Imagine you are in an alternate reality, which is almost identical to this one. In this world, you are the owner-operator of a modest little gas station, situated in the middle of a desert.

Being the only source of gasoline for miles around is good in some sense, because it means your services are always in demand from any traveler coming through the area. The wrinkle, though, is that you're too far out for grid power, so in order to run the pumps, the storefront, and the little apartment around the back, you have no choice but to burn some of your inventory.

Word of mouth in such a sparsely-populated area is not enough to generate the income you need to stay afloat, so you have to advertise. In this world, you have two strategies: One is searchlights, and the other is a radio tower. Both have their strengths and limitations: the searchlights can be seen from very far away, but only at night. The radio transmitter can transmit around the clock, but only on certain frequencies, and the transmission drops off quite sharply. What both of these techniques have in common is they consume an incredible amount of electricity, and require you to burn ever more of the very same stuff you intend to sell. This is obviously not ideal, but the odds generally work out in your favour.

Now, just like in our world, the law says that the price the customer has to pay for their gasoline is proportional to the quantity shown on the meter when they finish pumping. The difference is here, the technology for measuring the volume of a fluid passing through a tube is strangely not very sophisticated: it is the mechanical equivalent of using the pump to fill a canister of a known volume and timing it with a stopwatch. Then you time the customer, and use the two numbers to work out how much gas they pumped.

Why is this significant? Because the customers cheat. They retrofit their vehicles with vacuum pumps to suck the gasoline out faster than your pump is pumping it. Unlike the law governing your meter, there's no law against this. It's a practice common enough, however, that you anticipate it and work it into your calculations—both the price and the amount of time you let the customer run the pump. You expect every customer to cheat a bit; that's just the cost of doing business.

Every once in a while, a customer comes along with what is essentially a tanker truck rigged with a turbo-powered vacuum. It's almost always disguised as something innocuous, like a Winnebago, so oftentimes they've made off with their spoils before you even notice. If you do manage to catch them in the act, your only—legal—option is to take their payment for the low-ball price on the meter.

If you encounter one of these operators early on in the year when your reservoir is full, you can compensate somewhat by running your advertising apparatus less intensively, but then that translates to fewer legitimate customers. If they get you later on when the tanks are low, they can bleed you dry. With no inventory, no power, and no money—either to pay for the next shipment or even wait it out—you have no choice but to abandon the shop. That is, assuming you even have any gas for yourself, to get to the nearest town.

If only there was a better way to measure…


Exegesis

The gas station in the desert represents the individual creative and/or quaternary-sector professional, particularly in the realms of software and digital media production. The gasoline represents time, or more precisely, attention.

The searchlights and radio transmitter represent the time you have to spend doing things that aren't billable: improving your skills, maintaining a social media presence, conducting portfolio or other self-promotional projects, attending conferences, preparing talks, writing books, contributing to open-source projects, and for those who are self-employed, hustling for new clients.

The customers—and this is perhaps the most awkward of the comparisons—represent not your clients or employer, but rather your projects. The gas pump metering system represents the monumentally abysmal resource management capabilities of the industry. The law about the meter, itself a blunt instrument, corresponds to the terms of your contract.

The high-powered vacuum customers, therefore, represent projects that consume many, many more hours than they look like they should. Abandoning the shop, if it isn't obvious, represents some kind of serious failure.

So that's what I've been working on: designing a better way to measure.

Stay tuned.