Mar 27, 2012

The War Against Individuality

Chaos vs. Corporate Control
Creativity vs. Predicatability 
People vs. Profit

Ugh.  This sounds so teenage and generic-punk-rock.  But inside the cliched rebellion, there are real truths at stake here.

Here's the thing I'm going to try to get at- I've noticed it from my own experience and from those close to me.  I notice it in my current work, and in past work experiences (safe writing calculated to not identify anyone- just ignore it)

Let me try again.  I'm reading Tolstoy right now.  I know... I know... it sounds snooty, but really it's a good story or I'd never have made it through.  There's just no unpretentious way to say you're reading War And Peace.  I just enjoy Russian fiction.  Deal with it.  Anyhow, one of the points Tolstoy tries to get across through the 'war' sections of the book (and maybe the 'peace', too- I'll have to think more about that) is that no one can control war.

Napoleon and the Russian generals come up with elaborate plans for each battle- and inevitably they fall apart (apparently this is true military history according to a friend- I have NO idea).  The plan is perfect in its theory, but no one soldier does what they are meant to do, and so the battle takes on a life of its own.  He suggests that historical events in a larger sense happen this way, too.  Did Napoleon choose to burn Moscow as part of his military genius-ness?  Or was he just part of a larger historical story working itself out?  Tolstoy says the latter.

I would agree.  Perhaps not with the points the author is talking about, but about life in general.  I believe (like Tolstoy, incidentally) that God is in some way in charge of everything- but that's not what we're talking about at this time.

The reason I bring this up is to discuss the rising tide of systems and corporate-ness that seem to be invading daily life more every day, to my eyes.  People/Corporations (ask Mitt Romney which is which) seem to want to systematize everything to the point that we won't have deal with human situations, we'll just follow a larger plan, handed down to us by organizations.

When I worked at Borders bookstore, we would get something called plan-o-grams.  These told us where to place each item for maximum sales.  I'm sure it was researched and calculated.  This is as opposed to the small bookstores of yesteryear, where the books would be displayed in a way that seemed to make sense, and moved if they didn't sell enough.  The point is that the person doing the stacking often did the creating.

When I started at that store, for example, our lanyard name-tags could be creative as we wanted them to be, as long as our name could be read.  As the years went by, that went away, and in its place, corporate micro-management of this small detail came about.  In the same way, at the beginning, we each had a section of the store that was "ours".  We were encouraged to create displays that were unique... gardening for example had a real shovel and hoe along with some faux flowers mounted above it.  Because the person in charge of that section (Jodi, I believe) had made that display.  That too went away as the years went by.  This was typified towards the end by earpieces we had to wear so that we could be told remotely just what to do:  one day that command was to greet customers while bouncing glittery rubber balls at the front door, so that we would increase sales of those balls that day.  Remember, Whitney?

But Borders is gone, for good or bad.  No hard feelings:  I met my wife there, after all.  Still, this kind of thinking lives on.  I saw in some magazine I was browsing in the last few days an article about the future of socializing.  It seems that soon our smart phones will be able to communicate with others' phones within a reasonable distance (say, 30 ft.) to let us know what we have in common with the strangers around us.  Just like your facebook account might tell you know which friends you have in common with a prospective "friend", this app would tell you the girl in the corner also likes Brian Eno records and Thai food.  Perhaps this could be helpful- or maybe it's a corporation "helping" just a little too much with something that men and women have had no problem with for thousands of years.

Big Brother, anyone?  And I'm not talking about the TV show.

If I may get a bit "meta" on you, this is the part of this blog entry (or is it just a blog?  Or is blog a verb?  I can't keep up) where we talk about what in the world this all means to us.

Just what kind of a world do we want?  Is what it means.  It seems right now our culture is in a tug-of-war between things like Localvores (people who want their food to come from as close as possible to their homes) and community gardens are in tension with mega-markets that import fruit from wherever it's fresh:  thus giving us ripe fruit in the middle of winter.  To make things even more confusing, there are things like Whole Foods:  A little of both of these worlds.  This is true in any number of cultural areas.

Think about the artisan movement.  We're seeing a real rise in the valuing of handmade, quality products that may cost more, but will have more character and last longer.  Contrast that with what we could call, for lack of a better scapegoat, the Wal-Mart idea of possessions.  Don't get touchy- you know what I mean.  (BTW, Wal Mart has consulted no less than Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia about its environmental affairs, so don't be too quick to judge).

But what does all this mean?  Lots of people have (well, not LOTS, but...) voted in my poll on this site for me to write more personal and family stories.  Probably because they're tired of  looking at this page or other pages on the internet, the programs on their TV, and everything around them that marginalizes the personal and replaces it with cookie cutter content (Fox has a singing competition?  Then we will, too!)

I know I am.

It also means that when we can, we should always try to push the world around us towards trusting the people "on the ground" rather than theorists who sit in offices.  I sense a bit of irony in sitting at the computer writing this, but let's stay on topic:  who knows what poor people need, for example?  Someone who works with them intimately, or an economic theorist?  And yet, more and more, it's the theorist that has the power and the intimate worker whose hands are tied by their theories, even as they try to help the actual poor.

If I may end by returning to Tolstoy's theory- we don't have to worry too much, because I do believe that the chaos of human life will always win out against this Systemation.  No matter how intricate the battle-plan, something in our human souls will always de-rail it.  And that's a reason for hope- but it doesn't give us license not to find this trend worrisome.


  1. My two cents because I'm always willing to give that much:
    There is room in this big world for all of it.
    Cell phones telling us who would make a good buddy- not for me, I like hearing different opinions but it would be great for those who have trouble making human connections. I'm thinking of all those high-functioning autistics who crave companionship but lack the social skills to find it.
    I distinctly remember the first time I went into a new Target and realized it was cookie-cutter to my usual bullseye. I wrote them a comment card thanking them for saving me the brain cells of having to re-find items. No sarcasm. This was efficient for me. Now at Christmas is where I really struggle. I want that unique item no one has seen but it is perfect for them. However, some people on my gift list really just need basic items and it is wonderful that I can catch a "I was at the Big Box today and saw this gadget I could really use." I can hop in my non-descript minivan and pick it up, or ship it from the online version.

    There's room for all it.

    Thanks for making me think.

    1. Thank you very much for your comment- lots of good thoughts there. Your comments about high-functioning autistic individuals are particularly well taken.

      But, my point, however well or poorly I made it, was more aimed at the life experience of those on the inside, the receiving end, of the plan-o-grams and corporate templates. It dehumanizes each of us to live in a world where workers are only the satellite location, remote-controlled arms of some detached manager in an office somewhere.

      We have to ask in those cases- would the management prefer robots, except that they don't want to go to the trouble/expense, and don't want the deal with the public relations nightmare? I mean this- I think in many cases they would.