My esteemed colleague (and mother) Jan English-Lueck and I have officially been published in the most recent issue of the Anthropology of Work Review. There you can find our article, sadly behind a pay wall.
We ask: is the vaguely California-Buddhist (but mostly utilitarian) “caring” of Silicon Valley corporations a good thing? We answer, very academically: maybe, sometimes, someday. But today, it mostly stands in agonizing juxtaposition with horrendous inequality. If some by long-shot thoughtful stars align…yes someday it could be some definition of good. We are trying to force some alignment from our humble positions. Join us?
If you think that seems interesting, this article is worth a read.
Here’s the abstract:
The struggle for labor rights is often one of asserting embodied care. Workers negotiate for rest and safe physical conditions. In the United States, further embodied care is translated into health care and family leave benefits. In Silicon Valley, while labor still struggles in the service and manufacturing sectors, professional high-tech work constitutes another set of challenges and expectations. Startup culture draws on the university-student lifestyle—where institutionalized care includes a broad palette of wellness care, cafeterias, and structured recreation. So it is not surprising that yoga, massage, food, and managed fun made their way into high-tech workplaces of the late twentieth century. Increasingly, however, that corporate care is a requirement, not a perquisite, of progressive companies recruiting elite workers.
Effective care requires personal awareness and corporate surveillance in order to be effective. Corporate responsibility in Silicon Valley workplaces embraces discourses in which worker productivity and care intertwine. This care is not evenly distributed or available to all workers, but still points to an emerging set of corporate care practices. Knowledge workers are expected to work more intensively, and employers sustain them by providing care. That logic of care shaped the social experience of both care providers, such as chefs and concierges, and workers, who learn to be the subjects of such care. Based on two decades of fieldwork in companies from Apple to Yahoo, this article outlines the uneven evolution of Silicon Valley’s corporate care.
And here’s an excerpt, which I think is within the limits of what I’m allowed to post here. Specifically, the prologue, which I wrote based on field notes from one of the more surreal experiences of my entire life.
A deep bell sounds at the hands of a brown-robed monk as hundreds of people bow their heads over trays carefully balanced on their laps. It is the fall of 2013 and the corporate dining room of an iconic Silicon Valley company is transformed as rows of workers, vendors, and guests sit in silent contemplation. Thich Nhat Hanh, renowned mindfulness teacher, leads the room in a guided meditation over the vegan lunch of subtly spiced Southeast Asian vegetables and rice. We are participants attending a workshop designed to cultivate a wonder of food in the larger ecosystem and an awareness of the act of eating.
The teacher asks us to savor each bite. He asks us to contemplate how dietary choices like these can heal a climate-disturbed planet. He asks us to consider the life of these plants, and all the human hands—farmers, cooks, and workers—who made it possible for us to eat the plants in that moment. Thousands more watch this performance through cameras placed around the room, possibly eating on their own, in homes and offices around the world. The organizers, chefs, and workers convinced that technology and compassion could do more together than apart, invited the monks to give their peers a transformative experience and to enlist allies.
Four months later, presenters from that same corporation, while reporting on that experience and the larger effort around mindfulness at the Wisdom 2.0 conference, were interrupted by an onstage protest. Local San Francisco activists waved signs reading, “Wisdom Means Stop Displacement” and “Wisdom Means Stop Surveillance.” The company’s efforts to care for its own workers and the planet, though literally fashioned on “noble intentions” drawn from Buddhist and secular compassionate practice, are mired in an inescapable context of a system that produces economic inequality and unequal access to physical resources. Diverse stakeholders contest the values around information flows and privacy. The ubiquitous computing that fuels the Silicon Valley economy also produces a panopticon of available information, which changes the lives of its workers and the communities in which they live. Those care practices also require a degree of self-disclosure and behavioral observation to be effective. If an employer wants its workers to be at “peak performance,” it needs to know how to promote that productivity year after year, and how to help its workers attain it for themselves.
In my line of work, it’s understandable to occasionally be confused about tenses. Lately, when that happens, I think about Isaac Azimov. More accurately, I think of a weird French animated film from 1988, Light Years aka Gandahar , the English translation of which Azimov happened to write. The tag line in English was, ” a thousand years ago, Gandahar will be saved.” The plot involves time travel, duh. But what made the biggest impression on me as a child was the way Azimov translated the speech of the Deformed, mutant Gandaharians who aid the protagonist in the various eons of his quest. For example:
There seemed to be no present tense in their language. A thing “was-will-be.” The concept of the present is just an anomaly in the continuity of what was in the past, into what will be in the future. This tickled my nerdy little mind as a child, in between bouts of utter distraction by the cracked out synthesizer laden soundtrack. Whenever I’m feeling despondent about some quality the present lacks, I think about history and when that quality was, and the future and when that quality may reemerge.
