Being stuck in day-long workshops for an entire week does bad things to my head. It makes me want to do bad things to the workshop organiser’s head with a length of 2×4. It makes me wonder what sins I committed in a previous life to be subjected to such torture in this one. And it makes me see disturbing parallels between the IT world and the totalitarian nightmare of George Orwell’s novel 1984. Come to think of it, these parallels work for the broader business world but I’ll stick to what I know, namely, IT.
WAR IS PEACE
IT managers and business people in general rarely seem happy if IT staff are feeling relaxed. The pervading mood I’ve felt throughout my IT career is that happy staff aren’t working hard enough. IT staff are saddled with a widespread perception that they’re overpaid (which from a certain perspective is true but this aint charity, it’s supply and demand, mofo) and so if they dare to be happy as well harsh measures are called for.
Time and time again I’ve seen deliberate management decisions taken with the intent of creating destructive conflict between individuals, between teams and between the IT and non-IT sections of a company. Competition in and of itself is a good thing because without it we’d have stagnation but being competitive doesn’t have to mean “for me to win, you must lose.” I’m appalled to see how often it’s still accepted “wisdom” that crushing your opponents (within the same company!) is the way to success.
The macho, male-dominated world of big business and IT sees perpetual conflict as the desirable state and it’s absence says that something is wrong. War is peace.
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
There’s a couple of ways to read this one but for me, in the IT world particularly this little bit of doublethink is epitomised by the concept that wireless, always-on, constant connectivity is some wonderful new freedom. Bullshit. That’s slavery. There has to be a separation between work and home life. Nobody ever uttered the dying words “I wish I spent more time at the office,” yet having the office take over every aspect of your life continues to be seen as a desirable goal.
IT workers are particularly susceptible to this because of the prevalence of gadget fetishism but it’s a horrible trap. Nobody at work knows my mobile phone number, private email address or IM contact (or my blog for that matter). I don’t have a pager or Blackberry and I never will. I never dial into the work network from home. Sometimes people simply have to deal with the fact they can’t contact me until the next business day.
I’ll quit a job before I’ll be shackled to it day and night. Time is the one thing you can never get more of and I value my personal time far more than I value being offered the freedom to access my workspace anywhere, anytime through the latest fabulous gadget. That sort of freedom is slavery.
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
This one is everywhere. Modern communication tools give us the potential to have almost unlimited access to information. At the same time the desire to clamp down on the flow of information seems to grow every day. Whether it’s from a government or a company, we’re continually hearing that “You can’t have that… You can’t know that… That’s a secret… That’s proprietary.”
This goes far beyond the idea of keeping secrets from real or perceived enemies, these days it seems that basic information is withheld from people on the same side on a routine basis. Whether it’s a government withholding information from its citizens that the laws of the land say they have the right to know or management withholding information from employees “for their own good” it seems we’re constantly being told our ignorance will make us stronger.
And it goes beyond people in power wanting to enforce ignorance on their subordinates. It’s hard to escape the feeling that a large number of people feel that their own ignorance makes them stronger. I know I’m not the only one who sees the pattern of behaviour in Bush administration refusing to accept “intelligence” that contradicted either broad political goals or specific decisions that had already been made.
And whether it’s a religious fundamentalist refusing to consider the possibility of evolution, an evolutionist refusing to consider the value of spirituality, a global warming denier refusing to accept the weight of scientific opinion or an environmentalist refusing to consider that they might not have all the answers, it’s easy to find people who prefer to maintain their current ignorance rather than weaken what they perceive the strength of their position. More than a few people seem willing to have that as their epitaph: ignorance is strength.
One of the most quoted lines from Orwell’s 1984 is “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.” It’s this line that was resonating in my head as I sat through what felt like the hundredth hour of workshops. Working in IT, we tend to be more comfortable with the idea of a rapidly changing future and to a greater or lesser extent, we are a part of actively creating that future.
It seems that every technological innovation that can improve people’s lives can simultaneously be corrupted so that it lessens the quality of life. Every step taken to make information freer can be adapted or twisted to lock information down further. Every advance can be used to push someone a step back.
The goals of The Party in 1984 are simple: “The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.” Today we have companies who say “Don’t be evil” while collaborating with a regime that represses, imprisons and tortures dissenting voices. A company that famously said to choose them “So 1984 won’t be like 1984″ embraces the concept of Ignorance is Strength so fully that they criminalise their most ardent fans for simply disseminating information (speculative information at that.)
Without wanting to be a starry-eyed techno-utopian, it’s fair to say that working in IT gives us many more opportunities to promote positive change than the average worker has. Do we limit ourselves to a life where the object of work is work, the object of technological change is technological change? (and dare I add the object of blogging is blogging?) It’s worth asking ourselves what contributions our decisions are really making.