Inquiry: Estrangement XXI – Obsolescence

Source. Tope A Asokere, Photographer.

by LJ Frank

This series on estrangement seeks to understand some of the differing faces of estrangement and the crossroads it approaches for good or ill.


He didn’t say anything that made sense to his closest friend at the time. Except he alluded to struggling at his clerical type of job. He once tried survivalist training focusing on the basics of water, food, and shelter. He recently died by his own hands with the barrel of a gun in his mouth and the press of a trigger. He had college degrees, a bachelors, and masters, but was unable to develop the network. It was suggested he wasn’t competitive enough. His self-expectations were caught up in a cultural perspective. He was also hindered by a physical disability.

Though I’ve preferred being optimistic more than negative, I am a realist and a minimalist. In the past year I have lost several friends to suicide. Most were unemployed or under employed. All were college educated whether two or four years or post graduate.

A key issue they had in common was the sense of obsolescence to a society that correlated human value to the work they performed and there was something missing in their own life. What was the value of their education? They were passionate but passion in and of itself doesn’t create value and financial success. Entrepreneurship without a network and connections is an illusion. Self-help books feed the mouths of those writing the book more than those reading them. It’s an overnight feel-good read. There are libraries of information on human and work obsolescence that make interesting reading and brought home when friends die by their own hands feeling obsolete and valueless in a culture of hallowed competition.

The dystopian view of society can demoralize a person when you live week to week and day to day. The financial experts tend to be users not givers. And when they’re backgrounds are explored below the skin one learns quickly that life is not fair. Physical, emotional, and intellectual endowment and resources are not the same in every person. 

My friends were not weak. Though they were tired of the inelegance of rudeness because of their position. Would they still be alive if they could tough it out each day and be able to say, as a friend and secular philosopher suggested, “fuck the bastards, I am going to stick around out of spite.”  She also wisely suggested there were “layers to suicide”. 

And at the end of the day the layers between imagination and reality apparently were too thick. It wasn’t about self-pity it was about a feeling of obsolescence – a lack of value and worth combined with the downward spiral of a depressed spirit. The pat on the back, the awards and employee of the month were insufficient. Soul crushing events require a balance, for the chaotic moment of the brain is not something planned for within an unforgiving culture connecting worth with coins. Hard work and working smart were, my friends discovered, insufficient. 

The layers also included the myth of a free market, and the myth that they oversaw their life, that in some fashion they could at least thrive in the system, find one’s passion and still live comfortably – it was a lie. In the end the machine won. Working at a low-level paying job no longer with no financial incentives didn’t cut it. They were tired of being treated as somehow less. They were tired of being subordinate. A caged mind is the worse form of cages.

Self-respect, self-worth, and dignity was being replaced by the machine while the wealthy became more so and waiting in line was tiresome. They were roped off from those who had the money for the special treatment who were able to stick up their noses at the less fortunate or at least avoid eye contact.   

The argument for toughing it out is easier when you have the resources – money, family, a well-paying job or livable income, a resulting sense of self-worth, dignity, and a healthy, attractive  body and mind, and a feeling that you are somehow in control of your life. On the other hand, to be at-will is a profound injustice based on master and servant under the rubric of legalese. It was made law to satisfy the initial bravado and chest pounding of the dominant and submissive relationship between employer and employee. Control.

The questions they jotted down in their diaries focused on the value of their work. What ism will help when gradual shifts are insufficient to the person with the gun pointed at their head? Do people with money have little clue as it’s outside their realm of experience? How much does fear and empowerment play a role?

There are many excellent studies about the work environment. One relatively recent study is Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and why we don’t talk about it) by Elizabeth Anderson (2017). Dr. Anderson offers profound insights in how America is a form of private government. She discusses how the average employee in the private sector acts as if the free market still existed. The author demonstrates that the free market is a myth with the research to back it up. Since the industrial revolution employers have made the rules through dictatorial means – invasive policies and the paycheck (and the secrecy that surrounds it) to name just a couple of tactics and decisions about the employee’s professional and personal life. And, as an employee learns early on – you fall in line. “In the workplace, employees can be fired for their political speech, recreational activities, diet, and almost anything else employers care to govern. Privacy doesn’t exist nor does worker freedom. Employee activities are orchestrated and sold as being in the best interest of the worker and the success of the business.” 

There’s much talk about empathy and reaching out and helping while angst is on the rise as is polarization through disruptive politics that continue to escalate. When you’re sitting on the precipice of a pandemic, climate change and war lurking on the horizon then gradual change or shift in policies is no longer relevant. Gradual doesn’t cut it! And, the impoverished person knows life has little entertainment value unless drugged. 

And religious belief is like comfort food, relatively easy to digest but hardly, totally honest. The ashes of humans are scattered to the wind let alone coffins with lifeless bodies. The ghosts and spirits of the mind’s eye arrive giving an abiding sense of hope. A resurrection, a reincarnation, etcetera, in other words, another chance to realize something more profound than this earth-bound existence. Belief is personal. Reality is also quite personal. I meditate. But I know that virtual reality is not real, and neither is James Bond nor any superhero…can peace be entertainment?  Staring at a television screen for my now deceased friends was no longer entertainment for them.  Imaginatively inspired sacred texts were no longer helpful. The suicide hot line was a joke. Yet dark humor abounds as I overheard a Starbuck’s customer ask her friend, “I wonder if heaven will have a coffee house where I can get a cup of mocha coffee Grande sans cream and sugar from a heavenly barista?” 

Our technology has surpassed human comprehension. Humor is indeed dark…from nuclear to artificial intelligence to the dichotomies of societal structures – a deceased friend once intimated, “it feels like at any given moment there will be a voice in the sky asking – did you enjoy the show?”

Humans are in transition and have merged with our machines. What will meaningful work look like in an over-crowded, over-heated, planet? Is obsolescence the final human estrangement? Will we be replaced by hardware and software and monitored by whom?  Will humans venture towards activities that embrace more of our immediate tactile and sharing sense?

Perhaps human value is arriving at the realization that one’s existence affects us and reverberates in untold ways…the profound sense of being, even if temporary, that we carry with us and share with others. I miss my friends. But they are with me as I write this.