An arm is not an arm until it attaches to a body and moves in certain ways. It is the relationship between the arm and the body which makes it an arm, not a certain weight or shape of blood and bone. This is really important. Even apparently simple things are more than the sum of their physical parts. During the course of the scientific revolution – say the last 300 years – we have squeezed quite a lot of knowledge out of analyzing the parts of things. But this kind of fragmented knowledge has limits, and we have almost come to the end of it. As a linguist I can tell you about phonemes and morphemes, or nouns and verbs and all the rest. I can’t quite tell you how their relationships all fit together to make a functioning language. Any linguist who says he can is a humbug. There are armies of humbugs (not only in linguistics). A “language” is an indivisible array of incredibly complex dynamic relationships. (An average speaker has no concept of this). A human being is also an indivisible array of incredibly complex relationships. If you pick up a severed foot or head, it is no longer a part of a human being. It is a piece of meat. The massive complex of relationships we call a human being creates consequences which could never be predicted from the severed head and foot. And so it goes with the organizations and institutions which human beings develop. A dance floor is not a dance floor until there are people to dance on it. It is the relationship between the people and the floor which makes it a dance floor. Nor is a king a king until there are people who are willing to obey his rule. Until then, he is just a fool in a funny hat.
From early in the Cold War era it became a habit to lampoon the idiocies of centralized communist planning in the Soviet Union. There was plenty to lampoon. George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”, and later “1984” became eerily predictive. What we never noticed though, deafened by all the ideological shouting, was that the strengths and weaknesses of collective activity are found everywhere there are humans. The United States is on the cusp of decline as a successful civilization exactly because, for ideological reasons, it manages collective activity very badly and at vast, wasteful expense. Selfishness and greed, in the end, don’t come cheap. For example, 62% of the bankruptcies in America occur simply because there has been no well-managed universal health care. That leads to huge personal and national losses. Not smart. On the other hand, it remains true that any organization will multiply individual errors, and resist correction of the problem. If the organization is a communist state, that multiplication of error can be catastrophic (as we saw, for example, in China’s so-called Cultural Revolution, which came close to destroying the state altogether). Even in our modest “capitalist” democracies though, this is a daily problem. We may have millions of companies, but as in the planned state, they lock individual faults into a collective framework, and even imitate the errors of other organizations. Countless millions are trapped in soul-destroying workplaces where some brainless “authority” figure micro-manages his small kingdom into a paralysis which can go on for years. The individual meeting an organization of any size is always at risk. Recently I had reason to spend a little time in a hospital. On discharge I was given a document which listed my “co-morbidities” – a catalogue of terrifying conditions supported by a collection of life-threatening pills to take every day. It was all pure fiction, apparently manufactured by some bored muppet in an off-moment. I protested, and was ignored. The patient is always stupid. The “medical record” had been created and was sealed with the authority of the organization. I consulted a GP. We agreed that the hospital was insane and trashed the pills. I wrote formally to the hospital and ostentatiously signed it “PhD” for effect. Into the void. The hospital continues to send letters assuming my pending “morbidity”. This is the story of organizations everywhere, and why, occasionally, there are revolutions.
What are you afraid of? If you are under 30 you are probably afraid of being laughed at by your frienemies, but probably not afraid of burning half your brain cells and poisoning your liver with booze, or getting an STD from bad sex. At younger than 30 you are immortal, so you expect to live with your frienemies forever, but don’t expect to wind up in hospital on an oxygen ventilator, racked with pain and depending for survival on a daily packet of deadly prescription drugs. If you are older than 30 your frenemies are probably already married, and too busy complaining about their mortgage to worry about your haircut. By now you are not quite as fit as you used to be, and you’ve had your first hints of future death. You begin to worry vaguely about pains, pills, next week’s salary, and how you might not be master/mistress of the universe after all.
No matter, if you are older than 15 and younger than 60 you are scared witless of talking about anything but the weather, the football and your favourite movie star. After all, who might be listening? Your Facebook page is a total threat if it contains anything except photos of you on a sunset beach, or your favourite pet. Why the terror? That’s easy. People used to be afraid of a vengeful God, the Devil or the Lord of the Castle. Now Godzilla’s alias is HR. Surviving HR permits you to have a “career”. Perishing from an attack of HR condemns you to the charnel house of public charity and pity. HR is a poisonous cloud which hovers forever between you and the sun. This HR cloud is made from the acid vapours of statistical averages and massaged employment prejudice. The once-were-human shapes which come out the other side of the HR cloud are bleached skeletons, draped in the rags of fashion, dangling from puppet strings, fitted with voice boxes from the company store. Of course, none of this is discussed in polite circles. A Martian might find it hard to understand why the highest aim of Earthlings is to graduate as bleached bones dangling from puppet strings. The Martian might not be aware though that the entire education system, popular media and weight of public opinion is focused on persuading young Earthling persons that their finest achievement will be to qualify as bleached puppet bones on a respected payroll.
