Saturday, August 4, 2012

A Blessing, If an Odd One

Work is an odd blessing—if also, for the vast majority, a necessity. Having work is a kind of minimum. Having the right kind of work is the best of goods. Being allowed to carry it on is the highest earthly blessing. One of the curses of modernity is that work is deformed, defaced, and destroyed by its forced subdivision on the one hand and by deadlines on the other. I was reminded of this reading, this morning, that the algorithmic trading glitches that now threaten to destroy Knight Capital were due to a deadline imposed on Knight’s programmers. They had to let go of the program before it was fully tested. I know what they were up against. I expect that most people will find this odd, but computer programming is an all-demanding activity: intellect, intuition, emotions, smell, taste, touch are all involved—and you just know when you are—and when you are not yet—finished.

Never having time enough to do the job right! When I joined Midwest Research Institute, the first thing I saw during my initial interview was a sign hung up in my future’s boss’s office: “Don’t get it right, get it written.” At my own company, Editorial Code and Data, time and time again, having accomplished what seemed impossible—and having delivered it on time—in the aftermath of delivery we used to muse and say. “Well, now we know how to do this job right—if we ever had a chance to do it again.” But we rarely ever did. Most new jobs required a mass of inventions and discoveries—accomplished against deadlines.

Paradox. In an another world, where work will not be needed—and hence will not be suffocated by greed and by anxiety—it will be possible to do work as it must be done. Paradox. The greatest economic miracle in human history has been accomplished by draining work of its meaning.

Well, fight, fight, fight. It takes a great deal of extra effort to resist this tendency and do jobs the way they are supposed to be done. It always means getting less for the work than it deserves. The work-arounds have produced the insanities of the assembly line and ridiculous specialization. A final paradox: all this automation and efficiency has produced a situation where fewer and fewer people are needed, and hence the minimum needed by people, to have any work at all, never mind the proper kind, is itself under attack.


  1. Oh, what a wonderful post. This could be the introduction to the book we have long envisioned and never been able to sell, Jobs USA. Perhaps it is time to revive that idea and try hawking it again...

    1. Maybe it is time for that title. But we'd better hurry -- before all jobs disappear..


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