December 12, 2017

The Secret Joys of Bureaucracy

“So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments
for inspectors to inspect inspectors.”

-Buckminster Fuller

We met anthropologist David Graeber last time. His book The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy takes on a universally-acknowledged kind of modern workplace drudgery: the mind-numbing bureaucracies built around filling in forms. This is from an interview in The Guardian:

A few years ago David Graeber’s mother had a series of strokes. Social workers advised him that, in order to pay for the home care she needed, he should apply for Medicaid, the US government health insurance programme for people on low incomes. So he did, only to be sucked into a vortex of form filling and humiliation familiar to anyone who’s ever been embroiled in bureaucratic procedures.

At one point, the application was held up because someone at the Department of Motor Vehicles had put down his given name as “Daid”; at another, because someone at Verizon had spelled his surname “Grueber.” Graeber made matters worse by printing his name on the line clearly marked “signature” on one of the forms. Steeped in Kafka, Catch-22 and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, Graeber was alive to all the hellish ironies of the situation but that didn’t make it any easier to bear. ‘We spend so much of our time filling in forms,’ he says. ‘The average American waits six months of her life waiting for the lights to change. If so, how many years of our life do we spend doing paperwork?’

The matter became academic, because Graeber’s mother died before she got Medicaid. But the form-filling ordeal stayed with him. “Having spent much of my life leading a fairly bohemian existence, comparatively insulated from this sort of thing, I found myself asking: is this what ordinary life, for most people, is really like? Running around feeling like an idiot all day?”

In other words, it’s almost 2018 — with all our smart technology, you’d think we could do better — for the people on both sides of the bureaucratic desk. The interview continues:

[Graeber] quotes with approval the anarchist collective Crimethinc:

Putting yourself in new situations constantly is the only way
 to ensure that you make your decisions unencumbered
 by the nature of habit, law, custom or prejudice
 – and it’s up to you to create the situations.

That’s good paradigm-shifting advice. We could follow it all the way to eliminating “the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy.” As you would expect, a whole bunch of enterprising software developers are already on it — here’s a software list. In fact, if it’s a dull, repetitive job, we probably already have technology that can do it better than humans can.

But that would eliminate all those mind-numbing bureaucratic jobs. Then what? Then it’s time for the second half of the Buckminster Fuller quote above:

The true business of people should be to go back to school
 and think about whatever it was they were thinking about
before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.

A friend of mine was a chimney sweep. He’d be up on the roof, shaking down soot with his long-handled brushes, and downstairs his helpers would screen off the fireplace and capture the soot with a high-powered vacuum before it ruined the homeowner’s den. “Don’t wallow in it,” he’d tell them.

That’s also good paradigm-shifting advice. Trouble is, our brain wiring loves to wallow in the old ways of doing things — including filling in forms — at least until, as the saying goes, the pain of status quo becomes greater than the pain of change.

We’ll be looking more at workplace paradigm shifts in the coming weeks. But first, next time we’ll let a poet help us wallow a bit more in workplace drudgery.

 

Kevin Rhodes is on a mission to bring professional excellence and personal wellbeing to the people who learn, teach, and practice the law. His past blog posts for the CBA have been collected in two volumes — click the book covers for more information.

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