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Chapter 3: Breaking the permanence illusion
This week’s chapter of User Zero reveals the secret behind the “permanence illusion.” It happens when we look around and the world seems impossible to change. If something appears permanent we decide that effort spent trying to change it is futile. This trap is why most people accept broken systems and failing institutions. But permanence is an illusion. And once we realize the mechanism of this trap we can begin to reshape reality. Our operating system switches from passive “not my problem” mode to “how can I help?” In other words, user zero is activated. I hope you enjoy this chapter.
Stay creative. Your friend,
“We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.” – Buckminster Fuller
At first, Jennifer Donelson appreciated the new car smell of her home. That clean odor signified newness and wealth, something reserved for showrooms and the privileged. When her eyes watered or her throat itched, she opened the windows and let her trailer breathe. Then the vomiting started.
She hadn’t been sick with previous pregnancies, but maybe this one was different. She endured months of extreme vomiting before Wesley finally arrived. He was born healthy. Or so it seemed.
At two months old, Wesley’s leg turned blue. Was it poor circulation caused by a tight diaper? Perhaps. Then it happened again days later.
The doctors were stumped. For months, Jennifer monitored her son’s skin color, wondering what could cause the blueness to come and go.
Then he stopped breathing. The first time it happened, he came back. The second time he didn’t. The ambulance came and by the time Wesley arrived at the hospital he was pronounced dead. After 20 minutes, Wesley returned to life. It was a miracle, yes, but Wesley was damaged. He’ll struggle with the fallout of this near-death experience for the rest of his life.
By the time I realize I played a part in this agony, it was too late.
During the summer of hurricane Katrina I was in Indiana, stopped at a railroad crossing while taking a lunch break. I was traveling on business, overseeing a photo shoot for RV brochures. As the train rolled by, I realized the cargo was unbranded RVs. Hundreds of big white boxes rushed south like blood cells racing to a wound.
The RVs were to be temporary homes for the victims of the hurricane. To a bystander the impression was one of charity, that people in need were being helped. I crossed the tracks and headed back to the photo studio where I commented on the train and how great it was to see an act of goodwill. I asked if anyone knew which RV company was making such a generous donation. The response was, “Donation? Why do you think there isn’t a single logo on those RVs?” I had no idea. Strange, isn’t it? You might guess that an RV company would welcome the publicity that comes from helping fellow Americans affected by a disaster. The debranding wasn’t an act of humility or an oversight. No, it was denial, an intentional disassociation with their involvement in the project. It was as if they knew that their RVs were destined to poison more than 17,000 people.
After the hurricane, the government was desperate to buy RVs to house the displaced people. FEMA was essentially writing blank checks. Any company that could slap together four walls on wheels was lining up to pack their product on those southbound trains.
The 145,000 RVs were so cheaply made that there was concern that simply transporting them from Indiana to Louisiana could shake the mobile homes to pieces. The rickety RVs would be lucky to make it to their destination with cabinets still attached to walls. You don’t put your logo on the side of something like that. You hope nobody asks who made it.
RVs don’t have reputations for quality anyway, and the rush orders from FEMA only made things worse. RVs are poorly made because workers in RV factories get paid by the unit. Once an assembly line meets their quota for the day the workers are free to go home. As a result, RV factories are beehives of activity. It gives the illusion of productivity, but the reality is that everything is thrown together as quickly as possible, quality be damned.
Lynda Esparza, a former quality control worker at Gulf Stream described the conditions at the factory during the rush to produce the FEMA trailers as dangerous. “Getting paid was about how many units you got out the door. Once they got out the door it became quality control’s problem. The pressure to get them fixed, to make them appear correct was tremendous.” She explained how the doors and windows of trailers would be left open for hours prior to FEMA inspections to conceal the odors from the toxic chemicals.
The incentive to rush the building of the RVs tempted the manufacturers to skip their normal safety processes. Formaldehyde is not an uncommon byproduct of the manufacturing process, but without care the carcinogen levels become deadly. The RVs that were intended to rescue people ended up poisoning them. Residents of the FEMA RVs complained of asthma, nosebleeds, sinus infections, mouth tumors, and persistent headaches. Pets went into convulsions before dying. Infants, including Wesley Donelson, turned blue.
Lawsuits were filed and a $42.6 million class-action settlement was awarded to victims of the RVs. Half that money paid for attorneys' fees and costs. Many victims received nothing because qualifying for aid required a credit check. That’s right, after your home is destroyed, after losing your biggest financial asset, after you unexpectedly are struck ill, after the debt from medical bills wrecks your credit score, the thing that decides whether or not you get help is, you guessed it, your credit score.
