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February 08, 2012, Wednesday

Ottoman bureaucracy v. streamlined modernity

When I was a teenager growing up in Britain there was a vogue for what were called time and motion (T&M) studies which have since then, I believe, been subsumed into the wider world of ergonomics. The general idea was to analyze how people worked with a view to streamlining the processes.

My late father was particularly incensed by this. At the time he worked in a bank in Chancery Lane in the center of London, but before people run away with the idea that I’m descended from the sort of plutocrats who ended up corrupting the entire Western banking system, I’d like to point out that he was a mere clerk, albeit one working amid the splendor of a vast, tiled Victorian edifice that today would be protected but was then so out of vogue that it was later pulled down. Like most workers my father assumed that the real aim of T&M was to find ways to make him do more work in less time for the same money, and so he moaned and complained.

I can’t say I’d thought about T&M for years but it came roaring back to me last week as I stood in the stuffy, overheated confines of a notary public’s office in Nevşehir waiting to have some paperwork authorized. I had four sheets of paper to be notarized, two of them mere copies of the other two, which hadn’t saved me from having to pay for two more expensive originals rather than cheaper photocopies. Standing behind the counter I watched in amazement as the clerk appended 10 (yes, 10!) stamps to each of those sheets of paper. In total that meant that his arm had to rise and fall like a piston 40 times just to accomplish this small task. And if he isn’t laid low by repetitive strain injury (RSI) soon I don’t know who will be.

It was something of a weird day to be out and about. On Nevşehir high street an eerie quiet reigned as all those with any sense stayed tucked up warm indoors rather than risking their necks on pavements that had yet to be cleared of ice and snow. Just getting up to the nöter’s first-floor office had proved scarily tricky since the ground floor of the building was tiled with marble, over which no one had thought to lay cardboard to prevent customers slipping. I eyed the lift and decided that, no, I really couldn’t use it just to go up one floor even if that did mean mounting the stairs with my back pressed flat against the wall in an effort to avoid falling.

By the time I re-emerged into what was by then a bright sunny day it was to find the Nevşehir street-cleaning authorities out in force. And here there would have been nothing for the T&M bods to get their teeth into. Instead, what I saw was streamlined perfection as huge Caterpillar machines broke the smooth, glistening white snow down into a crumble of dirty chalk. Behind them came huge trucks into which the snow was tipped. Finally in their wake came a line-up of men in high-visibility orange jackets, shovels at the ready to finish off the job. It was choreographed heaven, a T&M expert’s dream come true.

Pat Yale lives in a restored cave-house in Göreme in Cappadocia.

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