Thursday, April 11, 2013
Big Machine (Fka Clerking 13)
We have, at my Library, acquired, for a million or so dollars, a machine. This machine, through a series of belts, ramps, RFID readers and bins, checks in the vast majority of our Library materials and roughly sorts them according to 20 or so different parameters. Before I tell you about how I love, love to the point of weepiness, this humming, beeping, blinking giant of a machine, I must first tell you about how strange and out of time it all feels, how it transplants me to an industrial age. Yes this machine is run on a computer, rich with big screen readouts and entirely modern radio chip readers, but it feels, and truly is, more kin to something out of the Industrial Revolution. It hums with power. It's glory is all in moving parts, all its belts and pulleys and giant rubber bands. When it goes wrong it does not freeze and become mysterious and intractable like our modern wonders, repeating minor errors obsessively, glitching in abstract, autistic non-sequiturs. No, when it goes wrong it eats books! It makes digestive noises as it eats them. It refuses to cooperate. It looks you in the eye and spits books to the wrong places. It chews itself to pieces as it breaks down. It does not “Glitch”, it gets confused, insolent, comical. It is human!
I will not glorify the Industrial Revolution, nor presume to give you a history lesson. I must though, for the sake of this account, say that its result was not to give workers a lighter time of it. But it could have been. Partly this is because there can be differences in the fundamental tenor of ones job when it becomes more industrialized, but there don't have to be differences. The vast majority of it depends upon whether you become a part of the machine or whether you become the boss of the machine. If you are a part of the machine you may like one thing better than another, but as long as there is work to do you are always either doing it or not doing it. If you are the boss of the machine you quickly begin to accrete some of the wondrous benefits of being a boss. I don't want to glorify here, but when you are the boss, those you are the boss of do work on your behalf. You are always working as long as you are facilitating the environment where work is done. What defines this facilitation? On the one hand merely the fact of the work getting done. On the other, well, the boss defines it. Put simply, no matter what you do you're working!
Here, I'll show you. If my job is to scan library materials and sort them into 20 bins, the moment I start reading a book, wandering to get coffee, or chatting with a co-worker I have instantly ceased to do my job. I have slowed down the process. I have become guilty. My boss could come up to me and say “Aren't you supposed to be scanning these materials and sorting them?” to which I could say “Oh, I was just making sure this book's binding was okay, its heft and crackle felt a touch off.” or “It's my coffee break.” or “I was just explaining to Leroy here to watch out for books with a funny heft and crackle.” but whether or not I say any of these things there's not much to do at that point but start checking in Library materials and sorting them, and probably watch my back for awhile. However, if my job is to make sure the machine, the AMH ( the automatic materials handler), is processing and sorting, as long as it's doing that, who cares what I'm doing? My boss is greatly less inclined to worry about my working when before both our eyes work is clearly being done on both our behalf’s. Oh, there are hundreds of things to do to facilitate the machine's work, all tending and attending; a filled bin might need to be replaced, and a book pulled into the rollers is a moment to drop everything, but a good deal of the time is hovering, being ready, keeping an eye on, and all of that, while it must be done, can be done while getting coffee, reading or chatting. The books are all getting checked in, aren't they.
Which brings me to the point that the process and benefits of being a boss tends to place a person on the dark side. I'll go easy on you and say if you're a really good and conscientious boss there is no reason for you to necessarily become evil, but all that watching and telling people and having other people do work for you, all that bossing, and getting paid more for it, is dicey stuff, dangerous stuff. But if you are bossing a machine, well, as long as it's mostly non-sentient, you're off the hook.
And that brings us to the love. I work 36 hours a week. This is approximately 36 hours more a week than I'd ideally like to work. If someone kind and unobtrusive wants to come in, granting me every authority and respect, and make my job more pleasant, easier, boss-like yet without any victim, then I am delighted to have them. If they want to generally increase my access to coffee breaks, recreational reading, lightness and distraction I rejoice. I rejoice so much that looking over at said co-worker makes my heart all gushy inside. It makes me want to walk over to said co-worker and give it a big hug, except, I don't because my arm could get caught in said co-worker and be torn from my body.
Or maybe that is all too much. Allow me to dial it back one notch. As I've said before, these machines are my co-workers too. Imagine for yourself a co-worker, hulking, but gentle. This co-worker is not versatile because they are not very bright. Actually they're just barely functional. But they are strong. And tireless. And they insist on doing a tedious and time consuming sub-section of your job round the clock. They do what it would take 5 or 6 other workers together to do. They don't complain, though you might wonder about some of the strange whining noises they make. They can't do this job without you. They need a lot of attention, take instruction poorly and have to be watched, facilitated or repaired pretty much all of the time. But they are sort of companionable, and they like working for you, for free. And though they never bring in cookies, how on earth could you expect them to make cookies! Besides, they never eat more than their share when others bring them in. What I am saying about this machine is it's not perfect. It has good points and bad points, but its good points well outweigh it's bad. And for those of you with co-workers, you well know how beautifully high on the curve that is.