Tag Archives: culture

On how our culture is a cotton gin

The cotton gin was a wonderful device for its time. It mechanized an approximation of human movements, dozens or hundreds of steel fingers ripping away at the cotton the way the cotton seeds had used to rip at the fingers of workers. So close to the actual, its method was only obvious to one man (or a few, maybe; I haven’t done the research and ideas tend to appear in isolated in space but clustered in time), but once he had developed the machine it was easy to replicate, unhindered by a requirement for a particular type of power or any other obvious limitation. Human-powered crank, windmill, watermill, or electricity, it did its job just as it was supposed to, ripping and shredding and providing a small relief from human toil.

When I was younger, in college when all these different ideas buzzed through the air, I championed efficiency, which is the primary mark of why the gin was so successful. Nobody would have much cared if the contraption had only save human tears; the important thing was that it saved human hours. And I, with the few hours of computer science I had taken and my love of video gaming latching me on to the internet revolution, agreed wholeheartedly that efficiency stood chief among our modern virtues: If a social or technological improvement costs someone their job, so be it! That’s the price we pay for our advancement. But, of course, thoughts of this kind can only last until the actual price is met, in this instance until I had or was trying to hold or was even trying to get a job. But, to be fair to myself, the fallacy of my enthusiasm existed and was seen before the final moment.

We have not, at this point in our history, found a more efficient means of facilitating the dreams of the ambitious intelligent youth aside from collecting them together in one place by means of separating them from their home. The metaphor is simple: the ambitious are the seeds and the rest are the cotton, and society separates us with the strong steel fingers of immobile college campuses. As early as seventeen, we’ve already left our parents and our friends in pursuit of success, left behind the plant that fostered us because there is no other choice aside from stagnation and, ultimately, the despair of not fulfilling our potential.

So knit-pick my metaphor: why are the young ambitious the seeds? Why not the cotton? This is a first draft, so there’s no real structural argument to make aside from my instincts, but I’ll tell you this: you only have to be young and ambitious for a moment past college (perhaps for a moment into your junior year, perhaps not even that long), struggling to make a mark and a difference in the world you see, to realize that the world doesn’t care about your struggle. Only the plant that left you cares, and you’ve left them as far behind as you could—in a different town, city, state, country—the only remaining vestige sometimes is a trickling pipeline of money here and there, but their support isn’t a job, isn’t what you need to get by, and no other community has any incentive to build much concern for you. In fact, more often than not they’ll cast you aside, confused at what you want to accomplish by being something other than white and fluffy and immediately employable.

The rest who stayed home are therefore the cotton because as the young ambitious youth is casting about trying to find a place to take root, the others are immediately recognized for their worth and immediately sold for wages. But there’s the argument that the seed will grow cotton itself and will therefore be worth more one day than the others, but what good is that to the seed, especially before it’s even found a niche in which to grow? And what if it never finds a niche? Not all seeds ultimately grow into plants. What good are promises for future prosperity then, to an unfulfilled seed who ended up on only rocky soil and then washed away, never to recover?

My argument here is not that seeds are better than cotton but that the gin-aspect of our society that rips the cotton and the seeds apart is damaging, specifically to the seed. To be young and ambitious is to be alone, forcefully and willfully—that’s the most hideous part—alone while the youth tries his hardest to succeed even when there’s no guarantee of success (especially in the places our American culture puts the young and ambitious: New York, D.C., and Los Angeles, other major cities notwithstanding). My argument is therefore to suggest that we find a way to allow the young and ambitious to stay within the comfort of home and tribe and therefore to have some measure of happiness, for I can guarantee you this from my vantage point: the sadness comprises every reason to quit; it does not contribute (as our cultural assumption would suggest) a single reason to continue.

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An essay on disquiet

I’ve received some excellent submissions for guest posts this past week from several authors. However, the time crunch from the New York trip barred me from properly editing any of them for use tonight. Look for a post from @DMSolis next week and perhaps Mani Afsari after that. (all others TBA)

In the meantime, here’s a response to those who say that they can’t focus on reading a book these days. Submit your writing to this week’s Theme Thursday (the pitch is nice and easy this week!), and contact me if you’re interested in writing for NQOKD! On with the show!

**

Obvious errors exist in popular thought. The problem with general opinion therefore is not that errors are hard to spot but rather that they are hard to fix. The reasons an observer wouldn’t see the flaws are obvious: either the person is not looking, or the person is caught in the illusion of perspective. However, the internet amplifies the multifaceted voices of complaint in our society by providing easily accessible communities; errors are seen and noted. The reasons a person doesn’t fix the flaws (beyond simply not seeing them) are also obvious: enmeshed as an observer is in the populace, the effort to affect popular opinion is either cloaked by the myriad other flaws or seems sisyphean, impossible and hellish.

My Google reader (which I love) often asks me, “Where do Arianna Huffington and Thomas Friedman go to get different perspectives on the news?” But if you follow that rabbit hole, you will quickly discover that the difference between you and Thomas Friedman is not the information at your disposal but what is done with the information that exists. If any disparity in material exists at all, chock it up to experience, which can only be an accidental difference, remedied by effort and fortune.

The difference between genius and banality is not new with our electronic age. The only newness is the democratization of education, which impacts the ability of genius to make itself known, not the existence of genius itself. That is, education does not make a genius, but a genius does with education what others do not; a genius does something novel with the information at his disposal. The happy happenstance of his education is just as accidental as Euripides and Homer imply war is to the brave or as I’ve said trial is to the lover.

The definition of brilliance applies when discussing an article @namenick linked the other day that discusses an author finding reading more difficult as he ages. The first half reads like a Bing.com commercial, discussing how our hyperconnected culture has drawn and quartered our attention spans, the second half like an English major’s journal who has bumped up against philosophy by the mere chance of his course of study rather than steeped himself in its purging scald.

Objects of mystic adoration across cultures and history all share an ability to focus. Meditation is as central to Christianity as to Buddhism, tied necessarily to all forms of prayer across primitive and advanced religions. Heroes of the Chinese tradition share their remembered aura of stillness with the monks of the West, and the diverse pool of flawed folk heroes from Monkey to Agamemnon and even as far back as Gilgamesh share an inability to reach stasis, to stay still even for a moment.