Learning how to practice mindfulness has been a struggle for me, as my teachers seem to discount the future as a distraction from the present. The future is…well, really pretty important to me. This has caused some bouts of rebellion, against myself in my attempts to re-wire my brain into something generally more resilient.
Vivian and I used to debate whether there was such a thing as “mindful futures thinking.” We generally concluded “no.” But I think the long view of the Deformed, their fusion of acceptance and patience, is that elusive idea of mindful futures Viv and I were searching for. (Although I didn’t remember it clearly enough at the time to make my case. I’m reading Ready Player One now, so my head’s all twisted around the 80s sci-fi of my childhood. The rest of the 80s pop culture references sill allude me.)
When I started writing fiction as a child, I almost always wrote in the past tense. It was just easier that way.
When I started writing as an anthropologist, the past tense was the way to go for almost everything, except for brief vignettes or seriously highfalutin theory.
My current challenge is learning to write well in the present tense. The perpetual, perfect, perplexing, maddening present that infuses every sentence I write with a question lingering in my mind about WHEN IT TAKES PLACE. Take this meta paragraph, which describes how I have-will give scenario presentations:
I walk up on stage. I’m thinking about my first line. It’s in 2012, in the present. I’m thinking of my fifth line. It’s in 2022, in the future, and I have to bring the whole audience with me. In four sentences, we have to know we are here and now, and then agree to believe we’re some other time, some other place. I’ve done this before, many times. Sometimes it worked, others, not so much. When we talk about the future, all sorts of traps get sprung in people’s heads. We try to get around them. I’m trying to get around them. I’m trying to bring people into the future, while fooling their brains into listening to it for long enough to suspend their disbelief that the future won’t look like that and that won’t happen and just…imagine. The future is now. The future is the present.
If all the tenses in that paragraph confused you, welcome to my life. Unless you write futures, you have no idea. If we’re now in 2022, how do you talk about the now-past-then-future, say, things that happened in 2018? If you lapse into past tense here, you’re likely to give your audience temporal whiplash, and generally lose the non-native speakers completely. The solution here is to stay in the present tense, carefully dancing around pseudo historical land mines.
But despite all that challenge to our tense constructions, scenarios let us wrap our heads around futures. Even if they’re wrong, less likely to be accurate, less plausible, than other forms of foresight, they’re more tangible, and I think in many cases, more useful, in my opinion. But is it the best solution to the tense problem when writing and speaking serious futures?
When I first started interning at IFTF, I discovered the challenges of writing in the future tense. Tenses. At that time, there were hardly any scenarios in the recent IFTF cannon. A vignette here and there, a lone report, but mostly there were forecasts. Descriptions of trends. Reports from the perspective of the present about future possibility. There’s the strong forecast tense, ” this will happen.” There’s the weaker iterations, “will likely/may/might happen.” I got the hang of these pretty quickly. But there’s some really interesting evidence emerging that there may be some drawbacks to framing futures in this way, with the strong distinction between present and future. My colleague Gabriel Harp gave this a much more thorough and nuanced treatment than I will here, under the provocative heading, “Does talking about the future make it less likely to happen?” Now this research is based in cross-cultural linguistics, which is all kinds of fascinating, and makes my muddled tense rant above seem shockingly ethnocentric. Dr. Sohail Inayatulla has some pretty awesome lectures on his youtube channel about cross cultural concepts of the future and how they shape thinking, which is similarly all kinds of fascinating.
In short, “what is the best tense” is totally the wrong question. Even “how can we keep this not confusing” isn’t nearly ambitious enough. The real question is, how do you know, based on your audience, what the most provocative, comprehensible and persuasive tense will be? How do you develop cultural agility for futures thinking?
It’s that time of year again. The global holiday of January 1, and with it, the annual ritual of self-improvement: setting New Year’s resolutions. It’s a time when we’re called on to reflect on our lives and the behaviors we might want to change—and bombarded with ideas on how to do so. It’s the time of year that makes me crave the realization of one of our Science and Technology forecasts: Adaptive Encouragement.
