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Some thoughts on the finale of ‘The Office: An American Workplace’ because why not

So I dragged myself through the ninth and final season of The Office: An American Workplace - having given up some time around season 5 - because I’d heard the finale was good. I finally just watched that final episode. (Breaking Bad? Pshaw!) 

I’d put it off and put it off, because the penultimate episode left me with a dodgy taste in my mouth. Spoilers ahoy: 

People always said that the British Office was primarily a love story, with Tim and Dawn’s slowly blossoming romance providing the emotional underpinning of David Brent and Gareth’s comic antics. I thought that was bollocks, in a sense: of course, Tim and Dawn’s relationship mattered, but what brought them together was the fact that - unlike David and Gareth - they both realised how stupid working at a paper company was. The fact that they got together mattered less than the fact that Dawn got out, and Tim was on his way out too.

This posed a problem for the US Office, which kept Jim and Pam around long after they got together. Maybe I’m an unromantic workaholic, but: what’s the point of Jim and Pam’s shared awareness of how stupid their jobs are blossoming into romance if it doesn’t help them actually get out of the stupid jobs? When Pam became a salesperson, I understood that it was necessary to keep her in the Office to maintain the focus there, and god knows that’s better than having her pop in pushing a baby stroller every episode. But it seemed to be saying: as long as you have love, it doesn’t matter if your dreams never come to fruition. That seemed gross.

So imagine my delight when season nine offered Jim a real way out of Dunder Mifflin - his unrealistically-successful sports marketing startup - and imagine my tension as the show had Pam gradually freak out and effectively force Jim to give it all up. By the end of the penultimate episode, we’d been treated to a greatest-hits DVD of Jim and Pam’s relationship, which should have been a delight but was tempered by the fact Jim was using it to show Pam that he didn’t need a rewarding job, didn’t need self-respect, as long as he had lurve.

Then came the finale. Oh, what a relief! Admittedly, the whole Pam-sells-the-house plot was a bit forced, but who cares - at least it let them leave. It finally, at the last possible moment, let Jim Halpert leave a stupid job he got after college and probably planned to stay in six months. And it gave Jim a chance to vocalise what the show seemed to have had every character except Stanley and Darryl forget - that working at Dunder Mifflin is stupid and boring - or rather, as Jim put it, “stupid, wonderful, boringamazing.”

Of course, that wasn’t all there was to like. And, no, I don’t give much of a shit about Steve Carrell - but I do admit that his reveal was magnificently done, and managed to surprise me even though I obviously knew he was turning up. I could literally imagine America cheering at the sight of him, even in weird silver fox mode.

But the finale also built, with remarkable skill, on the interesting themes that the show had built up over the last half of the season, as the documentary began to air and the characters slowly came to the realisation their lives would change. The panel, which could have been mined for dreary Dwight-awkwardness laughs, instead provided a nice opportunity for the more minor characters to remind us of their roles, and the audience members brilliantly stood in for us as we reminisced about wondering what took Jim and Pam so long, or why she was so weird about him leaving before, and so on.

And, yeah, Erin’s parents. Whatever.

It’s become something of a norm for shows which long spiralled out of control to regain a modicum of dignity in their finale. Even Roseanne, the last season of which was as much of a betrayal as any, managed to win back some respect with a pleasingly bonkers finale which revealed the whole preceding season to be the figment of the fictional Roseanne’s imagination.

But I can’t think of another example of a show which, over the course of a whole final season, pulled itself quite gracefully up from the depths of late-season silliness (and things had got quite desperately silly), explored new territory and in so doing, also quietly but determinedly rediscovered its sense of self and the grounding in reality which made it so compelling in the first place. It had go ‘full meta’ to do it, but in the end, the American Office finally remembered what the British one never had time to forget - “There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn’t that kind of the point?”

I turned on the radio at the weekend to hear a senior Catholic bishop using the word ‘disgrace’ in reference to the sinking of a ship carrying African migrants off the coast of Italy.