I, for one, share this inability. I remember distinctly as a sophomore in high school cursing my brain for moving as quickly as it did along connections only sensible to me, for never shutting up even for a moment. I remember loud music and screamed lyrics drowning out finicky thoughts and rumors and wonder. I remember many addled nights where my disquiet hindered oncoming sleep, nights I apologized to various lovers because I just had to get out of bed and write down what was on my mind. I remember nights before I kept a journal where I just lay in bed and stared at the dark ceiling, attempting to will my mind into stillness; I also remember failing at many, most, or even all confrontations.

But the community with which I share this trait keeps me company on the seemingly lonely and interminable road: humanity in general suffers a deep and resounding disquiet. The phenomenon itself may even be pandemonium, but more often than not the noise is as null as good or evil, as gray as white or black. The strength of discovering it lies not in assigning it any value but in recognizing its universality.

Popular opinion would have us blame an external force for the disquiet in our minds, but educated readers should notice that generation after generation toils under the same mental noise. Technology does not tempt us further into disquiet than we would naturally go but rather empowers several methods of engaging in noisiness that would not exist otherwise. Humans found means of distracting themselves before technology, and even with it, many of the age-old tricks to manufacture distractions exist. To take a lesson from several sources, we must turn inward and silence ourselves to find peace rather than impose quietude on others hoping to one day silence all the world; we must because one of these paths is attainable, but the other is not.

Reading, however, does not require a mystic silence. While Proust searches for lost time, his reader dreams along through a lifetime of adulterated memories, watching lesbians fondle each other through an open window or hanging on the edge of a suspended love. While I could make some quip about how you quote an author quoting an author talking about dreams and how far distanced from reality your reader is by the time all those disconnects are added together, I will merely say that the inclusiveness of the writing experience heightens the entertainment value of reading and obscures exactly that which one is meant to learn from the narrative.

Reading only requires that during our endless hours of sedentary time we pick up a book rather than any type of computer, or maybe even open an ebook rather than a web browser. We make choices about how to spend our time, and surprise surprise, we tend to focus on entertainment rather than sustenance. So the next time you, Mr. Ulin, sit down to read, ask yourself about your priorities. If you fail to pick up a book, ask yourself whether engagement is as high on your list as entertainment, realize that it is not, and keep your grumbling to yourself that you’re not who you wish you were.

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Author: Greg Freed

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Filed under Criticism, Humanistic, Philosophy/Theology

A Societal Yearning: Masculine friendship and community

Your first reaction, depending on who you are, may be feminist outrage. I urge you to recognize your disagreement, put it away, and then take a deeper look. That said, Amos gets even the introductory exposition to this blog post. Take it away, Amos:

I’ve spent a good deal of time in the last four years considering the value of, and the fragility of, simple male friendship.

I say “simple” friendship because family and partners can maintain a separate and vital status in a person’s life. We’re stuck with the family we’re born into or bear; and divorce, while easy, is not as easy as it could be.

I say “male” friendship because it seems to me that women are, in ways, built more readily for deep bonding with their peers. My sense is that it’s more of an inherent thing, something genetic, but as always with the nature versus nurture question, the answer ends up being “well, some of both.” I haven’t lived as both a man and a woman though, so I can’t be sure. The general roles that evolution has put men and women into (which can be broken or tweaked just fine by a careful society, when needed) lean men at least slightly away from the deep bonding that women seem wired for through.

Male relationships often seem to drift toward (and prefer proximity to) superficiality, fun, and beer. Special people can be special exceptions, but beyond small grace periods, those precepts are broken at the masculine peril of expendability. And stray from the precepts knowing that, in order to call attention to your rule breaking and rescue the friendship, many men would have to become rule breakers too.

And that, rarely, are they willing to do.

Primal hunting and the life-or-death dependence of the military are some things that seem to break this tendency. They seem to tie men together on a deep and emotional level forbidden by our time-constrained lifestyles that offer a million fun replacements for things that displease. What more naturally binds women together seems to more readily remain in the lives we’ve all fallen into.

I always think of the scene in Moby Dick in which one attack of many is mounted on a pod of whales. The males flee individually while the females huddle together, standing by each other even though it may be the germ of their destruction.

I also think of the following passage from “Letters to a Young Poet,” a collection of correspondence doled out by the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke.

Women, in whom life lingers and dwells more immediately, more fruitfully, and more confidently, must surely have become riper and more human in their depths than light, easygoing man, who is not pulled down beneath the surface of life by the weight of any bodily fruit and who, arrogant and hasty, undervalues what he thinks he loves. This humanity of woman, carried in her womb through all her suffering and humiliation, will come to light when she has stripped off the conventions of mere femaleness in the transformations of her outward status, and those men who do not yet feel it approaching will be astonished by it.

In our everyday American world, bonds with other human beings seem less vital than they might have been at other times, or might be in other places. It’s not generally close bonds with other people that support us, not the fidelity of a tightly-knit community that bails us out when we face a difficult or even dangerous situation. Instead, the money we earn supports and bails. It gives us our food, our shelter, our health care, our transportation, and our entertainment.

In that way, the jobs we hold come to be our most vital companion in life. In that way, the jobs we hold become the important starter for almost any conversation with someone we’re just meeting: “So… what do you do?”

How can simple male friendship compete with this?

Recently, when using Facebook to ponder the significance of my name, a friend replied to me. I was considering how my first name means “Burdened” in Hebrew, and how my last name means “Gamekeeper of a Park” in English. The friend told me that I was wrong in my definitions. He said that Amos Parker actually means “He Who Overanalyzes.”

In pondering the nature of male friendships and overanalysis, I feel as I often do: underanalysis is overrated. Searching for the wellspring of existential loneliness is a worthwhile pastime.

**

“Hey Devon,” I said. “Good to see you.”

I shook his hand once he’d closed the door.

“Good day at work?” I asked.

“Busy,” Devon said.

“Yeah?”

“Cancer center’s a great place to work. Life causes cancer.  I don’t think I’ll be fired anytime soon.”

I nodded, smiling like a cynic.

“Care for a beer?”

Devon brightened. I already had mine open.

“Hell yeah. Choices?”

“Check the fridge,” I said.

Devon nodded, going to the mini-fridge in the basement where the beer could stay cold without taking up prime real estate.

“What do you feel like doing tonight?” I asked as Devon popped the top and took a swig. He swished it around in his mouth, wondering if he should’ve taken a seasonal brew. He swallowed.

“Oh, I’m ok with anything.”

