It’s thought that life began billions of years ago when organic slime found a home in rocky seaside crevices, saw the light and decided to reproduce in order to multiply the joys of creation. You’d think that little would remain of our origins in the distant past in this shiny, enlightened, oat milk frappucino’d, social media present.
But with millions of us toiling away, teeming with frantic industry inside thousands of concrete office blocks, from one perspective at least, little has changed. We’re still tied to our surroundings, dependent on them for our sole means of survival, a monthly squirt of life-giving money into our bank accounts.
Is this any nobler than the pond-dweller’s ancient trick of waving a slimy frond about in the hope of catching a tasty crumb that might float by, while firmly anchored by one’s arse to a rock? I put it to you, dear reader, that it is really no nobler at all. Four billion years on and nothing much has changed.
Of course, it was not always like this. The process of coming full circle allows for some stunningly circuitous routes. In the past there were periodic bouts of expansion and exploration where difficult men and women struck out into the wilderness, free from the bonds of property and promises of gradual promotion.
Even before this, our forefamilies spent their days tilling the land and planting turnips here and there; at the dawn of human history, clumsy man-apes capered around the savannah in the hunt for berries, nuts, woolly mammoth and so on. The species that preceded our monkeys and ape ancestors, a nameless procession of rudimentary organisms, made their living while swimming, flying, hopping and squirming upon the earth. They all succeeded in moving about, if only in a crude and floppy way.
Why stay put?
We are clearly not descended from barnacles (only the barnacles are). So why has this desperate habit of spending our waking hours slumped before flickering computer screens – without moving an inch left, right, forward or back – taken hold of our species?
The reasons are many. Here are just three I have picked at random for the purposes of this article: first, there’s the stark deracination of human urban societies; the tendency towards hierarchy and control; and the need to free up the mental faculties. Cities have developed so dramatically over the last two centuries because the focus of economic activity for almost everyone in society has shifted from the need to make food and shelter to the need to make money to acquire food and shelter. In the UK, 1% of the population provide the rest of us with 90% of our food. We’re becoming so divorced from our agrarian roots that the opportunity to order food over the Internet appeals to some more than going to a shop to check out the goods, which in turn was a big departure from visiting the local market and its supplies of regional produce.
Of course, people resort to this digital mode of hunting and gathering because it has become less acceptable to spend any of your waking hours not working, thinking about work or recovering from work. The job market is competitive and with the current rate of lay-offs in industries previously untouched by recession, it’s about to get nasty. A good employee, so the reasoning seems to go, must be seen to be working efficiently and loyally. The only means of escape available to employees in the grip of this psychological trap, the Internet, the telephone and the lunch break, are being denied by a growing number of employers. Few workers seem to care about such constraints and accept them without much protest. They are in fact exhibiting a disturbing psychological phenomenon known as learned helplessness .
So, in the absence of anything else to do or think about (apart from what’s on TV that evening and which frozen ready meal to indigest), with nowhere to run or even stroll to in the corporate anthill, the mind is ‘free’ to concentrate on the task in hand. What your employer needs nowadays is your brainjuice, your ability to turn on the light bulb above your head, to shift ideas around rather than bales of hay. It didn’t take long to work out that to free the mind, the ass must wallow (thanks to George Clinton for that one). Typing and walking don’t yet mix, despite serious investment in cable-festooned, video-goggled, wearable PC technology . So, if you want to get paid for using your head rather than wearing out shoes or developing the hoary hands of the outdoors worker, it’s 40 years of desk-centred activity for you.
Human potential is without any known limits
Humans, being immensely resourceful and yearning creatures, suffer from and react against such confinement. There are the health implications of sedentary careers – lack of exercise, poor posture, no fresh air, the glare of screens, repetitively strained tendons, atrophied mentalparts. Office workers seek to escape through drink, drugs, karaoke and other noxious psychological habits. Productivity suffers when office politics erupt like the gang wars you’d expect in any other cramped and fetid slum.
And what of the future, what does that hold for the desk-bound office zombie? Gyms are enjoying record membership as body-guilty workers swap one fraught, enclosed space packed with high-tech equipment for another, sweatier one; a general air of mutual disrespect and barely sublimated violence pollutes the train carriages and buses that shuttle commuters to and fro; there are (thankfully rare) outbreaks of office rage and murder; and all the time, employers turn the screws on the freedom to escape during office hours by monitoring web, email and telephone use.
Home Stories, a television show to be aired on Thursday, reveals that every week 1,800 people quit the city and their jobs to move to the countryside. More and more individuals are making efforts to extricate themselves from the day-to-day tedium of urban life. The author Steve Aylett asserts that ‘an office is a machine for dying’ – if that is so, then it is the office that must die first. By visiting I-resign.com, reading this article and crafting your notice letter you have made the first tentative efforts to prise yourself away from that crumby desk and into sunlit uplands.
As for the big picture, looking back on natural and social history it appears that periods of stagnation and stasis occur just before bouts of fitful expansion and innovation. Could it be that our present status as deskbound pond scum is merely preparation for a newly liberated, free-wheeling future for those who want it?