Nothing Is Possible
I lie here in a fever dream -- actually I'm not sure which it is: am I sick and delirious with fever, or am I actually dreaming? That isn't the worst uncertainty, however; I've been confused about things like that before. This time it's worse because I'm also not sure what era this is.
Olgora comes to me, wearing her best leopardskin -- the one I speared for her -- and she mops my hot brow with wet leaves she dipped in the river. Sweet Olgora; and behind her, looking concerned, I see my friends Garnga Big Hunter and Thorg Toolmaker. Garnga leans on his hunting club and whispers in Thorg's ear while Thorg sharpens a stick on a rock, as he does when he's nervous. Are they discussing my chances for survival?
But then there's something else, another scene overlayed on that one: my friends dissolve and I see tall structures, taller than any tree, tall as a small mountain, glittering with -- wait, I know what it is, it's glass and steel; they're office buildings, skyscrapers some call them, and people in suits ride up and down in elevators. They're talking on... cell phones... can this be my world? Is the other a dream, or is this? I know I have an active imagination; they don't call me Lawgna Daydreamer for nothing, but still... the two scenes keep flashing back and forth -- I can't ask anyone, I can't even speak -- I must figure this out.
Those tall buildings, could they really be? We live in trees (to keep safe from the lions at night), don't we? I suppose those buildings would be better than our tree dwellings, obviously they would, but think of the incredible complexity of building such a thing. It's not just walls; there must be thousands, maybe millions of hidden, complex systems in such a building. The elevator alone, for example, must have hundreds of control mechanisms and.... what am I talking about? What do I know of such things?
And yet somehow I can see it... each of those parts was a project for a workteam sometime, somewhere; even the way the elevator button fits into the button panel was a project, and there are projects within projects within projects, and they all have to work together or the elevators would be falling (which is very rare) and people would be crushed even worse than when they fall out of trees at night. All those nested systems -- people had to coordinate them, and understand what others had done in that way before, and improve it, and integrate it with even smaller subsystems in one direction and much larger systems in the other. Physical systems and people systems -- all of them inventions coming from projects developed over time and space that have to actually work! And work smoothly together!
Could people really do this? The people I know could barely even build a fire or sharpen a stick without screwing up. This incredible complexity -- they call it "civilization" -- is it possible this exists, that this was actually built by people like me, or is it all a ridiculous fever dream?
Inspiration, And The Tribe's Reaction
I think of when Thorg Toolmaker got his big idea -- to build huts on the ground in such a way that they could actually keep out lions and be safe places to sleep. That way, he said, we wouldn't have to climb trees each night, which is annoying at best and difficult for the Ancient Ones, and the young ones always risk falling out of the trees while togethering with each other at night. So Thorg drew pictures in the dirt with a stick, showing how such a hut might work, with a flat thing that swiveled out -- a door, I guess you would say -- to keep out the lions.
I remember Borgnak Headman looking at Thorg's plan. At first he was dubious. "There has never been such a thing heard of," he said. But then he saw the people pointing and whispering over Thorg's drawing, and a couple of the younger women glancing at Thorg admiringly, and Borgnak changed his attitude. "It's new... but I'm not opposed to innovation. Good. Surely we can do such a thing."
Several members of the tribe then wanted to lead the project, for we all saw there was much face in it, and possibly the opportunity to amass many cowrie shells as well. Instead of having Thorg Toolmaker head the team, Thorg who is better with his hands than any of us, Borgnak gave leadership of the project to Dorkle. Dorkle is incompetent to even clean himself, and cannot start even a small fire without setting fire to his own loincloth. However, he always says yes to everything Borgnak says; he never argues and always agrees quickly and praises Borgnak. So Borgnak Headman gave Dorkle the project.
Wear Your Best Loincloth to the Committee Meeting
There were weeks and weeks of meetings and plans and committees, and more meetings. Groups formed and groups within groups. They drew up positions, and formed cliques agitating for their positions. Everybody pretended that the arguments were about the issues, but we all knew they were really about power, about who could get what authority and control and credit and maybe amass more cowrie shells in the end, and also about who liked whom and who didn't. But always it was phrased as what people thought was best for the project. Dorkle always referred to the door as "my idea" unless Borgnak Headman was around, in which case he referred to it as "Borgnak's idea" or (if he was feeling daring) as "our" idea. Thorg Toolmaker was never mentioned.
The main problem for Dorkle was that two men (both of them from our tribe but from different clans) wanted to head the Construction Committee, and Dorkle owed each of them something, but the two men hated each other and wouldn't work together. But Dorkle owed them both favors, so he said fine, there would be two construction groups, and he appointed each of the men to head a different one. The Door Committee would build the door itself, and the Hole Committee would build the hole that the door would go in, and the two groups would supposedly collaborate on building the hinges. My friend Thorg Toolmaker, who, I believe, could have built the whole thing by himself, was not liked by the head of either committee, and was not asked to take part, and went off hunting with Garnga.
