Why Aren’t North Pole Elf Jobs Automated Yet?—A Serious Enquiry into Our Work Archetypes
Just-in-time “drone-deer” delivery, fully robotic toy-assembly lines; mammoth Chinese Foxconn-scale Apple production plants, supply chain management software, outsourcing of jobs to elves in India or Laos, direct OEM-based customer care and completely [de]unionized workforce.
These are but a few of the forms of modernization that could be introduced into “Santa’s workshop”—which, despite quaint, fictional and intimate charms on a par with images of Borden’s “contented cows” dreamily grazing in open, free-range pastures, is an anachronism at best or unhelpful fantasy at worst.
The Anachronistic North Pole Workshop Model
So, why hasn’t the North Pole workshop fable been updated to keep abreast of the realities of modern technology, production, marketing and distribution?—a question that, cutesy holiday humor aside, can be asked as a serious enquiry into how and why we conceptualize and idealize work the way we do, even when that work is a purely fictional fable “for kids”.
Since kids these days want stuff far more technologically advanced than 17th-century wooden soldiers and century-old Raggedy Ann dolls, they—just like kids in the past—can be expected to accept a close alignment of their demand-side product expectations and the existing supply-side technology and operations required to meet them.
After all, 100 years ago, no child would have been shocked to discover that its Xmas wooden soldier was hand-carved by an elf carpenter in what was essentially a cottage industry; so why assume that modern kids couldn’t handle parallel modernization and updating of the iconic Santa-Elf manufacturing processes and worksites that make the Xmas iPhone possible?
The Truth?—Adults Can’t Handle the Truth!
More interestingly, we should ask why it’s likely that their parents couldn’t handle it. That’s a cultural and psychological question whose answer is likely to probe, if not hit, some deep nerves in the collective unconscious of the working mind.
I’ll put that question more abstractly:
What do our idealized paradigms and icons of labor, manufacture, marketing and distribution reveal about our unrecognized, unspoken and possibly unconscious wishes, desires and fears surrounding them and our own jobs?
The historically early characterization of Santa’s workshop as a fundamentally artisan and crafts cottage industry was perfect in two respects:
—It perfectly reflected the real levels and forms of technology and distribution available and serviceable for the production and distribution of Xmas gifts, e.g., animal-powered delivery systems, hand-crafted and low-tech items.
—It perfectly matched the capabilities and range of a child’s technological imagination and childhood experience.
Now, in the 21st century, neither of these applies, given that kids are conversant with computer software, Internet functionality, etc., often before their parents are.
True, few kids can explain or even sketch a computer motherboard, but probably most can do better than to imagine they are whittled like toy soldiers.
But it seems clear that any kid can grasp the concept of an assembly line, robotic manufacture and just-in-time delivery if the same kid can follow the complex lightning-fast Rubik’s-cube transformations of the “Transformers” gang, “Optimus Prime” et al.
Hence, back to the implied core question: Why do adults seem to be arch-conservatives, Luddites even, when it comes to idealized technology—and not only in connection with Santa’s workshop, but also in other domains of life, e.g., when touring production facilities during holiday travels? Invariably, the tour itinerary comprises only relatively low-tech industries, such as weaving, pottery, leatherwork, pearl polishing and candle making.
It’s as though the ideal manufacturing center is, in the imagination of most people, a bead-stringing Hippie commune—which, in virtue of his iconic long hair, beard, free-roaming deer and seasonal labor, Santa could be described as presiding over.
Santa’s Workshop: a Marxist Analysis
I suspect that among the reasons for the anachronistic persistence of the craftsman cottage-industry Santa workshop model are these:
1. Anxieties about “alienation from labor”: One of Karl Marx’s pet ideas was that capitalism alienates workers from their own labor by divorcing production of things from their consumption by the worker who makes them—quite unlike the experience of a farmer who grows and eats the same wheat he plants or the blacksmith who shod his own horse with the shoes he hammered out.
Instead, countless workers now produce things that they not only do not consume, but also that they have neither any interest in consuming nor comprehensive understanding of how what they’ve made fits into the even more incomprehensible whole, e.g., a mass spectrometer or computerized septic tank pump.
This suggests an additional sense in which the modern worker is alienated from his or her own labor: When the technology utilized is beyond the comprehension of those who manufacture or use it to make other things.
When we work, we generally, even if unconsciously, like to know what we’re doing—even though the convenience of pushing a button to get the job done is very appealing and comforting.
Hence, the icon of Santa’s traditional workshop, from both the worker and consumer perspectives, allays any anxieties associated with incomprehensible production.
Just as too many people are content, when confronting the mysteries of the cosmos and nature, to explain it all with some theological version of “Daddy did it”, they are equally ready to explain away a digital toy’s complex design and thereby lazily dodge their kids’ really good questions with “the elves did it.”
This is one root of the appeal of tour stops at low-tech facilities and shops, e.g., selling polished stones, baskets, baked goods or pottery. The stuff isn’t merely lovely; it’s also comprehensible—or at least without requiring too much effort or an advanced engineering degree.
The tour is clear enough for us to congratulate ourselves for having learned something, even if and preferably a simple something.
2. 2. Anxieties about our own competencies: Worker pride is predicated on being able to do things that others can’t. At the apex of this pyramid of pride are professional jobs that involve arcane expertise that few other adults, let alone kids, can grasp.
By perpetuating the out-of-date arts and crafts Santa workshop explanations and models about where Xmas toys, like babies, come from, adults avoid the discomfort—the too-close-for-comfort panic—that more explicit, more adult explanations might cause, thereby closely paralleling the persistence and purpose of stork mythology as the answer to the timeless kid-question, “Where do babies come from?”
In both contexts, cute and simple bogus explanations of “labor”—of elves or moms-to-be—prevent precocious minds from maturing “too quickly” and threatening our adult monopolies of competence, understanding and control.
One more thing: in case you’ve unwisely read this article to a child at bedtime, be prepared to be asked, “But where do archetypes come from?”…
…and to answer, “from Santa’s workshop”.