Suddenly summoned to witness something great and horrendous, we keep fighting not to reduce it to our own smallness.
― John Updike
Much of my thinking goes into figuring out what the hell is going on these days. I’m distinctly unhappy with how work has evolved over the course of my career. On the one hand I feel like I’ve become that guy who pines for the “good ole days”. At the same time, I crave progress and a better world. I don’t want tomorrow to be like yesterday at all. The progress and World I desire didn’t exist in the past, but we were moving far faster toward it then. The good times of the past were defined by progress and purpose of work. It is the sense of progress, the meaning of work and sense of purpose that has been drained from my day. I realize that my expectations of work resolve around the spirit of progress toward something with importance and meaning. Work should have a clear purpose beyond simply delivering a paycheck. Work should be life affirming beyond its mere conduct.
I feel I’m living in parentheses
― Steven Wilson
I sat down recently with one of my managers to make an admission that felt rather profound. My expectations of work are rather far beyond anything my employer can deliver on. This conclusion is rather intensely sad. Rather than lift me up and encourage me to greater heights, the demands of my job are smaller than me. I will have to lower myself to meet them. I don’t think this is uncommon, but rather a sad testament to today. I think this sentiment is broadly applicable and the strain between survival and a life of meaning has grown acute society-wide. More and more we aren’t dreaming or grasping for something bigger than ourselves. Day in and day out life is merely about survival and a host of petty concerns. The lack of meaning and purpose is a reflection of society as a whole. Most people are struggling even if the economy is humming. Our Nation is about reacting to fear, distrust and hatreds than aspiring to progress, hope and betterment. Work sadly reflects this time with cruel parallels. \
Smallness is subversive, because smallness can creep into smaller places and wreak transformation at the most vulnerable, cellular level. In a time when largeness is threatening to topple us, I wish to remember and praise the beauty of smallness, in order to banish the Goliath of loneliness.
― Sarah Ruhl
I told my manager, “I think you’re all basically good people, you can’t meet my needs in the current system.” I continued, “the system isn’t going to change to meet my expectations, so my expectations need to change.” It was an earnest and deep realization about the nature of work today. It is easier said than done. To make this happen, I need to let go of my deepest principles, hopes and dreams about work. I never wanted to be that guy who just went to work for a paycheck and spent time daydreaming about living a different life. I never wanted to be that guy who couldn’t wait to leave each day to really live, and found the weekends were never long enough to make up for the time lost. Yet here I am, being all those things because work has become so entirely empty of importance, meaning and value. It does not have to be like this, and ultimately this state serves no one, not even those who seemingly benefit.
In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure no one listens.
― Judith Lewis Herman
It is instructional to examine some of the concrete aspects of work that could step into this abyss and form some purpose and meaning. For example, we have a national program to reclaim the supercomputing throne again. It is an exemplar of what is wrong with today’s World in many ways. It is what masquerades as a big idea today. Instead, it is a very small idea. Supercomputing has ridden the coattails of Moore’s law for fifty years and that time is coming to an end. For a while we could advance in computing without any strategy or effort, just an expenditure of money. Those days are over, but the tiny thoughts surrounding it are still present. Rather than react to this reality we are simply repackaging the same old stale ideas we have used for the past 25 years. The use of modeling and simulation is an essential modern scientific tool. Among the things that need to be done to enable effective modeling and simulation the supercomputing hardware is the least important thing. It is the furthest away from reality and its impact is diluted by a host of steps that all must be done correctly for the hardware to have meaning. This current program is shorn of effort in all of the most important things in modeling and simulation. The greatest gap is the sense of meaning that this program has in the real world is simply a marketing ploy. It has no reality or substance at all.
Beyond scientific progress, we need social and societal progress in many fronts. Science has often been at the vanguard of change either providing new truths to confront or energizing change through technology. We should all be trying to make a better World for all our citizens. Today’s world is trying to resist the truth and changes at every turn. We have huge swaths of society resisting the clearly defined risk of climate change through desperate ignorance. Technological change with information technology has become incredibly destabilizing both socially and politically. It is driving subtle social changes with how we form community, how we communicate and inform each other. It is having also been harnessed by the forces against progress to energize fear, and anger. This has emboldened hatred, bigotry and conflict that acts to solidify the hold of the powerful over society. We are headed for a massive conflict that will shape our future. The current situation is not sustainable in any way.
At the core of the conflict is the clash between the old and the new, the forces of progress against stagnation. In the United States this looks like a poorly educated shrinking white majority joined with a hyper-wealthy ruling class pitted against an array of minorities along with the highly educated. The status quo forces on the right want two things: putting these minorities back in their ghettos and closets, and a continuation of the pillaging of the Nation and stockpiling of wealth. They are using fear and authoritarian tendencies along with anti-democratic means to fight against progress. Right now, they are winning. Many of the people most harmed by the hyper-wealthy ruling class are supporting their political agenda. This support comes directly from the agenda of hate, violence and bigotry arising from their misplaced blame for their woes.
