Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Some thoughts on motivation and responsibility

Today, a major computer network problem disabled most of the mechanical engineering department, and wiped out huge parts (and for at least one person, the entirety) of dozens of people's work--data, computer codes, everything. The problem affected our lab server, too. We store most everything we work on in our lab on this server, and we even back it up after that. We knew that the IT guys were probably being flooded by people shouting and screaming and complaining to and at them the entire day. However, the circumstances of the entire situation, which we talked about and debated endlessly today, were such that our lab group did not find it burdensome on the IT guys for them to get our lab server up and running by the "end of the day". Honestly, though, there shouldn't have been an "end of the day" for them today, for, it is their duty and responsibility to fix things that go wrong, and the expectations are such that when something major like this does go wrong, that, well, work turns into responsibility. Responsibility seems to arise more fundamentally because it seems like someone in the IT department caused the problem. It was sad to hear then that when my lab mate went downstairs at 5:05 pm to see if the computer was fixed, he found the IT office empty and the door locked. Everyone had left, like workers punching their time cards.

It got Mohammad and I talking about motivation and responsibility. As individuals, the only responsibilities we are made to think of are paying taxes, bringing home a paycheck, and promptly spending more than that paycheck using our credit cards. (We are indeed encouraged to do so.) But apart from that, we are faced with few responsibilities. We see no responsibility to our neighbourhoods and communities, no responsibility to our watersheds, no responsibility or obligation to participate in this so-called democracy. We let things happen as they may, each person fending for themselves.

In my entire education, it is only in India that I was talked to about individual responsibility. I wonder how much citizenship and individual responsibility is being talked about in schools in America. Indeed, in our university education system, individual responsibility and citizenship are never mentioned. We are always taught about collectives. We study microeconomics and economies of scale. Depending on your major, you may talk about issues of large scale oppressive systems. Yet, we never study home economics, or responsibility to our neighbours. We are treated as grains of sand, and told that our individual actions and decisions don't matter. But when aggregated over, we suddenly end up with supply and demand curves that dictate large-scale and local policies that affect our individual lives. How do we, as individuals, conduct ourselves responsibly in the world? And how does that responsibility unfold in situations when we've made mistakes?

And so, to come back to the IT guys today who left without reparations after a major fault of their own causing, I wonder, do they lack motivation? I can imagine that someone that has spent the bulk of their life doing something that hasn't satisfied them, or has left much to be desired, has lost motivation. And when you see millions of people drudging away their lives in jobs that leave massive voids in people's happiness and spirituality, expecting responsibility in the workspace can seem utopian. How does the loss of motivation in our lives, stemming from the practical slavery we are put through for our lives, affect the responsibility we feel towards the world and ourselves?


  1. Great post. It sounds like you're talking about a sense of civic duty or civic engagement. I think its easy to be cynical about the state of civic duty in 21st century U.S. and decry people as generally "selfish". But if you talk to people and closely observe their behavior, I think you'll find that they're aware of SOME other people's feelings and plights and are willing to make sacrifices for SOME others. As to who those others are, I think that's what is changing. We used to be concerned with our physical neighbors and the imagined community of the country, but now, perhaps, our communities are more interest-driven. We care about those who share our outlook and our passions, and are indifferent at best toward those who do not.

    In terms of people's feelings of pride or responsibility and work: that's a tricky one. Its legitimate to think that a job is just a thing you do to make money, that one's spiritual and intellectual life is not tied up in it. If its not in their job description to stay after hours to fix a problem, then they don't owe it to anyone to do so.

    I look at the civic, neighborly world and the work world as two different cultures. The first isn't a rule-based culture: conversation, shared experiences, and compassion are part of the mix. Work is a rule-based culture: if its not in the rules for people to stay late to fix problems, change the rules so that employees know what they're signing on for.

    Thanks for the thought provocation!

  2. Elliot,

    It's great to hear from you. You are right--I am talking about a sense of civic engagement and citizenry. And I agree with you that as social beings we are concerned about at least some people around us. Where I think things are interesting and always in flux are the boundaries you so delineate.

    It is particularly ironic, I feel, how individualism is such a core belief in the US, while many actions (such as military efforts) are taken in our collective name. At the same time, legally, the US actually has afforded more and more "rights" to more and more segments of our world. Women can now vote, as can African-Americans. Also, through policies such as the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act, environmental sensibilities are also part of our lives.

    In the end, though, I am always struck by the individual narrowness of our moralities. This is likely evolutionary, I do not doubt. However, given all of the "information" that is everywhere, we find ourselves utterly incapable of extending our feelings to others, and have a difficult time imagining where the objects of our daily lives come from. Right now, I can only conclude that from a very young age, we are taught to think "independently" and "for ourselves", to the detriment of being able to act as collectives, even small collectives. If we are only concerned with ourselves, and are always distrustful of others, we are more vulnerable to being manipulated by large structural forces.

    Ok, I sound pretty esoteric. I'll tone it down next time. :)