Saturday, 28 December 2013

1914 and 2014

There is beginning to be a large amount of media attention given to the approaching centenary of the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. This led me over the Christmas holidays to re-read Vera Brittain’s memoir Testament of Youth where she recounts her experience as a volunteer nurse in that war, during which her fiancé, her beloved brother, and many of her friends were killed. One of the striking things in her account is how readily those men went to their fates. Indeed not just readily but happily, relishing their chance to serve. A hundred years ago, in Britain and many other places, it was self-evident that the verities of Church, Nation and Empire were immutable. Now that seems, to most of us, not just misguided and wrong, but silly and absurd – and deadly. It is hard, now, to see the First World War as anything but a pointless slaughter.

That’s not so surprising. In the past they thought their realities solid. Now we see that they were not. So what, then, of those things that we ourselves take as being solid reality? Isn’t one lesson of history to be sceptical about these? It may seem bathetic to shift from talking of war and death to talking about work organizations, but death is present in these, too, sometimes literally as I wrote about in my post on suicide. An excellent new book by Nancy Harding – On Being at Work – talks about how “organizations … murder the selves that might have been” (p.175), meaning that they seek to make us into “zombie-machines” who are less than human, negating our potentials. If that sounds bleak, then read Carl Cederström and Peter Fleming’s recent book Dead Man Working for a real New Year boost. What both of these books have in common is an understanding of the way that even – no, not even, especially – the kind of humanized, fun workplaces of modern capitalism suck the life out of us by demanding not just our labour but the commitment of our very selves. Something similar, though less nihilistically expressed, is present in the discussion in my book of the post-bureaucratic workplace.

What’s the link with 1914? It’s two-fold. Firstly, in both cases there is a willing embrace of the sacrificing our literal or metaphorical lives. In the workplaces described by Harding and by Cederström and Fleming the tragedy is not that we are forced to be zombies, it is that we accept and welcome it, just like Vera Brittain’s contemporaries accepted and welcomed their assigned fate. Secondly, this is orchestrated through a set of supposedly immutable verities – in the case of the contemporary workplace these might include ideas of the necessity of a ‘global competitive race’, of the implacable reality of ‘the market’, and that ‘change is the only constant’ and so on.
But if we can accept that the solid realities of the past were not what they seemed, then we must accept that the same applies to the solid realities of the present.  We do not need to wait for historians to pass judgment.

Happy New Year!

Friday, 6 December 2013

Happy birthday?

So this blog is just about exactly one year old, reflecting the fact that the third edition is also a year old. It is ‘fairly interesting’ to look at the site statistics. So far there have been 3367 visits (390 in the last month), although there is no way of telling whether this represents a small number of people looking at it several times, or a larger number of less frequent visitors.  The most viewed post is the one about Thatcher’s death and legacy. The top 10 country breakdown is:

United Kingdom
United States

But what is more surprising is to see occasional visitors from far flung places: this week, Aruba.

Anyway, there has been another birthday this week, namely my own 49th anniversary (or, as a colleague rather depressingly put it, I am now entering my 50th year). I am becoming more and more grumpy as I get older – in fact, I realise that somewhere along the line I have turned into my father. My current pet hate is people walking around looking at their mobiles, requiring others to jump out of the way to avoid a collision.

Another peeve is more directly related to the book where, on p.131, I talk about the free labour that customers perform when dialling up call centres through automated telephone systems, sometimes even paying for the privilege. Something very similar is becoming more and more common in shops, where increasingly the checkouts are self-service. Thus we scan our goods, bag them and pay without the need for a checkout operator. This is presented as an extension of choice, but the choice is limited by the fact that there are fewer and fewer staffed tills with longer and longer queues as a result.

Yesterday I was standing in one such queue, with most of the self-service tills unused, a sign in itself that, as a matter of choice, many people, not just me, prefer not to use them. My particular dislike is the way that the recorded voice barks aggressively at you – for example ‘foreign item in bagging area’ or ‘item not scanned’ or ‘return to bagging area’, the last of which I don’t even understand.  I half expect to hear it say, like a bossy schoolteacher, ‘you’re only letting yourself down’ or ‘I’m not angry, just disappointed’.
As we queued, a member of the shop staff kept reminding us that we could use these tills and, like all good English people, we pretended we could not hear, or that the message was for someone else. But after being told this two or three times I muttered ‘I hate those things’. It obviously came out louder than I had intended, because suddenly everyone in the queue started pitching in and complaining about the fact that they had staff standing around telling us to go self-service, whilst all but one of the manual tills was closed.

Of course it was not the fault of the staff – they were simply doing what they had been told to do. But the sad thing about that is that eventually, perhaps, we will all be duly accultured to serve ourselves and the expectation of being served by a human being will become, to use the term that has been applied to smoking, ‘de-normalised’. All the manned tills will disappear (and, with them, even the chimera of ‘choice’). And almost all of the staff will be out a job as we become their replacements, labouring unpaid, belaboured for our faults by the pitiless shouts of the automatic overseer. It depresses me to think that we will probably not even notice or, worse, will celebrate it as a new found freedom.
Or perhaps we will be found to be such unsatisfactory workers that the recorded voice will tire of us and announce that we, too, have been sacked. Or perhaps bagged. Or perhaps, even, ‘returned to the bagging area’ for re-programming.