Next, FEMA took the loaner RVs away. Either to protect victims from the RVs or to protect FEMA from further lawsuits, thousands of RVs were quarantined. As newly homeless people slept in crowded shelters, field after field of empty RVs were parked nearby, vacant.
The flood of toxic RVs presented FEMA with a new disaster to deal with. How do you make thousands of RVs disappear? You have a blowout sale of course. In the window of each RV a sticker was placed which contained the most understated tagline any marketer has ever conceived of. It said,
“Not to be used for housing.”
Despite the warning stickers, FEMA successfully auctioned off all the toxic RVs at bargain prices. On January 29, 2010, more than 100,000 units were sold for $133 million which is about 7% of what FEMA purchased them for. The new owners quietly removed the “not to be used for housing” stickers and resold them to unsuspecting buyers at a profit. And so the mobile death houses spread across the country. The resellers, if they even gave it a second thought, probably comforted themselves with the fact that formaldehyde levels drop with each passing year. If you wait long enough, tragedies fade into the background.
A spokeswoman for Fleetwood unwittingly confessed to the shoddy craftsmanship and a desire for the story to just go away, saying, “You know, when something hasn’t been a problem, you often don’t suddenly consider that it will be. I don’t believe that anybody expected these people to stay in the trailers as long as people have stayed in them.” Today, in nearly any RV park in America you can find someone living in a toxic FEMA RV, oblivious to the history or risks to their health.
How do you stop a tragedy like this? To get a toxic trailer from Indiana to the coast requires the collaboration of thousands of workers. Any one of those workers can reasonably excuse themselves from blame for the tragedy because their role was so small. I was one of them, a designer creating brochures for an RV brand that managed to escape blame for the Katrina mess. I have a valid excuse. So why do I feel guilty?
When asked how she felt about the FEMA trailer disaster, Lynda Esparza said, “In some ways I feel betrayed, and in other ways I feel ashamed. I put my name on those products and maybe if I’d have asked more questions, maybe if I would have been more proactive...”
Her statement is left incomplete, hanging there wondering what she could have done differently. I share her guilt and her question about what the individual can do to prevent tragedy. I would love to help, but that’s not my job. I am just a designer. Your excuse is equally valid.
Cataclysms are rarely masterminded conspiracies, they tend to be cascading apocalypses of apathy. History blames the mishandling of hurricane Katrina on FEMA, a faceless organization. The RV industry is equally faceless. Inside these organizations are normal people who keep their heads down, do their daily tasks, and go home. Most careers seem to exist at a safe distance from the moral questions. Nobody stands up to accept responsibility because nearly everyone shares the same excuse. “That’s not my job.”
Even if we did have the integrity to accept our role in the corruption would we have the courage to do something about it? And how would you go about it? Do you risk your job by asking dangerous questions? Do you walk away from a paycheck? How do you measure the downstream tragedies caused by apathetic workers? Half-heartedly competing your workday has repercussions. The butterfly effect of one employee’s apathy might cause a hurricane of consequence on the other side of the planet.
I toured the factory where workers tacked cabinets on brittle walls. I held my breath as the glue was sprayed. I saw the cross bone stickers pealing off walls where RV shells dried in stacks, their toxic fumes leaking out. I hid behind my camera alone in a warehouse staring at giant white boxes wondering, “How in the world am I going to put lipstick on these pigs?”
If you want to sell an RV you need pretty photos. An RV is essentially a big white box, so making them look sexy isn’t easy. Here’s how you do it. An RV is pulled into an alley behind a warehouse. A photographer snaps a photo and emails it to a designer who photoshops in a road that points at the horizon. I take it back, it’s actually pretty easy, but as a designer I need to justify my paycheck.
The interior photos are done largely the same way except with fake food and other props carefully arranged on empty surfaces. To enlarge the cramped spaces, photographers use the widest lens in their bag. The distortion from these lenses can be so extreme that natural proportions get skewed terribly. During one memorable shoot, I placed children’s sandals on the bunk of a camper. The lens distortion inflated the shoes so much that they grew to adult proportions. Had adult sandals been used they would have looked like skis.
If the budget allows, models are hired to act out camping stories imagined by the creative department. These “lifestyle” photographs are accompanied by witty paragraphs that pretend the woman pushing the canoe into the lake wasn’t actually standing on a stage in a studio while the man looking longingly back at his RV was actually dreaming about his smoke break.
