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Archive for May 3rd, 2013

One Third

I admit it; I was always something of a Luddite. Romantic by nature, I have always loathed modern technological life. In my younger years I took this to an extreme, living without electricity, heating with wood, lighting with candles and kerosene, pooping in an outhouse.

Later I settled into a more conventional life, and made peace with many things about modern life and technology. Not least I am grateful for the medical science without which I probably would be dead, though I wonder if I would have needed it sans modernity; while my dad and three of his four brothers all had heart surgery in their fifties, in my genealogical studies I find that most of my male ancestors lived long lives,with no heart disease. My father’s generation, of course, was the one that left the farm, the one that began drinking homogenized milk and processed food.

Still, I am grateful that so many once-deadly diseases have been defeated, that child mortality rates are a fraction of what they once were, that lifespans have increased. So I am grateful and more realistic, without becoming uncritical that so many of the human goods of traditional life have been lost. There is good and bad in modernity, and I have grown more balanced in assessing it.

 But I have always been slow to accept new technologies: I did not have a cell phone until a couple of years ago, for example (at which point it became irreplaceable, alas). I did not touch a computer until 2002, when I became interested in genealogy and found it a handy tool.  From there it was a small step to spending more time online. One thing led to another, and here I am, writing exclusively online, blogging.

When I first started using the computer much of my time was spent in online discussions, which too often became fruitless arguments. Most of this occurred on the Byzantine Forum, a site for Byzantine Catholic and Orthodox Christians, and anyone curious about the Christian East. I was eventually expelled for thought crimes by the neoconservative administrator, but that is another story.

When I first started getting into involved discussions, before I came to realize what a waste of time most of them are, I found it frustrating. I was staying up too late, and never seemed to have the time to document my arguments; even online research takes time, though a fraction of what it took in the pre-digital age. So I looked forward to weekends, when I could leisurely indulge in long involved argumentation.

Except on the weekend it was like trying to spark a debate in a ghost town: the site was practically abandoned.

After a few weekends like this it hit me: these people were online while they were supposed to be working; on the weekend they have better things to do.

This was a startling revelation, and it came back to me a few days ago when I heard a report on NPR: there had been a study of corporate employees that showed that, on average, they spend one third of their time goofing off online.

They were chatting on Facebook. They were shopping. They were playing computer games. They were doing God knows what.

One third.

One third of an eight hour day is just over two and a half hours.

If you do not understand how this amazes a working class man you have lived a very different life than I have. I have always worked blue collar jobs (yes, I have a degree; in theology, which if one is neither a cleric nor an academic is a ticket to the working class). I have worked in orchards and factories, on construction crews, and for twenty nine years, carrying mail. In any working class job, whether the good union ones with decent pay and benefits or the crappy low wage ones, time is closely  watched, productivity is expected (and enforced). The thought that anyone could piddle away a third of their time at work is mind-blowing. My own employer, the US Postal Service, is notorious for its poor working environment. I have joked before that it is a cross between “Dilbert” and “Beetle Bailey”, a government entity trying to act like a private corporation that ends up imitating the worst aspects of each. The pseudo-corporate culture of the Postal Service is what I have dubbed “anal aggressive”: preoccupied with minutia and bureaucratic foolishness, micromanaging letter carriers and other craft employees while blindly wasting huge amounts of money on nonproductive managers. This, of course, can be mitigated by a benevolent postmaster or supervisor, and I have had a few. Or it can be intensified by a hostile one. I have seen men hectored for using something like two minutes more time than the supervisor thought he should have taken. It can be that stupid.

That there are vast numbers of corporate workers goofing off at that level really emphasizes the gap between the working class and the bourgeoisie in this country, not least because these loafers generally make more money than laborers. And it emphasizes how this society (as most) makes life easy for the affluent, and more and more difficult the less money one has. There is a sort of inverse proportion to the difficulty of the work and how generously one is rewarded.

I think of garbage collectors: I can’t tell you how many times in the worst summer heat – to me anything over 80 degrees- when I have been dragging along in a daze, feeling vaguely sorry for myself, that I have seen a trash collector and instantly got a new perspective. Not only must they, like me, work in the heat, but they are lifting heavy loads. And in the summer garbage stinks and is maggot-infested. In a just society such hard, unpleasant work, which serves the common good in such a clear and necessary way, would earn a six figure income. But do you know how much the average trash collector earns? Around $30,000 a year. To put this in perspective, the CEO of Waste Management Corporation, one of the largest trash collecting companies, makes over $2 million a year. A pittance by CEO standards maybe, but still a huge amount of money. And while it will never happen, I would love to see a study of how much time CEOs spend in actual productive activity. I would bet that they goof off at least as much as their corporate underlings.

And so it is: those who never break a sweat and come home from “work” not physically exhausted, but ready to work out, live soft lives. Hard workers have hard lives.

Note that this is not envy speaking. I have only worked indoors for a total of six months of my life, in factories. I hated it. I would not trade being outside most of the day for a life in a cubical, not matter how well compensated and no matter how much I could surf the web on the clock. I love watching the seasons unfold, the flowers come and go, the songs of birds, the feel of rain and wind on my face, and not least, the exercise.

But: I have always found Red Owen, who often comments here, repugnant when he starts in with his violent rhetoric. I have no desire to slit anyone’s throat.

But I’d be lying if I said I do not understand his anger.

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