Ghost in the Machine

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?"


"Whatever. Where's it coming from?"

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

"Watermelon hand lotion?"


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.

Training here takes about four hours. Pay is about $8 an hour, with benefits of a sort available after a thousand to 2,000 hours depending on whether you work for a temp agency or the company itself. In either case, this is project work. We are what organizers of today's workplace call the "contingent workforce."

Contingent is the term that replaced temporary after temporary became fleeting. Work here lessens with every advance in technology. Jobs disappear overnight out over the Pacific Rim, where enclaves of well-educated, English-speaking people will work for a fraction of the going U.S. wage. A while back there was a note on the bulletin board that said, "This is a test and only a test. If it was a real job there would be decent wages, benefits, and promotions."

This is a typical workplace of the 1990s, part of a job pool shared by students, graduates in holding patterns, immigrants, seniors who can't make it on their pensions, parents who need second jobs and third jobs to support their families, downsized workers, and people being tossed out of welfare programs.

There are also people here who have been misled. Say you are a college graduate with whopping loans, a current student accumulating loans, or a prospective student looking forward to your very own staggering debt load. All because you bought the story that you had to have a college degree these days.

University of Minnesota President Mark Yudof, looking for ways to pay faculty salary increases, said recently that, given the 4.57 percent increase in tuition, admitting another thousand students to the Minneapolis campus might be done "with good result."

The same day, the state planning agency said that according to its projections, only one in four jobs available in Minnesota between now and 2005 will require a four-year college degree. Combine that with a study by researchers at Northern Illinois University that says only 17 percent of the full-time jobs available last year to low-skilled Minnesota job seekers paid at least poverty-level wages of $12,278 for a family of three; that nearly a third of welfare recipients were already in the workforce; and that welfare had, in effect, become a subsidy because wages were too low to support a family.

The new age is noisily touted as an economic bonanza. But low-level jobs along the information highway are way stations at best. They deal in phantom know-how. Coding regimen. Telemarketing technique. Customer service or collection procedures. Routines and processes that change often or disappear entirely--repetitive work that claims chunks of days for unmemorable lengths of time. Tasks that will never again prove useful. Competencies not transferable to any other job. The best one can hope to reap from them is a reference saying you showed up on time and did what you were told. Had a good attitude.

During a conversation in the St. Paul Pioneer Press between MIT economist Lester Thurow and Arthur Rolnick, research director of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank, Rolnick says at one point, "We've got virtually full employment now."

Thurow replies: "What's happened is that unemployment numbers cease to have any meaning, because we have this vast army of partially employed or underemployed people."

Rolnick says: "I'd distinguish between skilled and unskilled workers, and lousy and good jobs."

With an unemployment rate of 5.3 percent at the time, Thurow said there were officially 7.5 million unemployed people but another 6 million unemployed who weren't counted because they didn't meet the test for active workers. There were 5 million more who worked part-time but would like to work full-time, and another 8 million in temporary jobs.

He added, "We've got 2 million people who work on call. We've got 8 million working who are one-person, self-employed contractors. And we've got 6 million missing American males between the ages of 25 and 60. The Census Bureau says they exist, but the Labor Department can't find them."

Thurow is known for saying what average workers have come to believe: Government statistics on the labor market are rigged. But it was the establishmentarian Rolnick who coined the defining label for work in the 1990s.  

Lousy jobs.

We can eat at our workstations as we code. The coding room is alive with the rustle of candy wrappers and the hiss of pop cans. In a recent informal poll, microwave popcorn was voted best aroma. Worst aroma was burnt microwave popcorn.

Coders bring food from home or satchels from fast-food outlets. Potluck food nights are like street festivals. But the constant sidekick and faithful droid of cyberserfs is the vending machine.

It's not just the clever tiny meals or the ice-cream-bar machine with the vacuum tube that retrieves your selection in full view. Vending is sustenance, investment, and drama played out in the 10-minute interludes of break time. Encounters at a vending machine can be as meaningful as your workday's going to get.

Beverly has stalled out at a candy machine. She says, "I want the Almond Joy but there's a Mounds ahead of it. See?" I could be a sport and buy the Mounds but it's not in the cards. I'm set on a tiny bag of Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies. The moment passes and Beverly leaves empty-handed. I get my cookies. It's enough.

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.

Maybe the war is mostly over cigarettes because that's where the medical research pointed, or because they are the biggest and most widespread use of tobacco. Maybe it is because both the nicotine empire and the crusaders can safely aim at identical markets: minorities, blue-collar workers, and women.

None of these groups except for Native Americans took up smoking in the beginning. It was too expensive. Smoking was an upper-class pastime until automatic machines of the 1890s turned out millions of cigarettes and they became cheap enough for mass consumption.

Cigarettes became a poor folks' smoke. People who, coincidentally or not, had less control over how they lived and died. People who, even if they knew the dangers, probably figured that the respite outweighed the risk.

This summer, Congress voted to continue a taxpayer subsidy of $34 million that pays 42 percent of tobacco farmers' crop insurance against crop loss. The same week, about 3,400 Minnesota prisoners who smoke got ready to quit cold turkey after the Legislature declared the prisons smoke-free. In Texas lockups, the price of a single prohibited cigarette has reportedly risen from 25 cents to two dollars.

