Purgatory for a Technology Heretic§

To get to the naval base, to the port of embarkation, I must take three buses through old forgotten neighborhoods—the best that New Orleans can do for ghettoes. The city already treads at ten feet below sea level, but to get to this floundering, forsaken faubourg, the By-Water area, one must descend even lower. This area predates the original French colonists; it was established by an obscure tribe which was trampled out of existence (or at least distinction) centuries ago for the progress of the Americans who, inspired on by ethno-centric, self-righteous musings of the pompous, self-published Benjamin Franklin, settled here and later took over the whole colony under the auspices of a feeble document signed by a selfish, self-appointed emperor of France who was paid tuppence an acre for the colony ten generations ago. I know from studying a map that the city is sickle shaped; like a drunk wrapping himself around a fire-hydrant while he sleeps off his debauchery, the city wraps itself around the Mississippi River. But despite my academic awareness of our relationship to the River, my misguided sense of the terrain, like most locals, is that the city is rectangular. This results in a disorientation when one follows seemingly straight, albeit broken roads that parallel the River, as if there are any straight lines in this sinking city, or in this borough in which houses thrown up during a brief decade of hope just before the Great Depression are slowly twisted like pretzels as their pillars sink defiantly at different rates. So when the omnibus, that clangorous elongated cracker tin with a billboard of a far from attractive realtor woman plastered over the windows so that the wayfarers cannot be seen, when that conveyance lumbers and bounces in a less than cheerful way down Dauphine Street (named some three hundred years ago after a banking syndicate of France which robbed the original colonists of the lion’s share of their harvests), beyond the left-hand corner of my conscious world, I feel as though we’ve driven off the edge, giving me a sense of dread as I’m carted through each block, sinking still lower, alone with the driver until he hurriedly compels me to exit at the end of the line so that he may quickly turn the bus around and escape the locale. I then must negotiate my admittance with a mismatched set of guards made up of a shore patrolman, a marine, and an NSA guard (why NSA participates in guarding a virtually decommissioned naval base, I have no idea); I must add insult to my injuries by trying to convince the guards, as they haphazardly scrutinize me while I stand there exposed and feeling vulnerable with no immediate retreat possible and with this questionable neighborhood pressing against my back, to let me pass through the gate and thereby enter this purgatory for which I have been mandated by my financial necessities and technology heresies.

What a miserable temp job it has been, especially since only a year ago I strolled through life as a manager of a staff of computer programmers and the like. But in my prideful ways, for years I blasphemed against Bill Gates and refused to be proselytized by Microsoft. It took a while, but I was eventually cast out for my dissidence, for my defiance; I was struck down. And now a temp agency has convoked me (along with about twenty other wayward techs) to labor here each night, from four to midnight. Like a work release program in reverse, I report to this prison for techies, enclosed by ten-foot high flaking stucco walls, after a day of unfulfilling freedom, to work, or rather to do penance suitable for an iconoclast of popular technology like myself. It’s humiliatingly monotonous employment: We process dozens of computers each night for sailors and marines around the world, loading them up with Windows and various applications that an unknown naval commander has seen fit to authorize. The irony is not lost on me, however, when witnessing an endless stream of black Dell computers (affixed with the Windows logo) flowing somberly by me. What heresies I must have committed to have been brought here for intellectual flagellation. Truly, all is vanity.

