Cogs in the Civilization Machine

23 April 2013. Filed under category Nomad.
Viewing the great machine from the silo.

Viewing the great machine from the silo.

A friend recently invited me to explore a set of disused grain silos. Armed with headlamps and a sense of adventure, we climbed steel ladders, crawled through broken door panels, avoided spider webs and walked on centimetre thick layers of pigeon shit. We eventually ascended to the very top of the tallest silo. From there, we had a view of the greater Sydney area, sprawled out as far as the eye could see.

Sitting there, I watched the nightlife unfold. Busses navigated their winding routes; trains cleaved their way through the city; planes landed and departed a distant airport; the city’s electricity flowed unhindered, powering everything from streetlights to TV sets. The whole city was alive with people – so many people – like cogs in the great machine called civilization.

I felt a great respect and gratitude towards these people who, although they might think they have mundane jobs like bus drivers and street sweepers, make civilization possible.

I also felt disconnected. Where in this great machine do I fit?

Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times

Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times

I used to be part of it. I went to university to shape myself into a cog with the right size and shape to fit into some technology firm or investment bank. Then this little cog decided to leave and become a nomadic cog.

But what good is a nomadic cog? How do I contribute to the great machine of civilization?

I’m not here to serve up a thin soup of self-pity. But I want to tell all sides of the nomadic life, good and bad, and this questioning of purpose and worth is a very real concern. It is something that anyone thinking of breaking out of the great machine should be aware of.

Perhaps this article is more about being unemployed than being nomadic. In any case, when you stop mattering to the world, it hurts your pride and self-esteem.

I’ve thought hard about how I’ve contributed to the great machine in the last two years, and I can only find two things.

Leftover Cogs

Leftover Cogs

  1. Creating the Modern Nomad. Culture is an important part of the great machine. I hold a deep respect for authors, playwrights, dancers etc. So there is some value in this blog. But it’s not like I’ve written Gone with the Wind. I served humanity better as a development manager at UBS than as a blogger.
  2. I’ve created a few websites. There is decent value there, helping people and businesses to communicate with the world through the world wide web of awesomeness. Then again, held up to my global value as a high-tech developer, I think I’ve traded my cow for a handful of perfectly ordinary beans.

How does all of this apply to you? It depends.

If you are working a normal norm-aligned job, like a nurse, taxi driver etc, then don’t forget that you are a part of this planet’s most amazing life-based wonder: the civilization of Homo sapiens.

If you are considering sidestepping the norms and disregard the social structures that push us towards a place in the great machine, then take a moment and think about how you might still contribute to the world. If you don’t, you may find yourself feeling disconnected.

Too much?

Too much?

Is dislodging yourself from the great machine all gloom and doom? No. It isn’t even possible. We can’t leave civilization any more than we can jump to the moon. But as cogs, we can become disconnected and spin uselessly. I don’t believe this is inherent in being a nomad, however. I have as many hours in my day as the next guy. It is up to me to find a way to use them responsibly and effectively. It is just harder to do when normal jobs are not an option anymore. Harder, but not impossible. It takes more self-direction, self-discipline and conscious goal setting than I have mustered in the last two years. But that is all about to change. By (the figurative) God, I am going to change that. Watch this space.

Explorations of the disused silo

This nocturnal adventure was the most fun I’ve had since New Zealand, and I can’t leave you without sharing some of the photos. Entirely unrelated to the topic of this article, but what the hell; enjoy!

Travel Updates

I’ve been living in the Blue Mountains, taking it easy. My daily routine has been to get up, eat breakfast, enjoy a cup of tea while doing emails, then work out. After lunch, I go to the main street of Katoomba and work at one of the cafes. When I return home, I plead with the gods of fire to bless my pitiful attempts at lighting the fireplace. When that fails, I cuddle up under a blanket and work on my laptop for a while before I finally relax with a few episodes of The Wire and Archer.

Looking forward, I will fly to California on 30 April.

