Archive for September, 1998

Let those paper flags fly

Wednesday, September 23rd, 1998

Sep 23, 1998

Corporations that nurture idiosyncratic staff rebellions really do themselves a service.

Do you use Microsoft Word 97? Type in ‘I’d like to see Bill Gates dead.’ Highlight the sentence, then press Shift F7, the command for getting synonyms. The synonym that pops up is: ‘I’ll drink to that.’ It’s a tiny act of revenge by some lonely software programmer, alone in his cluttered cubicle in 1, Microsoft Way, Redmond, bleary-eyed and nearing physical breakdown at three in the morning as he works desperately to meet the toughest deadlines on earth.

Also try: ‘Unable to find pleasure’, but not in front of children.

In the software industry, they call these pranks “Easter eggs”. Embedded deep inside programmes, they sleep through the year, till someone hits a certain combination of keys. Excel has many of them. Adobe Photoshop is rich in them: try various combinations of Control, Shift, Alt keys and letters, and surprising things could happen. But not all of them could be harmless jokes, so take appropriate pre-emptive measures.

The other place where you find them, I’m told, is animation films. I haven’t seen Pocahontas, but apparently, for a second or two, somewhere in the film, the clouds in the sky spell out the word S-E-X. In Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (again, I haven’t seen it myself), a character gives Disney boss Michael Eisner’s phone number as that of a Hollywood brothel.

“It’s that Marxist concept,” my friend Itu Chaudhuri, graphic designer, software programmer, economist, philosopher and perfectionist, tells me. “‘The effacement of traces of labour is the prime mechanism for conversion of use value to exchange value.’ Large companies try to kill individualism, and the only way the individual can fight back is through these hidden acts of rebellion.” Software and animation film industries share certain traits. Both are intellect-intensive businesses; the company’s real capital and assets are basically inside the heads of its employees. So, by definition, the average employee is more intelligent and creative than the average hotel staffer or steel plant worker. As a result, they are also likely to be more individualistic. Most software companies, including the biggest ones, nurture or at least tolerate that. No one interferes in matters like how the programmer dresses; a blind eye is turned to personal weirdnesses: the management has no problems with a programmer insisting that he can ideate only while cartwheeling down corridors. It’s standard procedure for animation artists to walk around the office building in imitation of the cartoon character he is working on, so he can get inside the skin of his creation in all its nuances.

Yet, the way these industries operate — and the way they have to, by all accounts — is to yoke these individuals together in small teams working on small modules of large projects, all of them working extremely long hours under extremely high stress, and all these teams adding up to hundreds of individualists forming one homogenous faceless mass. The user of the software and the viewer of the film never get to know the names of these programmers, and in fact couldn’t care less. Companies like Apple may give designations like ‘Wizard’ and ‘Magician’ to valued employees, but to the world, a software package or an animation film is like that black monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, perfectly opaque, smooth and frictionless. In fact, the better — or more satisfying it is (and this implies more blood, sweat, tears, brains and sense of pride have gone into creating this superior product), the more it resembles the monolith. And the more it should, too.

Let’s get this clear: software programmers are both very well-paid and frugal. I remember reading a news report some years ago that 20 per cent of all Microsoft employees were already millionaires from their stock options, but restaurant owners and traders in Seattle, where Microsoft is based, hadn’t benefited from this in any way. Microsofters hardly spend on luxuries, are unimpressed by premium brands and end up saving a very large part of their incomes. The man who cocked a snook at Bill Gates in Word 97 almost certainly did not bear a financial grudge. Animation cartoonists, though, are not so lucky. As far as I know, they don’t get stock options, certainly not at software industry levels, and they are not so well-paid either. But my guess is Easter egg-ers do what they do not for money-related grouses, but to earn a sort of recognition from the world, a sort of posterity, by scratching on the surface of the monolith. It’s not the act of a vandal. Quite the opposite, in fact: it’s an assertion of ownership.