Adaptive encouragement: From self-quantifiers to life doulas
Imagine a digital advisor that interprets your raw health data and offers continuous support along with interactive data visualization and recommendations for changing—and maintaining—daily routines or medications.
Embodied in intelligent programs, mobile devices, and the cloud, a life doula (like a birth doula) will remind us of our goals in moments of weakness. It will offer suggestions and encouragement in context to help us make healthy choices.
This kind of adaptive, personalized support will improve chronic illness management with automated diet tracking, in-home blood marker monitoring, and realtime analysis of genetic, metabolic, and protein data.
A quasi-intelligent automated system that takes the heavy lifting out of learning about your habits and changing them? Sold!
This vision is part of a future when roles like life coaching are automated and extended through ever-present technology. It also points to the possibilities of adapting care systems to optimize the well-being of people with chronic ailments: rather than a slap on the wrist at the doctor’s office, you get a gentle vibration to get youout of your chair and moving. Haptic feedback and sensitivity, emotional support and peer interactions are the future of this softer side of mobile health, beyond the expert-fed prescriptive reminders. This is a future of gentle nudges to show us the actions that will help us increase our capacity for well-being, but also remind us to do nothing when that’s what’s really best for us.
Our colleague Alex Charmichael over at the Quantified Self wrote this forecast, and I’ve heard it echoed in the desires of my of the quantified selves I’ve been interviewing for our project for the RWJF building and refining the QS Guide to Self-tracking Tools. For those of us who generally only embark on self-improvement binges once a year, there are a lot of lessons and tools we can learn from both the continuous and episodic efforts of the QSers. One tool I learned about in interviews that might be of particular interest to New-Years Resolvers is Health Month—a game that helps you focus on making progress towards your goals on a daily basis. (The game starts promptly on the first of each month, so start on Jan 1st to get credit for your progress!)
Most importantly though, one of the key lessons I’ve heard that’s especially crucial for new years resolutions is self-compassion in all your self-tracking and self-improvement efforts. Shame and frustration at little slip ups can do a lot of harm—so this year, try staying future-focused and forgiving.
To clear up your first question, (what’s a healthspan?), by healthspan we mean the length of healthy, quality living. In the last hundred years we’ve seen a dramatic lengthening of our life expectancy, and radical life extension hopes to lengthen our lifespans, but what we’re grappling with now and in the next decade is optimizing our chances of those added years being happy and healthy.
Large brown eyes stared back at me as he spoke, with a sincerity and certainty that tied my stomach in knots.
I was learning that it’s really hard talking to twelve-year olds about the future, particularly this little guy. Thinking ten years out is a stretch for many of the adults I work with at the Institute for the Future. And now my colleagues, and our collaborators at Collective Roots and East Palo Alto Charter School, had set out to help a class of seventh graders envision their futures—their actions and their surroundings—in a decade.
Most students placed themselves in their charter school’s vision of their futures: attending college, getting a job, considering careers, caring for family members (all scenes embellished richly with high-end cars). But not this guy. We went around and around trying to find a story he felt was plausible that didn’t include his untimely demise. He had witnessed enough friends and family members die in random and arbitrary situations arising from poverty and urban violence, that he considered it inevitable that he wouldn’t survive past his teenage years.
How could a child live without hope for a future? What can “resilience” possibly mean in the face of such a personal future?
Image: Flickr user deadair | Ricardo Wang
Resilience is generally defined as the ability to bounce back from disturbance and to cope with adversity. With roots in ecology, psychology and materials science, the concept has gained currency in the last few years as an alternative to clinging tight to stability, amidst rampant volatility at every scale.
Resilience builds upon foundations of sustainability, embracing the core idea of not letting the demands of the present starve the needs of the future, yet without the demand that we preserve or conserve the past. Faced with the inability to sustain our past, we reinvent ourselves for a new context. Resilience asks that we envision alternative futures—including and especially transformative ones. Resilience is intimately connected to the practice of creating futures. The Resilience Solutions Group at Arizona State University defines human resilience, in part, as a “sustainability of purpose.” It is not enough simply to bounce back: one has to bounce forward into hope and purpose.
But how do we, and my young student, create hope and purpose in the context of an uncertain and deeply unsettling reality? And how does this sense of purpose infuse large-scale systems with many diverse and evolving parts? To answer those questions, we not only need to understand the importance of imagining the future, but also how resilience hinges on the concept of diversity. IFTF Research FellowJamais Cascio includes it in his take on the principles found in most resilient systems, and I think it is one of the more central ones.
