We live in a manufactured world. Whether made in China or in our own backyard, most of the objects that help us live our lives were built in a factory. For years we’ve been hearing about our state’s promised “knowledge-based economy” and preparing for a time when all of the factory jobs will be sent overseas and the only way to make money will be by thinking and knowing things. But doesn’t that leave us just as dependent upon manufacturing? And does the assembly line really have to be the antithesis of knowledge?

This summer I did some investigating while working as a temporary employee in a Michigan factory. My primary objective was to make money for school, but the experience provided an eye-opening look into a part of life I suspect most of us are largely blind to.

On the average day, I drove past the cheerful security guard and proceeded happily to my little slice of paradise. My department was “Core Steel,” and I worked in the Recon Zone, which is short for Recontainerization. I am fairly certain somebody made this word up. But it is an apt description of what we did. Fresh, greasy steel went from one container into another. I would then walk these containers to one of four places, identified by the letters and numbers printed on the beams closest to them, much like finding a car in a mall parking lot.

Names and impersonal monikers are hallmarks of manufacturing’s overly reductive science. The least complicated system possible is created, excluding any potentially confusing or time-consuming pieces of information (such as adjectives) and becoming as blank and indifferent as can be managed. Thus my little steely friends had names such as 7554158 and 7560444. They were located at O2 and UL and went to M16 and D19. While talking instead about a “flat, yellow-gray bar about a foot and a half long with a Saturn-shaped hole” feels, to me, a little more mentally engaging and almost even pleasantly personal, it did take a while longer to type than 7560444. There is a certain degree of efficiency necessary for effective manufacturing.

But just how far that needs to be taken is debatable. Having a task dictated by a piece of paper full of nondescript digits and letters invokes a robotic response, setting the mind to neutral and the hands on autopilot. Things move automatically, on and on like a big, robotic chain – or rather, a vacuum, as nothing comes back around full circle. And nature abhors a vacuum. We seem to think factories should ideally be at the opposite end of the spectrum from nature. But those impersonal, mechanized assembly-lines are run by people, and those people would benefit immensely if their workplaces were a little more natural and life-affirming.

Mental engagement and creativity are enemies of industrial efficiency, but they need not be excluded from it. I felt hopeful every time I drove by the security guard who waved me on before returning to her book. I don’t know what she was reading, but she had found a way to stay out of a mental neutral and was visibly happier for it.

A real knowledge-based economy should mean a mentally engaging world for everyone. As it stands, manufacturing strives earnestly to strip away any desire toward thought or personality, and is thus excluded from the economy we are preparing for, which would have us send all these brain-deadening jobs off to cheaper places. But if we continue to strive for universal human rights, outsourced labor will eventually not be so cheap. And either way, factory workers of any nationality deserve jobs that allow them to interact as humans and not machines. This would certainly be more expensive, but we are long overdue for a reevaluation of what is truly costing us, both as an economy and as human beings.

We can either continue to treat our own factory employees like robots or begin working to create an environment designed for humans. The first steps aren’t even that expensive: tweaking leadership training on the basis of advice from social scientists, designing systems based more on interpersonal communication, commissioning murals for the expansive blank walls of giant warehouses. These suggestions are anathema to efficiency, but a knowledge-based economy should be aware of greater priorities.

That economy will be built by our generation. Some of us may work in a factory for all or some of our life. All of us will contribute to whether such experiences remain needlessly mind-numbing or become more valuable pursuits.

Bryan Kolk can be reached at beakerk@umich.edu.

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