The Machine You're In

I hear the phrase "soul-sucking job" a lot these days. Usually it's in the context of a statement like "I hope to quit this soul-sucking job soon." It makes me wonder if I'm something in the zeitgeist has changed. Have jobs become more soul sucking, or have people just become more soul-protective? I think it's probably the latter more than the former. There's an increasing understanding that in the every company, organization, or club is a specific kind of machine: a cybernetic organism.


Unknown Master, Italian (active 1570s) [Public domain]

I remember the first time I heard the term "cybernetic organism". It was an episode of the "Six Million Dollar Man", so it must have been 1970-something. In that context, it was a man (Steve Austin, astronaut) with machine parts, and that's the way that cyborg resonates in the popular imagination: a robot-human hybrid intended to enhance individual performance. But before term was coined by science and consumed by sci-fi, the field of cybernetics studied the behavior of management systems.


In the 1950's, a researcher named Stafford Beer saw that any adaptive system that contains human and machine elements and uses feedback to make important decisions is, in fact, a cybernetic organism. In other words, we've all grown up in cybernetic schools, joined cybernetic groups, and if you get a paycheck it probably comes from a cybernetic organism. People worry a lot about robots someday becoming self-aware and enslaving us, but the cyborgs that we work in everyday already grind people to a pulp and just keep rolling. I've seen this even in non-profits founded by good people, with self-stated values like "empowerment" and "respect". These machines weren't designed to do this. They evolved.


So what's a human to do? Armor up? No! That's just what the cyborgs want - humans that are more like machines! No, I have a radical plan. Come closer and I'll tell you all about it. Closer. Closer. Ok, that's close enough.


Here's the plan: be more human. Be funny, be vulnerable, be honest. Declare that everyday is "Take Your Whole Self to Work Day." These cybernetic organisms, where we spend most of our day, are influenced by the people who inhabit them. They are still evolving, and we will steer their evolution if we refuse to put on armor, to fragment ourselves, and check our souls at the door. The machines have no choice, and they will respond. The research on this is pretty clear.

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