Wednesday, June 6, 2012

All Work Is All Play

Popping prefab cartons into shape for the assembly line gets tiresome fast, so to shake off boredom, I ramp up my pace, get several places ahead, then jump back and grab more flattened cartons to refill my work station. Normally, this is somebody else’s job. Packing techs, line runners, or anyone passing should replenish our cartons; but their presence is unpredictable. I’d rather take on the challenge of stocking the station myself.

After I do this several times, replenishing cartons, crushing packing boxes, and generally doing two mens’ jobs, Cindy at the next station looks up. “Kevin, are you testing yourself again?”

I pause for a moment. “Yes.”

Cindy has seen me do this before. I’ll do more than my job description requires, sometimes pushing myself to the limits of my strength, just to see if I can do it. I have sometimes attempted more than I can do. I have wrenched myself at times. But I keep doing it, because only doing the minimum is boring. Doing more than required doesn’t just keep me engaged through long midnight shifts; it gives me something for my job to be about.

Psychology has demonstrated that humans derive meaning from complexity. It’s the reason many people see a starry sky as evidence of a benign creator. It’s also the reason why difficult jobs feels more rewarding than simple jobs. I’ve seen many line workers complain about how tedious factory work is, then find ways to do the absolute minimum. Those people tend not to last.

Biohacker Meredith Patterson
Jack Hitt writes about the play principle, the idea that we do more and better work when it feels fun, than when we do it for pay. This idea of intrinsic motivation, getting our momentum to work inside ourselves rather than from an outside authority, has support going back a long way. Writers like Paul Lockhart and Richard Lanham advocate for a return of play to education, but their core arguments apply to the workplace as well.

In perhaps his most engaging passage, Hitt describes sitting for ten hours in a jury-rigged laboratory in a San Francisco apartment with amateur geneticist Meredith Patterson, experimenting with ways to use the transformer from a neon sign to attach a bioluminescent gene to live yogurt cultures. You read that right. But if you think it resembles the tedious “experiments” you ran in high school biology class, you’re wrong

Importantly, Hitt makes gene hacking sound fun. If the tech slaves in America’s biotech firms enjoyed their jobs as much as Patterson does, imagine how much further along science would be today. Imagine lab-grown organs for transplant, inexpensive vaccines for common diseases, or affordable biofuels. But because industrial organization reduces our smartest minds to the level of service station grease monkeys, such progress hasn’t happened yet.

The industrial model now ascendant in America was devised over a century ago, by a machinist and Harvard dropout named Frederick Winslow Taylor. His system was dubbed scientific management, though empirical science had little to do with it. Taylor believed that control should rest entirely in the hands of credentialed managers, not artisanal workers. Labor should remain entirely in the dark about the work they do; they are simple machines.

Frederick Winslow Taylor
Reading Taylor’s words now, with his overt disdain for labor and almost magical belief in the goodness of management, looks stunningly naive, especially after managers almost tanked the economy in 2008. But we cannot deny his system has produced some benefits. Standardizing industrial products ensures that any screw I buy will fit the same size screw hole. And the computer I wrote this on would not exist without industrial standards.

But we also know, if we’ve done industrial work, that the marginal cost has been great. Because machines are expensive, scientific management has created an unbridgeable gap between labor and management. And it has created generations of workers who have no investment in the job they do, because the job is dull, repetitive, and bland.

My managers love to tell us line workers how vital we are to the company’s economic viability, yet I have to find ways to make meaning in my work. Political economists like David Brooks and (yeah, I’ll say it) Mitt Romney claim that if we aren’t rich, it’s our own fault, yet my peers are refused any stake. I believe our industrial masters would see a flush of wealth, for themselves and the nation, if they could restore a sense of complexity and play to the work we do for pay.

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