New Features

I’ve been programming away at some new features on The Modern Nomad. If you haven’t seen them yet, check out the Daily Photo page, the revised Travel Map page and the new Hire Me page. I’ve also been experimenting with the Google PageSpeed Apache mod. (Not worth it.) Now, I’m moving my webhost to HostGator to see if I can squeeze a few seconds out of my response time.

(Yes, I know; I’m not supposed to mess around with the back-end anymore. I can’t help it. I’m addicted.)

Mr Chaplin & Modern Times

I can’t have a whole article based on the analogy of civilization as a big great machine with people as cogs without including this poignant scene from Charlie Chaplin’s last silent film, Modern Times. If you have the time, I recommend you see the full feature


Do you agree that civilization is a great machine with people as the cogs?

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  1. kimera azriel says:

    If there’s any way we can see you when you are on American soil let us know.
    You would love this place on whidbey Is. but well worth the trip if it’s to be in Cali.

  2. Jono says:

    Yes, I agree. Civilisation is a miraculous, intricate, machine and we are its cogs. As a whole the cogs are essential to its working, but then it is also true that the machine will go on grinding away even if a few cogs disengage for a little while.

    What lubricant do you use?

      1. Jeff says:

        Recipe please (and pictures… as apropos) 😉

  3. Jeff says:

    I’ve been enjoying your latest thoughtful questions on geo-static choices, friendships, and now meaning and value of our lives. As I’m taking time off to think about changing my career I expected that I’d hit the road and do some traveling that I’ve neglected – but instead have found myself (back in America) spending time re-connecting with family and friends I’ve neglected in my life abroad this last half decade. I’m still planning to spend some time on the road this year – but I don’t consider my weeks ‘depending on the kindness of strangers’ a true nomadic life.

    I love to travel, and have visited 35 or so countries (not nearly enough, but a good start). I have raised my kids (now adults) in the US and the UK, and given them an appreciation for other cultures, an expectation that living in other countries is ‘the norm’, and a sense of global connectedness that many of their peers don’t seem to have.

    What I rebel about the ‘cog in the machine’ picture is that while it may be necessary in the functioning of a larger civilisation it implies a lack of love or passion to me, lacks value or meaning. Of course that’s a very western view – the luxury of doing something we love, that gives us a sense of purpose and meaning, but that’s the world I inhabit. For much of my career I’ve worked with people I respected and learned a lot from, helped clients and people think creatively about doing their work more efficiently and helping their clients in return. And I’ve been able to do it living in another country and traveling globally, managing people in different parts of the world. It felt cog-like at times, but luckily balanced by times I feel its a valuable thing to do.

    It has given me the income I needed to send my kids to school and live a very comfortable life. I’m able to enjoy the arts, explore great food and wine, travel to places that challenge the way I see the world, our interconnectedness to nature and biodiversity, both the humanity and inhumanity of people to their fellow man/woman. I have friends and family, and live in communities that make me feel more whole. What is the yin and yang between who we are as individuals and who we are as part of a larger community? I need both, am happiest and most fulfilled when I find that balance between individual and family, nuclear and extended.

    The choices I’m considering now are focused on working in the non-profit space. Finding a way and a place to give more back to changing, restoring, healing than just being a consumer. Can I make a living doing this? It seems similar to your questions about being a nomad – with a focus on the community life vs the individual life, though that may not be quite correct. But the questions on local vs global, rooted vs mobile, community vs going out on my own. It’s a great journey, and I understand it can seem isolating at times, but my experience of it is different because I’m older and have had/built the web of geo-static links that are necessary to me. We’ll see.

    1. Craig Brown says:

      I want to “like” Jeff’s response Gustav. Can I order up that functionality? When you get a chance.

