A story of our times

Matthew B. Crawford’s account of his job writing “value-adding” abstracts deserves very close reading and reflection. It is a story of our times that will resonate with many:
“My job was structured on the supposition that in writing an abstract of an article there is a method that merely needs to be applied, and that this can be done without understanding the text. I was actually told this by the trainer, Monica, as she stood before a whiteboard, diagramming an abstract. Monica seemed a perfectly sensible person and gave no outward signs of suffering delusions. She didn’t insist too much on what she was telling us, and it became clear she was in a position similar to that of a veteran Soviet bureaucrat who must work on two levels at once: reality and official ideology. The official ideology was a bit like the factory service manuals I mentioned before, the ones that offer procedures that mechanics often have to ignore in order to do their jobs.
My starting quota, after finishing a week of training, was 15 articles per day. By my 11th month at the company, my quota was up to 28 articles per day (this was the normal, scheduled increase). I was always sleepy while at work, and I think this exhaustion was because I felt trapped in a contradiction: the fast pace demanded complete focus on the task, yet that pace also made any real concentration impossible. I had to actively suppress my own ability to think, because the more you think, the more the inadequacies in your understanding of an author’s argument come into focus. This can only slow you down. To not do justice to an author who had poured himself into the subject at hand felt like violence against what was best in myself.
The quota demanded, then, not just dumbing down but also a bit of moral re-education, the opposite of the kind that occurs in the heedful absorption of mechanical work. I had to suppress my sense of responsibility to the article itself, and to others — to the author, to begin with, as well as to the hapless users of the database, who might naïvely suppose that my abstract reflected the author’s work. Such detachment was made easy by the fact there was no immediate consequence for me; I could write any nonsense whatever.”


Well here I am, still not placing cigarettes in my lips and lighting them, still feeling that I am adrift in a smoke-free zone, lost in a space I don’t understand and don’t much like and still hoping that this exercise in purposive drift will lead somewhere positive.
However, for the moment, my feelings echo David Orland’s important insight:
“It is this absence, in the end — and not the well-known phenomenon of withdrawal — that’s the real problem with quitting. Anybody can get through withdrawal, if they want to. Few, however, expect or are prepared for what comes next. It’s only when you quit that you discover what your fascination with smoking has all along been about: the everyday development and maintenance of moral life. Through the filter of a cigarette, the smoker orients himself to the outside world. It’s his very personal way of relating the outside world, the world of events, to the inside one, that of desire. And it is for this reason that, when the cigarette is taken away, the smoker’s moral life seems impoverished. It might even be said that he has, in some vague way, become less human. At least for a while.”