Part of the problem is that the forces of progress are not unified about anything, and this lack of solidarity as a movement is exploited by the right. If the forces on the left cannot find common ground all of them will be ground up under the jack boot of the right. Progress is preyed upon by fear and mistrust at every corner. The forces on the right behave with utter contempt of history, science and decency at every turn. They are hypocrites in every act, yet they still win. Their actions produce an increasingly desperate economic situation for their poorly educated, but hateful supporters without consequence. Without this critical feedback loop, we are in a dangerous spiral toward fascism, which the authoritarian rabble would welcome.
Perhaps one of the greatest issues we have is a deep and pervasive lack of trust. We don’t trust anyone with anything today. The cost of this lack of trust is massive and paralyzing. It is very clear that my employer doesn’t trust me at all. It is clear that the government doesn’t trust my employer either. People don’t trust the government, and everything is getting worse. We now have a President who pours gasoline on the lack trust by attacking our most trusted institutions. He is in the midst of turning the conservative movement against our most hallowed law enforcement agencies. The very rule of law is being challenged. All of this will drive wedges into our social order that will end up killing people. Long before people die the social chaos and damage will unfold. We will see problems already present due to low trust to magnify. The challenges already existed, and the current situation is only amplifying an already dangerous situation. A host of difficult economic concerns that already limit any benefit that normal people receive from economic growth will only get more strained.
Micromanagement is the destroyer of momentum.
― Miles Anthony Smith
I can see the lack of trust daily at work. We are micromanaged in everything we do and watched like hawks. Everything we do is treated with suspicion. The micromanagement at attitude toward the work we do is a leading cause of smallness of thinking. With little trust in evidence in the work place we cut our work into tiny increments that are devoid of risk taking. The overwhelming lack of trust leads to the definition of work that takes minuscule risks since failure is unacceptable. Increasingly, our expertise is unwelcome either in informing the government, or even internally. There used to be a time where the experts, the institutions and the government worked together to solve big problems and craft solutions to vexing issues. Now everything is so small that nothing big can even be attempted.
Authority—when abused through micromanagement, intimidation, or verbal or nonverbal threats—makes people shut down & productivity ceases.
― John Stoker
Vexing problems require risky solutions as well, and with risk off the table we simply avoid hard problems. Today that chain is broken at every level with our leadership being increasingly devoid of intellectual depth. Our experts are ignored, the institutions just want money and the government controls the money. Expertise is unwelcome because it only complicates the process and gets in the way of the money. This problem is one of the core issues with any strive for excellence and utility of peer review. Our institutions increasingly don’t care what they do as long as its paid for. The government has no interest in the work or its quality. All of this is a horrible downward spiral. In its wake value, meaning and quality are sacrificed. At the core of this maelstrom is an awful lack of trust and honesty that sprawls across society. If we can’t trust each other, we can’t work together and doing anything great is completely out of reach.
We are incredibly fear driven as a society. This fear makes us small, timid and undermines any chance for greatness. The lack of progress, fear driven beliefs and trust deficit only benefits the powerful and rich at the top of society. It only benefits these people in the short term. in the long term their power and wealth are diminished by the lack of growth overall. They only gain a relative degree of power, wealth and standing in comparison to the common man. We are living in a period where overwhelming fear is being used as a tool of the powerful. In the wake of 9/11 we saw irrational fears used to justify vast authoritarian overreach that continues to this day. We see huge defense budgets to be pillaged by the wealthy. The post 9/11 World has taken the United States directly toward a being a police state. People don’t even bat an eyelash at our massive level of imprisonment. It is a deeply unhealthy characteristic of our Nation, and most people are oblivious. At the same time the fear produces a compliant populace hungering for the safety of strong man rule. We see this playing out across the West as Democracy recedes in response. As Democracy recedes war will surely follow.
People care much more for how things look than how things are.
― Donna Lynn Hope
Today, work just seems small, a tidal wave of the small and insignificant drowns purpose and meaning. The tide of micromanagement underlies a lack of trust combined with a broad core of structural dishonesty. Almost everyone is drowning in this sea of minutia that cripples our ability to focus on anything big. All of us are simply buried in mountains of useless bullshit too deep to allow us to concentrate on anything important. Meanwhile we are being taken over by authoritarian forces pushing us headlong into a police state. Many Americans are welcoming the imposition of rule by a strong man ruler. The loss of fundamental principles of our democracy are accepted and even welcomed. We are headed headlong toward some sort of modern version of civil war. Conflict is almost inevitable, it is just a matter of time until society fractures. Maybe work is small because more important things are happening. It is time to pay attention.
Distrust is like a vicious fire that keeps going and going, even put out, it will reignite itself, devouring the good with the bad, and still feeding on empty.
― Anthony Liccione