    2. I realize that the ‘cog in the machine’ is usually a derogative analogy which portraits humans as faceless and replacable parts of a greater whole. But, I hope I managed to paint a different, and more positive, picture of the cog. What I wanted to focus on, with the analogy, is that we all matter, from bus drivers to CEOs. All cogs contribute to the civilization. I tried to place the emphasis on the contribution to society, and then contrasted it with the feelings I have at the moment that I am not, in a great way, doing my part.

      When you wrote, “What is the yin and yang between who we are as individuals and who we are as part of a larger community?” you expressed perfectly the underlying question of my article.

      My nomadic life has so far been imbalanced between the focus on me as a person and me as a contributing part of society. And that imbalance is what I want to highlight and warn against for anyone following my footsteps. It is also something I want to fix, moving forward.

      1. Jeff says:

        You were careful and clear about your positive comments on everyone’s contribution to making the world go round – and I agree with you my friend. What you’ve clarified in my thinking about the old man is that it isn’t just what we contribute or ‘make’ in life, it is who we ARE to each other.

        If the universe is calling you to rebalance your work/being balance, then listen. But as you observed when you started this journey of self-world discovery, it is just as easy to let ‘what we do’ define our value to ourselves and the world.

        What do people ask students? “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Not ‘who’ do you want to be.

        Most of the time when I meet someone professionally or socially they ask “What do you do/where do you work”. And we conspire with them consciously or unconsciously to let that define us and our station or value.

        You’ve challenged yourself in this existence to reconsider that. For me its one of the things that resonates in my own search for my next career and for what matters. Your rambling and reflection has great value in itself. Keep listening to your heart.

  4. Crys Klier-Hoffman says:

    these posts, your searching for purpose, your seeming loss of some essential part of yourself, your worry you are not contributing to humankind, all of it makes me worry like a mother for her child. The daily photo of you in bed, covers drawn up to your chin, saying it’s too cold to get out of bed, what I see is a sadness in your eyes more than anything and it breaks my heart.
    You enjoy your nomadic life, the excursions, the people, the hunt for adventure, but you obviously are not being completely fulfilled by it. I know you work your ass off to make the money to maintain the life you have chosen. I know it isn’t just all fun and games. You are lots of small cogs in many different machines depending on where you land.
    Wow , this is hard for me. I spent so many years trying to make my son understand he was of value, I know he and Brittany got so sick of my ” you don’t have to be the round peg ” speech, but I meant it. I wanted them to grow up knowing it wasn’t necessary to just be a cog, that they were individuals and their square edges didn’t need to be ground off.
    I don’t have the answer for you. That will come to you in time.
    Just, please, be patient with yourself. Maybe you will decide to go back to the well oiled machine or maybe the thought of it makes you want to tear your hair out. Is there a way to be that elusive cog you think is so important and still have the opportunity to be a nomad, or a semi nomad, a part time nomad?
    I do know there are many people who live lives of frustration and desperation simply because they feel obligated to do what someone else thinks is appropriate for them.
    One last thing. Off and on, in different periods of our lives, most of us have these times of confusion and uncertainty and self examination. I get the feeling, maybe I’m wrong, you are really beating yourself up about this. You don’t have to be Superman.
    Eventually, you’ll know what you have known all along.

    1. Like I said to Jeff, I meant to portrait cogs as beautiful people contributing to society, not as conformists. So I don’t mind being a cog. In fact, this post is about how I can, once again, become a cog, and thus again contribute, while still remain a nomad. I waved a question whether it was possible and finished the article with the hopeful guess that it is possible, if perhaps harder than for geo-static people.

      That said, I do recognize that even dislocated cogs, people not contributing much in terms of science, art, work etc, still have an inherent value by simply being human. Say a old man, at the end of his life, mainly living out his days looking out the window, still has human value. But while I have my strength and health, I aim higher. I want to contribute. I want to be a real and potent factor in our civilization. And I’ve been a bit lax about that lately, which is why I wrote the article.