Finally the two committees started working on the project. I use the word "working" loosely. They preferred to just talk about what they would do, and have planning meetings and cowrie-shell budget-process analyses. Then they would have more meetings to discuss their methodology for planning meetings, and not actually try to do anything.
They Call For The Tribeless Ones
Eventually, as the deadlines neared, people started feeling desperate because it was becoming obvious that neither committee had anybody who could actually build anything. Luckily, they had heard of some people who lived in the hills around our valley who were not members of any tribe. They were independent workers who attended few meetings but were good at building things and would help each other or help any tribe in exchange for cowrie shells.
So the Door Committee called in Olgara Woodbuilder, who was one of these tribeless workers from the hills. She was known to be very clever with her hands. She listened to the Door Committee and its long explanations of "their" clever idea; and she saw that although there were fifteen people on the committee, they had accomplished nothing in two months of meetings. Also she saw Thorg Toolmaker's original drawing still scratched in the dirt (which the tribe had been careful to preserve) and she saw that it was a clever idea and she could build it in a couple of days by herself.
"I just need to know the dimensions of the hole," she said.
"What hole?" asked Fliggle. Fliggle was head of the Door Committee and was also (coincidentally) the mate of the sister of Dorkle, the overall project leader who had been appointed by Borgnak Headman.
"The hole in the side of the hut, the hole that the door will go in," said Olgara Woodbuilder. "How big is it?"
Fliggle scratched in the dust with his toe. "That's the responsibility of the Hole Committee," he said.
This made no sense to Olgara but she said nothing and waited; although tribeless herself, she was used to working with tribes and was very patient. Finally she said, "Well, can you ask the Hole Committee what size the hole is?"
"Um, that's not practical," said Fliggle. "You see, they're hopelessly incompetent, and anyway... um..." His voice trailed off. "I see," said Olgara. "Well, can I ask them myself? Can I talk to them?" She preferred to always have a single point of contact in a tribe, but she had to get the information somehow.
"Look," Fliggle said, starting to get annoyed. "No, you can't talk to them. You're working for us, the Door Committee, you're not working for the Hole Committee. We pay your cowrie shells, not them. Remember that! Anyway I just told you the Hole Committee is incompetent. They're irrelevant. Forget about them. Anyway, if you were really good at this you'd be able to implement my clever door idea in such a way that it would work with any size hole. What difference does the hole make? A hole is just nothingness anyway."
Process Triumphs Over Progress
Just then a very young man named Plip swaggered up. Plip was a junior member of the Hole Committee. Plip informed Fliggle that at Dorkle's command (and with implied authority from Borgnak, he was careful to add) Plip was there to coordinate the two committees' joint work on the hinge. "In order to facilitate the hinge design," Plip said, "would you mind showing us the door you've been building for the past couple of months?"
Fliggle glowered at Plip, who was obviously a spy. The story about the "hinge" was just a ruse for the Hole Committee to find out what the Door Committee was doing. What did this kid take Fliggle for, an idiot? Also, he suspected that Plip knew that there was no door yet. Then he noticed Plip glancing at Olgara. Fliggle knew that Plip knew that he knew that Plip knew that Olgara was not even part of their tribe: would he use that knowledge to cast aspersions on the capability of the Door Committee to complete the project on its own, without calling in a tribeless worker? Would it get back to Dorkle? Or maybe even Borgnak? Surely another meeting must now be called to discuss the political implications of...
The scene dissolves, and I see that over the tall buildings an airplane is flying, a large airliner with hundreds of people on board. The plane has tens of thousands of parts, organized into systems within which are microscopic subsystems, all from different companies and government agencies, not to mention all the systems on the ground for air traffic control and fuel and parts and maintenance, all designed by project teams nested within other project teams and coordinated with other nested hierarchies in other companies, and the whole controlled by leaders from hundreds of different organizations. The whole intricate chain of processes has to work smoothly or the plane will fall out of the sky. It is thousands of times more complicated than the elevator systems in the building, and millions of times more complicated than the simple lion-proof hut door. I think of what this would mean, what convoluted processes would have been necessary to bring this "civilization" about, processes carried out and coordinated by everyday people just like the ones I know. Hah! I have my answer. I'm not an idiot. It's obvious now which era is real and which is imaginary; how could I have ever thought differently? I must have been feverish indeed to imagine such things!
I'm feeling a little better; I think I can stand up and walk. Yes.
I'm going back to my tree now.
San was the founding editor of 1099 Magazine, serving as its first editor-in-chief and creative director. He's now back in the boss-free world as a freelance writer and illustrator. In addition to the inSANity column on 1099, San's other writings and cartoons are at www.sanstudio.com.
We'd love to hear your feedback about this column.