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Jewish World ReviewNov. 2, 2000 / 4 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Mark Lane

Mark Lane
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Consumer Reports

Semi-whistle while you para-work -- THESE WORDS were processed on an upgraded word processor. You can probably tell. The insights are sharper. The words sparkle.

The best thing about the new, improved word processor is that I can now spend hours plumbing its hidden recesses, learning its lore, figuring out its cool little tricks.

Why will I spend a ridiculous amount of time dinking around with a computer program to no discernable effect? To become more productive, of course. What a silly question.

As a longtime observer of information systems, workplace behavior and business management systems, I have even coined a term for this kind of labor: "para-work."

Para-work falls just short of being productive labor but isn't quite goofing off.

Work is, well, what I'm doing right now. Writing words that will find their way to newsprint, even if it's only newsprint that decorates the bottom of a parakeet cage. Para-work, however, is writing a memo saying I'll be writing something as soon as the word processor upgrade is completed and can't somebody do something about the condition of this chair?

Para-work is checking your e-mail, cleaning the papers off your desk and using advanced Internet technology to map all Chinese takeout and doughnut places within a 5-mile radius of the office. It is sorting the magazine offers from real mail.

Para-work is 75 percent of all meetings, 80 percent of all meetings that employ projectors and computer graphics and 90 percent of all meetings that involve somebody bringing a videotape.

Work is laying pipe. Para-work is setting up meetings so a committee may decide what color underground pipe to use.

Para-work differs greatly from mere shovel-leaning and Dagwood Bumstead cartoon images of people lazing about a water cooler. Para-work always holds out the promise, however vague, that somehow, somewhere down the line, this effort might prove to be some small contribution to your place in the world economic order.

In fact, there is a burgeoning para-work sector of the economy that employs meeting coordinators, vision-statement consultants and motivational speakers.

Far from being an object of censure and ridicule, many people enjoy praise, promotions, prestige and raises purely on the basis of para-work, while carefully avoiding all those tasks we laughingly refer to as "work."

Like the official in the Gilbert and Sullivan song who "polished up that handle so carefully, that I became the ruler of the queen's navy," many people have caught on to the shining institutional rewards of para-work.

MYSELF, I am selective about para-work. I am not a morning person. Para-work is all I'm good for in the first hour of the workday. My specialty is computer-based para-work, which, thankfully, looks a lot like the real thing when viewed from a distance.

Spending hours establishing oneself as the most macho power-user in your cubicle corral qualifies as para-work of the highest order. Customizing your computer desktop with neat-o wallpaper is on the edge of para-work. Setting up a Motley Crue desktop theme complete with electric-guitar shaped cursors and a sound file that plays a few bars from "Smokin' in the Boys Room" each time Windows boots up? That might stray into the vague frontier between piddling around and para-work. (Consult your employee handbook.)

These distinctions could probably be refined, but it would cut into my time for reprogramming my automatic formatting codes and that could take awhile. Why am I doing this? To save keystrokes, of course. I don't know how people wrote columns back in the DOS days.

Para-work is never done.

Comment on JWR contributor Mark Lane's column by clicking here.

10/27/00: Decided by the undecided


© 2000, M. R. Lane