      1. Jeff says:

        I love the ‘… I want to be a real and potent factor in our civilisation’. That’s a great addition to the ‘happiness’ element of your belief system. xo

  5. Donna says:

    Where in this great machine do I fit? Gustav, perhaps you are the cog that let’s all of these workers in the city come home, read your adventures and thoughts. Perhaps it too inspires them to ‘live a little’ – to dream. Perhaps that inspiration drives them?

    1. I like that thought. But I can’t work out if that would make me a lubricant, helping the cogs in their work, or a spanner, thrown in and causing chaos.

  6. Tyler says:

    Sounds like you are just bored and need a bigger challenge. Set the bar higher and do something crazier.

    1. I think you are spot on.

  7. Craig Brown says:

    I’m going to speak as if I know what I’m talking about. Thoughts at large.
    When we are suffering in some way, like say, from a kind of existential loneliness or detachment, the first thing to do is to recognize it, admit it, and then experience it. That leaves you with the best chance of growing from that point. Check!
    I’m guessing that roughly two thirds of your feelings stem from financial insecurity and most of the rest from distance from the people who know you best or longest. When you are financially insecure, like unemployed without a huge bank account, it feels like you have fewer options to participate in that great human civilization. Alienated by poverty; how many people in the world feel this? Then, when you only have new friends around you all the time, this is being pyschologically disconnected almost by tautology. It takes time to know someone and to trust them.
    You have enormous amounts of unstructured time. Yet little income flow. You feel an urgent need to get some income flowing yet other pet projects seem more meaningful. Do you ever feel like a deer in the headlights? Sometimes I get least done on things I want to do when I have fewest tasks pressing me forward. Once you get up off your fanny and get some work I think things will look more meaningful. My God, perhaps you are going to change that.
    We all need a purpose; some even think it lies at the foundation of psychological health (Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning). When you set off on this brave nomadic path you had a vague notion of one, and some kind of meaning in this endeavor. It was clear to you that your best place in this world was not at a bank at least. But your nomadic life does not have to end up looking like you thought it would. Don’t get stuck in a box of your own making. People that love you won’t care if you alter your nomadic style any more than they cared If you quit your fancy smancy job at UBS. Maybe you teach computer science at a fledgling girl’s school in Africa at minimal wage for a year, there’d by plenty of purpose in that! (I don’t know!)
    Many of the people in those little moving lights you watched down in the city are also feeling lost, disconnected and purposeless. But they couldn’t see the big picture you could from atop that silo. You’ve done more than those two things you listed actually. I wouldn’t have my own blog if it weren’t for you. You sparked the idea of an edifying way to share my ideas and gave me a boost at the start. From your blog I have also met Crys, and perhaps I will inspire her to take adventures of her own. I’ve had a huge amount of hits from a post I did on logical thinking and I suspect it’s from kids doing their homework. Today, one came from Botswana. Hey! Maybe you indirectly helped at an African girl’s school today without even knowing it. You are still a cog.
    The greatest purpose any of us can have toward contributing to our civilization is to be kind. That might sound sentimental. But when you look down on a city at night (something I often get to do as a flight attendant), ask yourself what would make that a good place to live. I want a place where people are good to each other. This happens in small daily acts and it’s a great purpose that all people can do at any time.
    I’m pretty sure a bit of Gustavian imagination mixed with his Andersson feet planted in reality will come to the rescue.
    A heady response I know. Pardon any presumption.

    1. Jeff says:

      Gustav, I don’t know if you intend this blog to be a ‘conversation’ as its become on this topic, or ‘comments’ on your posts. But this has been a great couple of days of reading and reflection for me. Thanks to you, Craig, and everyone here for their observations.

      1. This is exactly the kind of conversations I want in the comments. I pride myself as having the most considered, insightful, articulated and worthwhile comments and readers of any blog anywhere on the internet.

        The good thing about these comments and conversations is that I get to see how my words are interpreted. There are sometimes discrepancies between intended and received meaning. (And the fault there lies with me and my silly analogies. But I love ’em, so will keep them around.) Also, I get to see other point of views and challenge my own.

