Tuesday, October 27, 2009


It's true that the Internet is killing imagination. Consider this question, posted to WikiAnswers 26 seconds ago: "Who lived at the same time as michelangelo?"

Who indeed? Tens of millions of people. If I, aged ten or so, had wanted to know that, I'd have asked my dad - and received a lengthy lecture on how to frame a meaningful question. (Of course I didn't understand the lectures, but they lodged in my brain for later.) Then I'd have asked a bunch of other people, getting answers of varying degrees of relevance and truth, until my mind would brew up some magical version of the Renaissance in which, very likely, the Pope was locking his daughter in a tower while he led crusades, and Dracula haunted the caves of southern Italy.

But now you just post it on the Internet and wait for an answer. What use is that?

Well, it's not the first thing to kill imagination. Video games did it; TV did it; movies did it; photos did it, and printing. Five thousand years ago, I don't doubt one Egyptian storyteller complained to another "Mark my words, this writing business is going to be the end of us."

But sometimes real information can be inspiring.

Yesterday was Labour Day in New Zealand. I had thought it was merely a contender for Most Ironically Named Holiday (although we both worked damn' hard yesterday). But looking it up online, I learned about a great New Zealander I'd never heard of.

Samuel Parnell was a carpenter from London who came to New Zealand in 1840, where he encountered a shipping agent who wanted a store built in (what is now) Wellington. Parnell agreed, on condition that he would only work eight hours a day. Eight hours of work, eight for sleep, and "the remaining eight for recreation and in which for men to do what little things they want for themselves". The agent protested, but Parnell stuck to his terms, and because carpenters were scarce he got his way.

In his spare time from that day onwards, Parnell made it his business to greet new migrants arriving and tell them about the eight-hour-day rule. He lived prosperously for another 50 years, and died a national hero.

Parnell was not a typical working-class hero. He was the son of a gentleman. The fact that he was apprenticed to a trade suggests that his family was struggling, economically - but the young Samuel was raised with the secret, middle-class knowledge that leisure is a wonderful thing. More importantly, he had an instinctive grasp of economics. He knew that you don't create value by the hours you work, but by the output you produce. That's what people will pay you for, and the amount they'll pay depends only on how badly they want it and how hard it is to get. The amount of work involved doesn't enter into it.

Workers of the world, take note.


Deadlyjelly said...

It would be nice if more companies of the world took note too. At my last job, I asked to work from home with flexi time. Well, I resigned and the company reluctantly agreed.

As far as I was concerned, if my clients were happy and my work completed to high standards within given timeframes, my employers had nothing to gripe about.

Eh, they still griped.


vet said...

You're right, of course, we depend on managers to be sensible enough to see things the same way.

Some are. But most managers hereabouts have little or no actual training in management, and so they have no more idea of what they're doing than some raw recruit in an entry-level job, but they don't realise it. Tragic, really.

Nodressrehearsal said...

Very interesting, as always, vet.

I left the corporate setting 25 years ago when my oldest was a baby. Since then, I have always managed to find my way into a work setting that let me define the structure to fit my/my family's needs at the time.

Of course I work for myself now, but even when I was an accountant - I got them to get my computer networked at home and I could come and go as I pleased. Sometimes, employers know a good worker when they see one and will do what it takes to keep her happy.

HiStandards said...

vet, I pay attention to your comments to me about work and this posting is also compelling to me. We have a labor day in the U.S. where some lucky workers don't work but others, unfortunately, do. Please keep writing, I enjoy your insight. I look forward to the day I can tell you I've got the work thing figured out for myself.