(with apologies to Franz Kafka)
As Sam Gregory arose one morning from uneasy dreams and sat down at his computer, he found himself transformed into a pointless bureaucrat.
Years of tattered career seemed to be cascading around him like torn ribbon as he came to the grim conclusion that the joy of work – such as it had ever been – had been replaced overnight by an expectation that he should dance to the tuneless grinding noises of a monstrous organisational edifice.
The computer screen fizzed into life and immediately launched a meaningless sequence of corporate slogans into Sam’s face. They seemed to be about Sam – silky blandishments about how the corporation valued him and wanted him to look after himself – but they rang hollow in light of his actual experiences of the workplace and hence failed to touch him as a human being.
The machine that had grown up around him in the course of his slumber seemed to both support and constrain. Lacking lubrication, the cogs of the overbearing mechanism ground against one another, the grating noise of their awkward articulation providing the constant sound bed to Sam’s ever-lengthening working day.
Above, below and alongside Sam were others like him, some paid more and some paid less, so it seemed – but all engaged in activity that ultimately seemed merely to serve the machine rather than to offer a meaningful positive impact on the real world of human society.
As in any bureaucracy, all of these people were given grand sounding yet meaningless and extremely similar job titles. “What are we doing?” thought Sam to himself, as a thin grey drizzle of email messages settled in his inbox, “And who benefits?” Things were being done but no one paused to ask whether they actually needed to be done.
Sam gazed at the screen, its pixels suddenly busy with the business of bureaucracy, and found himself recalling the schoolroom rhyme that had passed him by at the time but now seemed to make painful practical sense:
Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.
And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on;
While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on.
He tried to close off the corrosive idea that he himself sat somewhere in a chain of parasitic nibbling. But that notion constantly intruded as he read the anodyne corporate missives from what he saw as the Great Fleas who sat above him.
They celebrated achievements that had negligible impact, cooed soft words of corporate encouragement, and slathered on layer upon layer of reassurance that the work of the Great Bureaucracy mattered and meant something to people other than those sitting within it. Overall, they were filled with an air of self-justification that has been crucial to bureaucracies since Max Weber first drew analytic attention to this phenomenon. Sam sighed and went to get coffee…
On his return, Sam sipped from his brimming mug and dismissed an on-screen reminder about the importance of something that everyone was expected to complete by the end of the day, notwithstanding its notionally voluntary nature. The Big Fleas had learned that they needed to appear to be listening, although rarely did they trouble themselves with the difficult business of actually hearing what was being said to them, let alone engage in a dialogue with those to whom they so carefully pretended to listen.
He threw himself into the clanking, whirring, and whizzing of the enormous structure of which he had suddenly found himself part. He wrote a document, illustrated a presentation, added material to a spreadsheet, took a call, arranged a meeting, finalised another document, and on and on it went…while outside the world got on with itself and concerned itself with all the things that actually were seen to matter.
Occasionally, so it seemed, people bumped into the bureaucracy and wanted something from it. At that point, it seemed to become desperately slow, with obstacles appearing that one by one needed to be cleared for any progress to be made. And for those outside of it, it was clear to Sam that it’s workings and the functions of those within were utterly opaque.
At some point, Sam knew, he’d be meeting with his fellow bureaucrats or giving an account of himself to someone higher up the ladder of fleas in which he found himself. He dreaded this because he had known from his waking moment that very day what it was that he desperately wanted to say – but was equally convinced that he would need to silence himself.
He chose not to give voice to his concerns because he couldn’t be sure how those around him felt and was certain that those above had gotten there by either secretly embracing the bureaucracy or merely denying it.
Yet what if those around him were yearning to give voice to the self-same sentiments? Or were craving someone alongside them to break that silence to allow a polyphony of voices to join in rich and impactful dialogue? “No, I don’t think so,” Sam said aloud, pausing to finish the dregs of his now cold coffee. “I’ll just get on with what the Fleas ask me to do and keep my trap shut.”
The working day was creaking to its end. Overnight, the bureaucracy would fall silent, as nothing that it did required that to happen around the clock. Then Sam’s head sank to the desk of its own accord and from his nostrils came the a long yet faint sound of his weary sigh.
Despite Sam having turned off his computer, other bureaucrats did unimportant things at unearthly hours, justifying this with emollient messages about working flexibly and there being no expectation of an immediate reply…unless, of course, it was a Big Flea messaging you, in which case the unwritten rule of the bureaucracy was that an instant reply was required – and was often tacitly requested.
And so, as the screen in the office fell dark once again, so the work-related apps on Sam’s work phone continued to ping and flash with the sub-noise of bureaucrats desperately trying to keep up with the meaningless demands of the bureaucracy and the Big Fleas who presumed to boss it around.
Sam ate some food, drank some wine, stared blankly at the TV, picked up and cast down a book after failing to concentrate on more than a few pages, thought about phoning his parents, and finally crept upstairs to bed. “All this will start again tomorrow,” thought Sam, almost overwhelmed by the despair of it all. It was past midnight and he wanted very badly to be asleep. “Perhaps I’ll find a little courage to break my silence and say what I feel needs to be said.”
But as Sam’s buzzing head hit the pillow in the dark of his bedroom, his sleepiness evaporated and his eyes opened. He thought constantly about his silence and rehearsed in his head what he yearned to say – only then to imagine the terrible personal consequences as the “listening organisation” clamped its hands over its ears whilst offering the outward appearance of paying attention. The red LED display of his alarm clock nudged him second by second to the flood of cortisol that would see him shudder awake as the beeps broke his sleep at 7am.
Sam suddenly felt consumed by the terrible realisation that tomorrow would largely be like today. That the sense of personal bureaucratic worthlessness that had etched itself into his soul on that day would be there again tomorrow – and thereafter in perpetuity. And that he would still be silent in the face of so much he urgently needed to say.
At around 2am, the fireworks in Sam’s head – crackling, fizzing and banging with all that had happened, hadn’t happened, and needed to happen in terms of his position in the bureaucracy – finally finished with a “phut” and he fell into a slumber which was interrupted just five hours later.
Having clambered gingerly from bed and taken a brisk shower, Sam Gregory realised that he was still transformed into a pointless bureaucrat as he sat once more in front of his computer…