“You sure?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“We can do anything. We can play a videogame, a long board game, a short board game, sit and chat, watch a movie….”

“Anything’s fine, really, just so I can relax. We’re friends. It’s all good.”

“You really don’t care?” I asked.

“No,” Devon said. “It’s up to you.”

“Ok. Well… how about War of the Ring?”

“Oh… yeah…” Devon replied, his facial features twitching like an old building in a strong wind. “I guess. We… might have time, and… I think I remember the rules.”

“Let’s go then,” I said. “Women like to talk about things and men like to do things.”

Devon managed a smile and raised his beer to me. I made a show of ignoring him and clanking mine up against the toaster.

“What are we going to do?”

The man stood outside the house, shivering. His wife’s teeth had chattered as she’d spoken. The man looked at the boards that covered the walls. He didn’t know when he might get another job. Winter was coming, and he worried there’d be no money to keep his family warm.

“I’m looking every day,” the man said. “I’ll find something. I’ll find work.”

His wife shivered. The man put his arm around her.

“We have… enough food in the basement… from the garden…” she said. “But we can’t burn the food. How are we going to keep from freezing this winter?”

The man blew hot breath on his free hand. His wife took the hand from him and tried to warm it herself.

“I’ll think of something,” he replied. “Don’t worry your pretty little head.”

“Hey Devon,” I said. “Can you do me a favor?”

“Sure buddy. What’s up?”

“Great,” I replied, relieved. “You know I’ve got too many board games, right?”

He nodded, half smiling.

“You’ve got a lot of space at your place, right?”

He nodded.

“Can you help me store some of them?”

“Sure!” he said. “I love board games. You know that.”

I smiled and continued. I felt like justifying myself: “I’ve told you why I have so many, right? It’s all I can do to tread water with my job. I don’t feel like I’m gonna mean anything to anyone with work. Sometimes I’m worried I’m gonna die a mediocre failure.”

I trailed off, smiling like I was joking. Devon was silent, waiting.

“Someday I wanna be able to use them to give something back. They bring people together, or they can. You’ve seen that with the guys, right? They’re nothing like what everyone thinks about when they hear the term board games.”

Devon nodded.

“Someday I want to create a big program, maybe with the library. It’ll be something fun, something that gets people out of the house, away from the TV so they can do something together. It could be a major town thing. I just don’t know how to do it yet, how to pull it off.”

“Sounds great,” Devon replied. “You’ll make it happen.”

“My girlfriend may not be comfortable with the money I’ve spent on them,” I continued. “That’s one of the problems. I have to keep trying though, somehow.

I have to feel like I’m working for something, to have some kind of life raft. And, with the cancer she’s been through, it’s even harder to justify the cost.”

Devon nodded, his expression cooling.

“I feel bad hiding it, but I have to feel like I’m at least trying to do something for people, to give something back. Michele can be so intolerant with things she doesn’t agree with. I have to feel like I’m trying hard, trying my best. Part of that is having a real collection. I’ll come up with something. This’ll buy me time.”

“I’d love to help,” Devon replied. “That’d be sweet to have all that stuff at my place. Mi casa es su casa. Can I paw through it whenever I feel like it?”

“It wouldn’t be a problem?” I asked, tentative in the way I raised my pitch at the end of the question.

“No no no. That’d be awesome. My pleasure.”

“Great!” I said, knocking him playfully on the shoulder.

He jumped a little.

“You’re a good friend,” I added. “If it’s ever a problem, let me know. I don’t want to be a bother, and it’s hard to come by good friends out here in the middle of nowhere. Sure, Saint Johnsbury is a town, but it isn’t much of one, right? All this cold. Everyone hides away, and the one’s who wouldn’t have already run away.”

“You’ve got that right,” Devon replied.

“You feel that too, don’t you?” I was glad to hear that he agreed with me. “I really don’t want to be a problem. I can’t afford to lose any friends.”

“Problem?” Devon replied, laughing just a little too loudly. “Why would you ever be a problem?”

“I’m cold, Dad.”

“Me too, Dad. I can’t stop shivering.”

Both the boy and the girl were doing their best. They tried to be tough. They wore the extra clothes that their parents had found, but layers weren’t enough.

“Let me bring you some food,” their mother said. “It’ll give you some energy, and it’ll warm you up too.”

Their father knew it had to be cooked to really warm them up.

He went outside and looked at all the other houses where they lived. Snow had fallen all over. Icicles were dangling from the homes of some of their neighbors. They were the neighbors who were lucky enough to have the wood to burn, and the heat their fires made escaped up through the roofs and melted the snow there, making the icicles possible.

The man didn’t have any icicles on his house.

Here and there, because he had to, the man began taking boards from the outside of his home. It was only a few, and the house could handle it. The man even convinced himself that it made the house look tougher, more lean and mean.

He took the armloads of boards inside and kept his family warm.

“Hey Devon,” I said.

I stepped in through his door and closed it. I was uncomfortable. I felt out of place, like it was one of those days. My sensitivity was acting up, my low-level autistic fragility. I couldn’t control the feeling. I knew it’d poison things if I couldn’t at least hide it. I tried to figure out where it would stash.

“Amos!” Devon replied. “Now the party can start. Flames of War is on the table. Beer?”

“Sorry I’m late,” I said.

He handed me an ale from the fridge, the top already off. I took a long swallow and hoped for magic.

“Ken’s been working on his bike,” Devon said. “He got some extra oomph for the engine. And there’s a new gun he’s been eyeing. You want a gun for Christmas?”

He jabbed me playfully in the ribs. I almost dropped my beer.

“No thanks. I don’t feel like one.”

“Oh. Well come play with us then.”

“I’ll just watch…” I said.

I was starting to sweat. I felt like I was between a rock and a hard place.

“Thanks though,” I continued. “I don’t really like that game. It’s… painful. It’s like having salt rubbed in my eyes.”

“Oh,” Devon replied. “Ok.”

“Actually, I don’t feel well. I need to go home and write too. I can’t make sure Michele’s taken care of if I don’t make a career of it. I get panic attacks if I have to go more than a day without writing some, and… my windows of time are tiny.”

I wiped at my brow and finished my beer, knowing it wasn’t enough to harm my driving. But I wanted at least that much in me when I thought about having bailed.

“Oh. Ok. Say hi to Michele for me.”

I felt bad about bailing, but it could’ve been worse.

The winter wore on, and it was a cold one.

