My Job at the Thingification Factory
Henry T. Blanke
Finding myself in some financial peril at age 63 and having to live on Social Security, I applied for a temporary part-time job as a test administrator at a company called Pearsall. Having sold its publishing division of high quality paperbacks and textbooks to a German conglomerate, Pearsall now focuses on education services. Specifically, it runs a global network of online test centers for graduate students, nurses, doctors, social workers, engineers, lab technicians and others needing certification.
It seems that I am now a member of what the British economist Guy Standing has termed the “precariat” or precarious proletariat, a new working class, victims of globalization whose employment is temporary, unstable, low wage and without benefits. Not only is the work of this class precarious, but their identity as well. One subgroup of the precariat comprises educated young people possessed of cultural capital. I am not young, but I can hold my own at a dinner party of academics so I guess I qualify. And so, given the Depression era levels of unemployment in this country now and my only marketable skill being librarianship, I was happy to be contacted from the Philippines for a phone screening. Some time later, I received a phone call from Iowa City and then Indianapolis. Soon after, I was interviewed by a woman in Queens, New York who cheerfully asked me a series of scripted questions. Apparently satisfied by my answers, I was hired and the next week began my training at a Queens test center (during this time various “onboarding” glitches had to be sorted out in Manila).
The training consisted of many online modules covering everything from company security to testing center confidentiality and procedures to an introduction to Pearsall’s history and “leaders” in London. Of course, there was no hint of the criticism of the company for its strong influence over public education, nor for its past investments in the Libyan Investment Authority (formed by Gaddafi’s son) nor its offshore tax avoidance schemes. If you are wondering, as I did, what the Leader in Chief earns, his pay package is worth about $2 million annually. And yes, there is a significant gender pay gap at Pearsall.
But I did gain a satisfactory understanding of how to be vigilant for “tailgating” (what to do when an unauthorized person enters a test facility with evil intent), proper “desk security” when leaving your office, “catfishing” and other nefarious online threats and so on. Once I was ready to work, it became clear that what I would be doing had nothing much to do with the 36 hours of information I was required to cram. And I was not going to be a “test administrator” but a proctor earning exactly one dollar per hour above the New York State minimum wage (I came to find out that administrators earn just a few bucks more).
On my first official day of work, I showed up ten minutes early at 7:20am to find the door locked and lights off. But I knocked and was let in by Otis who was already in high gear since all the “candidates” (already lined up outside) had to have IDs checked, be photographed and palm scanned, body scanned for spyware, Bluetooths, coded tattoos etc., and admitted to the testing room by 8:30am exactly. Really there is more, but you get the idea.
Otis is a 71-year-old black man who has been working there for 12 years. I learned later that he grew up in the deep South, writes poetry, loves fishing and has had military experience and adventures all over the country. He now lives in Queens, which he hates, but for various reasons is stuck there. Today, Otis was anxious to get his own exam, recertifying him as a Pearsall proctor (his “proctology test”), out of the way. He is an ex-military man, but definitely not a cyborg, unlike supervisor Jennifer who speaks in exactly the same chipper tone and cadence no matter who she is talking to (even when I fucked up a palm scan on my second day costing a candidate four minutes and 23 seconds on a 240 minute test, but that’s another story) and uses a set of scripted phrase often including the word “excellent.” The others marvel at her and wonder if she has any kind of life outside her devotion to the company. It appears her protege is the night supervisor Joshua, clearly a cyborg in refinement. Jennifer and the Pearsall training regimen seem to be draining the last vestiges of human autonomy and initiative from him and despite some eccentricities, Joshua seems very much a humanoid appendage to the company machine.
Once seated at my admission and test manager console with the video monitor trained on the candidates, I was ready to work. I had been trained to be alert for test takers who fidget or seem “hyper aware” as these may be signs of cheating. Or nervousness, of course, or cognitive performance enhancing drugs like Adderall. Perhaps the company has considered administering toxicology screenings and I wonder if the piss proctors would get paid more or less than the regular proctors. Speaking of the restroom, if a candidate has to use one, when they come back, the entire screening process of getting them back in the room has to be repeated. And when I asked Jennifer about my own breaks, there was a baffled pause before she said that most proctors eat at their stations. She seemed unaware of New York State requirements of a half hour off the clock during a six or more hour day. I decided that I would just eat my tuna sandwich at my station and go out twice for nicotine sustenance.
