Ghost in the Machine

Eighteen Months in the Info-Quarry.

Our training person was breezing along the information highway like a Lexus through a bunch of beaters when she paused, made sure us 20 new temps were still breathing, and said: "Just remember. Content is none of your business. Get sidetracked by it and your days here are numbered."

Huh? This was to be a data entry job. Learn the routine. Peck the keys. Earn a pellet. Her warning seemed as dire as Aveda's billboard on Washington Avenue advising warehouse-district habitués to "Practice Safe Scents."

But she was right. For one thing, we all signed confidentiality agreements and were even admonished against idle talk with family or co-workers. For another, content on this job could be uniquely seductive.

In most data entry jobs, there is no real content. Just data. And data is your friend. There is always a way to make a game out of processing it to get through your shift. But we were to become document coders, amassing data bases for attorneys involved in huge lawsuits known as mass tort litigation. Oil spills. Breast implants. Superfund sites. Cigarettes. Class action of all kinds.

Coders like us are fastened like Zebra snails to the undersides of mass tort litigation. The discovery phase of huge lawsuits uncovers mountains of documents--any piece of information that may have a bearing on the case. Everything from a Post-It note to a lengthy book from any source or historical point in time.

Every page is scanned by a coder, distilled into keywords, and typed into computer memory. Hundreds of coders can be involved for more than a decade working on tens of millions of documents. It is akin to rebuilding the pyramids--only this time in cyberspace using billions of keystrokes.

I lasted a year and a half, mostly pecking away at mindless heaps of busywork. But now and then documents piqued my interest. I'd begin to read as I coded. My pace would slow and my production falter. I might even get a verbal warning from my temp-herder and have to retrain myself to scan, not read.

Try ignoring the minutes of a corporate board of directors battling multibillion-dollar litigation that is front-page news. Train yourself to ignore content and deny meaning. Focus only on your piece of a process. Become a device. And don't get sidetracked.

Here's what it's like.

Inside double doors off the elevator lobby a receptionist with a Ph.D. in 17th-century English literature and $62,000 in student loans hands me my clip-on badge. A smiling manager from the temp agency checks me off on her clipboard.

I head for a project encampment at one end of a largely vacant floor in a downtown office tower. Along the way the gray halls are strewn with broken chairs, dead computer hardware, and stacks of numbered cartons. Side rooms hold still more cartons. I find a workspace among rows of long tables lined with people staring into monitors and build a nest of my belongings.

At shortly after 8 o'clock I check out a numbered manila folder and floppy disk at a central desk. Then I log onto my computer and head down a section of information highway that's more like crossing Nebraska on I-80.

Today my manila folder might contain copies of one day's paperwork from some corporate minion in 1958. Or it could be a series of scientific articles, financial spreadsheets, or government regulations. Or maybe the smudged receipts for a load of industrial waste hauled to a remote landfill decades ago.

The floppy disk contains a form to be completed for each document in the folder. Blanks are to be filled with key words--names, titles, organizations, dates, locations, subject matter. Why? Well, what if you wanted to instantly find out what meetings a certain person attended in a specific location during April of 1967? And that's an easy question.

While I'm coding, my computer records the pace and quality of my work. In some data-entry operations, the machine even tracks keystrokes with minimum standards as high as 8,000 an hour. Here I am measured on pages and documents processed. Standards vary according to complexity, but there is rarely time to dally.

Some workers around me wear earphones and exchange tapes throughout the day. Hootie. The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Devo. Lacking the knack of working to a soundtrack, I listen to keyboards and the flicking sound of a nearby archivist who counts every page of every folder worked on every day. He has a law degree. Every week he counts to over 50,000.

I begin to work my way through the folder, scanning each page for codeable data. A fruity aroma seeps along our row of workstations. Heads pop up like prairie dogs. Keystrokes subside.

"Anybody smell watermelon?"

"Cantaloupe."

"Whatever. Where's it coming from?"

"Elaine. She gets this hand lotion at Garden of Eden. She uses the cologne too."

"Watermelon hand lotion?"

"Casaba."

Keystrokes resume. Elaine, in earphones, never looks up.

Around the room, recent arrivals from Somalia, Burma, and Bolivia work alongside young locals waiting for steady jobs and downsized pink-, white-, and blue-collar workers who have joined this project for the same reasons Okies headed for California. Decent wages have dried up.

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