When I first saw Joshua Ferris's novel Then We Came to the End I shuddered with recognition. Ferris's novel is set at an advertising agency during the dot com crash circa 2000, and the novel is grimly funny and depressingly accurate. During that period I worked on a project to build General Electric's largest B2C web site, a "life management system" called LiveSmart.com. (Don't bother looking up the URL.) A week after I joined the project I could see that it was complete vaporware. The business plan was wildly impractical, the technical challenges insurmountable with our resources, and the market for our service virtually non-existent--and everybody knew all of this. It was a sign of the times that such an improbable scheme ever got seriously considered let alone approved by a company that prided itself on financial probity. I'd suspected they got Jack Welch to sign off on it shortly after a pleasurable romp with one of his mistresses.
Most of the action of Ferris's novel takes place after the party was over. Some companies like eToys imploded virtually over night, but many new economy enterprises, like Ferris's advertising agency and LiveSmart, were sustained for months on a life support system of make-work projects, misplaced optimism, and paranoia. Everyone lives in fear of being laid off, but surviving a layoff has its own perils. I survived six major layoffs and at least a dozen smaller, stealth layoffs (I eventually left on my own a week before the workforce was reduced by another 40%), but after a layoff I always felt like the sole survivor of a house fire. Downsizings, as the firings were euphemistically known, were invariably accompanied by a "growth plan," a mordantly amusing exercise in digging one's own grave. After the dot com crash the doomed employees in Ferris's novel fight over Aeron chairs, the totemic symbols of a vanishing prestige, and jostle for roles in a breast cancer project with the mission of making breast cancer amusing. At GE we were set to work mapping work flow processes so management could identify which jobs could be eliminated next.
Karl Marx once observed that the capitalist economy was rational at the macro level but increasingly irrational the closer you got to the micro level. The irrationality of cubical life leaves its traces in the shabby absurdities of Dilbert, practically a Talmudic text for white collar worker malaise. But Then We Came to the End isn't just another cubical joke. Ferris's hapless office workers need the irrational breast cancer project to rebuild their lives and give their careers a semblance of purpose. In the end trying to make cancer funny for a mysterious client is no different than some corporate initiative guided by "data driven" decisions. The delusion that one is doing something purposeful shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. As preposterous as LiveSmart was, it remains the most engaging, exciting project I've ever worked on.