The Human Cubicle: machines haven't replaced humans; humans havereplaced machines

Tap, Tap Tap, ouch. Tap, Tap, Tap Ouch!

If you can believe it, this was probably the most uttered phrase that passed through my mind last week as a pinched nerve and inflamed tendonitis gripped my wrist. It’s the reason for my recent irritability, dejection, and most of all, lack a productivity in the writing sector.

The alternating pattern of tap, tap, pain, is the result of either corporate greed or stupidity—neither of which tend to elicit sympathy from me. So what happened? My boss decided to take on a project bigger than she could handle—pretty unavoidable though when you’ve bet your entire company on two teachers and a neverending flow of typing work such as research paper editing and the creation of teaching materials. And this time she really bit off more than any of us could chew by accepting a job that required us to transcribe dictation from an audio CD. ALL 8 hours of it. If anyone out there has experience with transcription, the listening/transcription time ratio isn’t even close. This means to say that it does not take one hour to type out one hour of diction; in fact, it’s more like a 1:6 ratio. For every 10 minutes of tape you listen to it takes about a hour to transcribe—unless of course you’re awesome like me.

So, staring down the barrel of imminent failure, my boss panicked as the deadline swiftly approached, as this transcription work was to be completely ON TOP OF the 8 or 9 classes I teach everyday. Now, because I’m a musician, I have an awesome ear, which means that I don’t miss information and can get pretty much every word spoken. In addition to my incredible accuracy, I was also much faster than my co-worker and beat the 1:6 ratio by clocking in at around a 1:2 ratio. This mean that instead of an hour of tape taking me 6 hours, I could do it in two. What this also meant was that my fingers were flying across the keyboard for about 2 or 3 weeks straight without much of a break. At one point, in an act of desperation my boss offered to pay me an extra hourly wage at home to put some hours in at my own desk, during my own free time. I agreed to only give one hour of my time if only to end this maddess sooner than later.

While my wrist would frequently succumb to the expected muscle cramps one experiences with extended periods of typing, I hit a serious brick wall on the second to last day of the assignment. During the homestretch, with about an hour or so to go, my right hand surrendered to a deep and sharp pain that seemed to cripple my movement. My hand gave out. The pain was such that I couldn’t turn my wrist well and continuing was impossible. I immediately ceased work and proclaimed to my office manager that it was impossible for me to continue that day. (My boss was not in the office that day)

The next day, when I gravely explained to my boss that the tendonitis in my hand was causing me severe pain and weakness, I illustrated to her in clear language that I was not going to put myself at risk for surgery after developing carpal tunnel syndrome from all this typing. At this her expression fell silent, and her brow sank into a mild state of confusion as she tried to imagine the veracity of my humanity. Yes I’m human; I’m not a machine.

“Did you go to the doctor?” she inquired with an incredulous tone.

This is typical of people who are too passive aggressive to ask for details that might expose them as being a pure asshole. I know the game. The idea is that if I hadn’t been to a doctor, then my injury wasn’t very serious—and to some extent, she could cleverly convince herself that was lying just to be lazy about my work.

Having been in Japan long enough, I know that the first thing they ask you when you go to the front counter at a hopsital is: Did your injury happen at home or work? I wanted spite her and surprise her with an unexpected case of blackmail by saying something to the effect of:

“I’d be happy to go to the hospital and claim this as a work injury if it would please you—a claim that might also result in the investigation of your company and the inadvertant revelation of your tax fraud and illegal employment practices”

But rather than give it all away in one shot, I decided to make her sweat under the veil of subtle implication by saying:

“No. I haven’t been to the doctor…YET….”

Eventually I finished the project by typing with my left hand the very next day and refused to type for the rest of the week. After that, my wrist continued to bother me day and night, and I was absolutely livid. After working 8 hours a day, I couldn’t even come home and engage in my creative life as things like typing on my computer and playing the guitar were impossible. The thought alone drove me nuts: here I was, having saved her ass by completing a deadline at the expense of my wrist just so that she could put a nice fat paycheck in her pocket. Meanwhile, I’m the only one who is stuck with this wrist for the rest of my life and I’ll be damned if I’m getting surgery so she can get a nice little bonus.

But here’s the real killer: I know I’m not the only employee exploited past the reasonable limitations of my humanity. Indeed, in all nations and across all social classes—but especially those in lower positions—are treated like machines. What’s really going on here though: is it stupidity? Managers who are just out of touch with the realization that too much work spread over two few human resources is a BAD THING? Or is it just corporate greed? The shiny few in the ivory towers hoping everyday that they might squeeze every last bit of energy out of our souls—no matter how few workers we are—just to grow that profit margin a little fatter this quarter?

Whatever the case may be, I really paid the price these past two weeks, as this injury has encroached substantially in my creative life. And trust me, when you mess with my creative life, I kill you. I DON’T CARE ABOUT YOUR PROFITS; I CARE ABOUT MY HUMANITY AND HEALTH.

Look, no one likes to be overworked. But in all honesty, managers that are in touch with the feelings of their employees can  really save us a lot of hassle by destroying contempt and motivating workers to the max. I think some bosses underestimate the truly volatile situation created by heavy workloads spread across too few people. Trying to force 2 people to do the work of 4 is a recipe for disaster. And more importantly, it’s NOT a sustainable model. Just because things are getting done doesn’t mean the overall picture of your company is any better. Ultimately under his model things like accuracy and quality will absolutely suffer, and not only because of the focused contempt of overworked employees, but by the laws of simple common sense. You cannot maintain the same quality of work when there are too few resources utilized for more and more work.

