Long Hours and Wasted Time

Long HoursBack in 2000, I worked long hours for a company named Equilibrium. They were known for a product that was very popular among professional graphic artists, DeBabelizer. It converted graphic files from one format to another. But I was hired when the company was on a big expansion, creating a product that they still sell, MediaRich. At the time, it was pretty cool, but now sounds almost trivial. It allows websites to change images on the fly. So if you are looking at a page selling shirts, you could see the model in all the different colors the shirt comes in. And it could do a whole lot more than that.

I liked that job. It paid well and I worked with some really great people. But I remember this one meeting. We had been working long hours because we were getting ready for some kind of product launch and one of the vice-presidents said, “We work hard and we play hard!” I thought it was a stupid thing to say because I had heard the exact same thing said at every corporate job I’d ever had, including at Microsoft. And it was always said with the same cheerful enthusiasm that indicated that the speaker thought it was a clever phrase they had just made up rather than the most tired of cliches.

Long Hours Goofing Off

Over time, I’ve come to see that it was not just a cliche, it was also a lie. In fact, it is a double lie. My time in corporate America has shown that mostly, people do not work hard. They work long. It’s a way of proving fealty to the corporation, “Look, I’m willing to spend 12 hours a day in this cubical and rarely see my wife and kids! I’m a team player!” Meanwhile, these same people mostly goof off. I even see it here on Frankly Curious. I had asked my direct boss why it was that traffic here goes down so much on the weekends; she said, “It’s the same for every site; people surf the web most at work.”

But the other part of this myth is the “play hard” part. I don’t even know what it is to “play hard.” But these people certainly didn’t do it. They didn’t play at all. It would be better to say that they “worked long and goofed off hard.”

Similarly, my last job was a tiny startup. We did amazing work until we ran out of money and the company was taken over by a bunch of real estate investors who destroyed it through utter incompetence. But the head of the company was in every day, putting in those hours. But what was he doing? Every time I looked, he was on some website about sail boats (he was really into boats). It’s pretty typical, though. So the idea that everyone is working hard is just nonsense.

At that point at that company, I wasn’t working either. I was terribly sick (I almost died). But more, everything I had built the two years before was being destroyed in the name of the egos of a real estate agent and a boat mechanic. When I was at Equilibrium, however, I wanted to work and go home. I did not like this nonsense of hanging out at work. But then, I was about ten years older than the other workers and was far more interested in finishing my first novel. And it annoyed me that I was expected to work long hours as though it were some kind of religious observance.

But the other part of this myth is the “play hard” part. I don’t even know what it is to “play hard.” But these people certainly didn’t do it. They didn’t play at all. It would be better to say that they “worked long and goofed off hard.” Because just killing time in a way that doesn’t seem like you are goofing off is a large part of what the people at Equilibrium did.

This occurred to me today as I was reading Thomas Frank’s new book, Listen, Liberal. A lot of the book is a critique of the “innovation mentality.” You know what it is: this idea that if we all get college degrees and think like entrepreneurs, then we will live in a bright shiny world. He talks about how every town goes out of its way to bring in those great “innovators” who will revitalize the boarded up downtown regions where people only go if they want to by sex or drugs. Frank remarked:

I toured innovation center after innovation center, each one featuring brightly colored furniture, open workspaces, inspiring quotations about inventiveness, ping-pong tables, and Guitar Hero sets and other instruments of break-time levity (not one of which I ever saw actually being used)…

I remember at Equilibrium, we had a great big break room. And in it was a very expensive Foosball table. I never saw anyone play it. In fact, in all those long hours I never saw anyone in the break room (which I passed by often), except on Thursday mornings, when they would bring in bagels, and people would come in, get a bagel and cream cheese and take it back to their desks where they would eat and “work.”

