Courtesy of The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway, which remains one of my favorite books of all time.

    Dick Washburn, known for evermore as Dickwash, is a type D pencilneck: a sassy wannabe paymaster with vestigial humanity. This makes him vastly less evil than a type B pencilneck (heartless bureaucratic machine, pro-class tennis) and somewhat less evil than a type C pencilneck (chortling lackey of the dehumanising system, ambient golf), but unquestionably more evil than pencilneck types M through E (real human screaming to escape a soul-devouring professional persona, varying degrees of desperation). No one I know has ever met the type A pencilneck, in much the same way that no one ever reports their own fatal accident; a type A pencilneck would be a person so entirely consumed by the mechanism in which he or she is employed that they had ceased to exist as a separate entity. [...] A type A pencilneck would be the kind of person to sign off on torture and push the nuclear button for no more pressing reason than that it was his job--or hers--and it seemed the next logical step.


    It always creeps me out being with pencilnecks. Anything over a type E and you can get the feeling what you're talking to isn't entirely human, and you're not entirely wrong. A guy named Sebastian once explained it to me like this:

    Suppose you are Alfred Monstrose Fingermuffin, capitalist. You own a factory, and your factory uses huge industrial metal presses to make Fingermuffin Thingumabobs. Great big blades powered by hydraulics come stomping down on metal ribbon (like off a giant roll of tape, only made of steel) and cut Thingumabobs out like gingerbread men. If you can run the machine at a hundred Thingumabobs per minute, six seconds for ten Thingumabobs (because the machine prints ten at a time out of the ribbon), then you're doing fine. The trouble is that although in theory you could do that, in fact you have to stop the machine every so often so that you can check the safeties and change shifts. Each time you do, the downtime costs you, because you have the machine powered up and the crew are all there (both crews, actually, on full pay). So you want to have that happen the absolute minimum number of times per day. The only way you can know when you're at the minimum number of times is when you start to get accidents.

    Of course, you're always going to get some accidents, because human beings screw up; they get horny and think about their sweethearts and lean on the Big Red Button and someone loses a finger. So you reduce the number of shifts from five to four, and the number of safety checks from two to one, and suddenly you're much closer to making Fingermuffin's the market leader. Mrs. Fingermuffin gets all excited because she's been invited to speak at the WI, and all the little Fingermuffins are happy because their daddy brings them brighter, shinier, newer toys. The downside is that your workers are working harder and having to concentrate more, and the accidents they have are just a little worse, just a little more frequent. The trouble is that you can't go back, because now your competitors have done the same thing and the Thingumabob market has gotten a bit more aggressive, and the question comes down to this: how much further can you squeeze the margin without making your factory somewhere no one will work? And the truth is that it's a tough environment for unskilled workers in your area and it can get pretty bad. Suddenly, because the company can't survive any other way, soft-hearted Alf Fingermuffin is running the scariest, most dangerous factory in town. Or he's out of business and Gerry Q. Hinderhaft has taken over, and everyone knows how hard Gerry Q. pushes his guys.

    In order to keep the company alive, safeguard his family's happiness and his employees' jobs, Alf Montrose Fingermuffin (that's you) has turned into a monster. The only way he can deal with that is to separate himself into two people--Kindly Old Alf, who does the living, and Stern Mr. Fingermuffin, factory boss. His managers do the same. So when you talk to Alf Fingermuffin's managers, you're actually not talking to a person at all. You're talking to a part in the machine that is Fingermuffin Ltd., and (just like the workers in the factory itself) the ones who are best at being a part are the ones who function least like a person and most like a machine. At the factory this means doing everything at perfect tempo, the same way each time, over and over and over. In management it means living profit, market share and graphs. The managers ditch the part of themselves which thinks, and just get on with running the programme in their heads.

posted by johnnyFive: 498 days ago