I live in New York, and every building I walk into has a man behind a desk asking me to sign in. I think about those men. For eight hours a day they sit at a desk, bored beyond belief. They expend 1000 calories, occupy two square feet, consume 185 liters of oxygen, and ingest several cups of water all to provide a modest amount of security for the people upstairs who pretty much do the same thing.
Is this what their parents hoped for when they spent eighteen years raising them? Is this an adequate result of twelve years of school? Was this worth emigrating thousands of miles? Is this a reason to get up in the morning?
Even more pressing, are any of us, in any job, any different?
I look around my office and I see clones. That guy and that girl and that guy look like me. We wear the same clothes, perform the same function, worry about the same things, enjoy the same range of available entertainments, expect the same life expectancy. I've reached the point where I can't tell people apart. How long before prosopagnosia sets in?
It's not so much that we're cogs in a machine. I question if the machine actually produces anything worth working for. It appears that the most it does is keep us alive, as a species. With gradual improvements, it does this for a longer and longer period each century.
If that's all, surely there is another way we could achieve this without sending missives from small boxes all day, isolated from friends and loved ones.
Is it a question of motivation? I've worked with many volunteer groups and find it amazing how hard people will work without pay. People volunteer immense amounts of time on a profound variety of activities. The internet, for one. Charity, politics, religion, and the environment to name a few more. Why is it that we are inspired to give a piece of our lives to some causes but have to be paid for others? Does that mean we are paid for what is not important? If it’s not important, why are we doing it?
I understand the basic tenets of economy. If one of us wants to paint, we need materials to do so. Canvas, made from cotton, collected from fields grown by farmers. Paint, mixed from stones mined by workers in the mountains. Time, borrowed from the merchants and farmers and miners who perhaps would have preferred to do their own painting but went to work every day so someone else could.
What I don’t understand is why we spend so much time working, much more than our ancestors. Farmers, at least, had winters off. Hunters had seasons. Thanks to the controlled environment of an office, two weeks of vacation are frowned upon. Shouldn’t the opposite be true? We’ve mastered everything our forebears labored under. So why are we working harder, longer, and with less pride?
So much of what we'd "rather be doing" is artistic (paint, write, dance, sing, as well as the thousands of hobbies which involve constructing something small). They fall under two categories. First, the kinds of things people used to do when they weren't hunting for food. Things like hanging out with friends and family. And second, narcissistic activities. Painting, writing, dancing, singing, and creating is just a way of getting what is in our head out of our head and into the world at large. Never mind the ego. Every artist feels a rush of relief and satisfaction at having created something regardless of what others think.
While we're creating and spending time with loved ones, though, we need food and raw materials. For that we have to work.
Isn't there some way for us to do both? Farm half the day and focus on our hobbies the other half? Mine in the morning and paint in the afternoon? If one farm feeds a hundred people, couldn’t we take turns driving the tractor?
Aside from the overpopulation of the planet and taxation of resources, the problem is the extent to which we have gone to ensure our safety. A small cave would keep us dry and alive. A small amount of food staves off hunger and disease. A single article of clothing keeps us warm and protected. Maslow's pyramid isn't Egyptian. It is remarkably small and readily achievable.
So why do we keep building it? Why do we keep shopping after we are warm? Why do we need larger and larger houses? Why do we overeat? Isn’t there a point where our reach for security actually begins erode it? We’re overeating, overworking, and commuting several hours each way to do it. We’re putting off painting until we retire, which may never happen, even if we live that long.
How did we get to this modern machine which, in the name of efficiency and economies of scale, grew so large that instead of feeding us, we are feeding it? More importantly, how do we scale it down without destroying us all?