04 December 2012

Monkey Work

I remember watching television re-runs of the television cartoon "The Jetsons" as a child. I actually liked it for its social commentary, for which I don't recall that it was known for. Honestly, I found the whole idea that George Jetson's job, that he was often complaining about and desiring a deserved pay-raise, was pressing a button. I don't remember him having to press that button very often, but it seemed vital to things, for the constant threat of a firing always seemed to dissolve away in the twenty or so minutes of any episode that featured his boss' angst. This was my first exposure to "monkey-work", which I define as paid work that trained monkeys could easily do. On "The Jetsons", George's "monkey-work" was a funny running gag that probably would be a little embarrassing in today's world as almost all of us just press occasional buttons as employment these days.

Monkey-work is everywhere. In my first job at a movie theatre, I had a checklist of things that needed to be done on my shift.  Other people did about the same thing on their shifts and that list varied very little over the months that I did that job. It was really easy to get bored with the monotony of it all, but the pay was supposed to make up for that. I got a few promotions, which meant that I had a different list of tasks which might require a slightly higher IQ, but typically only meant that I made slightly more money. Over the years, I can say that more than half of my paid employment was basically a list of simple tasks to do, for which I received increasingly larger amounts of money. Most times, I have functioned basically like a monkey, albeit an increasingly better-trained one.

I only really notice this these days because I don't really engage in monkey-work. The stark contrast came because my job just before this one demanded that I behave like a monkey, basically just following an intricate flowchart of canned procedures in diagnosing and repairing computer problems. If you followed the process religiously, the solution would reveal itself ultimately. Sadly, as a non-monkey, I never looked at the flowcharts and just found solutions by "the seat of my pants", often with far fewer steps than expected. One time, my supervisor both praised me for my efficiency and chastised me for not following procedure. It is interesting how much I like my present job and how much I disliked my previous one - the work was basically the same but the "monkey-ness" was really different.

If you want a sad realization, just know that most people, armed with some training and a decent procedure, would make adequate medical doctors or corporate executive officers, both basically very(,very, very) highly paid monkey-work jobs. If you find a better version of almost any paid employment, you are probably not looking at a better person, but a more detailed and involved procedure adhered to more strictly.

It brings to mind the global obsession these days with "STEM" training, which stands for "Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math", which are supposed to be the tickets to a vaunted high technology, high wage economy. Sadly, the extent of creativity imbued in the entire effort was basically spent in coming up with the acronym. The curriculum, for the most part, is an exercise in slavishly following a flowchart, reading detailed instructions completely (the mantra of schools and societies), and doing so quickly. If you look at education today, it can be summed up in the "timed test" culminating in college entrance exams that really only measure one's ability to quickly follow instructions. Apparently, these are the sort of skills the modern "college" and the larger society desires and rewards.

And what does the modern economy demand of us? It is the manufacture and consumption of a high volume of highly-marked-up and low-quality trinkets. Monkeys build such, monkeys consume such, and their masters profit from both ends by providing low-value products at exorbitant prices. The monkeys find it difficult to complain as they are often paid proportionately for their extremely low-skill labor, they are foolish enough to desire and buy over-priced and valueless trinkets, and they have few scruples to comprehend that they could do and have better. Every marketer knows that the best profits are to be made from the most naive and stupid consumers and therefore our schools manufacture these as well.

It brings to mind the excellent wisdom of John Taylor Gatto, the man who taught school for about thirty years and then walked away because he couldn't live with himself and what he and his fellow teachers did to children. As he began to look about for more purposeful learning, he investigated how the most elite American private schools prepares our next generation of masters and was stunned to see how different it is from a public education. The next leaders of the world don't engage in "monkey-work" themselves but know how important it is to impart such a living on their underlings so that their own superiority is an unquestioned reality. If all you need to aspire to is "monkey-work", you only have to be a monkey and your natural masters don't need to be much more capable.

If you are interested in avoiding a "Jetsons" future for yourself and your children, I would suggest a few things that anyone can do:

Avoid School-ish-ness.  If you can physically avoid it by homeschooling or perhaps fishing, that is best. On the other hand, if circumstances don't allow a real divorce from the institution, you can avoid the "dumbing-down" effect of school by putting what bits of time you have to better use than cruising the halls or creating pools of slobber on your desk.  I raced through math with good grades and spent my earned "free time" in class creating a little comedy called the "Term O' The Day" that I distributed covertly. No monkey could produce that!

Emphasize Production over Consumption. Fight the urge to spend your time and money trying to buy happiness or prestige. The only reason to have an iPad is if you are developing "apps" for it. Convince your kids that the only decent reason to be a "gamer" is to be a game developer. You will always do well to be more productive than consumptive, which I harp to the kids about a lot. Since you live in a "monkey" world, why not profit from them?

Build Your Creativity. Even if your creative efforts don't make you a dime (like this blog), you will be a far better person for having made the effort. Instead of watching TV, put on your own play. Instead of just reading a book, why not write one? Rather than eat pre-prepared meals out of the freezer, why not buy the ingredients yourself and make your own (and likely better)? Don't bother so much with a monetary cost/benefit analysis because being creative pays off in dividends far beyond the bank account.

Be "Value-Added". I used to do monkey-work for a government program, handing out food vouchers to poor families. I joked around with my clients and had fun bringing them "raw entertainment value" and I had one of the highest caseloads because my clients liked to come around! (I am not advocating the government dole here.) It would have worked in any endeavor and made people's days more pleasant and my life far more fulfilling.

Everything around us seems to encourage toward "monkey-work" and a sad life that accompanies a lack of real accomplishment.  Don't let it happen to you!