The food ran low ahead of schedule. The man was more and more worried about his wife and kids. He scoured town up and down for both jobs and wood to keep them warm, but there was nothing to be found that other men hadn’t found already.

Lying in bed one night, holding his wife close, she tried to comfort him.

“You’ll find something honey. Keep your chin up.”

“I can’t,” the man replied. “I can’t keep my chin up. It takes dignity to do that.”

“You have dignity. You have us.”

The man held his wife tightly, trying to keep warm with what she’d said. He could feel the cold all around, and he was worried about the children in the next room. He looked out the window and saw snow falling in the moonlight.

“I’ll be back,” he told her, getting up.

He went out the bedroom door, down the stairs, and outside. There were already holes showing here and there in certain less important walls. One of them kept a closet protected from the winter. Another kept the living room insulated, and they stayed mostly in the bedrooms anyway.

Working quietly with the crowbar, he took off some more boards. By the time he was done, he could see into the kitchen.

He went inside and lit a fire in the stove. He stood by it, warming his hands. He went upstairs, feeling the heat follow him toward the bedrooms. He left the doors to the bedrooms open a little, so that the heat could follow.

“I just can’t deal with it anymore,” Devon emailed me, as part of a long, hard email. “I don’t think we can be friends. I didn’t know what to say when you called me. I really was busy. I think it started during Michele’s treatment. I can’t believe you kept all these board games when the money could have been used to help Michele. She had cancer, man. It’s been making me angry for almost two years now.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I wrote back in desperate reply. “Why’d you send me emails every once in a while saying you’d just been busy when just ignoring me would finally have given me the cowardly hint? Couldn’t you man up instead?”

“I helped you and Michele through her cancer,” Devon wrote, “bringing food and everything. You owe us so much. How selfish are you? When Ali and I moved into the new house a year ago, you didn’t move the games out quickly. I asked you twice. I even had to take your punching bag back to you myself. That was a really hard time for me. I just threw up my hands.”

“You’ve made almost no effort to communicate with me for almost two years,” I wrote back. “And I thought I had the games out by the deadline you gave me. I didn’t even know there were problems between us. How was I supposed to? Do you think I’m psychic? How can I just know that someone has totally changed his mind? Why didn’t anyone tell me? Don’t I deserve at least that respect?”

“I’m sure we both did the best we could,” Devon emailed me. “Have a nice life.”

“The best we could? The best we fucking could? If that was the best you could do,” I emailed back, “you need to polish your best. And the best I could? How could I give my best when I didn’t even know what the work was?”

There was almost nothing left of the house. It couldn’t even hold the heat from the fire long enough to be worth it.

The man, his wife, their daughter, and their son were all near to freezing. There was no work, and there was no wood. Everyone else in the neighborhood was either in the same trouble or unwilling to make their lives harder still by helping.

“Dad?” the daughter said one day. “I hear the house creaking.”

Wind blew in from every wall. The man had tried to ignore it, but he could tell that the house was giving way. He started to cry, even in front of them all. He couldn’t help it. He wasn’t even a man. He knew he had no choice.

“Dad?” the son said. “Where are you going?”

“Are we going somewhere, dear?” his wife asked.

“Take… what you can,” the man said. “We’re going to live with my parents.”

They left the house just in time. Turning around in the snow, the four of them watched as the house collapsed. It happened in a great cracking rumble. Some neighbors poked their heads out of their windows to see what had happened. They wondered if the wood might be available to them.

When they reached his parents’ house, the man knocked on the door.

“Can we… stay with you… mom?”

The man’s mother gave him a big hug. He was much larger than her, but he seemed much smaller.

“Of course you can, dear. Let me fix you all something hot to eat.”

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Author: Amos Parker

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Filed under Creative nonfiction, Features, Fiction, Guest author, Writing

1:34 AM Ramblings

I’m an editor—I’ve freelanced for years—but I’ve often supplemented my freelance income with another gig. Why? Because freelancing works like real estate: huge surges of business connected by deep lulls. The surges often match my attempts to market myself, but hey, guess what: a full-time grad student, part-time worker, part-time editor doesn’t have much time or inclination to market himself. Time and money are both limited. When school starts up again this fall, I won’t have all the time on my hands that I had to start this blog, and what then will I do to find freelance work, then when I need it most but also lack the time to market myself?

Supplementary jobs have entered my mental horizon. I really don’t mind Starbucks as a job, except for the people who take it very seriously and always manage, against what seems my good judgment, to get in positions of power. Starbucks is the job I would prefer over many others if I have to work a structured job at all. The obvious: low hassle, low responsibility, the people (customers and coworkers) are friendly and don’t expect much; you get tips, and you get paid above minimum wage. But there’s always waiting tables, which shares any of these qualities except the low hassle, which you trade for a gigantic upgrade in pay. ($11/hr after tips to, I dunno, $16/hr if you’re at a place even nearly worth its tables). So why do I prefer Starbucks?

People. I enjoy people, despite whatever contrary opinions these blog posts may have given you. Or, more than people, I enjoy conversation; rich, deep conversation that doesn’t have a purpose, point, or motivation. During my tens and my lunches I go sit out in the lobby instead of in the back, and on more than one occasion my shift has had to come find me because I got so sidetracked that I forgot my break was over. Sometimes the store is dead (hence, the break) and it doesn’t matter that I’ve forgotten in the grand scheme of things; sometimes the person is one of those who is very serious about their work and feels that a speech is necessary to make me toe the line [y’know, that’s one of the weirdest phrases, a stereophone cliche where both images work]. Well, it’s a free country, and speech is a free as it comes, but there’s a point where investment is almost guaranteed not to match return; sometimes business maxims apply to social settings.

More than that, I enjoy having a home outside of home where I can get free coffee, free food, and time for homework without distraction, am in fact encouraged to do this work because I already work there and because the other people around make me feel connected to the human network in a way that I normally don’t. Further, I do continue to shop with Starbucks even while I don’t work there (a fact escalated by fewer and fewer nearby cafes that aren’t Starbuckses), which means I know which products I like and that I can enjoy them in peace. When school starts back up, Starbucks would condone my writing/blogging, which will conduce with my courses in a way editing never would. There’s not enough time in the world for us to pursue all of the things we find interest in, and in the interest of calibrating my life to maximum pleasure and retaining of information, Starbucks is the better choice.

