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Thursday, February 1, 2007

Self Image vs. Work

It kills me to say this, because I frequently experience frustration there, but I have a cool job. Unfortunately, because of my confidentiality agreement, I’m afraid I can’t really talk about it. The _____ products we make have been important tools in _____ so far, but after considerable development and refinement of our _____, we are making inroads into the ____ industry. What this means is that our products may one day be the essential _____ of _____ that may potentially improve or save the _____ of countless ______. Additionally, I get to work with some admirable people who are exceptionally detail orientated, reliable, good at what they do, and who take pride in their work. Some of them are even funny.

The irony about these truths is that what starts out as inspired creativity – consorting with muses - the unraveling of a mystery – becomes, in its transformation to a means of mass production, a rigid and repetitive system that is intolerant of change or variation. It is easy to see that any variations in production will likely result in variations in the final product. This variation is very bad in products that are carefully optimized to meet specific requirements. Rigid control is necessarily introduced with an eye toward achieving perfection. Perfection is difficult. Robust routines for measuring the fitness of product filter out variation when it creeps in.

I guess the frustration part is that, ideally, I’d like to be Beethoven, but given my propensity toward imperfection, I feel more like some desperate mustachioed man in a circus costume grinding an organ on the corner. Part of my act includes a trained monkey which is really the part that gets the tips, because frankly, nobody likes the music all that much. But all the time I turn the crank on the organ I keep thinking about those Beethoven symphonies and remembering the beauty of them and how it makes me feel.

Using the terminology of psychoanalysis incorrectly, the organ grinder metaphor should be understood as the internal dialogue between the Id and the Superego, and not as a relational schematic between me and my co-workers – that is, I’m picturing the organ grinder and monkey as a single unit and contemplating how controlling one’s monkey is kind of like growing up (or dying).

Taking responsibility for work brings with it a certain pressure. Here we can see Harlem, the director of _______ dealing with the pressures and constraints of particular equipment, which, depending on maintenance issues and the laws of physics, will sometimes dictate what can and cannot be done within a given timeframe despite what may have been promised to our _______. Incidentally, Harlem has a second identity as an Ubuntu-flavored-Linux evangelist/podcaster. Last time I checked, you could find his blog at From the blog you can find links to his podcast. Harlem’s efforts at building a sense of community among people who are switching to an alternative operating system provided the impetus for me to launch The Narrative Image.

One of the cool things about my job is learning to see with the eyes of a scientist. Essentially we take our tools and use them to extend the reach of our physical bodies. We look beyond the visible spectrum and see shadows and reflections cast in the extremes of infrared and ultraviolet. We weigh things lighter than a breath. We string together molecules like chains of paperclips. We supplement our memories with stacks of notebooks. We model small bits of the world within computer spreadsheets, and are willing to gamble on the truth of the resulting predictions. In our efforts to control a manufacturing process, we gain insight into how the universe works.

In this image an unsuspecting technician is secretly being audited by a Quality Assurance representative who is making good use of our new ‘chameleon-suit’ technology.

The hard thing about work, probably any work, is that it shows you your own image as judged in the mirror of free enterprise and capitalism. It’s the place you go to be constantly reminded of how much you’re worth at every pay period. It’s a place where individual desires and an illusion of self-importance are measured in the real world with economical tools. Common aspirations to be unique and valuable and secure often end up in opposition to the concerns of managers who desire workers to be completely interchangeable, easily replaceable, preferably docile and with extrasensory communication skills.

In America, where many of us enjoy a standard of living that is unimaginable to much of the rest of the world, and where much lip service is paid to the importance of individual rights, it is easy to forget that work has always been about survival. In the old days, if you and your colleagues weren’t quite clever enough to kill the mammoth, you died.

For now, I’d like to view the enterprise of work with optimism. I’d like to keep my eye on the horizon looking for the next big mammoth (though not overlooking those curious plants that are often so tasty) and figure out how to communicate with my co-workers (using those complex verbal noises and visual gestures hominids are so famous for) so that none of us get gored. There is much evolving to do.

Because of confidentiality concerns, much of this post has been censored so as not to reveal proprietary information. You may however try to reconstruct the complete text by using the following helpful list of words. (I will neither be able to confirm or deny the accuracy of the resulting manuscripts):

Astrolube (trademark)
Quality system
String theory

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