The penetration of communication technology into work- and life-spaces calls for a new hedonic calculus based on relative levels of responsibility.
I worked for time at a university library. It was a job that I realize now was really quite perfect: I met interesting people and discovered thousands of interesting books. Each evening, after clocking out, I’d browse through the stacks, looking for something to take home. I was never disappointed. Indeed, I think I checked out about five hundred volumes the year I worked there.
I was a student worker, so the job wasn’t something I could make a career. My head was filled with visions of graduate school, the means, I thought, of vaulting into a higher tax bracket (though, I probably should have studied something more useful than English literature). As much as I loved my job, I knew I had to acquire more education so I could occupy a more professional position.
There was one student worker there who seemed to defy the logic under which I was operating — concerning salaries, careers and such. His name was John and, at the what I considered the advanced age of 38, was a career shelver. It wasn’t that he lacked education. He already had a degree, but each semester he would sign up for something like beginning pottery or the fundamentals of Mexican flute just so he could keep his job at the library. I thought he was crazy. Each day I’d see him come to work, happy and without a care in the world, and set about returning books to their rightful places on the shelves for eight hours, earning eight dollars for each and every one of those hours. I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t moving and shaking his way to a bourgeois’s jackpot of 40- or 50-thousand-dollar salary package, complete with 401K and dental insurance. It seemed perverse, absolute madness (because this was back in the glory days of the bubble when seemingly any nincompoop could pull down at least $70 grand).
I wasn’t the only one with this opinion of John. One day I overheard one of my colleagues ask him why he didn’t apply for a “real job.” “Why should I?,” he responded, “I’m perfectly happy. I have a place to live, everything I need to be comfortable, and, most importantly, I have my freedom.”
Upward mobility no longer signals increasing freedom, but enslavement.
At the time, I couldn’t quite understand what John meant by “freedom.” Earning under $30,000 a year at age 38 seemed like a death sentence to my twenty-something mind. But now, more than a few years later, I think I understand what John meant. Last night I watched Frontline’s Digital Nation (video), an exposé of how absolutely wired we’ve become as a society. I cringed as I saw Korean men lined up like bowling pins in front of computer screens, senseless to everything but the inane game they were playing. Images of dead-eyed Gen-Yers, twitching from too much Ritalin and too little frontal-lobe activity, glued to their Facebook sites filled me with stomach-burning bile. I smiled a bit at the World of Warcrafters who had found romance in their online world — there at least was a touch of the human amid the simulacra. But it was the bourgeois professionals attached to their Blackberries, planning meetings after dinner in Second Life, checking their email while on a hard-earned vacation to Mexico and networking while on a weekend family outings that made me want to blow my brains out across my futon.
Nowadays, that plum of a compensation package, with 401ks and free composite fillings, comes at a terrible cost. Upward mobility no longer signals increasing freedom, but enslavement. When you receive your hard-earned white collar (a bit dingy now, after the recession) and free Blackberry, you’re agreeing to a life of constant harassment, of thoughts never finished and moments devoid of meaning because they come second to work. Never again will you be able to step on a five-hour flight and just stare out the window contemplating a perspective so unprecedented in human history, so godlike it boggles the mind. No, the airframes are wired now, so you’ll have to check your email in case Big Boss decides you need to pull a report out of stale air sometime between gulping down peanuts and a ginger ale and landing. And vacation? Forget about getting away from it all — those two weeks of vacation could cost you your job, so you’ve got to “keep in touch” lest you find your position has been outsourced to Bangladesh because, well, the downtrodden denizens of the developing world aren’t so uppity to demand things like two weeks of peace a year.
And it seems like people are starting to catch on — at least as far as other reaches of the net are concerned. USA Today reported last week that some souls have decided to jump the social-networking ship. Sites that specialize in erasing one’s online persona are growing in popularity:”That desire to unplug has made an unexpected success out of websites such as Web 2.0 Suicide Machine and Seppukoo (a play on the Japanese word for “suicide”), free sites that automate and turbocharge the otherwise laborious manual process of scrapping your online self.”
While I’m not one for social networking, I can understand the impulse to unplug from all those sites demanding constant updates and feedback. More than that, however, I understand the impulse to make yourself totally unavailable at times. Because I now realize John was a sage. He glimpsed the future. Keep it simple, stick to a simple job, and you’ll be able to go home at night and be alone with your thoughts. No one needs to hold an emergency meeting with a waitress or postal clerk after the office has closed. A janitor doesn’t need to brown-nose via Facebook while camping with his kids. That guy at the DMV who takes your (always unflattering) driver’s license photograph never worries about all those urgent emails flooding his work inbox. No, in those jobs you put in your eight hours of hard, shitty work and then you leave it.
I dream of how I can erase the degrees off my résumé and perhaps slip into a position that garners little notice and little hassle.
I really wanted to become a white-collar professional (honest!), and I do like to work hard like any red-blooded American, but the technological developments of the past few years have got me doing a complete 180. Now instead of dreaming of being a college professor (young Gen-Yers never know when to stop with the illiterate emails, and their being the new student-consumers and all, you can’t just hit “delete” when you’ve had enough of their blarney) or head honcho at some big business or another, I dream of how I can erase the degrees off my résumé and perhaps slip into a position that garners little notice and little hassle. I’ve dropped my dream of making the big bucks and am now figuring out how I can earn my freedom during the hours I’m not at work. In my more disheartened moments, I’ve visions of opening a little shop on the side of the interstate, selling Mexican pottery, Austrian pastries and homemade soap and never answering another email or cell phone call again.
Obviously I see the merits of certain technological innovations. I’m a blogger, after all. But it’s an uneasy relationship. Sometimes it takes me days to check my personal email or voicemail because, well, the act fills me with a strange anxiety. I’m still not used to it, despite having had the internet in my home since I was fourteen years old (I have fond memories of AOL 1.0 and The Cure chatroom). But I can deal with those things, and sometimes even enjoy them. A Blackberry, or iPhone, on the other hand, would kill me only because I know they are vehicles for constant harassment — there’s no excuse for not answering your email when everyone knows you have an iPhone. So I’m now determined to make under $30,000 a year, which shouldn’t be a problem in light of the fact that the current recession is gutting the middle class. With my luck, however, $30,000 a year will become the marginal tax bracket, bringing with it all kinds of stress and responsibilities, and like Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III, I’ll say, “Just when I thought I was out … they pull me back in!”
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