Not that I’m going back to Starbucks—Ashley has specifically asked me not to—but these are the thoughts that go through my head when I consider my need for supplemental income. Therefore, don’t take this post personally; I’m not sharing it with you so that you’ll pity my situation. Consider it art, in your own way.

On those notes (of income and art), today, August 7, is my birthday. Reading this blog, you’ve learned plenty about me, my work, and my literary vision and aspirations. Now act on that compulsion you feel to click the button and buy me a cup of coffee or even a beer! ☺

**

I’m exhausted. I’m tired, I’m broke, I’m sad. I’m in love, I’m loved.

I’m happy.

I’ve run out of cash and I don’t know how to fix it. Get a job; I don’t want to settle for a job.

We talk about finances, Ashley and I. My face droops. She can’t stand it; puts her hand against my cheek and asks me to go in the other room. She’s not serious. She can’t stand the idea of me being sad, can’t bear to look on my face, its non-frown.

I gave my father a hard time once, when he got laid off and cried in front of his church fellows. I didn’t give him a hard time for crying; rather for praying.

My relationship with Ashley is the greatest proof of providence I’ve ever seen. Our lives fell together seamlessly without complaint; though money is tight, it’s never not enough.

This month it might not be enough.

I took her to New York for a weekend at the beginning of June. She hates that I regret the decision. It inspired her, made her decide that New York was her future independent of our future, of my future. I know now that New York is my future, too. That trip solidified the suspicions, or Sade had, and I took the trip to make sure.

The church leader asked me if he could lay hands on me. My father had taken me on the men’s retreat; I had seen him cry in earnest. My father looked away when the pastor put his hand on my shoulder, asking again. I didn’t want to be rude, and I had hope.

We go on dates. Our financial irresponsibility lies in going on dates. About once every other week, we drop about twenty dollars on not making a meal at home or maybe a bottle of wine to make my cooking seem more legitimate. My peers are broke, too, working those college jobs at pizza shops and bookstores. Why don’t I just get one of those?

I want a job at a call center. I’ve never worked at one before, but I have friends that do. They complain about all their free time. That’s what I need; a job that will pay me to write, to blog, to edit. I need supplement.

I’ve worked at Starbucks four times now, three months a piece four different times. Once as a teenager in Frisco’s Super Target where we couldn’t accept tips and yet we did, hiding the makeshift cup behind the counter when the store manager came by. Twice after college, once in Plano before the disagreement with my parents and then again when I lived at Steve’s. Once again in Boston, when I had decided to move out of Sarah’s place. Starbucks isn’t the bottom of the rung, that’s for sure. But my pride won’t let me crawl back, not for a fifth turn.

The hands felt alien through my clothing, like cotton was touching me, my shirt pressing against me, clinging against me. They prayed. They asked me what I wanted from God. I said to know; I wanted to know, to have the gift of faith. They prayed.

Fidelity paid me once to sit around. I was with Sarah, sad and lonely and bored. They paid me over thirty dollars an hour to just sit there with a smile on my face, maybe five hours of work a week. I couldn’t do it then; I complained, loudly. What weak part of me wants to do it now?

I’ve branched out through Twitter, found viewers, fans, colleagues. Some of them might have work I could take, could get. Maybe if I marketed myself as an editor with all my experience, I could cash in on the network. But I’d rather have readers; I’d rather get started as a writer, as my own writer, a writer of my own work and nobody else’s. I have no interest in journalism or in ghostwriting. I have no interest in selling what is most intensely and personally mine.

I have the time now, during the summer, for a fulltime position. I started the blog instead. I’m busy all day now, checking, marketing, writing; I’m consumed. I’m not really employed, not gainfully employed. I can’t, this month, contribute equally to the household.

My Sweet Hunk O’ Trash plays, Louis Armstrong & Billie Holiday. Ashley laughs from the sink while I work, I edit, I check. I’ll have to work all weekend to meet this already missed deadline. Ashley laughs, and so do I. I’m so in love; she smiles away the doldrums. Still, I’m sad; a worthless feeling permeates, settles inside my skin. I can feel it in the back of my shoulders; I can feel it weighing down my torso, bending my spine.

We can’t make rent if I don’t contribute. Ashley has been behind before, and I’ve covered her. She’s covered me as well. That’s what living together is, a give and take here and there. But she can’t cover me this month.

I cried. Their prayers turned into chants, into spells that swarmed my head. For days I would talk about the miracle, the surety and gift of faith. It would fade, and Mani would hate me for it. No, not hate; he’d mourn my religion, resent the loss of passion in a friend so dependably constant. I’d cry again as despair settled back into place, back into the home it had never left.

I want to give her everything she wants. I want to love her like she should be loved. I want to contribute, to avoid leeching off something so young, so tender, so savory sweet. I love her, but I can’t provide, not now.

Though I have the time now, I can’t really get a job. In two months, I’ll be out of time, a full-time student. I tell myself to suck it up and get that damn dayjob, but I won’t, I haven’t yet. The consideration is starting to filter through my pride, but it hasn’t won yet. I love her, I want to, I’m stubborn.

I’m happy. I’m sad. I’m lazy and exhausted. I’m demoralized. I’m the most hopeful I’ve ever been.

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Sore Wrists

Wednesdays are guest author days. I’m looking for young voices who will fit in with the mold of this blog, discussing frustration, communication, and humanity in terms that encourage the reader to grapple. I am not looking for rants or diatribes; I seek creative work that would help shape the voice of youth, a voice that all its life hasn’t had a home. If you’re interested, please find my email address on the contact page and submit a sample.

Amos Parker will supply next week’s guest post. He’s a colleague and friend, and I cannot state my esteem for his humanity or creativity highly enough.

Now enjoy another piece from James Gregory!

**

He sits in front of an old TV. A TV so old the color is draining out in patches and it’s bigger than him cause it’s a tube projector. It has a videogame system hooked up to it. He’s been sitting in front of it for about an hour.

He’s playing a videogame. His hands are sweaty from how long he’s been playing it. His thumbs feel raw. Twitches run through the backs of his hands and he can’t miss any of the bones rubbing against each other in there.

In the game, he’s a sexy, tan girl with big breasts and a tight butt. The girl possesses enough fighting ability to apparently take on some sort of large ogre monster. The object of the game is simple: hit the ogre till it dies.

She’s been hitting the ogre for close to 45 minutes. Punches, kicks, throws, and a lack of clothing have yet to stop it. She’s come close a few times. The ogre seems to always pull it out of the bag at the last second.