It's a fair bet that when the nicotine litigation is over and the last greenbacks have fluttered into their appointed piles, soft Havanas will nestle together in their humidors and briars will line up in their walnut racks. And the son of a bitch who steps outside the foundry door for a smoke and brief respite from a punch press that could kill him in a heartbeat will have to come up with five bucks a pack to pay for the whole fucking deal.

Little changes. Not raw material or work itself. The new work is less physical, but its essential character is the same. Somewhere at the beginning of every epoch and empire people do repetitive labor. And raw material simply succeeds itself.

Assume a massive environmental lawsuit. But begin way back at the farms and quarries of the nation's earliest settlers. In time, succeeding generations of workers abandon those rustic sites to go work in the new factories and mills rising across the country. Cities grow. So do mountains of industrial and household waste. The easiest solution is to bury it in those old farms and quarries. Who would care?

Except in time oddities start cropping up. Some are spectacular. Methane burps from a landfill and forms a silent stream, flowing across low ground into the basement of a nearby farmhouse. Kaboom! More common are maladies and chronic complaints traced to a growing list of buried toxins. There is nervous talk about drinking water.

Public uproar finally requires action so Congress comes up with Superfund. The idea is to find whoever is responsible for creating those toxic landfills and make them pay the costs of cleanup. Only when liability can't be pinned down will taxpayers have to pick up the tab.  

Hundreds of contaminated sites turn up across the nation. Around them circle indignant citizens, anxious politicians, reformers of all kinds, a nervous batch of potentially culpable polluters, a mishmash of environmental law, and cleanup estimates in the hundreds of billions.

Congress, it seems, has gotten itself off the hook not by coming up with a solution, but by acceding to a different venue. Mass tort litigation will determine the essential questions of every problem, every site. What was in the ground? Who put it there? What was the damage to whom? Who pays how much as a result?

And so the old farms and quarries come full circle, serving yet another new age by supplying its essential raw material: data.

We peck at our keyboards along 10 double rows of four 8-foot tables. There is a vista of downtown. Pigeons cower at our window sills. Peregrine falcons who nest in hutches built for them at the tops of office towers are out hunting, spiraling in and out of the sun and shadowed canyons.

Three Burmese women listen to earphones and sway in unison while they code. A woman asks that someone please return the chair she needs to ease her sore back. A man stands to shake crumbs and lint from his keyboard. The man across from him looks up. The first man holds his keyboard across his chest and says, "Any requests?" The second man says, "Lady of Spain."

We go back to work.

Today I am hooked up to my new Walkman. I am going to see if I can achieve detachment from the content of my documents. Mahler's Symphony No. 1 in D major fills my head.

Down my row waves of pages roll. Monitors tops are decorated as totems with coins, feathers, dried flowers, and seed pods. Gummed labels of supermarket fruit are stuck to the frames of screens.

My folder today is full of laboratory accounts of procedures testing potentially toxic materials. The chief participants are Sprague Dawley rats. All have led privileged lives. They are at the peak of health, well groomed and in comfortable, individual quarters. Feeding is ad libitum, meaning whenever they choose.

Earlier, on the news, an announcer reported that in Wisconsin, employees had forced an election to gain union representation at a rural Wal-Mart. The result is 54 to 27 against unionization. It is the first vote in the U.S. at a Wal-Mart store.

The second movement of the Mahler crashes in my ears. Kräftig bewegt. Proceeding strongly. One hundred numbered Sprague Dawleys are collected and injected or squirted in the eyes or nose with an unidentified material. The rats are monitored and given the treatment again and again during the test period, which may run on for days, weeks, or months. The object is to determine the maximum tolerable dose, the point when the damage done is still bearable and just before irreversible reaction or death sets in.

Across from me an elderly man finishes a microwaved tray of frozen fettuccini alfredo. He now sips green tea.

When the prescribed procedures are completed all the rats are sacrificed by intravenous injection, electrocution, cervical dislocation, decapitation, or asphyxiation.

Two rows over, a coder shouts "double play." His pastime, in earphones, is relaying play by play in shorthand. He once bellowed NBA-playoff and Twins-game fragments simultaneously, coding with proficiency all the while.

The Teamster walkout at UPS is the talk of the coding room. As the days go by, coders say to each other, "They're still out." One of the issues involves sticking up for part-timers. Imagine.

Some experiments on the Sprague Dawleys test the long-term effects of the subject material on vital organs or disease indicators. Excessive lethargy. Hunched posture. Ragged fur. Soiled anal area.

Time for a break. The sticker on the tissue dispenser in the rest room stall says, "Please use the smallest roll first." The word "smallest" has been neatly crossed out and "Small" is written alongside. But "Small" is also lined through and another hand has written "Smaller." Coders sidetracked into content.

On the way home that night a bumper sticker on a rusty GTO ahead of me on I-494 comes into focus. It reads: "I CAN'T GO TO WORK TODAY BECAUSE THE VOICES TOLD ME TO STAY HOME AND CLEAN MY GUNS."

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >