The Labor of Being Social

After a series of back-and-forth emails among the academic advisors, the training branch, the contracting officers, and the contractors themselves, we arrange a face-to-face meeting at one of the bases. The Afghans who stand to benefit from the projects discussed in the meeting are not included in the meeting or in the email exchange. Afghans don’t do business by email, for the most part. They talk face-to-face in the most senior person’s office. They have tea.

The meeting is held on the second floor of a building constructed out of transmodal shipping containers. The military calls them conexes or milvans. The shipping containers are bolted together; holes are cut with torches for windows; thin sheets of laminate are riveted or scabbed onto the corrugated steel walls, and electrical junction boxes and conduit and plumbing screwed onto the interior face of the laminate. The only available room large enough to accommodate all of us belongs to one of the Christian chaplains. There are three amplifiers, a drum kit, an electronic keyboard, an upright piano, stained glass appliqué paper on the steel casement window, stacks of bottled water, a rough-hewn plywood lectern, particle-board shelves lined with ecclesiastical and religious-themed books and DVDs: Francis Chan’s Forgotten God, Chris Fabry’s Dogwood, study bibles, hymnals, Robert Wilson’s The Story of God, Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. We sit in a semicircle in plastic chairs. Above us, we hear the sound of pigeons nesting in the gaps of the corrugated steel.

There are discussions of the relative merits of the various graduate programs the Afghan instructors might attend: local universities, regional universities, online programs, United States universities. Funding is the primary concern, and the funding roadblocks to raising the English-language expertise of the faculty. We talk about TOEFL prep programs. One of the contracting officers observes that the multimillion-dollar contract for literacy instruction is the biggest contract in Afghanistan.

Later, one of the senior academic mentors on our team notes that his email inbox has recently filled up extraordinarily quickly, to more than 2,600 messages. “And all of it for nothing,” he says. “These don’t get anything done.” I remark again that the Afghans don’t use email: their communication is almost entirely face-to-face.

C. Paul Olson points out in his essay “Who Computes?” that computers replace labor-intensive processes with capital-intensive processes. We sometimes forget, I think, that sociality itself can be labor-intensive. Composition classes operate at least in part based upon a labor theory of value: one learns by doing, and the more work one puts into doing, the more skilled one typically becomes.

My conversation with the senior academic mentor shifts topics to the goals of literacy instruction, and what training in computer use might do for the Afghans. “If we come back and they’re doing all their communication by email and planning with Powerpoint,” he says, “we’ve failed.”

The Labor of Being Social

One thought on “The Labor of Being Social

  • May 31, 2011 at 8:51 am

    I’ve read this post a couple times now–with reflection–there is so much here. I like how you point out, “We sometimes forget, I think, that sociality itself can be labor-intensive.” And then by comparison, your powerful ending point that seems to me to say that the less labor-intensive path is not necessarily the goal. I’m still getting a feel for the lay of the land over there as seen in your blog, but it seems like while everyone here is demanding more proficient electronic communication, the culture difference there is pointing out what we lose in terms of human interaction (the kind of human interaction without computers and email standing between us as interpreters–of course email is a kind of human interaction as well) when we default to the easiest way to communicate.

    I am reminded of one of my own military experiences where we were attempting to unite 3 Naval Aviation squadrons of 200 Sailors each into one permanent unit. Everything related to record-keeping of important qualifications was discovered to incompatible, requiring numerous emails to most of our members–attempting to get everyone on the same page to accomplish shared goals. Nothing improved. In exasperation, I gave up email and visited each of our shops in person a couple times a week to discuss plans and attempt to discover the roadblocks to our progress. Even meeting notification reminders, we started doing by a quick stop at each shop in person a few minutes before the meeting, rather than by email as we’d done previously. It was labor-intensive, but it worked. And more than the success of accomplishing goals, I noted that significant bridges of trust were built between people that email could have never constructed. And all this was required by people who supposedly relish technology! It sounds like you have such complexity in your day to day operations over there–thank you for sharing them–we stand to learn so much from the different challenges you face.

    Oh, and are your conexes an unnatural key-lime green color on the inside? Ours were–and I always wondered what that was about. Did someone accidentally order 10,000 gallons of the wrong color paint for a building so we got it for cheap or is this color somehow deemed the most conducive to productivity? =) Thanks for the vivid imagery and the important reminders.

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