The ogre is large. It’s much bigger than her. It has a giant mouth, scaly skin, and big arms. It knows kung fu and she can only dance around doing break dance style fighting. It always laughs when it wins.

He sitting there playing away. Earlier, he’d seen a girl he liked. She had big breasts and a tight butt too. She dressed like a normal person. Jeans and T-shirt uniform. Her hair color was not what he liked but her face was.

Personality was a different matter. She always laughed when she won and she always won especially when it came to him. He would look at her and say, “Hey Alex,”(because Alexandra was much too long too say for anyone) and the laugh would begin almost immediately, small and beautiful. She would say hi back then turn her head back toward a different person in whom she had a much more vested interest, and the laugh would come in full.

It wasn’t that she was cruel. She just couldn’t comprehend him. She didn’t understand what went through his head. He couldn’t possibly expect her to care about him.

She would watch him walk up in clothes that were either too tight or too loose and begin to cringe. She’d fight it. His hair would be a mess. Sometimes, it was greasy like he hadn’t showered in days.

She was always impressed by how clean his skin was. His head was dirty and so were his clothes, but his face and the bits he kept mostly hidden were the cleanest she’d seen. She looked at his clothes like at a poor disguise.

His voice was a sticking point, an odd combination of male and vaguely feminine. The words he used were always the most needlessly vague and complicated. She knew he did it cause he was shy. She also knew that when he calmed down enough his voice was smooth and even. It was never high or cracking. Just calm and rather enjoyable. She also knew it would only take her talking to him for five straight minutes before he would calm down around her. So she would limit the time to only three minutes.

He loses again and the ogre laughs. A curse leaves his lips. He’s gone and clocked in another fifteen minutes.

Her elbow attacks combined with her flipping kicks have done the most damage so far. The ogre’s life bar dropped down to about quarter left. He has this move that gives him health back that saved him in the end.

He thinks she’s the most beautiful woman on the planet. He thinks her hair isn’t even a problem. It takes a lot for him to get past a girl’s hair color. He thinks her eyes are perfectly shaped and that her lips curve in perfect ways.

He likes the way she talks. It’s the plain words that suggest way more than he thinks she’s saying. It might be in his head.

She knows just like he knows that he won’t leave cause of her. She knows she should have never been nice to him. He knows she will never be that kind to him again. She knows he won’t give up and that he’ll keep talking to her. He knows he wants to feel like someone actually cares about him and that he probably isn’t going to find it there again. She knows she can’t give him what he wants.

He’s been playing for an hour and a half now. Still hasn’t won. His wrists and hands are sore and his feet are falling asleep. He keeps playing. He doesn’t know what else to do.

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Author: James Gregory

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Manager, a character sketch

I read this piece at Emerson’s Graduate Reading Series in Spring 2009, and the audience received it well. Enjoy!

**

Give anger a body, a well-crafted superbly sculpted male, screaming and tense. … In the moments where the veneer of pursuit wears thin, when the film and crust of years of wasted life begin to dry and crack from overuse and abuse, humans revolt, find their lack of faith and their faith’s lack of substance disgusting. Too scared to recognize their dilemma, too overwhelmed to reasonably place blame, they rage. … They will define themselves in terms of their distraction in order to again pull their mind away from their pain. When I craft them, they light themselves afire and scream to heaven, “See? I have virtue, too! I give off my own light, and it is beautiful!” The pain distracts them from the fact that their light is fueled by their skin, the energy is borrowed from a system that is not their creation nor was ever under their control.

**

Underappreciated. Unappreciated. I had so much energy at the start of this job, this step forward in my life, this salaried position, this point in the American dream. I had so much hate when I was younger, half my lifetime ago; is that the key to it all? Lazily, I watch the walls, my chin resting in the crook of my left arm. Or I watch the internet, same position, trolling websites. People online are so cruel; it makes me laugh. I can’t match their cruelty. I rarely even have the energy to respond. That’s why I’m a troll: I watch and crawl and envy. If I ever do decide to try and join in, the ridicule is so brash that I can’t possibly continue to care or to follow through.

Work isn’t much different. I used to care, young and hopeful and dreamily wet-eyed. My parents were so proud, and so was I. The gap between graduation and employment had seemed like torture, so gratuitously long. I had dreams of walking up to the suits, those people in charge, and convincing them with merely my passion that I was the one for the job. Interviews, though, are so much more difficult than dreams. I went through plenty of them before an offer was made, and when one was, I jumped at it. I was ravenous for work; the desire to prove myself had so much weight, more even than the desire to separate myself from my parent’s pocketbook. What happened to it? I can’t even be bothered to recall; that was years ago, so very long ago.

Exercise used to help. After a long day of mind-numbing work, for no position I have ever filled has required much thought, I’d rush off to the gym. The weights I lifted felt so much more like an accomplishment than almost finishing my inbox, only to watch the work pile up again right in my face. No matter how fast I typed, how efficiently I stampeded through and pushed forward, the mail just kept flying in. Weights were different. One hundred and fifty pounds; one eighty; two hundred: Look at the increase! Look at the progress!

The energy it generated was only mechanical in nature, and the more I exercised the more I wanted to exercise until eventually I couldn’t give it anymore time. I was running, weightlifting, sweating. My body worked until I didn’t really control it anymore, not scheduling my workout around work but working around my workout. But God I looked beautiful! The women I picked up at the gym or out at the bar with friends were nearly as beautiful as me, almost identical in mindset. I wish it could have lasted.

Inexplicably, I lost interest. A void appeared in my schedule, which for all of my late-twenties had been so tight, and it’s not like I was bored for an hour and then had something else to do; I had nothing to do. That’s when my internet trolling began, but my decline in interest at work was already well established. My youthful zeal had spurred me to produce high-quality content on-time and ahead of schedule, but I hadn’t learned how to balance a salaried position and the demands of life: finding a place to live, buying and cleaning clothes, my exercise and social routine, etc. My production came in bursts, mostly when life was calm, and life has a tendency to work in waves, calm only between trough and crest. Slave drivers, my bosses wanted to get out of me all the time what I gave them at my most prolific. I suppose that’s where the burnout began. I fought, trying to reason with them, imploring their sympathy as my apartment lease ran out, as my friends got married or divorced, as life presented many and various obstacles. I shouldn’t have expected their pity, and I certainly didn’t get it.

