Office Space and the Meaning of Work

Silicon Valley is now an enchanted place, the source of our future, a miraculous portal that works by mystery. No one there, in the capital of mathematical rationality, knows what’s next. But they and we believe whatever’s next is going to happen there. So it’s as mysterious as God and we often hope or fear, as powerful.

Comedy allows both the clueless among us and those of us who realize we’re often ridiculous to avoid madness. You get a sense of the importance of both chance and choice—we’re not fated!—and also some unpleasant truths about the extent to which our woes are the result of our abandonment of self-government.

So thinking about them should perhaps start from a less flattering perspective. Thus we turn to a 1999 small-budget flop that has since turned into a cult hit, Office Space. The film depicts the revenge of the little guy against the giant, inhuman corporation in the dark night before the new dawn of Silicon Valley.

The film opens depicting a few men on their way to work at a software firm called Initech who are about to give up hope. This loss of hope, this failure of confidence, will lead them to discover the brotherhood that only men who become aware of their existential plight, their common enemy, and the indifference of the world can experience.

The workers at Initech are about to be introduced to efficiency experts—strangers who will compel them to apply again for the jobs they already do. This is humiliating because the experts prove in short order that these jobs aren’t worth doing. The workers will discover not just that they are replaceable, but that that’s the best thing about them. This foreshadows the big labor-capital conflict over dignity that we also see nowadays rocking our politics, society, and economy. America has lied to them: They thought they could define their dignity through their work, software engineering in cubicles was the same as making tangible goods. This turns out not to be possible.

The leader of the band of brothers is Peter Gibbons (played by one of the finest TV character actors, Ron Livingston), a man who’s not going anywhere. You may not think at the bland, sorry sight of him that he could be a prophet or a hero, but it’s ok—he’s been discounted all his life. Peter realizes after a series of trying events that man was not made to live in a cubicle. He proceeds to lead a conspiracy to embezzle funds from the corporation that employed him. And he eventually gets a job as a construction worker, which he seems to enjoy. He certainly prefers it to becoming a software engineer. You probably don’t think of boring, hard manual labor as preferable to middle class office work. Indeed, that’s why one is so cheap and the other so dear. But Peter proves he’s an individual by his rejection of public opinion.

Corporations require productivity. Understanding who will deliver requires more intuition than knowledge on their part than we like to admit. The workers’ universal failure to justify themselves as productive is quite depressing, but at the same time it’s liberating—they can escape the foolish conformism of the office, where an annoying boss is forever harassing them.

Moreover, can you blame them? Who among us is truly irreplaceable? These men are tasked with safeguarding the financial future by updating banking software to guard against the Y2K bug—not that they would see much reward from it. And because of the fact their main project is to fix a single problem, they have almost no connection to the future of the company. There is a great imbalance between the imposition of authority at work and the dignity of the workers, and it undermines the workers’ loyalty even more.

Similarly, the waitress Peter starts dating, Joanna (Jennifer Aniston) is asked to express herself by a vulgar joy in serving her customers. The food or the manners will not do—“flair” is also required in the form of decorative pins and baubles spread across her uniform. This counterfeit enthusiasm is supposed to please clients by showing off the slavishness of the staff. Joanna discovers that the people who run an organization interpose such staff between themselves and clients—someone has got to get screamed at, but never the self-important authorities. It’s the poor sap in customer support or food service who suffers, at least until he’s replaced by robots.

Peter does not need other people to question his worth as a man. He does it for himself, as all free men do. Peter, of course, knows people work for the sake of money—we are all money-makers, after all, so we can pay for our freedom. He does not disagree with this, but he does begin to entertain philosophical doubts about our sacred conventions—in short, he turns to stealing, which is also work, so that’s all-American, and can be just as technological or scientific as anything else, so it’s very modern, to satisfy this need.

For a while, the efficiency experts are in love with Peter, whose newfound immorality makes him insightfully honest about Initech and its employees. How else to learn how better to exploit people? Efficiency is about realism—not about looking to what employees ought to do, but what they actually are doing.

There is an enduring sense of hopelessness to this comedy that explains its failure at the box office, but also a manliness that explains its status as a cult hit. It became a rallying cry for people oppressed by the undignified, inhuman world of cubicles. If this is the end of history, let there be an end of it, and we’ll take our chances! The graceful irony and the everyday character of the story serve to show how a population is prepared for radicalization—that is, they’re prepared to go back to the root of a problem and try out other solutions than what comes to be taken for granted at a given moment.

If people turn out to be interchangeable, reduced to creatures whose only sense of individuality comes from fear, there must soon be trouble. Freedom understood in this way turns out to be freedom from humanity. Work without workers, in our times, is not looking promising. Either people will be replaced by machines, or they will revolt. At one point in the film, Joanna observes that nobody likes their job. But people have to work anyway, yet we must look beyond work to understand what makes us human. Some reacted to this state of affairs by becoming Bobos, or by embracing the futurism of Silicon Valley 2.0. Others by embracing radicalization, gradually hollowing the consensus of American life. Whether the successful or the failed are more deluded is unclear.

Americans used to be held back from revolution by the family home. It’s dangerous to be immoderate when you have a wife and children to worry about—so also for the wife, if she’s interested in revolution. But also, it’s not really necessary to revolutionize America if people feel their private lives are satisfying and there’s some future ahead, children and all. But take away family and work turns out to be far less human than previously supposed—especially when people begin to suspect the changed character of work is what precludes or corrodes family in the first place. Welcome to the 21st century.