As the newest editor on Motion System Design, I was asked to introduce myself, and do a little tap dance, discussing what I bring to the magazine. The more I thought about it, though, the more it stirred up my occasional sentiments of insignificance. So I asked a friend for input. In his last year of college and a little stressed out, he replied, “Maybe you should talk about how it must feel to study for four years only to design people’s toasters.” I decided against pointing out that modern toasters are true marvels, with features like fuzzy-logic circuitry for a consistent brown; I knew what he meant, even if his scenario was a little shaky. We all struggle with our personal sense of significance.
Back in the days of the developing Fertile Crescent, I’d guess some people felt the same way. As nomads settled down into farms and developed more efficient ways of extracting plant and animal food from the land, the job that once occupied the whole tribe began occupying only half. Depending on how you look at it, this either forced some food-finders to look for other work, or freed them to pursue new endeavors.
Some new occupations followed naturally. One guy developed tallying systems to count sheep and barrels of grain while two others guarded the storehouse at night. But many jobs must have been unrelated to keeping everyone fed. They were more abstractly beneficial. In America today, almost everyone’s job is abstractly beneficial. I bet ten dollars yours is.
First of all, we don’t live in tribes anymore. Now, in a leap of faith, we trust strangers at the grocery store to give us food for the credits — let’s face it, our money is a little more than a wink and a nod — we collect at work. Second, it’s often difficult to witness any direct effects on humanity, much less our own life, resulting from the job-related things we complete. If linking our jobs to human or self-progression requires a long logic string, it might also require additional blind faith (or blissful ignorance) to remain satisfying, aside from, perhaps, the pay.
So we hang on. And we wait. And work and wait, for something bigger. It’s like the kid who, upon seeing someone older accomplishing something interesting, blurts out, “But I want to do it! What can I do?” At which time, he’s given the grand job of peeling the carrots, collecting the shrub clippings, or best of all, staying out of the way.
Similarly, businesses and corporations have big goals and a need for helpers who follow orders and stay out of the way. Now, I don’t mean to trivialize or diminish work in the modern era. Big corporations don’t form themselves; they’re born from big ideas that extend beyond any individual’s capabilities. Here’s what I’m saying: even if you were a professional carrot peeler, you’d be no more or less of a cog than an inventor selling hand-made prototypes door-to-door. Your blip in the factory transfer function would affect the human plight just as much as his disturbance signal rising out of the noise.
Even a hermit living in the Smokey Mountains meshes into the existential machine than reaches through the ages. On the one hand, he’s probably using the shack-building techniques of late 19th century America, the end product of human progress of yore. On the other hand, he’s likely to be paying property taxes on his shack, writing as a social critic, and wearing flannels made in Indonesia.
The fact is, you’ll never get away from being part of the human system. Until we are able to fully comprehend the intricacies of our common life and mind, a little humility and a sense of humor go a long way in accepting this. As for the magazine, as for everything else, I try to do what my dad used to mumble when he was driving: “Don’t try to fight the traffic, just get out there and add to the confusion.”