The hours at work became longer as I tried to make my productivity consistent, stretching like a rubberband where the tension is never released. The exercise compensated for the unfulfilled desire of punching my bosses in the face. Eventually I began to hope that they would fire me, end my necessity to try to please them. I could slouch, then, and complain about the injustice of my termination. Everyone would listen, I fantasized. Everyone would buy it. Instead, I received a promotion. Now I had underlings to produce for me, and it was my responsibility as manager to make them produce. The employees looked so much like I had at first: hopeful and ambitious. I would have quit if I had known at the time that their career paths would have been exactly like mine, if I had known it was my face they would picture punching during their workouts.  I did not quit, however; I watched the drones crawl towards their futures.

Sometimes I see myself in my employees, or maybe I recognize the way they understand me. I know their feelings; I can see them through the salty whites of their eyes. I anticipate the pitiful shaking of my fearful employees, the way their irises contract under pressure. Their legs tremble under their pleated slacks, and they worry too much about whether I can see their shaking, too much over their individual humiliation, to truly listen. The young seem to harbor a perpetual and almost preternatural inability to focus. But that’s alright; my reprimands ceased to help them be better employees shortly after I gained the authority to give them. Tears well in their eyes, washing away the old, bitter salt which deposits anew when they dry. My underlings guarantee their lack of salience with a pool of saline. But no, they’ll not cry, not in front of me; Employees never transgress professionalism openly.

And here I am. I can’t distract myself from my employees’ fates without the truth of my own progression breaking my concentration and ruining the numb experience of it all. At home, I can’t pick a show to watch, and when I do settle I pay it little attention or far too much. I’ve stopped sleeping well. I get little to nothing out of it, the six to eight hours dwindling away regardless of their productivity. My dreams haunt me.

In one, I am a teenager again, screaming at my parents, blaming them for my future. I reach out to beat my father who assures me that I cannot know what the future holds, yelling savagely back at him exactly what my life is like, tears streaming down my face. My fists won’t hit him; my screams reach deaf ears. I punch and punch and punch, and he laughs at me and my claims of clairvoyance. My mother looks at me sympathetically, but she assures me that if that’s what life has in store for me, I should be glad for it. I could strangle her, but my hands won’t touch her. I grab and grab, but they always miss. I wake up sweating and furious, but the effects are always gone by the end of my morning shower.

Another has me as some gargantuan glutton. I feast on my underlings, their succulent fingers first. I throw the rest to a disposal, which grinds the leftovers and does away with them. I wake with my stomach in knots, and I often wretch. If anything does come up, I’m glad to see bile only.

These nightmares torment me much more thoroughly than my hopeful dreams of employment filled my youth. I rarely go a night without soaking the bed in my sweat. I rarely wake without disgusted chills so severe I nearly lose my feet in the morning on the way to the shower.

Mostly, I hate them. My waking hours are filled with dreams where my nightmares are books. They line the wall behind my desk, elegant proof of my technical proficiency and industrial wherewithal. I unconsciously imagine myself ripping them to shreds. I burn them. If only they’d be destroyed so easily! I hate them. I can’t be rid of them!

What is it I’ve done differently than everyone else that makes me deserve these things? I’m just a man, and I’ve done all the things that are expected of me! But no, I’m not just a man: I’m me, and I’ve lived my life and done my actions, but I’m just a manager among managers. I’ve never heard other people complain of such horrible visions! Why must they plague me? Why? Why me?

I’ve never complained of them. What would people say if I confided? See a shrink, who has a mind for such things. But my war isn’t with myself, but with my dreams! If they’d just leave, I’d have nothing to be angry about!

Ugh, but I can’t stand it anymore! I can’t empty my mind! I can’t live my life! What is this that I can’t avoid? Why can’t I ignore it? I hate it all! I hate it!

I’m too good to be so tormented. I work my job. I pay my way. I have friends. I’m a debt to no one! Why, then, do I feel so twisted and so alone? Why do these haunting thoughts make me see myself so wicked? I’m not wicked! I’m not evil! I don’t force corruption on anyone! I’m a consumer! I’m a worker! I’m what a man should be!

I’m fucking disgusting. But I don’t hate myself. I love myself, unappreciated as I am in this world. If I were appreciated, I wouldn’t dream these horrible dreams. My employees should respect and thank me for the effort I spend on them! I should be proud of the life I lead! I should love my proud parents and be happy that they are pleased for me, but I hate, hate, HATE, HATE these fucking dreams! If only I could sleep.

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A Paradigm Shift in Project Management: Hierarchy to adhocracy

“Sharing power is not the ideal of some ‘utopian’ future. It’s the ground truth of our hyperconnected world.” – Mark Pesce

**

In my search to uncover blogs about copyright issues, I discovered The Human Network. Mark Pesce’s video presentation to the Personal Democracy Forum and transcript both struck me as worthy of the attention of internet community members and people interested in the new organizational structure we’ll see soon; a new structure seems a nearly necessary outcome to the victory of efficiency, a consistent human pursuit.

For example, the ideal corporate workplace is an hierarchy: you know via network or job title who is responsible for what and how they should be approached, and you also know to whom you and they are responsible. Therefore, when an assignment falls to you, you track down the people you need in order to complete the task under budget and ahead of schedule. You have to negotiate the political struggles that exist in large workplaces as people strive to either make their name or shirk any work possible without standing out as a slacker. If you do this successfully, your project will likely succeed. Situations of this type gave rise to my favorite capitalist maxim: Successful business is not about money; it’s about pooling together the correct assortment of talent to fulfill a need and the money you need to do that.

However, anyone who has worked in a corporation long enough to dry their wet ears and withdraw their big eyes knows that luck plays a larger role in whether you’re equipped to handle any given project than coordination and that the budget and schedule have as much tendency to be unmanageable as they have to be set by someone other than you. You also know that the larger a company is, the more difficult it is to find the person you’re looking for. Instead, you become complacent with your social circle within the company and rely on them to either help you complete your project or to put you on the path to a person who can probably help. Initiative, while praised, is your prerogative, and you learn thatmore often than not its only reward is hours spent tracking down a person who’s too busy to help you anyway.

And while sometimes it’s assumed that the smaller the company the more efficient because people do more tasks than their job title allows, there are obvious flaws that small businesses constantly evidence. Job-title creep breaks the ideal of division of labor and results in shoddy jobs that require more time than an expert would take. In addition, sometimes the relevant expert simply isn’t available, and the financial position of the company makes tracking down an expert either impossible of futile.

