Ghost in the Machine

Eighteen Months in the Info-Quarry.

Some supervisors refer to coders as slugs. But at least munchers are more easygoing than smokers held captive until break time. The best-adapted among us seem to be those who briskly walk the halls or outdoors during break and adopt a monkish solitude in the coding rooms with the help of earphones or an acquired discipline. One coder pauses sometimes to take out a small notebook and meticulously transcribe Chinese characters. A supervisor rises now and then to enact a Tai Chi routine. Anybody who hits production and quality standards gets wide recreational latitude. I once saw a veteran coder dispatch a complete meal from tossed salad to dessert--including baked potato with sour cream--and never miss a keystroke.

There is constant turnover, but some people thrive. They are born to code. Or they dote on debating definitive points of process. Or they are übercoders who have achieved some higher-level grace in the data-entry pantheon. Others have made a kind of peace, content with a paycheck that keeps them afloat. And there are many who burn out or stay because they cannot overcome inertia. One said, "I wish to hell they'd fire me so I could get out of here."

Repeat a given task over a long period and eventually you will show wear and tear. But there is something uniquely debilitating about sitting for long intervals of time and doing routine, repetitive work at a computer terminal. Beyond carpal and eye strain, data entry is mind-bending.

At one point I took on a second coding job, which put me on a terminal for 16 hours a day. By the second day, sleep had become a kind of restless stupor. After four days I flamed out and quit the second job. It wasn't so much the endless repetition or pressure to keep pace. It was the ghostliness. I've never known a job like coding where patches of your life disappear with so little trace. There is no hook with reality. No sense of product.

In his oral history Working, Studs Terkel interviews a steelworker who hates the anonymity of industrial mass production work. "Pick it up, put it down, pick it up, put it down. We handle between forty and fifty thousand pounds of steel a day," he says. "It's hard to take pride in a bridge you're never going to cross." But at least he has his steel and he's seen a bridge. Here I have only keystrokes. Beyond them is a formless electronic mass: a bridge beyond imagining. And none of my business anyway.

One day two fat cinnamon rolls are jammed in the dispensing mechanism of a vending machine. There is a buzz in the coding room. Later the rolls are gone. Somebody got three for 75 cents. Nobody owns up. Speculation goes on for hours.

Coders can't discuss documents. But it wouldn't make much difference if every one of us who has processed a juicy tidbit shouted it on busy street corners. Most people wouldn't stop to listen. They'd say, "So what, everybody knows that." And besides, they know that their knowing doesn't make much difference anyway. The forum of public discussion is gone. It's been privatized.

Many major debates in health and the environment are now playing in a new venue created by entrepreneurs who smoothly folded public indignation into the market economy and created mass tort litigation. It was as if the shrewdest young progressives of the 1960s, feeling the power of public unrest rise beneath them, said to themselves, "You know, if I could harness all this and give it some focus, I bet there'd be a ton of money in it."

The richest holy war of them all is the crusade against the nicotine empire. You don't have to code for long to get a sense of its epic scale. If there is such a thing as social chemistry, the tobacco war is social physics. To match the power of the nicotine empire requires equally huge resources on two fronts: in the courts and at the grassroots.

The nicotine empire exudes old-line corporate management style. Hierarchies are distinct and formalized. It is like a bunch of good old British boys forming up an armada. Committee of counsel is steered by the great firms of the Eastern ports. Strategies and campaigns have a military feel to them. The weight of power here is, as you would expect, the law and the dollar.

The crusaders sometimes seem like a batch of Balkan armies. Less efficiency and lots of focus on process and relationships among government agencies, nonprofits, big medical associations, and foundations. What emerges is a vast bureaucracy with leaders calling for everything from abolishing cigarettes to cutting a reasonable financial deal and declaring victory.

In the tidal flow of documents you get a sense of the rules of warfare. For example, the smoking habits of wealth or power are never in contention. Neither side rhapsodizes or impugns the Havana that accompanies a snifter of Napoleon, or the briar of private label lovingly tamped. Pipes, cigars, and the people who smoke them are pretty much off limits.

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