In the summer of 2003 I felt like it was time to experience factory work. My dad had worked in manufacturing for 33 years, and I somehow felt obligated to gain first hand perspective – maybe talk factory jargon with dad. I don’t know. I started a job at a local factory that manufactures air rifles, paint ball guns, and lead pellets. The hours were Monday through Thursday, from 6 am to 4:30 pm. The three-day weekend made the workers happy. The temperature inside the factory was about 95 degrees, and since we worked with lead we were not supposed to wear shorts or have drinks with us on the production floor. The managers typically disregarded these safety measures. The disregard made the workers happy.
In the beginning I was thrown around, performing various functions at different assembly lines. Eventually, like all the workers, I settled into one position where my skills were best utilized. I had gained a reputation after 2 days for being able to fix a machine in distress. I would toy with the knobs and interfaces, and magically, the products would spit out in a steady and orderly fashion. I had no idea what I was doing, but it seemed to work, and the managers were pleased because they didn’t have to call one of the engineers down from the “country club.” The country club is where the people who sat down while working were located.
I was placed in the middle of a four-person operation responsible for packing premium grade lead pellets. If the machine functioned the way it was designed to, my job was not supposed to exist. Fortunately, the machine was prone to error and I kept my job. I made sure the lids were stamped tightly on the pellet packaging. When the machined failed the timing was thrown off and the lids were positioned too loosely or simply fell off. If I failed to catch the error in time, the conveyor would continue to carry the open packages filled with pellets and then spill them all over the factory floor. This happened 2 to 3 times a day, and I became a proficient pellet sweeper. The factory produced an incessant buzzing sound and we were required to wear ear plugs, so nobody noticed when the pellets began to fall. Most of the time I felt bored and helpless. Sometimes I’d just watch the pellets fall for a while before responding.
When I did respond, however, I reacted with swift urgency – turning knobs, tightening bolts, pressing unmarked buttons repeatedly. Recalibrating. My co-workers commended my response times during our 15 minutes breaks.
Absolute boredom or maniacal obsession. There is no middle ground in the factory.
When I went home I tried to forget about work. It wasn’t very hard – I had nothing to look back on. No challenges, no individual production. No value. In the words of Bruce Wilshire I was “confined and tiny, unable to identify with the whole enterprise, unable to meet the primal needs of exploration…”
I was lost and so was the technology. We mirrored each other. I knew nothing about how it functioned, and the machined offered no clues as to how to respond to different circumstances. I counted lids when bored, and ran around mindlessly when possessed. This is the factory experience.
I lasted six weeks. I couldn’t stand the mind-numbing lack of thought. In that time, I can’t help but think a small part of me had become the machine.
The factory is no place for human minds.