Soon after I had settled in and the first round of test takers were set, I pulled out a New Yorker but Jennifer quickly came back to tell me reading was not allowed (her monitor out front includes a view of the proctors). When I said that I could just look down to read for a bit, then look up etc., her reply was, “Just as we are watching the candidates, we are also being watched” and pointed to the camera above our area. I wondered to myself, who is watching us while we watch the testers and who is watching them watching us watching the test takers? Maybe it is they who report to the Leaders. Or maybe the job had been outsourced to a surveillance company in Viet Nam that reports to the Leaders. But I pulled myself out of this flirtation with madness and went back to uninterrupted watching, for the next six and a half hours. This would be fine if I wanted a mini meditation retreat every day, could sleep sitting up or was, well, a cyborg.
Once the first round of test takers were escorted to their workstations and their exams were launched there was a fair amount of New Yorker-less downtime. Chatting with the other proctor 10 feet away was out since I was instructed not to turn away from my monitor. So my mind drifted until I realized that I had access to the internet. I tried the kinky dating service I was a member of, but it was blocked. Then the site I used on the cultivation and care of psilocybin mushrooms. No good. But Wikipedia worked and I started reading the article on Marx. The point was not to interpret this fucking place, but to change it! But who would join me in my revolution? Otis was too well-ensconced, Elsie too docile and Bertie too cynical and beaten down. Instead, I sought solace in philosophy and read the young Marx’s ideas about alienated labor under capitalism in the 1844 Paris Manuscripts.
Were we alienated from the products of our work? Hell, we produced nothing except officially certified wage slaves. Estranged from our colleagues? We really couldn’t talk much, just exchange exasperated eye rolls after Jennifer imposed the latest bits of procedural minutiae. And as far as this work being an expression of our human essence as people who come together to plan, design and craft the material fulfillment of their lives? Mein Gott im Himmel, nein!
The rest of my day pretty much went exactly the same, though I do confess to a tiny frisson (guess I was desperate for just a few seconds of relief from the tedium) by having female candidates pat around their waists and down their thighs, pull out front and back pockets and such. A certain Ms. DuBois complained that the admission procedure was worse than that of the TSA (something that others grumbled about). One prospective nurse came wearing a hijab which is a very delicate matter in terms of making sure she had no hidden notes, calculators or communication devices. And so it went save for the breaks I asked to take for bathroom and smoke. Jennifer approved this only after checking the schedule and making sure the workflow allowed for it.
That night at home and mid-way through my third Jack Daniels, it struck me that what I’ve described here was well captured by the great Marxist philosopher György Lukács’s concept of reification (I prefer the German verdinglichung—thingification). This is the process by which people are turned into things and their relationships into those between things. Lukács shows how the particular form of thing and reified relation in modern capitalist societies is the commodity.
Yes, that’s what we were at Pearsall, fungible units of rationalized production. What could be more reified, more thing-like, than to spend your workday going through precisely the same routineized procedures and instructions, one “candidate” after another, and then surveil them via cameras as they test for between three and eight hours?
Throughout the day, there is hardly a moment when a proctor has the opportunity to say something off-script to a test taker or make an autonomous decision, much less to show the slightest initiative or apply their intelligence or creativity. But this would not be unfamiliar to Marx, Lukács and all the other critics of capitalism within the socialist tradition. What makes this kind of work so representative of what is available to many in a 21st century neo-liberal economy was astutely pointed out by Mark Fisher (K-Punk) in his analysis of the Cronenberg film existenZ set in the near future about bio-technical virtual reality gaming. In the movie, human players encounter hyper-realistic game bots programmed to respond to certain triggers. Fisher wrote that watching these characters loop through the same set of limited phrases and gestures resembles the familiar scenes of twenty-first century labor, “in which quasi-automation is expected of the worker, as if the undeclared condition of employment [are] to surrender subjectivity and be nothing more than a bio-linguistic appendage tasked with repeating set phrases.”
This made me wonder if Jennifer has so over-played her role as test administrator that her own inner self has been eliminated. It would seriously freak me out if I ever were to see her interactions with others outside of Pearsall as resembling her speech and affect on the job. Was there a chance that I too would eventually slide into the company mold?
By my second and third weeks I started tracking small signs of humanity and thingification among my fellow Pearsallites. It was Bertie who consoled Magda from Hungary (she knew of her countryman Lukacs, but was not interested in his thought) after Joshua made her cry over some slight deviation from Pearsall protocol. As I mentioned, he is Jennifer’s right hand robot but has some deficiencies. His social skills are poor and he becomes flustered and agitated when events do not conform to the letter of our training manual. Bertie said that if he ever tried anything like that with her, she’d chop his head off and put it on a stick.
