Corporate Man’s Search for Meaning

Our hero awakes to the sound of tyrannical electronic bleeps and the crushing certainty of another day of wasted potential and squandered dreams. It’s a cruel sting of consciousness that can be soothed only by the escape of a fifteen-minute snooze.

Getting out of bed is somehow an act of both great bravery and extreme cowardice. He is a dutiful slave, a good little boy with just enough mental strength to suppress his rage, numb his emotions and sustain this ‘normal’ existence.

Another night of digital submersion had slipped by, our hero flooding his dopamine receptors until the early hours as he waded in shallow pixelated waters. The bleeps had awoken him two, perhaps three, hours earlier than is healthy from a deep slumber, his only respite from the misery of being. This was not a noble awakening — as might have happened in a simpler, more recognizably brutal time — but a pathetic and demeaning one; a man rising to the meagre challenge of travelling to another building, sitting in a chair and staring at a screen. Somewhere, in the recesses of his mind, he knew this.

Eyes sore and body aching, our hero commences his morning routine. In the bathroom he is confronted by his disheveled image and becomes briefly absorbed in self-examination. Staring back at an expression of deep-rooted apathy and quiet desperation, he contemplates how his ten-year-old self ended up here. He then switches off his thoughts, the defense mechanism of a tortured spirit. Shower, brush teeth, dry off, dress, drink juice, eat toast —each task is executed with a robotic efficiency honed over years of practice.

On the subway platform, he observes the many and different faces of those he will be journeying with, searching for signs of pain, reassurance that he is not alone in his grim interpretation of the situation. He thinks he sees it in some, but cannot be sure. Others are almost totally inscrutable, faintly exuding only the horrifying allusion that, yes, they have somehow become psychologically adapted to this mode of being. Today, like all days, he will find no solace in his attempts at telepathy with his enigmatic fellow man, only more questions about the nature of suffering, free will and the seemingly intentional triumph of modern society in achieving our irreversible atomization.

The train rolls in and our hero — brushing off thoughts that he might someday jump — jostles for standing space on board. Still no eye contact, no words, just the implicit understanding that if everyone stays quiet and acts amicably, the desolate absurdity will pass over everyone with a disaffected painlessness. Most distract themselves with smartphones, necks craned and fingers tapping. Others stare into space, looking terrifyingly contented or otherwise stoic. He is surrounded by people, but excruciatingly lonely.

Our hero scours his depleted mind for the reserves of resolve and patience he will need to once again navigate his involuntary participation in office politics, feign interest in his soul-sapping work and suppress his masculine nature. He wonders if there will ever be an escape from this muffled agony and drudgery, and where it might come from, imagining some abstract, unknowable future place where he has been liberated from the sorrow of this farcical day being repeatedly played out.

Taking his seat and turning on his computer, our hero greets his colleagues with a veneer of friendliness. Like the subway passengers, they too are unfathomable, some even exhibiting the impression of being filled with optimism in anticipation of eight long hours of screen-staring, mouse-moving and keyboard-tapping. This again disturbs our hero, who contemplates this time whether it is in fact he who is broken, needlessly pessimistic, suffering without cause.

By now in an existential pit of despair in which the thought of his meaningless work is too painful to even consider, he turns instead to the welcoming grip of hot tea and the web, anesthetizing the pain with Silicon Valley-engineered digital dopamine rushes like a wounded solider being pumped with morphine. He finds relief in the bitterest, darkest corners of the internet. At least here he gets to feeling something — some outrage over the latest big news story, or some fleeting connection with an anonymous passer-by.

After a couple of hours of blissful avoidance, a trivial delegation from his superior — many times over his intellectual inferior yet through vacuous ‘network building’ and brown-nosing reaching far higher up the corporate-social chain — brings him sharply, mercilessly back to reality. He retunes his frayed senses to the atmosphere of the room. The depravity of the piercing fluorescent lights, the detached hum of the air conditioning, the bland, solid whiteness of the furnishings — it all seems to have been designed with the intention of invoking these feelings of vacant obedience. This cubicle is a physical representation of our hero’s psyche — penned in, blank, colourless.

Make-Work Task #1 is executed with a defeated, disengaged acceptance. In more hopeful times he resisted — asked questions — but over the years came to see how the corporate structure is built; an artificial pyramid of psychopaths at the top, dangerously incompetent but socially-adept managers in the middle, and silenced, superficially categorized, and deliberately divided drones at the bottom.

It’s a scheme given the illusion of efficiency by a constant stream of assignments that bring no value or happiness to anyone, just more administration, more lies, and more suffering. He came to understand how this system worked — where the evil lay. It revealed itself in the language of the corrupted — in the extra-terrestrial corpspeak engineered to mask the shallowness of their personalities and the limitations of their usefulness. He has seen it evolve, new terms introduced and old ones falling out of favour.

Our hero checks his corporate email inbox; twelve unread. “Join us for the sixth annual…” Delete. “Organizational Announcement”. Delete. “Globocorp News, March 13”. Delete. “Thought you guys might find this usef…” Delete. “Celebrate diversity and inclu…” Delete. And so on, until he gets to three emails from his superior, Make-Work Tasks #2, #3 and #4. More manifestations of the corporate bullshit machine running as intended.

By now the undemanding ‘work’, stagnant air and visual sterility has deadened his senses and made him drowsy. He heads towards the lunchroom for another hour of grim self-reflection. It’s the extreme boredom, the repetition, the never-ending silence that makes him want to scream. Our hero struggles to contain the pent-up energy tearing at the seams of his skin.

Then it’s back for round two, the ‘home stretch’, for what will inevitably be another three hours struck off in digital escape and perhaps the completion of Make-Work Tasks #5 and #6, if he can bring himself to face them.

Bear witness to the concentration camp of a spiritually-dead civilization. The ‘final solution’ to prop up a long-failed economic model has been to construct a system based almost entirely on the impression of work and the suppression of individualism. The elites had taken a calculated gamble that the majority would fall for it — even be thankful for it. And they did. Unlike Auschwitz, there’s food and comfort in abundance, but this too is a place devoid of ambition, joy and hope. Sanity is all there is to be salvaged.

Our hero wonders if this is in fact the endpoint of the techno-corporate welfare system, such is the incongruity of what are supposed to be profit-generating organizations paying hordes of people to do work that has no effect on their bottom line. This is universal basic income, corporations and governments having become so intertwined and so little in need of the excess masses that they were required to create this elaborate ruse. Unthinking people were sent to cubicles thinking they had jobs to do, only to be sedated with the internet and beaten down with ideological uniformity and enforced mediocrity in exchange for the promise of luxury-laden survival. Questions of dignity, achievement and purpose had long been abandoned in favour of domestication, mass-scale control, and eternal amusement.

These are the thoughts he has every day, inescapable and undiscussable with those in the cubicles around him. He yearns to know if any of them feel the same way. Among his greatest fears is their total and universal lobotomization, for he knows this cannot happen to him. Sometimes he wishes it could, that they had a way.

Why does he stay in this office? Why doesn’t he quit?

He should be out there using his hands, working with other men, or using his head, making things, creating. Society’s idealization of the corporate career meant this dawned on him too late, and so he finds himself trapped in this strange, dead, alien place. He aches to learn philosophy, read great literature, explore the history of mankind, acquire survival skills and test his body’s endurance against the sun’s energizing rays. Have these urges been totally suppressed in his colleagues, all curiosity and motivation drained out of them? Is this enough, to belong to this faceless organization of the sitting dead? Were they made for mere submission and servitude? Were they born docile?

Our hero sports a sizable paunch and hunchback severely misshapen by years of motionless sitting. Endless, interminable sitting. Sitting waiting for something that never comes. There will be no rebellion, he accepts, as he looks around at his comrades tip-tapping away at their keyboards, gawking eyes glued to their screens. Every so often an office alpha male strides through to assert his dominance, breaking up the hushed tones of the gossiping secretaries. Sometimes there are new faces, but it’s always the same tedious pop culture conversation, the same passive-aggressive power plays, the same pointless meetings, and the same tedious small talk.

Everything here is clinically sanitized to ensure nothing is felt, that nothing is expressed; that all interactions are safe and predictable. Out of sight, but undoubtedly present, is the all-powerful HR-middle-management complex, guided by rigid doctrines dictating what can and cannot be said and done — deciding what, in fact, must be said and done to ‘fit in’. They are the social engineers defining ‘company values’, the rules that must not be broken, the red tape that must not be cut, snuffing out any possibility of unbridled creativity, wrongthink or competitive spirit.

There are no threats, no struggles and no victories. Just logging in, shutting up and zoning out.

It’s crossed our hero’s mind that if he could somehow push past these vague feelings of defended integrity, he could swallow enough shit, smile with enough saccharine plasticity and lick enough anus to rise through this hollow social hierarchy. After all, this is what they want him to do, and how hard could it be? But his desire to do so couldn’t be less existent; and at least this way, while his physical self may be enslaved, his mind remains, in some important way, free.

Often he dreams of something less — he pines for the life of a bum, or perhaps a third-worlder, bound not by contrived, comfortable sterility affording him a living he does not deserve, but by the need for gritty survival, day to day, which would have at least have meaning. He would have tangible goals, a purposeful connection to nature, his humanity and his mortality.

In the last hour he enters an almost dreamlike state, the promise of release from the cubicle’s chains tantalizingly close. Eyes glazed, mouth dry, irritated and lethargic, he sits patiently, waiting, watching the numbers in the bottom-right corner of the screen creep forward. 4:12. 4:13. 4:14, until finally, there it is, the euphoria of freedom, once again. A kind of unshackling that in the early, more hopeful days brought some light to his life, but which has since dulled alongside everything else. Nonetheless, he rises defiantly with what scraps of dignity remain, only to be greeted with great melancholy by the fading heat of a setting sun.

Twitter: @adamwinfield

Corporate Man’s Search for Meaning was originally published in Hacker Noon on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Publication date: 
03/13/2018 - 18:56