Island Life by David Slack


Staring into space

When you see an office dweller at their desk, staring into their monitor, shuffling their mouse once in a while, do you think, as I sometimes do: "not much work going on there". This is the prejudice of our time. What you're watching is a brain at work. That, or someone engrossed in an NSFW web site.

There are computers everywhere, but still we are inclined to see them as some kind of interloper, or imposter. Whatever it is you're doing when you're looking at it, you're not doing nearly enough for it to qualify as work. Work puts a sweat circle on the back of your singlet. Work is what harried clerks are paid to do with huge piles of paper. Work is a builder swinging a hammer, and a miner covered in grime. Work might be what people do in the money market, but if you can persuade me why some monkey on a trading desk should earn more in a month than a doctor might earn in a lifetime, go right ahead.

But staring at a screen, inert? How can that possibly be right? (Leave aside your Internet addicts, they're a special tragedy. If you don't believe me consider the case of a friend's sister in law. Sitting, inert, at her monitor in Auckland she found love in Chicago. They were soon emailing and messaging like excited bunnies, and within months he was on a plane, babygirl, with a ring. They married, they flew back to her new home in US and A. Now they both sit inert watching the Internet and chain smoking. Pet canaries die in the fug of it. Money is short and they no longer live in the apartment, but they've found a nice trailer park. It's all true; even the canaries.)

If you are to earn your keep doing this sort of thing, staring at a screen will entail contemplation, analysis, sifting, weighing; God willing, this will yield moments of inspiration and revelation. On these criteria, I claim justification for hours upon hours upon years of sitting, staring, inert.

I have the support of my very patient wife in all of this. She believed that my little online speechwriting site had the prospect of being a modest but viable little home business. No-one was more proud than she when I proved it could be bigger than that. But it also irks her that few people regard it as a "real" business. It neither irks nor surprises me much. I am inured to having people here in the house - friends, family, tradespeople, neighbours, who see me at "work" staring at a screen and occasionally moving a mouse, and thinking to themselves: "not much work going on there".

I wonder if the talented people going about their Space Station tasks 80 miles above Wellington were wondering at all about the people below and contemplating whether or not they were hard at work. It would surely take just the flick of a button to hook up to CIA equipment if they wanted to eavesdrop, but how interesting would it be to an Astronaut to listen in on a Beehive press conference or coffee drinkers at Astoria or Gary at Placemakers taking an order for a shower door hinge? They probably wait till splashdown to catch up on that kind of thing. There's plenty of it on YouTube.

Here's a suggestion for a New Year resolution. Ask yourself: while they were drifting past our strategically benign little corner of the planet, how did whatever it was you were doing down here compare with the things those astronauts were doing up there? If they picked you up on the spy camera, would it have been interesting to them? If they come back in ten years time, might they find you doing the same thing?

In this past year, we managed to generate more than 100 billion dollars worth of gross domestic product. That's a lot of steaks and butter and logs, and a few Karen Walker sunglasses as well. There was even a little rocket science in there. But to a dismally substantial extent we were stuck on the same track on the same battered old LP: buy a house, sell it, buy a house, sell it, buy an extra one, count the gains on paper, spend them like a drunken sailor.

If that's ever going to change, my money is on a few good people sitting in front of the monitors, moving the mouse about. If they're looking for fresh ideas, they could do worse than to click here to see what this guy has to say.

Happy 2007.

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