We conduct our nocturnal activities in a narrow but long, rectangular room that previously housed huge main-frame computers from technology days long since obliterated by the mighty Intel. Although the base is far below the elevation of the River, which is just over the levee waiting patiently for the levee to break as it did when I was a child during Hurricane Betsy (Oh, how we all remember Her.), this vacant server room in which we suffer is located on the top floor, the sixth floor of a nearly empty building built as part of a work relief program during the Roosevelt days—his cake for the peasants. In this attic with electronic locks on the doors, which neither protect the contents nor are necessary to restrain its desolate occupants, like a form of pillory we decay in this tower as the depressed and forever declining neighborhood below scoffs at us. In the middle of this abandoned server room in which we congregate like homeless techs seeking shelter, there is one very small modern server that has been placed like a flickering bush in our midst, providing no warmth but containing all of the installation software, the raw material that we need for our tasks, the straw for our bricks. It’s tightly locked in a mesh cage rack that’s six feet high and about three feet deep and wide. Peering at it through the air holes, one cannot help feeling sorry for the little creature as it’s continuously abused by dozens of lesser machines. Hanging from the ceiling are slightly bluish florescent-lights, giving us a sickly hue. The elevated floor by contrast is covered with large removable black tiles, allowing two feet of space below, originally for cabling. But I suspect a more devious use is now being made of the void. I dare not lift the tiles which are held down only by the ever oppressive restraints of gravity, giving one unsure footing; I don’t wish to be witness to the demonic sub-surface activities that they most assuredly conceal. Like me, the room has been stripped of its technological grandness. All that remains of better days are two giant Liebert air-conditioning titans looming at each end of the room, which must always remain on for some inexplicable reason, and another monsterous machine across the room ensuring an uninterrupted supply of electricity to the Lieberts. The bareness in between has been filled with rows of discarded desks and broken chairs for penitents to serve out their time preparing workstations for the proud.

The Liebert machines (a name which would suggest deceptive characters from the Dilbert comic strip were it not that no one laughs in their presence) wheeze their distaste for our body heat and relentlessly pump harsh cold air in retaliation through vents located at our feet. We attempt to minimize their effect by covering the floor vents with scraps of blue carpet and by tilting open the few small rectangular windows along the outer wall, thus letting in the muggy, smog rich air from the Industrial Canal, which is just over the back wall of the base. We’re located strategically where the Canal dumps its chemical waste into the River to ensure maximum pollution, lest some portion of water that has traveled the thousand miles plus went somehow unscathed and remains fresh, before the River deposits itself heavily into the open sea ninety miles away to be shared with our Spanish colonial neighbors, who for some unfathomable reason admire our lifestyle. But it isn’t long that we’re able to find relief from the cold in the midst of this oppressively hot burghal before the Liebert machines squeal in alarm at the build up of humidity, thus drawing the attention of our supervisor (a fellow inmate of supposedly preferred status, who drives in each evening from an Acadian fishing village located on a bayou forty miles away, who futilely attempts to suppress his accent and to hide his dialect which he knows will plainly reveal his origin and upbringing). The supervisor then walks around resealing the windows and scolding us for our mischief, as if being here weren’t scolding enough: He recites aloud his usual observation that if we are cold, then we should bring a jacket from home. But none of us do so because when we’re home we don’t want to think of this wretched place.

When a new temp worker is first admitted to this capricious hold-all, he is escorted by a representative of the agency. The agents of hell proudly bring in their prize that they’ve taken usually by scouring the docks of the techie waterfronts for novices possessing worthless certificates that they’ve obtained from corporate technical colleges that have them sign their names to tens of thousands of dollars of federal student loans and provide them little education or experience in return. And because of their indenture, they must come here. Occasionally, an agent will drag in a seasoned conscript like me who will pathetically seize every opportunity to tell any one who will listen of the grand job that he once held, but lost unjustly. Newcomers of all levels, though, initially are in a daze when they first enter: perhaps it’s from disbelief in the realization of their fall; perhaps it’s from amazement that this place truly exists. Whatever the reason, their confusion quickly leads to dumbfoundedness when they are given thirty minutes of training in this bizarre method of preparing computers, this indecent treatment of technology, like the breaking of a horse, but with whips in one-fourth the time that common civility and compassion would allow. A callous nature builds up so rapidly in penitents, that workers who appear to have been worn down by many months of this repetitious work, have actually endured only two weeks to reach a state of disgust and disenchantment.

Boxes of new computers are dragged in on pine pallets each day before we arrive by African descended warehouse workers whose ancestors slaved along these very docks just a century and a half ago. The pallets stacked high with cardboard boxes are pushed together on the east end of the room like a vague brown sunrise on our miserable horizon, crowding a young scrawny woman of color, a woman of indeterminate ethnicity who, sitting at a desk in the corner, relentlessly records our time and presents us daily with a Palm Pilate to which we digitally sign our names for the government contractor’s records—this contractor being one of several layers of corporations who take a cut from our nightly labours. My fellow penitents strip the pallets of their burdens throughout the night like obedient zombies and spark off a series of computer scripts designed to install applications required by some sailor or marine located at some other naval base. My comrades in misery sit and watch these scripts silently run like player pianos that have no strings. They require only the most minimal intervention, thus allowing for no learning opportunities, no job satisfaction, and no redeemable value for our efforts. There’s nothing to be gained by working here except a meager pay which won’t last and won’t even satisfy our creditors, who have special dispensation to come out during daylight hours to harass us in our homes.

