Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The ethics of work

During the summers after my Freshman, Sophomore, and Junior years in college, I worked in a glass factory. Owens-Illinois (later OI-NEG, later Techneglas, later gone) made TV faceplates.* Big, small, clear, green, blue, smoky gray, we made all sorts. Every day you would handle hundreds or even thousands of them, so many that most people developed carpal tunnel syndrome from the repetitive motions, and developed tinnitus from the constant squeal of grinders and polishers, and sometimes developed deep and life-altering lacerations when a faceplate broke.

One day while I was walking through the plant with another one of the summer students during a break, a "train" went by - a small vehicle tugging cart after cart of palletized faceplates. Thousands of them, just a small fraction of our daily production. We waited as the train drove past, and we realized that if everything went absolutely right, every one of these faceplates would become a part of a television set.

The thought blew our minds. Tens and hundreds of thousands of potential brand-new televisions sets being made every day. Who the hell was buying them? Were people really watching that much TV?

"Do you realize how many brain cells we're responsible for killing?" I asked.

I work, and have for the past eighteen years worked, for a CD and DVD manufacturer. (When I first started we made other things, like cassette tapes and record albums VHS tapes and Laser Disks, but all those things went away over the years.) Music. Movies. Entertainment. Stuff that could make people happy, or enlighten them, or move them, or just plain entertain them. As one music producer I worked with says, "What's the worst that happens if we completely screw up our jobs? Somebody doesn't get entertained."**

Sure, CDs can make you go deaf, if you play them too loud. DVDs can make you fat, if all you ever do is sit around and watch movies on TV. (In that case, just grab a bunch of Pilates DVDs and get to work!) But there is nothing intrinsically evil about CDs or DVDs.***

When I was out of work, a very good person to whom I will forever owe a debt of gratitude, a fellow-commentor at one of my favorite sites, heard of my plight and offered his services to me. He is someone who specializes in getting people employed, and he coached me through various strategies I had not heard of previously.

At one point a job opened up, one calling for someone with Statistical Process Control skills. Something right up my alley. I looked up the company, and was taken aback. It was - is - a military weapons manufacturer. Not guns or bullets, but something bigger. Deadlier.

But wait. They emphasize on their website that they manufacture training versions of this stuff. Well, OK then. If people are going to use this stuff, they had best train in the proper way to use it. Don't want to hear about a bunch of civilians getting killed because someone didn't have proper training. Sign me up.

When I went on an interview there I asked about this. They assured me that, yes, they do in fact make the training versions of this stuff. But they also make the real stuff, too.

OK. So here I was. I had made TV faceplates in college, solar cells after I dropped out of grad school, and had just spent fifteen years in various positions for an entertainment media manufacturer. And now I was going to take a job with a company whose product, when used as directed, would kill the largest number of people possible?

I mentioned this concern to my informal advisor, and he recommended that I set aside my misgivings if it made a difference between getting the job and not getting the job.

I didn't get the job.****

Northeastern Pennsylvania played a major role in supplying the energy needs of the United States throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Coal from our mines - the clean, hard, anthracite coal, not the dirty, soft bituminous coal that is mined in West Virginia and Poland and Columbia - fueled factories and power plants, heated homes, ran trains. It kept families fed and kept roofs over heads. It also killed people - some quickly in mine explosions and collapses, some gradually by way of black lung. And more than fifty years after the Knox Mine Disaster ended subsurface coal mining in this area, this area still bears the scars: ruined landscapes, poisoned streams, water contamination, underground fires, and the occasional subsidence that swallows people, cars, cranes, houses...

Now a new employment opportunity is coming to this area. Much of Northeastern Pennsylvania is prime drilling ground for natural gas that underlies Marcellus Shale deposits. Gas companies are handing out money in exchange for leases allowing them the right to drill exploratory wells on your property, and if they find a worthwhile deposit, to extract as much of that gas as they can through a process known as hydraulic fracturing. Money up front, royalties to be paid to you as gas is extracted - what can go wrong? Other than the environmental destruction, and the heavy truck traffic on roads designed for light rural traffic, and the permanently contaminated groundwater supplies which are the calling card of the Halliburton-developed "fracking" process.

Our local politicians are not sitting idly by as this happens. They see an opportunity for tax revenue, and for jobs creation. Because all these gas drilling outfits will be needing skilled, trained operators and engineers and managers, local colleges and universities are getting in on the act, creating courses of study that specifically apply to the gas drilling industry. And more and more people are finding jobs in the gas industry each day. The consequences for this region may be more than they can comprehend.*****

What is it that you will not do? If the thing that you make, or sell, or market, or design, or support in some way sickens people, or kills them, or pollutes the environment, or is somehow intrinsically evil or causes evil consequences, where do you draw the line? If you are a criminal defense lawyer and your client has admitted guilt to you, are you still obligated to try to prove his innocence? Where do you draw the line? What is it you will not do?