The funny thing about the administrative hierarchy at this small center is that it seems entirely unnecessary. One day it was only Otis, Magda and me and everything ran at least as smoothly as when the supervisors were there (although Jennifer did call to make sure we were sanitizing the lockers). We even arranged our own breaks and nobody gave a damn if anyone took an extra 10 minutes.
Being unemployed during a time of historic recession and global pandemic is no joke so I planned to continue at Pearsall as long as they needed me as a cyborgian thing among things. I would do what I could to find small ways to express my individuality, question the petty rules and regulations and try to make things a bit less odious for my co-workers. At least until the revolution comes.
A few weeks later, Jennifer called me back to the staff area. She said that when she came in that morning after I had closed the night before, she found hair on one of the workstations. A clump? A strand? An eyelash? She did not specify but from the outraged way she emphasized “hair,” I knew this was a serious matter indeed. Proctors are required to thoroughly wipe down the stations after each test taker and especially after closing at night. I imagined Jennifer an hour before opening giving the whole place the white glove treatment. She issued me an official warning. I suspected that she saw me as someone not easily adaptable to the Pearsall way.
On December 1st, I received an email from Jennifer saying that my “short term contract” would expire on Dec. 18. I have been at Pearsall for six months and made slightly over $2,000. After the hair incident my assigned shifts dwindled. Then even more so after the garbage episode. I was working at the front desk as test administrator (rather than proctor) which entails a more elaborate palm scanning than done in the back, photographing of candidates, scrutinizing various forms of identification and such. At the end of the night special procedures must be followed before closing. Bertie showed me how to prepare the next day’s schedule before she left, but there was other stuff which I had no real idea of including sanitizing the lockers and bathroom keys and taking out the garbage. I was out the door at 8 PM when Joshua informed me that the trash bins near the lockers had not been taken out and emptied. I thought about it for a moment and told him I would just leave it. In every other office I have ever worked in the custodial staff took care out the trash so I just said fuck it and left.
I was scheduled to work the next day at 2 PM, but at eight in the morning I got a call from Jennifer. She was in the center and had gotten “a disturbing email from a colleague.” (Note the attempts to make the job sound other than minimum wage. We are “Pearsall professionals,” “test administrators” and apparently can get ratted out by our “colleagues.”) Yes, it was the garbage left by the lockers. Joshua must have immediately run to a computer and fired off an email to Jennifer who was quite outraged. My attempts at exonerating myself failed and she took me off the schedule for the day.
When I was scheduled next two weeks later, I confronted Joshua about why he did not come to me to discuss the garbage matter face to face when we next worked together instead of going to the boss. His increasingly convoluted response was that he did not send the email (anyone could have, he said), maybe Jennifer had come in first thing and discovered on her own the infectious material, and that we were professionals with a job to do or something. Poor Josh must have been stewing about it all night because at the end of the shift he turned in his chair to face me and posed a confusing hypothetical about what I would do if I wanted to talk with a colleague about a dispute, but they refused to. I said that I would ask a veteran co-worker to mediate. “But what about Jennifer?! Let’s have a meeting with her.” Some ridiculous moments later, he said that he had changed his mind (after at first denying that the email was his, then sort of admitting it,etc.) about my offer to not tell the others about the whole silly business (I had obliquely slipped in his making Magda cry and he must have feared being disliked). No, he would rather I keep our trash dispute confidential.
I will keep my word despite being sorely tempted to share it all with Roberto who while being cynical about politics is a fan of Noam Chomsky’s and seems to hate neo-liberalism as much as I do. Plus he is cool. Anyway, we already have a running joke about Joshua’s insistence on when being asked who he voted for, saying “the candidate.” What the fuck, Josh? The candidate.
I have just two more shifts before my contract ends. I did not even ask about the possibility of it being extended. I really did like most of the people I worked with. Otis for being down to earth and no bullshit. Bertie for being tough as nails and having raised three boys alone into fine young men. Elsie for her sweet naivete. And Magda for her sexy Mitteleuropan irony. Thus, dear reader, ends my tale of wage slavery in the Pearsall Thingification Factory.
Henry Blanke is a Soto Zen Buddhist and long-time member of the Democratic Socialists of America. He is an essayist and poet, a bohemian flaneur and is currently working as a substance abuse counselor in Brooklyn, New York.