups. One day, I will run screaming away, no longer able to balance the good versus the bad (i.e., Client-Kid feeling safe and happy around me X hours per week as compares to me, lying in bed at night being worried about Client-kid 2X hours per'll all boil down to the maths, I reckon).

Daniel B. McClelland said...

I've just spent three weeks intensively studying the writings of nineteenth century anarchists. Back then being an anarchist meant that you believed that socialists were aiming too low, and you wanted to completely re-root society, rather than rebuild on existing structures.

I really really like what you've written here Rich. This is writing at an equal level of observation as many of these famous 'revolutionaries.' They too started by identifying the problems of their cultures, but - after years of patronage from rich 'revolutionaries' - eventually proposed solutions too. I'd like you to use this Work in Progress to suggest some, because the stuff you've done so far is stellar. 'bout time we had another revolution anyhow.

Anonymous said...

interesting that the anarchists, and intellectual revolutionaries were generally bohemian aristocrats or well supported middle class kids. who were/are the demographic that really needed/need the revolution then/now? it's too easy to indulge our fantasies of free labour, self sufficiency and independence while forgetting that actually the ones who really suffer are the working class, disadvantaged groups below the poverty line and workers in developing countries - perhaps thinking about your critique of labour structures in relation to these other groups might shed some really revolutionary light on your musings.

Daniel B. McClelland said...

Ha. Good points Anonymous. But when a manifesto is published on the internet (or indeed, in writing in the nineteenth century), the people who Richard is calling to arms are hardly going to notice. I don't think that the people who are below the poverty lines are in the same scenario though, or even The Workers, because those classes know why they're working: to get money, to feed them. The Middle is probably who I see Richard talking about: the group who have enough to contemplate spending it.

Anonymous said...

oh so you're calling it a manifesto? those, too, were generally written by indulged and privileged middle class or aristocratic kids - whose existence is contingent on those who you so aptly put it know why they are working. they wouldn't be in such a miserable position if it wasn't for these 'contemplating' or rather exploitative middle classes who have the time to wonder why they should work. don't get me wrong, i think the neocapitalist idea of work is terrible, and being able to work out how to balance our ideas of work or even broaden our understandings of what work means. however i get concerned when middle class, comfortable people like myself and my friends start to wonder about the ideology of work or even (like another friend has) make statements that imply if you work you are somehow compromising your artistic/intellectual self. It's interesting that the writer of this so called 'manifesto' seems to point to self employment - an ideology of labour that has throughout the growth of capitalism in the west been closely aligned to masculinity ie working towards self reliance was/is a way of being a 'man'. thus his writing is also (even though he might not realise it) severely gendered as well as coming from a western, middle class perspective. Interestingly this perspective has been (one) of the main causes of racial, gendered and sexual discrimination historically:because as Dyer points out this has been for some time the main subjectivity through which history was written. And using eastern religion, as Huxley did, to vindicate ideas could be another version of Orientalism, or just a trite way of western culture to reinvigorate and reinvent itself. buddhism is so cool these days.

Anonymous said...

addit - being able to balance our ideas of work or even broaden our ideas of what work might be would be useful and is certainly prescient in the increasingly free market driven ideology pervading countries like Australia, the UK and the USA.

Sambo said...

Bartlett has BA syndrome.

jono said...

Chud, you should spend a year with an Amish family in Wisconsin. You would love it; office work would be a distant memory, and you could spend your mornings doing delicate wood carvings, afternoons operating a grocery shop that sells wild rice, and once a week you could travel to the nearest village by horse and cart to pay a visit to the bank. Time wastage would be minimised because there are no telephones or electricity-powered luxuries, and no one would criticise you for growing a beard!

Sambo said...

While you're at it. The rest of us could reject innovative progress and return to the colourless stone age.

Richard D. Bartlett said...

Sam, I don't know what you're talking about.

Jono, you're as precious to me as my guitar.

Dan, I appreciate your vigour, but please do not assert that I am calling anyone to arms. I do not want change but by individual effort.

Clonar, are you a robot? Your name appeals to the side of me that bought an LM358 dual channel operation amplifier yesterday for my ultrasonic rangefinder. Taking time sounds like good advice, insofar as it is advice that people your age don't tend to give people my age.

David, it seems, by your definition, that any stable job would satisfy your ambition. I'm looking for a job that satisfies my special genius, my calling, my passion. I do not want a strict boundary between work and leisure.

Mother Superior, you make my point better than I do. Working your special genius doesn't usually pay well. (...and thankyou for setting the precendent and allowing me to say the fuck word on my website.)

Amber, you have a pretty name. Beyond that, I have little interest in labels. Agnostic. Anarchist. Socialist. Middle class. Doesn't mean a lot to me. My father is a cobbler. Doesn't that make me working class? I have thought about those below the poverty line. Mohammad Yunus has proven that capitalism can save them. Interestingly, it is not super-sized cubicle-farm capitalsim that does the trick, but micro-loans funding self-employed women. And incidentally, I do believe that self-reliance is a good way to be a 'man', exactly like have a baby is a good way to be a 'woman'. I'm afraid I don't get you.

Anonymous said...

I really like David's attitude. He speaks from experience. It's very easy to develop all sorts of theories when you're young, and a student who doesn't need to work. But then you finish your degree and reality kicks in. I'd be interested to see how Richard thinks about all of this in 5 years' time, or 10 years'.

Above all, I don't think it matters what you do, as long as you do it with the right attitude. Everyday I see a guy who walks down the road sweeping and picking up rubbish. What a crap job. I'd rather chew my own foot off than have to do that. But he does it, every day, week in, week out. And he still has a smile for the pedestrians who walk by, and is still polite to people when he gets in their way.

Now I really respect that. He probably wishes he had a better job, make more money, use his special genius, not be bound by a 40 hour work-week imposed by his boss (local council). But in the meantime, he carries out a crappy, but important job. And does it well.

Attitude is the key.

Who knows what God has in store for you, Richard?

Just remember that whatever job you end up with, you're there for a purpose.

Whisky said...

I'm a bit hesitant to post on such a high quality thread, but... In the West it tends to be possible to opt out of "the system" (for want of a better term) if you really want it and, most importantly of all, are willing to take a risk. You can be a painter on the edge, following your muse, or you can be a lawyer or plumber. Your call. For me, that's the ticket that makes the West's system worthwhile: the option to live in security. Sure, some people have more of a safety net than others, and I am very aware that I am speaking from a comfortable middle-class background. But security is something that we tend to sneer at: what is the safe life over the life of risk and infinite reward, after all? Well, I'm sure the farmer in a developing country living picturesquely on the breadline waiting for the next drought or war, tilling his land by oxen, would rather choose stability and a quiet life that potters along without major events. The difference between him and the majority of us is that we have the option. I'd be reluctant to criticise people who take either choice, and reluctant also to criticise our system for giving (many of) us that choice.