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Mostly Useless

Life goes on without us, even if we're still here.

By Grant PattersonPublished 3 years ago 6 min read
Mostly Useless
Photo by Jasmin Sessler on Unsplash

In Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the human race is described in the fictional Encyclopaedia Galactica as “mostly harmless.”

Adams postulates a possible origin story for these unremarkable inhabitants of a not-terribly-significant planet, which is subsequently blown up to make way for a hyperspace expressway. During their travels, Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect encounter a group of humanoids stranded on a suspiciously earth-like planet, two million years in the past.

These gormless twats are the occupants of a colony ship dispatched from a distant star system, supposedly part of trio of vessels, the other two having been reported lost.

Arthur and Ford begin to notice that the colonists are not particularly useful, clever, or resilient. It turns out that the colonists were told that they, being composed of what we today call “tertiary service industry personnel,” were supposed to have been accompanied by a ship full of useful, hands-on workers, like farmers, miners, and engineers; and another with poets, artists, philosophers, and the like.

Without the doers, and the thinkers, a planet full of telephone sanitizers, life coaches, and interior decorators must make the best of it. And their best, is not very good. Thus, did our planet become the mess it is today.

Of course, the universe being what it is, the whole thing was a giant joke. The doers and the thinkers were so annoyed with their less useful brethren, and decided outer space was the best place for them. They happily remained at home, until they were wiped out by a pandemic caused by an unsanitized telephone.

I got to thinking of Adams’ planet full of derps today, as I was driving. I had noticed recently that, it seemed to me at least, the normally abysmal state of driving skill and courtesy in the Greater Vancouver area had taken another dip into the abyss.

Since people started emerging from their caves and going out into the world, they’ve really been going out of their way to drive like assholes. More so than usual, and usual’s pretty bad.

I theorized that, perhaps this was due to many of these drivers spending an entire year playing Call of Duty, baking sourdough, or making videos of their cats. Now released from the purgatory that is time with their families, they are hell bent for leather. And they all seem to be in such a damned hurry. To grab what is left of life by the horns, no doubt, before the next sinister biological “It can’t possibly be a lab accident” event occurs.

But that got me wondering just how it is that an entire sophisticated, affluent, mostly peaceful society like ours can continue to function with a large portion of its workforce playing long-term hooky. There’s food in the stores. Gas (too expensive, to be sure) in the pumps. Roving gangs of spiky-haired savages do not roam the land. I have not had to shoot anyone nor eat their flesh. Well, there’s always next time.

How could this be though? If you’d told me two years ago that a pandemic would put 50% of our workforce on the couch watching Ren and Stimpy, I’d have predicted widespread disorder and end-of-days type panic. Flames shooting into the sky. Heads on pikes. Cats and Dogs, living together.

But here’s the reason that never happened: Frankly, most of us just aren’t that useful. We are the inhabitants of Adams’ colony ship, marooned in our basements. Except we have Instagram.

The economy has hobbled along, doing most of the things we expect it to do, like feed us and keep the lights on, thanks to the tireless efforts of the often-underappreciated doers. Obviously, health-care workers have still been going to work, or more of us (myself included) would’ve died. Cops and firefighters did not get a holiday. Other, less well-paid workers, like grocery clerks and janitors, have reminded us of their true worth. Except for the early, panicky days of the spring of 2020, food supply, utilities, and public services were never severely impacted. We have the doers to thank for this.

The thinkers have also been working overtime. What a remarkable pandemic it is. Movies are still being made. Sports teams play to empty stadiums. We even had a fucking Olympics. With so many of us on the sidelines, the demand for the products of writers, actors, and musicians has not slackened one bit.

Also, the thinkers have been kept occupied by the need to take constant credit for the efforts of the doers, and to remind the rest of us to stay scared, no matter what. This is also very important.

And what of us telephone sanitizers, life coaches, and interior decorators? How has the world gone on without us?

One of the hardest ideas for our ape-like brains to accept is that, if we die, life will go on without us. Many of us are facing this unpleasant realization prematurely, thanks to COVID. It seems to matter not one jot that we can no longer visit our office, have a book signing, or go to an insurance sales conference. The world rotates, all the same.

It matters not whether we work from home, or go in. Bosses who once would’ve been on the phone to us if we were fifteen minutes late now check-in once a week, if that.

We are, to turn a phrase from Adams, “mostly useless.” The government pays us to stay at home. If we do work, nobody seems to give a shit if they haven’t even seen us in a year or more. We are painfully reminded that we do not put vegetables in a supermarket, bad guys in jail, or oxygen in infected lungs. The people who do those things saved the world. We watched, in between Seinfeld re-runs and bong hits.

I used to be a doer. If I were still a Border Services Officer, I’d have had a front-row seat for the pandemic. But I’m not anymore. I’m a writer, writing books very few people read, and a teacher, teaching people who want to be cops, when most police academies are shuttered due to COVID. Now, I am sitting next to the aerobics instructors and the astrologers on the colony ship. Shit.

This was predicted, of course, long ago. Deep thinkers with an eye for the future of economies told us that, eventually, work would cease to be the centre of most people’s lives. We no longer require massive labour forces to build things or farm crops, nor do we need massive armies to fight wars. So, many of us will simply be on the sidelines. Trying to get rich on YouTube or win the lottery.

Not a very exciting future is it? Where’s the real accomplishment, challenge, or danger? Do we just sit in a recliner with our headphones on and wait for cancer to do its job? Or is there another way to restore meaning and structure to an increasingly nihilistic and hedonistic existence? What do we tell our kids?

I, for one, have tried in a few little ways to do something. I stopped taking the government handouts, and went back to work, even though I make less money. Parenting is about setting an example. The society we swan about in in our loungewear was built by work, not spectating. I’ve tried to turn downtime into creative time, by writing more than I have in a long time. I’m more involved in my kid’s lives than I was before. Maybe, there are ways other than baking and making an ass of yourself on TikTok, to be useful.

But COVID has put the writing on the wall for those of us who define ourselves by work. There will be fewer jobs, fewer meaningful ones anyway, and those of us who don’t have them will need to make their own futures. And it won’t be easy.

On the Planet of the Mostly Useless, life goes on without us.


About the Creator

Grant Patterson

Grant is a retired law enforcement officer and native of Vancouver, BC. He has also lived in Brazil. He has written fifteen books.

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