Do you trust me? That’s a hard call, isn’t it. Without trust life is not easy. Oxytocin is the brain chemical which gives the feeling of trust. Some people, and maybe some cultures seem more hooked on it than others. (Whether different cultures are dominant for different brain chemicals like this is a really fascinating puzzle). So how far can you trust another person, or institution? It depends on the answers to a lot of questions. If someone understands some things about you, they have at least the foundation of trust. They can decide to trust your skill to kick a football, or reliability to turn up at work on Monday morning. If they don’t understand your thinking at all, they will hesitate to trust you for anything important (sigh, lots and lots of people don’t seem to understand my thinking at all …). In that case, they can only trust from your reputation, and reputations are fragile. In some jobs, like the police force, they are paid to trust nobody. Some people, like doctors, we hope we can trust, but experience might undermine that. In some countries, like Australia, people generally trust the good intentions of the government (though often distrust its competence), and often trust the goodwill of strangers. In some countries, like China, people generally do not trust the intentions of the government, and don’t trust anyone they don’t know well. The general trust between employers and employees seems to have changed quite a lot in my lifetime (or maybe experience has just taught some hard lessons!). Looking back, I have to say that most of my employers have been untrustworthy when it comes to building a future together. Sometimes they didn’t trust me to be cheats like them! Generally the employers, or their agents, have only been interested in some short term advantage, often wrangled by lying, like a bad lover on a one night date. What a pity. Speaking of which, the hardest thing to find of course are good friends to trust in stormy weather.
A favourite question in job interviews is “what is your greatest weakness?” I always find the question puzzling. It is puzzling because nowadays the person who interviews you is rarely, say, a hard drinking building supervisor who wants to know if you really can lay bricks. No, it will be some half-formed cream puff who has never laid a brick, and thinks that a ‘C’ pass in Psychology 101 has given them the key to the human soul. Part of the text book cleverness of these HR persons is to assume that every person being interviewed is lying. Therefore, to give a good interview is to impress the HR person is that you can lie cooly, without a flicker of embarrassment. If you can lie in your own interests, presumably you can lie in the interests of the company too. So this is the problem with “what is your greatest weakness?”. The proper answer actually depends upon the fetishes, fears and fantasies of the HR person. Does he secretly pull the wings off butterflies, or does she have nightmares about breaking her stiletto heels in an escalator? Until you have such critical information, you don’t really know which lie will make him/her feel all warm and fuzzy inside…
Habits are efficient (.. decide daily which side to part your hair on?). Habits are restricting (.. do you really need to check Face Book every ten minutes?). Harvesting the tension between efficiency and restriction gives life purpose and direction (.. doesn’t any industry do just that?). An imbalance of habit, out of proportion to real need, becomes a fetish (.. do you really need to carry a lucky charm to that job interview? Will members of X religion really go to Hell if they eat A or drink B? .. do you really need to fantasize about Y to get off on sex?). Shared fetishes may become a cult (.. so do you gather to dance around a tree on moonlit nights? .. are you compelled to gather in a TAB betting shop on Saturday afternoons? ). At a critical mass of members, a cult becomes a religion (.. one believer is a mental case; a million believers are sure they are right). A religion is a social tool which comforts the timid and sanctifies the ambitious. A person both sanctified and ambitious feels no restraint. God or the Party is always on their side of the war. Any atrocity is possible.
This is completely unscientific. I don’t know the vices of microbes. I am told that I have tens of trillions of the buggers in my gut, and through my body. “According to a recent National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimate, 90% of cells in the human body are bacterial, fungal, or otherwise non-human” (http://mpkb.org/home/pathogenesis/microbiota ). So there are way more of them than all the cells which make me into me. I didn’t ask them in, and clever scientists insist that I’d cease to be me if whole armies of these layabouts didn’t hang out in the draughty corridors of my frame. OK guys, so apparently we need each other. But I have deep suspicions about your habits. You, my frenemy microbes, get a little peckish and push the button for a bell-hop to bring in a snack, then another and another. It’s worse than that. You have the hotel manager (ergo, me) so trained as a slave that I bring you more goo than you know what to do with. By rights that should go straight down the disposal chute, but no, I stuff it away in every spare corner, just in case you greedy little sods press the service bell in the middle of the night. Now I’ve got your number though, I’ve sussed you out. You just love bread, or whatever bread turns into – probably sugar. I eat a slice of bread and you’ll double its weight in my gut. What are you doing? Breeding like house flies? I dunno’, but I’m damned if I’m going to feed your bread lust. O.K., just a slice now and then before I rush off to clean my teeth and get the delicious taste out of my mouth. Hey, I’m winning, you are losing. I’ve kept us both pretty trim.