I assumed an Italian bishop had denounced the influx of migrants from Africa to Italy. Imagine my surprise and relief at the realisation that the speaker was in fact the Pope and that it was the sinking he considered a disgrace, not the migration itself.

Like the transformations taking place in Burma, the remarkable change of tone in the church effected by Pope Francis feels fragile and difficult to count on. But while remaining cautious, we must allow ourselves to hope for real and lasting change for the better.

You probably know about Google Fiber, their much-ballyhooed ultra-high-speed internet project in Kansas City. But it turns out Fiber isn’t the only ‘broadband revolution’ happening in Kansas. Two young activists are providing community-owned networks in poor areas of the city through their organisation, the Free Network Foundation.

"We don’t build networks for people. We teach people how to build networks, outside of people asking a for-profit company to build it for them," explains Isaac Wilder, its executive director (and a former Occupy protester). Communities pay around $1500 for network equipment and own and maintain it themselves, paying no monthly fee. "Would you rather own your home, and the landlord has to do the maintenance but you don’t have any equity, or would you rather own your own home?" asks Wilder.

It seems like an interesting project, and the founders are clearly well-intentioned people. But Google Fiber, in a low-speed mode, is also available free. Each household has to pay a $300 installation cost, and a neighbourhood only gets Fiber when enough people sign up. But nevertheless, Fiber doesn’t just offer ultra-fast internet to those willing to pay, but free internet to those unable to pay - and without having to share in the upkeep of the equipment.

Anita Dixon, vice-president of the Mutual Musicians Foundation, serves as the mouthpiece of the poor black neighbourhood - formerly a thriving jazz area, and still filled with jazz bars - that’s the focus of the video. Her arguments why Google Fiber isn’t a solution to her community’s connectivity needs are oddly unconvincing:

"When they [Google] came into the community there was a lot of excitement, but then when the criteria came down, we knew that it wasn’t us," says Dixon. "We knew that whoever sat at the table and said ‘we’re going to put that rabbit [Fiber’s logo] in front of your face and everything and everyone’s going to love it… after we got the message, we got the message: this is not for you.”

So here’s the question: what on earth does this mean? That a couple of anarchist-minded jazz-loving twentysomethings might want to launch a community-owned alternative to commercial broadband is not surprising. What’s interesting is that a poor community finds the community-owned approach more attractive than an apparently semi-philanthropic effort by a major corporation.

"The amount of money was probably the biggest thing,” Baker adds in the accompanying article. And, yes, $1500 between a community of musicians is less than $300 each, or $25 per month for one year. But I’m struck that in the video Dixon seems to emphasise a more cultural divide. Google, she seems to be saying, with its bright colours and big ad spends, is for wealthy people - or maybe even white people, which amounts to practically the same thing in Kansas.

"Technology needs to be presented in a cultural fashion," says Dixon, ”and it needs to be understood that this is something which is going to perpetuate the community.” 

You don’t have to be Margaret Thatcher to find the idea that technology’s job is to ‘perpetuate the community’ pretty problematic. From the sounds of thing, the Free Network Foundation’s model is actually that the community’s job is to perpetuate - i.e., maintain - the technology.

Time will tell how the Free Network Foundation works out. My prediction is that five years from now, the network infrastructure they’ve installed will be non-functional, that Fiber installation costs will go down, and the community will eventually end up joining the Google project. But I could be wrong.

What I think is striking is this: like so many non-market approaches to perceived market failures, the Free Network Foundation purport to be addressing a practical problem of non-availability of a commercial product for poor communities. But in practice, their pitch - and the appeal of their product - is mostly cultural and ideological.

It seems like that’s often, even usually the case. There remains a deep-seated desire for non-market solutions, particularly in communities which perceive themselves as ignored or trampled by commercial actors. That’s understandable. But broadband equipment seems a singularly inappropriate service with which to experiment with community ownership, especially when a corporation with an unusually good ethical record is offering a free commercial alternative.

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