This all goes back to the breakdown of worker solidarity. And here we have a variation of the paradox of thrift. Everyone wants to prove to the boss that they are the hardest worker. But there isn’t really that much work to be done. There were certainly times when long hours were required, but these were rare. And they were always because of sequencing: I needed to wait around for one person to finish something so that I could do my part. But the rest of the long hours is just one individual trying to outdo another individual. The end result, is that everyone ends up spending a whole lot more time at work, without any more getting done.

“Work hard, play hard” is a myth people use to justify wasting large parts of their lives.

Morning Music: Helter Stupid

Helter StupidYesterday, I featured Negativland’s song “Christianity Is Stupid.” And I discussed how the song was used as the basis for a fake press release that claimed that the song had inspired David Brom to kill his family. The fact that so much of the media fell for the fake story seems to have delighted the band. Well, it’s hard to tell. Maybe they were outraged. Regardless, it inspired them. The first side of their next album, Helter Stupid, is dedicated to it.

There was always a little of The Firesign Theatre in Negativland’s work, and it really comes to the fore here. The following album side is composed of two songs. First is “Prologue.” This is made up mostly of a story that KPIX did on the fake story. And then we move directly into “Helter Stupid.” The basis of it is, I think, a sped up sample from Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby.” On top of it is an amazing sound collage with bits from the original song, more of minister Estus Pirkle, Charles Manson, and lots of media reporting on the fake story. And then there is lots of laughing.

We also get a commercial for “Al’s House of Meat (on the sirloin strip).” Then the people in the studio notice when they rewind it has evil messages. For example, “This child, is a child of evil.” And, “Last night he murdered his parents; tonight his target is his aunt and uncle.” Finally, they have some fun with the trailer of Death Wish II. You don’t have to be analytical to figure out what they are saying.

When I was a teen, this idea that rock songs had evil things recorded backwards on them was very big. As I recall, “Stairway to Heaven” had “Sweet Savior Satan” or something. But even when I was young, the idea that people would somehow pick up on something said backwards was ridiculous. But isn’t it just like Americans to look for something so fantastical to explain our violent culture when Death Wish II is given an MPAA rating of R mostly because of the sex?

Anyway, this is 22 minutes of brilliance. Really, listen to this. It is probably the greatest thing that Negativland ever did. (This is the whole album. The rest of it is interesting and funny, but not as great.)

Anniversary Post: Botany Bay

Welcome to Botany Bay! Now go home!On this day in 1770, James Cook first landed in Australia in a place he will call Botany Bay. It was there that he first met with the aboriginal tribe, Gweagal. I think that must have been interesting. It is like us looking into the sky every day and mostly seeing nothing — perhaps a small airplane in the distance. And one day a huge spacecraft shows up filled with people we did not previously know about. It is not surprising that the Gweagal were intrigued but shy toward the strangers.

These kinds of interactions between civilizations are fascinating to me. They show the lie of the libertarian utopia. As you may have noticed, Botany Bay is not under the control of the Gweagal. But when Cook showed up, it was their land. In fact, archaeological digs indicate that settlements date back 5,000 years. Meetings between stronger groups and weakers groups tend to go the same. Things often start out nice enough with trading. But after a while, the stronger group decides that they would like what the weaker group has. And regardless of how the stronger group justifies it, in the end it comes down to the fact that they take it.

This is so ingrained in people, that the great defender of individual rights herself, Ayn Rand, could not see that her own philosophy ultimately degenerated into: might makes right. Matt Bruenig has dealt with the subject from a philosophical standpoint, Non-Aggression Never Does Any Argumentative Work at Any Time. But the truth is that not even the libertarians who claim to follow the non-aggression principle even stick by it. And it doesn’t make sense, anyway. Would it have been all right for the first human to think of it to say, “I own all property.” And then no one could do anything because that would be interfering with his “rights”?

In a perfect world, we would have a just way of divvying up resources. But in the real world, we have no such method. So we stick with what we’ve always done: might makes right. And that is why bad things happen when civilizations collide. That’s not to say that “might makes right” isn’t also what’s happening in downtown San Francisco, but it isn’t as big an issue.

Happy anniversary for the “discovery” of Botany Bay!