When I learned that my RV client had Amish people on staff, my instinct was to add bullet points about “Amish Craftsmanship” to my brochures and schedule a photo shoot with a bearded man wearing a straw hat to assist the fiction I was creating. I found the only Amish man at the factory who would compromise his beliefs enough to pose in front of my camera. “Say cheese.”
As professionals we are eager to believe the myths we create. I truly believed that my brochure creation was performing a valuable service. You can’t convince someone they’re wrong if their paycheck requires them to believe it. Buckminster Fuller describes the problem like this,
“Specialization has bred feelings of isolation, futility, and confusion in individuals… It has also resulted in the individual’s leaving responsibility for thinking and social action to others… Specialization breeds biases that ultimately aggregate as international and ideological discord, which in turn leads to war…
It is easy to believe our work exists at a safe distance from the moral questions, but there are many voices that can stop the train before it leaves the station loaded with toxic cargo. If we don’t ask tough questions we are just another lifeless worker led by brainless leaders building worthless products.
The things we create carry our signatures long after they leave our studios. Sure, you can’t always deliver masterpieces but at least when you see your fingerprints on the feculence you will know that you did everything you could to battle mediocrity.
After quitting his job, a friend made an odd comment. He said, “It’s weird when you realize that none of it is real.” His observation struck me as both profoundly true and maddeningly confusing. Like a riddle that you flip over in your mind trying to find the key, once the idea takes hold you can’t stop thinking about it.
How can a job not be real? Offices are real, meetings are real, paychecks are real, morning commutes are real, deadlines are real. Sure, some companies offer better jobs than others, but they are all real.
Or are they? It’s just as easy to see those things as illusions, tiny lies that prop up the big con – a delusion shared by entire organizations that the company is worth investing yourself in. As long as we all applaud at the all-hands meeting the charade can continue. That’s not real.
But then again it sure feels real. You put in the hours and things happen. There seems to be real consequences for the decisions that are or aren’t made. One way or another things are always changing. So it has to be real, right?
And yet you look around and you see such a wide variety of companies. Some seem alive and vibrant, full of meaning and purpose. Others are dull, lifeless holes where talented people become invisible, trapped in jobs that aren’t real. Back and forth, real or fake, true or false...
It seems that only in hindsight in the weeks, months, and years after you leave a job can you have any perspective. Maybe the time was meaningful, worthy of the years you invested. Maybe it was a waste and you wonder why you couldn’t see the illusion at the time. How can you tell if you are drinking the corporate Kool-Aid or if you are actually making a difference?
The user zero moment comes when you realize that the workplace is nothing but concepts we invented, idea viruses that won our minds by consensus. And because those things are just ideas they can change. It took me a long time to realize the illusion of permanence that made my job feel real. What we think is real can change. The workplace transforms when you realize it doesn't have to be an assembly line. The lack of motion isn’t because these items are permanent, they are just waiting for someone to shatter the illusion.
Processes, data, software, job titles, org charts, competitors, logos, products, research, meetings, code, intellectual property, deadlines, politics, legal agreements, stock prices, promotions — nearly everything that once seemed immovable becomes malleable. These aren’t permanent structures, they are ideas. The journey of user zero is a quest to destroy the permanence illusion and trip the invisible traps before they ensnare us.
I failed Jennifer Donelson, her son Wesley, and the 17,000+ people who were poisoned. I missed my opportunity to be more than my job description. What I thought was a meaningful job was an illusion. But it doesn’t have to be that way for you.
Now you are standing at a crossroad. There is a train passing loaded with toxic cargo. My train hauled toxic RVs, but your train might be carrying a different potential tragedy. The easiest thing to do is wait for the train to pass, pretend you didn’t notice, and proceed with business as usual. The alternative is user zero, to believe the unbelievable, that one person can turn Earth’s rudder. It would be so much easier to just walk away.
Becoming user zero will require your mental care switch to be firmly switched on. Like a train switching tracks, caring changes our mental trajectory from the rails of monotony to a destination where anything is possible. Caring causes you to dump the toxic “not my job” cargo that clogs the railways of your mind. Our capacity to care is directly proportional to our perceptions because you can’t care about something you are oblivious to. There is a tenuous connection between our five senses and our mind. That is the topic of the next chapter.
Thanks for reading. I am releasing User Zero one chapter at a time on Substack for free to all subscribers. Physical copies are available from Amazon. Stay creative.
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