George Monbiot first caught my attention when he visited Australia last year and I read the following quote in an interview in the local paper:
“Australia seems to be a nation of lions led by donkeys,” he says. “I have never come across a government as weak, as cowardly and prepared to take orders from a foreign government as this one. It seems to be governed by a sort of inverse patriotism, where what George Bush says is right for Australia,” he says.
“I’m astonished by how little confidence there seems to be in pursuing an independent foreign policy in this country . . . [The Prime Minister] John Howard seems to be determined to stand on the shoulders of pygmies in order to make himself three feet higher on the world stage, and in doing so, he is making Australia into an international laughing stock.”
Anyone who’s seen video of little Johnny together with Dubya would have to agree with the last sentence
Anyway, my scraped feed of his site has been broken for a while and I finally got around to taking a look at why. I was pleased to find that his site has been re-organized as a blog (using WordPress, no less :-)) with a real feed. Funnily enough, as I wandered around the new site the thing that caught my eye the most was a piece that he put together as an open response to the many people who write to him asking for career advice.
The first advice I would offer is this: be wary of following the careers advice your college gives you. In journalism school, for example, students are routinely instructed that, though they may wish to write about development issues in Latin America, in order to achieve the necessary qualifications and experience they must first spend at least three years working for a local newspaper, before seeking work for a national newspaper, before attempting to find a niche which brings them somewhere near the field they want to enter. You are told to travel, in other words, in precisely the opposite direction to the one you want to take. You want to go to Latin America? Then first you must go to Nuneaton. You want to write about the Zapatistas? Then first you must learn how to turn corporate press releases into “news”. You want to be free? Then first you must learn to be captive.
The advisers say that a career path like this is essential if you don’t want to fall into the “trap” of specialisation: that is to say, if you want to be flexible enough to respond to the changing demands of the employment market. But the truth is that by following the path they suggest, you are becoming a specialist: a specialist in the moronic recycling of what the rich and powerful deem to be news. And after a few years of that, you are good for very little else.
This career path, in other words, is counter-educational. It teaches you to do what you don’t want to do, to be what you don’t want to be. It is an exceptional person who emerges from this process with her aims and ideals intact. Indeed it is an exceptional person who emerges from this process at all. What the corporate or institutional world wants you to do is the complete opposite of what you want to do. It wants a reliable tool, someone who can think, but not for herself: who can think instead for the institution. You can do what you believe only if that belief happens to coincide with the aims of the corporation, not just once, but consistently, across the years (it is a source of wonder to me how many people’s beliefs just happen to match the demands of institutional power, however those demands may twist and turn, after they’ve been in the company for a year or two).
Even intelligent, purposeful people almost immediately lose their way in such worlds. They become so busy meeting the needs of their employers and surviving in the hostile world into which they have been thrust that they have no time or energy left to develop the career path they really wanted to follow. And you have to develop it: it simply will not happen by itself. The idea, so often voiced by new recruits who are uncomfortable with the choice they have made, that they can reform the institution they join from within, so that it reflects their own beliefs and moral codes, is simply laughable. For all the recent guff about “corporate social responsibility”, corporations respond to the market and to the demands of their shareholders, not to the consciences of their employees. Even the chief executive can make a difference only at the margins: the moment her conscience interferes with the non-negotiable purpose of her company – turning a profit and boosting the value of its shares – she’s out.
Good stuff and it reminds me of a lot of people I know. One person in particular comes to mind; he hasn’t been programming for very long but is a very talented guy and just started a new job at a bank, with all that entails He’d do well to read this article Not that there’s no value in working in big corporations (as Monbiot also points out later) – know thy enemy and all that – but it’s very easy to get sucked down into the cesspool, never to reappear, and you have to be very vigilant to not lose sight of what your goals really are.
People who have known me for a long time know that I have become increasingly more cynical about the IT industry of late, and with good reason. I’ve watched too many people get fscked over by companies with an attention span no longer than the next quarterly report, having to help push second-rate software out the door put together using third-rate development processes by fourth-rate software “engineers” who neither know better nor care.
So my second piece of career advice echoes the political advice offered by Benjamin Franklin: whenever you are faced with a choice between liberty and security, choose liberty. Otherwise you will end up with neither. People who sell their souls for the promise of a secure job and a secure salary are spat out as soon as they become dispensable. The more loyal to an institution you are, the more exploitable, and ultimately expendable, you become.
He finishes with this:
So my final piece of advice is this: when faced with the choice between engaging with reality or engaging with what Erich Fromm calls the “necrophiliac” world of wealth and power, choose life, whatever the apparent costs may be. Your peers might at first look down on you: poor Nina, she’s twenty-six and she still doesn’t own a car. But those who have put wealth and power above life are living in the world of death, in which the living put their tombstones – their framed certificates signifying acceptance to that world – upon their walls. Remember that even the editor of the Times, for all his income and prestige, is still a functionary, who must still take orders from his boss. He has less freedom than we do, and being the editor of the Times is as good as it gets.
You know you have only one life. You know it is a precious, extraordinary, unrepeatable thing: the product of billions of years of serendipity and evolution. So why waste it by handing it over to the living dead?
How can you not like this guy?!