The floor is littered with Dell Getting Started booklets, but ironically not even those for whom this is their first job will get a start here. Should a freshman techie be idealistic enough to cite this experience on his résumé it would get him nowhere. It would be like proudly listing bankruptcy on a credit application. Fortunately, there’s no bureau to track this fall from grace. Scattered about the floor there are also countless little yellow post-em notes with the names of unknown sailors for whom computers long ago have been imaged and shipped off. They adhere to our shoes as we walk through the room: We yank them off by the half dozen, these slips of scribblings, reminiscent of poorly affixed prayers for the dead which unfeeling winds have blown from a wailing wall.

To soften my penance, I talked my way into one of the Quality Assurance jobs—as if there is an element of quality to be attained or any assurance to be given out here. Nevertheless, I’m supposed to ensure that the computers are set up properly and fix them if they’re not. I don’t bother telling an installer of his mistake if I find a problem because pride in our work isn’t important: pride is what brought us here and this place purges us of our pride.

Lying in the corner by us QA chumps rests a computer which has been robbed of parts, with the seemingly generic user name of John White written on a yellow note attached to it. Somewhere, I imagine this sailor waits and wonders why he has been forsaken; he ponders in frustration why his computer ordered some nine months before, has not yet arrived. At least once a week someone asks what this wreckage is doing here. We usually ignore the query, but occasionally a QA will take a turn in apologizing for it and point out that the machine has always been there—like some lost minor soul not worthy of notice. And that’s all the quality control that is afforded Seaman White.

We attempt to encourage ourselves in this drudgery by believing that our functions are patriotic acts, that we are helping our military forces keep the world safe for Democracy. We will think to ourselves that some of these machines will allow sailors to e-mail their spouses and children whom they must miss. They will use these computers to send letters to their fathers whom they hope will be proud of them, and their mothers who probably worry about them. But another few dozen machines soon wash these sentimental notions from our minds.

Sure we do our best, or at least we do as we are instructed, but we don’t care—not really. We don’t do a slipshod job, though. There’s no room for that. That would require effort and it would be noticed and we don’t want to be noticed here. Sometimes, though, I think when checking out a computer that maybe I’ll skip some items that are never wrong. But then I think, what for? To improve my numbers? Or should I do it to save time? Why, what will I do with the time? So I plod through and verify everything that I’m told to check, at the numbing pace this work dictates. Like an extension of the capitalistic systems that made these computers, like factory components, like conveyor belts we process computers by the dozens with no end in sight, without thought of slacking. What folly I did speak to get here. What abominations I did incite.

After we complete our quality checks, we crate up these sedated, electric sheep and sling them back onto pallets located on the west end of the room for the warehouse workers to haul away and to ship off the next day. At times I suspect that they covertly take the completed machines out the exit, tear off the packing slips in the hall, and then bring them back in through the east entrance while we’re home napping and thus stoke the fires of our hades so that we may reprocess the same computers all over again, like digging our own graves and filling them back up again and again until we wish someone would just shove us in and cover us up.

We were told that this project would only last four weeks—or was it for weeks? Whatever we were told, it seems that it will never end. There are some of us who need the money desperately and hope it will last several months more. Poor devils. There are some who claim actually to like the work. But I suspect that there’s just nothing better awaiting them and they’re lying to people on the outside about this thing that we do. As for me, I can hardly wait for it to end: the monotony is excruciating. I would quit, but this place has some sort of sadistic, psychological hold on me that prevents me from leaving—like a bad dream from which I cannot awake. So I submissively and somberly wait for my technological soul to be cleansed of my transgressions. I wait to be forgiven my heresies, to be redeemed. Or perhaps I just await what I see as the inevitable demise of Microsoft.