Over the past week my wrist has slowly crept back to life and the pain is subsiding little by little each day. Yet, when it first started I did become extremely alarmed, as I mentioned that the pain was not merely muscle pain. At one point I was experiencing tingling sensations and numbness in my hand which indicated that the medial or ulna nerve was being pinched by the inflammation of my carpal tunnel. Luckily my friend, who’s prone to wrist injuries, was able to lend me a brace that has been able to keep my wrist in a neutral position for most of the time. That, mixed with a bit of cold and hot therapy has helped me regain some comfort in my wrist, though it still feels weak at times.

I think more than anything this experience has reminded me that health is everything. My grandfather told me this one time and I’ll never forget it: If you don’t have health, you don’t have anything. All of your ambitions, dreams, goals, and aspirations can be cut down by poor health. That’s why when I watch people take their health for granted I truly see a slow suicide, as many of the habits they subscribe to only put their health in danger. Taking care of your health can mean anything from eating better, to getting more sleep, and even making sure that work is not your life.

When Steve Jobs died, I didn’t really dwell much on his success, his creations, or his money. The message his death really sent to me is that: health can fail anyone, so take care. No matter how much money or success he accumulated, nothing could save him. It’s something to think about the next time to want to shove that cheeseburger down your throat or skip out on some fruits and vegetables. It’s also something to think about when considering your future health and work plan. People spend their whole lives working so they can “enjoy” retirement. Why? enjoy your youth I say. Your health will inevitably fail as you age and get older; what good is your money then? What good is your career when you can’t go to work anymore? What good are dreams long after your body loses the ability to live them?

A great Buddhist master told a story that illustrated something along this point. He talked about how many young monks who struggle with meditation say, “I’ll meditate and study harder later, I’m young now and restless.” The master would often reply, “Why study and discipline yourself later? When you are older your back hurts and you can’t sit for very long. When you’re old, your mind becomes tired and cannot not focus well. Study and meditate now while you have the energy and health to do it.”

Truly wise words.

Matthew Rosario

American / Writer / Musician

  • Oh man… Dont even make me start talking. That really is EVERYWHERE in the world. Stupid managers. PLUS now with Europe crisis and recession it is even worse because managers use that excuse to make you work even more.
    This is a shitty world when we see from that angle. Anyway, you are absolutly right health really is the most important thing we have.

    • Hahaha. It's true that manager's and bosses use that as a major excuse: ohh we have less people and we need to save money, so people have to start doing more than usual….

      And we're supposed to just sit there and do it, as if there's NOTHING else that can possibly be done. How about you taking a little pay cut buddy? I'd love to see managers or bosses over that, but it will never happen of course.

  • Anonymous

    having been on both sides of the fence — as office drone & as manager — if you truly can't refuse, do what you feel is enough and then start screwing it up and making tons of mistakes. and let the boss find out, and let them fix it. most likely they won't take that risk again. there's a reason the phenomenon of going to the busiest person is called 'the curse of competence.' the jackass who sits in the office next to me spends all day having super loud conversations about his work game, yelling at his son, and pounding mindlessly on his desk. he gets 1/4 of the workload because he fucks everything up. same story with my friend N's incompetent boss. i could go on & on…and, you ask, how do these fools keep their jobs? kissing ass, and being white guys who can talk enough business b.s. to impress the higher-ups. so work to what you feel your limit is, and then start messing up colossally, and just keep saying, 'I don't know how that happened…' and look innocent. Believe me, it works – I've seen it time & time again. and careful with the wrist for about a month, carpal tunnel can flare up suddenly with very little aggravation. consider taking ibuprofen for a few weeks to kill the inflammation. yeah, I got experience with that too. 😉

    and you are 2,000% right – without health, we have nothing. -S.

    • Yea, this wrist pain stuff flared up out of nowhere. I was completely caught off guard and equally alarmed.

      Also, what you said about the curse of competence is soooo true. When you show competence, or even excellence, you become the work horse that everyone rides on. So while everyone's coasting along, they NEED you to get it done. Truthfully, if there's anything I've learned over the past few years it's: SHUT UP. I keep my mouth shut more. Knowing the answers and how to fix things is enough for me now. Having to tell people and speaking up all the time just puts you on the radar to be exploited. I think this realization is actually what has fueled the stagnant work forces in the younger generations of so many countries now. Sure it's difficult to get jobs and keep them, but the corporate climate of today is such that I think most people have figured out that if really do your best, all the responsibility is laid on you. So people dumb it down, stay luke warm, incompetent and generally aloof, because the second you show you give a shit about the work, they throw it at you.

      Thanks for reading.

  • Anonymous

    *GOLF* game. though his "work" efforts are certainly a freaking game too. – S.

  • I hate that feeling.. Being taken advantage of at work because I'm slightly awesome than the others (LOL!)!!

    Anyway, take care…

  • As the guy above said, the second people realize you're good at something, they'll exploit you and make you do all the work.

  • Yes, I know the feeling of going to work early, finishing late, no lunch break, weight loss, hair loss, deadlines, tiredness and the list goes on. After all that, guess what? if you were to leave that job, they can quite easily replace you tomorrow without regret.
    I really don't fancy spending the rest of my life on medication. You won't even be honored with a visit from the ex-employer. You'll be lucky if you get a card in the post.
    Great post.

  • Wise words. My office is currently doing the same thing, as people being pushed to their limits are getting sick and "sick and tired". You can only get away with it for so long until the employees get fed up and quit altogether. And yes, the awesome employees take the brunt of it. Of course, I would be one of those too. 🙂

  • Dan

    Hmm, some interesting points!

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