Talking To Cogs . . . and Mistaking Them for People

A cog, they tell us, is a motion-transferring wheel with sprockets along its edge. A collection of them, engineered and assembled, as in a Swiss watch, can be so beautiful to behold that some designers have taken to leaving the whole assembly visible to the eye. It’s reassuring to ponder such precision, to know the mere tightening of a spring can set an army of brass and steel parts off to work in lock step.

But when we describe human beings as mere “cogs in a machine,” we might want to reconsider the horror that could represent. A well-designed machine can signal a reminder for your daughter’s piano recital or it can efficiently grind human flesh to paste. “Cog in a machine” is a different version of the Nuremberg defense. “I was a sprocket on a wheel, doing what sprockets do, taking orders.”

Several years ago, I rented a 15-passenger van for an extended family vacation. We arrived in Philadelphia from Los Angeles after reserving the vehicle on a debit card, only to find that the rental company would not release the van without a credit card.

“You took my reservation,” I protested, “and a very large deposit on that card, but you won’t let me have the vehicle.”

“It’s policy,” the clerk responded. “I have no choice.”

“Yes, you do,” I said. “You can hand me the keys. You can run my card right now for the balance.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Yes, you can,” I said, “or you can find someone who can.”

“It’s Friday evening. Corporate is closed right now.”

“Call someone at home then.”

“I can’t do that.”

It went on like that for a while, and then I went back to our hotel room, fired up my laptop, and found the home address and phone number of a vice president. I called him during the dinner hour.

“This is my home phone number,” he protested.

“Sorry about that,” I replied, “but I’m 3,000 miles away from my home and I’m stranded because you took my deposit for a vehicle you won’t deliver.”

“I’m not even in operations.”

“But you probably know someone who is, right? You can make a phone call and send a regional manager over there and you can find someone who can make a decision, right?”

“I’m not sure that’s true.”

“You work for a company that takes a $2,000 deposit weeks in advance, strands 12 people without a vehicle, all the way across the continent, and you don’t know anyone in your company who can fix this?”

After I kept reassuring him he did indeed have the power to fix the problem, and that I would do everything in my power to broadcast how he fixed the problem, he eventually admitted that he was not a cog in a machine. A regional manager was called, at home, and sent across town to apologize profusely. She explained that debit cards had a bad profile risk, but that the company shouldn’t have taken my reservation if they didn’t mean to honor it.

We are not brass wheels with dull, unfeeling metal teeth. We are human beings. Remember? The divine spark and all that.

A few years later, a staff accountant at Los Angeles Unified gave me a call and told me our field trips could not be paid for in advance. This was against district policy.

“No, it’s not,” I said. “We get pre-payment from all of your schools.”

He sounded startled to be contradicted.

Riley’s Farm isn’t even an approved vendor,” he said.

“I know,” I responded, “but hundreds of your schools come here anyway.”

“Well,” he countered, “I can’t approve payment in advance.”

“Yes you can,” I said. “Look at all the other schools that pay in advance. Would you like a list?”

“Why do you even need to be paid in advance?” he asked.

I told him I had learned the hard way. “We’re a small company,” I said, “we can’t afford to be put off for 60 or 90 or 180 days by a huge, leviathan bureaucracy. I don’t have time to endure hold times and telephone transfers and paperwork reviews and Kafkaesque voicemail nightmares.”

“I don’t think you understand,” he said.

“Yes, I do. Either you pay in advance or tell the school they can’t come.”

This particular cog in the machine was a peculiar sort. He was actually proud to have discovered new limitations on his authority. He was irritated with other purchasing clerks for not recognizing this newfound limitation. He was angry at the poor cog-worthiness of other cogs.

“You can do this,” I told him.

“No, I can’t,” he said, and he went off on a long jag about the ethical problems associated with paying in advance.

“Either they pay in advance,” I said, “or they don’t come.”

They paid in advance. They came.

It doesn’t always work, of course, but it’s liberating to let people know they are made in the image of God; they are not spare parts in an equipment warehouse. They have the power to ponder the basic proposition at work here: was man made for the law or was the law made for man? Is there any honor in doing exactly what you’re told even when, given the context, “doing what you are told” may not only be silly—it might actually be evil?

I’m not making an argument for anarchy, or tantrums. Most of us, most of the time, have to “suffer, while evils are sufferable,” but I’m sensing that our powers of “sensible rebellion” are in decline.

Imagine you have made a reservation, 30 days in advance, at a five-star restaurant. You present yourself 15 minutes ahead of time, and when the clock has proceeded 10 minutes past schedule, you ask the hostess when you will be seated.

“Just five more minutes,” she says.

Five minutes go by and you re-present yourself.

“So sorry, five more minutes,” she says.

This goes on for another 45 minutes, and you put the question to her again, for the 10th time.

“So, very, very sorry. Really. It’s just going to be five more minutes.”

“Fine,” you say. “I will wait here.”

“Please have a seat in the waiting area.”

“No,” you say, “if it really is five more minutes, I prefer to wait right here.”

You are blocking anyone else from approaching her, and she seats you right away.

I did that once. It worked. I suppose they could have called security on me, but it would have been worth it, because I was beholding something I absolutely loathe: a human being so dead to their humanity, so happy to be a brass knob, they mistake you for a brass knob as well. Cogs get so they can’t even see a human being. They see nothing but cogs.

We should ponder the horror of the last three years, because settling for “being a cog in the machine” was never noble individually, but surrendering to it collectively, en masse, unleashes a fury of mechanized, obedient destruction.

At any given juncture, it’s at least worth asking the question: “what if I refused to click and ratchet when ordered to? What if I jammed up this machine good and hard? Didn’t it need a good cleaning anyway?”

About James Patrick Riley

James Riley is the owner and operator of Riley's Farm in Oak Glen, California and the creator of "Courage, New Hampshire," a television drama seen on PBS stations across the country. The father of six children, Riley performs "Patrick Henry" and supervises a living history program visited by hundreds of thousands of school children. He holds a degree in history from Stanford University.

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

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