Even in the best of all corporate hierarchies, when we let go of the fallacies and human error that plague all communities and look at them at their most sublime, politics, ignorance, and misinformation exist as constant variables in the equation of efficiency that downsizing attempts to get around and networking tries to nullify. Yet they persist.

Adhocracies are communities whose networks are far less structured than hierarchies and yet are more capable of sustaining efficiency for several reasons. Examples include Wikipedia–where a crowd (hence the term crowdsourcing) generates information that, through editing, supposedly reaches an unbiased state–and open source communities such as SourceForge.

First, unlike the top-down hierarchical structures of corporations whose efficiency depends upon the trickling down of responsibility and the ability of the lower castes to find proper function-matches within their own castes (about as reliable as Malcom’s demonstration of water falling down your hand in Jurassic Park), adhocracies post jobs and users volunteer. Whether or not the job gets done on time and according to parameters is guaranteed only by the community’s ability to organize itself around a set of priorities, which, since their communication tool is the internet, specifically their website and whatever design functions are built into the core site, users tend to fulfill reliably.

Second, the pure universality exposure of posts and searchability of online communities resolves the hassle of finding the right member with the right skill set to complement your project. Rather than your cubemate Bill telling you that Janice from tech support might be able to assist you, plop your requirements into a search bar and go–as any seasoned HR personnel can tell you, if you have a specific problem and need a specific skill, you’ll find everything you need is hotword coded, thereby searchable–or let the talent pool come to you.

The end game of adhocracies is a more dynamic community layout able to complete projects more efficiently than hierarchical structures. Some problems will remain.

First, and most obvious, is human error on a small scale, including typos and erroneous information or algorithms. It exists and can only be mitigated by assuming it will occur. Wikipedia, for one, has this angle covered in more ways than by reminding you that they make no claims of accuracy. Many of the tools they have on their website including a cache of previous pages, editor tracking tools, and their editorial team all work to mitigate human error from their site. Also, the flexibility of their project (due largely to their disclaimer about accuracy but also to the community’s commitment to accuracy) allows them to update pages long after a corporate campaign would have to have moved on.

Second are the major snags that that bog down all projects. Scope creep will not disappear due to a more efficient allocation of resources. Volunteers or even whole communities biting off more than they can chew due to ambition or greed cannot be wholly mitigated.

Therefore, what’s truly at stake in the discussion between hierarchies and adhocracies is the way in which projects are managed. This situation is not, though I enjoy Mark’s rhetoric, a meeting of the finite and infinite, but rather a clash between an old paradigm and a new one where the business world is awaiting a widespread shift from one to the other. If we assume that these stated management problems will continue even after the widespread adoption of the new project management paradigm, are we left with the cataclysm Mark discussed in the linked entry? No; rather, we’re left with an old question which wants to guarantee security in an endeavor (That is, Who is responsible for completing the project?) to a question that seems to have less though actually implies more security (Namely, Can the project be accomplished?).

Having said that, I must admit that I see the inherent power shift to which he’s referring, and I must assume that those in power will resist the necessary transference. For all the badgering about Communism that techies and internet junkies receive, the paradigm into which we’re moving is community-based. However, when you hear about the power of communities to organize themselves and complete a task, do not think about Stalinist Russia, which was in itself an hierarchical power structure where responsibility trickled down from, well, Stalin. Instead, imagine a thousand separate and independently functioning Craigslists where DNSs define the national lines and Google checks all the passports. Somewhere in one of these communities, someone posts, “I need y” and a multitude responds, first from within the community and then from without, “I can supply y” and the poster is left to pick out of the responses who he’ll trust to fill his need including but not limited to accepting all offers for help.

Money, along with other project limitations, will and must exist and sets limits to the amount of effort a community contributes to any particular project. For nonprofits, which most adhocracies are today, the community acts on passion and does all things at all times. As the paradigm shift occurs, however, money will become a prime concern for adhocracies as people become professional rather than volunteer, as we can see occurring with Amazon‘s Mechanical Turk and on Craigslist itself. In these instances the efficiencies of adhocracies remain and yet the community’s desire to do all things is severely limited by their desire to eat and to guarantee such necessities as housing.

Because adhocracies will accomplish tasks more efficiently than an hierarchical management structure, money will become an issue. I will not engage in the folly so early on as to think that such communism will mount outside the bounds of the internet; we have seen that it will not. Also, such communism is not done in the name of communism as an ideal but rather, as it stands now with nonprofits, for passion, and later, as corporations adopt adhocracy as a management style, for money.

This exact issue will demand the power shift that Mark mentioned, a shift of power from the hands of managers into the hands of the community, or, for rhetoric a lay readership may more readily appreciate, a shift from facetime to efficacy. The community will demand and have the power to secure absolute transparency within corporation as they have with the current nonprofits, especially when their efforts are combined with other communities whose sole stated purpose will be to establish said transparency; the adhocracies currently in existence have already set the tone for what users will expect from new communities in the future. The power and efficiency of adhocracies come from hyperawareness and hypervigilance spawned by a community’s open access to all relevant information, keeping account of all aspects within a company; thus, force will shift from the hands of managers, who for the large part will cease to exist, into the hands of the communities crunching and reviewing the numbers.

I have no doubt, as we have already seen, that managers will fight the elimination of their class at large. However, the shift of business from a worse to better solution will facilitate the shift over and despite their moaning. But don’t get me wrong: I don’t begrudge them their moment of complaint. Managers are people who have spent their entire lives developing a set of skills that in one fell swoop will become obsolete, and I pity the frustration that moment must cause. But happen it will, if only in the pursuit of efficiency.

I expect a class of community analysts to rise up in place of managers. Their main function will be–rather than spurring workers to get the project done, for that will happen of its own accord do to the nature of an adhocracy–to make sure that the resources are available within the community to solve the problem put before it. This will not be a source of governance but rather a source of publicity, or rather of recruitment. Multiple communities with the same aim already exist, and competition between online communities will rise as management structures shift into the new paradigm. Community projects will be posted and completed with little or no oversight, drastically reducing the overhead cost of corporations in addition to the simple benefit of efficiency increase brought about by shifting from an hierarchy to an adhocracy.

What will happen to governmental hierarchies… well, that’s another fun question. But that’s for another time and another post.

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