Ever since I first read Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, I always felt as if traveling to sell vacuums or insurance door to door, a 1950’s workplace revolution, was now obsolete and dead. Not until I really got into the Life Sciences field researching 9am-5pm that I’ve realized the traveling salesman still exists, and is probably making more money than ever.
No it’s not door to door anymore, it’s complex digital software and highly technical research equipment that has salesman traveling to labs all over the world to sell their wares. I sat in a microscope training session for three long hours listening to the traveling representative overly excited about all the features we could have, and he reminded me of a vacuum salesman, or at least the type I might have run in to if I was a housewife in the 1950’s.
I can’t shake the uncomfortable feeling I have around most salesmen, an internal struggle as I listen to their spiel not to buy something in the hopes that he or she will simply go away. I forget that in most cases the fact you purchased one thing just makes you a good candidate to purchase something else! That couldn’t be more apparent then now, hours into the training where I felt that even though we had already bought the “vacuum” (ie, microscope), he spent most of the time trying to convince us to buy additional “attachments” for our system. It’s so tempting to get attached to that simulated 3-D animation of your fluorescent cells that has been reconstructed from a laser scanned z-stack and think you can’t live without it. Until you realize that technology costs over $8,000 a year (just to install one small program on the computer) and then more money to have the whole system insured because it just increased in value, another yearly expense. One option in a pull-down menu could cost that much, I don’t even know how much the whole system might be. Even more subversively, the traveling salesman himself has come solely to give a demonstration of our system’s capabilities so we will know how to use our own microscope, until a strategically placed “Oops I guess your system doesn’t have that capability” sucks us in to purchasing even more extra features. I resent the amount of my time I wasted thinking I was learning something and then inadvertently opened my ears to sales pitch after sales pitch. The problem is that the purchase of the equipment is supposed to come with free in person trainings from a highly experienced professional, so slyly, the salesman himself is part of the original sales pitch, which seems like a perk but really becomes another opportunity to pitch! The politics of it is dizzying to me.
But this strange traveling salesman gets at the heart of American culture by exposing the dark sides associated with the American dream. He seems to embody the ideal that working hard, the personal charisma, the talent for selling would lead to more commissions and more income, proving that starting from nothing and becoming something is possible. But this is pandering to the rich, and in this technical age, making the best gadgets only available to those with the most money. Almost as if those attempting to rise the ranks are elevating those already in the ranks above. The people or the institutions with the capability to purchase the best equipment get all the cutting edge advantage and set all the important precedents. In other words, the boys with the best toys make the most noise. In research, where it’s all about getting there first, this is paramount. I went to a lecture recently that was very close in method to my own, and I sat their staggered by the amount of research he had been able to accomplish in the last few years, cramming it all into one paper that just so happened to get the cover of Nature. Toward the end of his talk he shows pictures of his “research core” which happened to be an army of pipetting robots. With each robot costing more than an upscale SUV, he had dozens, capable of mass-producing data day and night. I am the only robot my project has and I have to sleep nightly. I cost less true, but that extra cost is likely worth it due to the sheer amount of work the robots can perform. How can I beat the robots and the salesman who peddle them?
I can only be thankful that life is so vast and so complicated that the sheer number of mysteries left to unravel is more than any robot could handle, so I still have a chance to work on something before a robot gets hold of it.