        Finally, they convince me that what I write get read by at least a few people. 🙂

  8. J. says:

    Determine your physical needs because they contribute to, and are part of, our emotional and spiritual needs. (Mind, Body, and Soul). You may be an adrenaline “junkie.” When you are missing your “fix,” you may also feel the results emotionally.

  9. Hob says:

    All the above is so deep! What does it all mean? I am a simple 70 year old husband,father, grandfather, and once apon a time a nomad. For the last three or four years I engaged my gear and tried to be normal. That does not always make one happy. It does make thoes around this one happy. So what to do? Stay engaged or slip out of gear? There is a cost, but adventure has always cost a lot. The greater the adventure, the greater the cost. How I miss adventure. To hell with the cost! Where is my sword, musket and teeth.

    1. Hobby, you definitively contribute to the world, not just by being an awesome man (in oh so many ways) but also through your work. (I’m not gonna out to the world what you do here, but you help people discover and fix issues with their houses.)

      And thanks for the excellent comment. Love it!

  10. Great blog!
    Just because you are out of the machine does not mean you are not an important cog! You are showing other people that there is another way. You can still be a member of society but not be part of the “norm”.

    Keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks for liking the blog! I had a quick look at global help swap, and noticed the cogs on the front page! Serendipity ehh? Sounds like you have definitely found a way to contribute to society through that site.

      1. Cheers Gustav! We are trying to do our bit. Take care.

  11. Some Cog says:

    The machine is cold and heartless and will suck 60 years of labour before it spits you out, all the while radiating its dull and unenriching culture to keep the cogs distracted from their insignificance in it all.

    Don’t go back to that…. you can’t climb back out of the rabbit hole. Better to peg your self esteem on the fact you’re not conforming than to let some evolved herd psychologly dictate your already cool life.

  12. Vanessa says:

    I love the analogy! Intriguing post for me, since I had the opposite experience: I feel I’m making MUCH more of a contribution as a nomad. I wrote my first book, working on my second, and making so many more meaningful social connections. I have been thrilled to see three more of my friends take on this lifestyle for themselves, inspired by my journeys. A couple more who haven’t gone “nomad” have at least been inspired to take long vacations to the places I’ve been and written about.

    I feel so blessed to be able to see first-hand how my thoughts, words, and ideas influence others–something that never happened from my cubicle where I used to work. I think sometimes your contribution is just BEING a nomad. We need people in our society to live differently, just so others can see them and know that there are alternative lifestyles out there.

    I myself was inspired by a nomadic friend. My friend Jason was living in an RV and traveling the country with his wife and three small children when I met him. At the time, I was doing the 9 to 5 corporate ladder climb, and it just didn’t occur to me that there might be another respectable lifestyle for me out there. Now Jason may never have contributed anything to society while on the road… but he inspired me to go nomad. I walked away from everything and hit the road full-time. So in many ways, all my current accomplishments and connections, I owe to him.

    You never know when you have that kind of affect on people. The world needs nomads, and the world needs you.

    1. Thank you for the comment, Vanessa, and welcome to the modern nomad! It feels great to hear that perhaps there are hidden functions of my lifestyle and that through these secret connections I may still be part of the great civilization machine. Others have made similar comments and it is a point of view I hand’t really appreciated before.

      I guess now it is just a question of how I can earn a living so I can keep doing it!

  13. brother Henrik says:

    Wooow lots of reading in this post but now i have done it took me about 1 hour 🙂

    1. Don’t tell dad you just spent an hour of work time reading my blog.

  14. brother Henrik says:

    it whas under my lunch 40min and i dident hade an 20min breakefast recept took it now instead i whas unloading a trailer truck ho hade an 30ton frontinloader/wheelloader with brokend gearbox.

Do you agree that civilization is a great machine with people as the cogs?

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