Work and the monkeysphere

This post will involve talking about the monkeysphere, so before you read it, go read this article on Cracked. Go on, it’s worth it.

Welcome back. It was good, right? What? Didn’t you read it? OK, fine, if you’re too impatient to read it, the thrust of it is this: A human cannot consider more than 150 humans to be people. Sure, if pressed, of course we’re aware that the girl at the checkout is a person with a family, ambitions, hopes and dreams, loves and losses, but ultimately, we think of her as a squicky android that tells us how much our groceries cost.

This in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, really. It’s just human nature. We can and should try to be nicer to the people around us, but ultimately, it is psychologically impossible for us to consider people we don’t know in the same terms as those we do. Those we do know are what is called our monkeysphere.

The thing about being human is that we assume human means people like those in our own respective monkeyspheres. This is why, for example, tech journalists list as a flaw that a smartphone is made of plastic and ‘feels cheap’, in a way that one made of aluminium and glass wouldn’t. Since tech journalists get to try every new machine for free (or at least deduct the cost from taxes), the price doesn’t matter to them, and they don’t consider it in the same way that someone who actually has to pay over €200 of their own money to afford the device does. One in a while, they might make mention of it being worth the price (or not), but really, the common trend in technology reviews is to discuss the merits and drawbacks of every machine as if price wasn’t an issue – which it isn’t for the person writing the review, who is unable to appreciate price in the same way as those reading their work.

It’s also why the Wall Street Journal thinks that singe mothers have six-figure incomes – all their staff writers make hundreds of thousands of dollars every year, as do all their friends, so they assume this is normal. And it’s why rich Objectivists insist that taxes be lowered across the board – they managed to work their way up, so obviously it’s possible for absolutely everyone to become a millionaire if they just work hard. (David Wong, who wrote the monkeysphere article I know you read, has done a brilliant takedown of this attitude).

But that’s not really what I want to talk about. I want to talk about attitudes towards work, based on two articles I read recently. One is this quiz, which purports to tell you which operating system is the best fit for you. Bizarrely, I was told to use Mac despite hating Apple, disliking the Mac way of doing things, and using nothing but Linux on my own PC for the last two years. (I have to use Windows at work, which makes me miss grep). However, the thing that stood out to me was question 6:

It’s no surprise that your choice of career reflects a big part of your personality. Which of the following would more closely resemble your dream job?

A.Artist. You believe that there’s nothing like expressing yourself freely.

B. Corporate executive. It’s an orderly world that you find very comfortable. 

C. Middle management. That’s where all the action is!

So, let me get this straight. Of the three broadest, most different types of jobs you could pick, two of them are management, and the other is art. So apparently nobody wants to be a scientist, engineer, programmer, electrician, plumber, builder, actor, effects person, hairdresser, tailor, janitor, doctor, nurse, minister, teacher, chef, accountant, driver, lawyer, farmer, or any of the other hundreds of jobs that involve doing actual work, and not just trying to organise those who do said real work.I also find it odd that the person who wrote the quiz seems to equate middle management with ‘where the action is’. When I Wikipediaed middle management, I discovered that this class actually describes my job, which is surprising, since pop culture and media have told me that middle managers are the pettiest and most useless people in the organisation. But anyway, sure I get action in my job, but the floor staff and mechanics have far more to do, and a whole lot more action in their days.But this is what I was talking about when I brought up the monkeysphere. The people who wrote this quiz know artists and people who work in offices, and so when they think of work, they think of offices and managers. They might be intellectually aware that factories exist and people work in them, but say the word work to them and they think of someone clicking at a computer, not of someone making frequent adjustments to a complicated machine to prevent it from jamming.The other article is this opinion piece by Karlin Lillington, in which she cites lack of employer flexibility in working hours as a hindrance for working mothers. This idea is eminently sensible – flexible hours and the ability to work from home mean that women have an easier time holding down a job and also taking care of children, which allows them to advance much further in their careers. All very logical and reasonable.The survey Lillington cites specifically looked at professional women – lawyers, accountants, programmers, etc, who can plausibly do at least some of their work at home and email it in.Her piece cites another study by Citrix, and says this about its findings

Rather depressingly, that perception fits with a survey of Irish business decision- makers done earlier in the year, in which 73 per cent of employers said the main reason they did not have flexible working policies was just that: their lack of trust in employees to work outside the office.

I have to wonder if the sample here was truly representative. Sure, an accountant, programmer, or lawyer could reasonably do at least some of her work at home and email it in, but what about a till monkey? If you work in a supermarket, it’s actually impossible to get your work done unless you’re physically present. Ditto for all those who work in factories, hotels, restaurents, and schools. Even if flexible working conditions don’t mean working at home, but rather shorter or split shifts, in most cases, someone has to be on hand to pick up the slack when you’re not present. This means that, if someone wants to work shorted hours to be at home when the kids get back from school, someone else has to work longer or do more to ensure everything gets done.Now, since Citrix’s study of women was focussed on professionals, it’s likely that its study about flexible working hours was focussed on IT companies. If so, these results are certainly irritating, and it would behoove the companies in question to allow for more flexible working arrangements.However, if a significant number of non-IT businesses were included in the survey, then their reticence toward allowing people to work from home may be less to do with lack of trust and more with the simple fact that their employees cannot in fact do their jobs if their are not at the workplace, because the workplace is where they get stuff done.There is nothing inherently wrong with Citrix focussing on IT – that’s their area, so naturally the work pracices of their own sector are going to be important to them. Lillington, however, is a different matter. While she does mention in passing that she’s talking about professional women who work in offices, the tone of her article suggests she views flexible working hours as, if not a panacea, then at least something that will help all women in their careers. I suspect that her monkeysphere is populated almost entirely by people who work in comfortable, heated offices, so naturally she assumes that what will work for them will work for everybody.And that’s the big issues I dislike about people who write about work. Those who do work in comfortable offices, as do most of their respective monkeyspheres. Their observations, and solutions to problems, are based on what they themselves know, which is quite different to the challenges facing most other people. (Except for Lucy Kellaway, whose job is apparently to explain why such ideas are bollocks).

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