*Even today there may be already be people who have no idea what this is. Back in the olden days, televisions (and computer monitors) were great, bulky boxes that contained cathode ray tubes (also known as CRTs), which used electron beams fired from deep in the back aimed at phosphors on the front screen (the "faceplate") to generate an image. These tubes were generally deeper than they were wide, and most televisions were boxes with an extra bit sticking out of the middle of the back. We made the faceplates, while another company (Corning, I think) made the back glass assemblies, and someone else made the electronics that went inside the tubes, and somebody mated all these pieces together.

**Actually, he and I later saw the consequences of this when a young, up-and-coming singer decided to get experimental with his vocals and sang outside his normal range on his second or third release, a live outdoor performance. I heard it, and called the producer, and told him "Something is wrong with the vocals." He responded "We know", and told me the story. And the project went through with the vocals as-is, and the release came out, and his millions of screaming, hysterical fans said "What the hell is wrong with the vocals?" And blame, of course, was pinned on the DVD manufacturer for having somehow altered the vocals, until cooler-headed fans realized that no, this is the way the person was singing, and it sounded wrong. And I don't think his career ever fully recovered, though it looks like he's doing OK. Come to think of it, I don't think I ever worked on a project with that producer again, and less than three years later, I lost my job. Hmmmmm...

***Most of them. We don't do porn, which some people would see as an intrinsic evil. In some of its variations, I would too.

****I did hear back from them several months later, and was called in to interview for a slightly modified version of the position. By then I was already working at my current position. The job they were offering would have involved a cut in hourly pay, a reduction in weekly hours, and a commute which, while marginally shorter in distance, would take longer due to navigating city and suburban traffic. This time I was not so disappointed not to get the job.

*****Setting aside the enormous environmental concerns involved, there is the issue of creating an employment monoculture much like existed in this area in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when Coal was King, much like exists today in the Gulf states around the oil industry. The Knox Mine Disaster shut down the bulk of anthracite mining in this area, rendering a chronically depressed and underemployed region even worse. The BP oil spill (seventy days and still gushing, as of this writing) has had employment consequences that have rippled across the entire social network of the Gulf Coast - not just the people directly affected in the oil and fishing industries, but also all the industries that those people supported back when they were employed . The "Space Coast" faces a similar monoculture crisis with the looming end of the Space Shuttle program. Back to selling oranges and supporting the occasional satellite launch. Employment monocultures set up dependency relationships that are surprisingly fragile, and the distance between a booming industry and massive unemployment is very small.

Note that none of these examples is a complete monoculture. Northeastern Pennsylvania also had manufacturing, and textile mills, and iron furnaces - all of which dwindled away after the demise of King Coal.


hedera said...

I have a viewpoint on this. Twenty-five years ago, I met a man at a singles party. He was (is) a statistician; he worked and works for Sandia National Laboratories; at the time he was working on Star Wars (remember that?). He began by asking me if I minded that he made bombs, because the Berkeley liberal he'd just been talking to had been haranguing him about it. I said that as my father had worked for Mare Island Naval Shipyard for 31 years, my sister was doing defense contracting for SRI International, and my cousin was the retired head of personnel at Alameda Naval Air Station, I didn't feel I could legitimately object to somebody who made bombs.

We've been married for twenty-four years next month. He's retiring at the end of this year and handing off the work he's been doing lately - engineering reliability analysis on the nuclear weapons stockpile.

This obviously isn't an exact parallel to any of your situations except maybe the weapons shop. Does it bother me that he works on nukes? Actually, no; but as I've said, there's been a lot of military around my family. And somebody has to work on national defense issues. And it isn't a firm that does it for profit; it's a national lab. The corporate culture is actually quite academic.

I think I'm trying to say that everybody has to make these decisions themselves. If you think a job will keep you up at night with the moral implications, don't take the job. I hope in your case the price of moral rectitude isn't unemployment; you're obviously wondering whether to try for work on the Marcellus Shale. I don't think you'd be comfortable with that. I hope there are alternatives. Your point about the monoculture is very well taken.

I also think your concern about your years making TV faceplates and DVDs is overdone. You aren't responsible for other people's choices, only your own. After all, I spent 19 years in the banking industry - but since I spent it managing mainframes and Unix servers, I don't feel that I'm personally responsible for the subprime mortgage crisis, even though my former employer was in it up to its corporate neck.

Don Williams said...

Harold: We all draw our lines in the sand. Some are higher up on the beach than others. Good post.

D.B. Echo said...

hedera: Heavens, no, I'm not considering working in the Marcellus Shale industry...if I did that, Don might treat me to an upside-down kayak ride over the Knox Whirlpool. But I do know other people who have left my current place to get jobs working with gas drilling companies.

The thing about TV faceplates wasn't really serious, just mind-blowing - all those TVs! And I consider my current employer to be making about the most inoffensive product possible.