These businesses are exactly the opposite of the Industrial Revolution — created manufacturing industries. In the latter, intelligence and ingenuity are at the upper half of the workflow pyramid, and the bottom half has to be fully standardised to the level of mindless drudgery. In the former, the upper half needs to encourage innovation and creativity in the bottom half and then rein it in and smoothen out the bulges. Easter eggs are an inevitable by-product of this: years later, someone somewhere could chance on it and the Easter egg-er would have his own room in a small by-lane in his mind. Maybe every company should encourage this: let the unknown soldier plant a small paper flag on the battlefield.

Happiness is…seeking it

Wednesday, September 9th, 1998

Sep 09, 1998

Flagging reforms, bumbling governments and a gyrating Sensex notwithstanding.

The other day, a friend asked me: “Is there anyone in India right now who’s happy?” And my spontaneous answer was: “No.” From K.R. Narayanan, helplessly watching the degeneration of Indian polity from his perch on Raisina Hill, to the software engineer who was recently turned down a visa to the US; from an exasperated Ratan Tata refusing to offer any easy excuses for Telco’s poor performance, to my driver Sanjay, reeling under spiralling inflation: a sense of failure — failure of the very idea of India — sits like a weight at the core of our hearts.

I haven’t read a news item that has cheered me since I don’t know when (correction: a news item that doesn’t feature Sachin Tendulkar). Even news of some positive development leaves a sense of unease, a “yes, but…” feeling. It’s quite clear to anyone with half a brain that we have gone awfully wrong; the seeds sown decades ago have flowered in all their repellent splendour.

But my friend’s question set me thinking, and caused me to turn the situation around a bit. I believe it is now irrevocably incumbent on every Indian to make himself happy. Really.

Start from the big picture. There is not much more the government can do, policywise, to boost the economy. Nearly everything anyone wanted has been granted. The last doubts about economic reforms being irreversible have been laid to rest. But if Chidambaram’s “dream budget” convinced businessmen they could now just sit back and make pots of money, the feeling today is: “There’s no point even trying.” In short, we’re in the realm of self-fulfilling prophecies. If you think there’s no point trying, you won’t try, and obviously, you won’t achieve anything. Of course, one does get a different sort of happiness (“See, I knew this would happen!”) this way, but, well, you know…

Or look at all the chest beating and wailing about the falling Sensex. Yes, it’s dropping because people are selling their shares and getting out. But in a zero-sum game like share investing, for every person who’s selling at a loss, there’s the person on the other side of the deal, who’s buying at a profit (because he short-sold) or is confident of making a profit later by selling these shares at a higher price. So what’s the big deal?

When all our institutions have failed us, and our leaders are as confused as your neighbourhood grocer, it’s surely time to take some decisive action and make ourselves happy?

In the middle of this grinding recession, with the advertising industry down in the dumps, a friend of mine left his cushy job to become an ad film maker. He works hard and enjoys his work, has lots of fun, and as far as I can make out, he’s already got money coming out of his ears. For an architect I know, his currently lacklustre business — not too many people are building houses right now — has, in fact, brought great focus to his aspirations. He has realised that what he wants most from life is not sackfuls of money but a sort of peace that the urban rush cannot offer. He has taken a house on rent in Dehra Dun (at Rs 3,000 a month for a bungalow on a one-acre plot, incredible to us metro types), goes there on weekends, and intends to move permanently in the next two years or so. He will relocate his business there, and finally set up an architecture academy. Plus make sure that his son grows up seeing trees and rivers and mountains around him. A lady I love gave up her job when she had a child: the child is still too young for her to go back to work, so she’s handling the inevitable career-related frustration by painting, something she gave up when she started working. Friends already want to hang her paintings on their walls; she says she’ll charge them only a token sum: the price of the canvas.

Sorry for sounding like those self-help gurus who solve all your life’s problems in six steps and chicken soup, but, what to do, I want to be happy. I think it’s stupid to let the yen and yuan and Jayalalitha make us miserable. If I wasn’t working in the media, I’d have long given up reading the newspapers except for the sports pages and the film reviews. And spent all my leisure hours listening to old Kishore Kumar favourites. In the meantime, I’ll be happy if someone reading these musings agrees with at least some parts of them.