Diversity is a key element conferring greater resilience to collectives and communities, according to the Resilience Solutions Group. In a collective, community, or organization, diversity of roles and respect for the capacities that allow individuals to fulfill those roles is the kind of diversity associated with greater resilience. That is, people turn their difference into purpose for themselves, creating both more resilient individuals and more resilient communities.
What I propose is that we need more than this kind of diversity for a resilient future. We need diverse alternative futures. It is these alternative futures that link the resilience of individual lives to the resilience of large-scale systems. Ecologists will tell us that diversity, in the sense of biodiversity, is essential to the stability and resilience of ecosystems.
There are a number of sound hypotheses for why this is the case, but the “portfolio effect” provides an especially useful analogy. In this interpretation, biodiversity increases resilience as suites of species pursue different responses to environmental perturbation. This response diversity increases the chance that at least some responses will be effective, thus allowing the services in that ecosystem to weather disruption if not without interruption, then with quick recovery. Alternative futures ask us to discern these diversities of roles, purpose, strategy, and outcomes in our lives and all around us.
At IFTF, we most often create alternative futures with organizations: companies, government entities, professional societies, etc. We present forecasts and scenarios of the future and help our clients think through alternative strategies that would serve their organizations’ purpose within different perspectives on the future. We encourage them to consider diverse external forces as well as technological and social innovations that could transform them from within.
Key to this is the idea of purpose. For most publicly held companies, their ostensible purpose is clear: to maximize shareholder value. In a world where the major institutions of daily life—our commercial enterprises—are focused on this single-minded purpose, the task of creating resilient futures through diverse strategies has been taken up most intensely thus far by individuals on one hand and larger communities on the other.
This mural by Mona Caron imagines the past, present, and shareable future of Market Street in San Francisco. Photo by Michael Rauner Photography.
More and more communities are exploring alternative visions of the future, focusing on the services supporting everyday living. The transition town movement is an aggregation of local communities imaging new possibilities for their own futures. Alternative food production systems are exploring not only narrow bids for self-sufficiency, but also the unique strengths and boundaries of foodsheds, and the complexities of regional integration and support. Experiments in alternative currencies and manufacturing systems similarly question the wisdom of centralization, creating and evolving abundance of new roles and relationships. These visions and practices play a role in increasing the resilience of these communities and those that learn from them. Consciously creating these transformative futures is the core methodology that the foresight network Resilient Futures holds up to hasten this possibility.
And while these experiments may not supplant the institutions and organizations that have so shaped our society over the last century, they do point to transformative futures. In these futures, in order to be more resilient, organizations hew to larger and more diverse purposes than shareholder value. It is not so much that any single one of these experiments holds the key to resilience, but they add to our portfolio of responses to a turbulent future. They potentially cushion the core services of our society from disruptions, be they imminent, ongoing, or remote.
Another notable thing about all of the experiments described above is that they are futures that are collaboratively created and practiced. Numerous participants can consider more radically diverse futures than a single mind could manage. A few years ago Jason Tester and Rachel Hatch, colleagues of mine at IFTF, set out to imagine the future of care-giving with United Cerebral Palsy. It is a topic both emotionally heavy and extremely timely, and it took creativity on their part to find a way of collaboratively generating diverse alternative futures of care-giving with people who are tired, taxed for time, and too often stigmatized. They created a scenario of a fictional town that needed to learn how to care for its residents—amidst rapidly dwindling resources for public services and rampant feelings of social isolation. Suggestions poured in from all over the country, indeed internationally, for alternative forms of care-giving that give each of us new roles to play. The result was a vision of the future where the burdens of “care-giving” give way to “caring.” Distributed practices allow us to share our diverse strengths to create a more resilient way of caring for those in need.
Image: Flickr user nothing to hide
But that still brings us back to our young student in East Palo Alto who expects to die before he’s grown. One critical problem he’s facing is that he can’t see an alternative future. He’s locked into one view of his future. While perhaps honest with his experience, the future narrative he constructed left even less room for growth and transformation than his peers’ consensus view of their personal futures, regulated as they were by charter school, teachers, and parents. We coached all the students in imagining transformative events, considering unexpected twists, personalizing broad future forces like climate change and evolving food systems. And we kept coming back to this young man offering him what we thought might be possible alternative stories for his future. All the while we asked ourselves, “Is it possible to use the future as a way to change his future?”
Just when my colleagues and I thought he had bested us with his despair, he finished his story. He found a future he could live in. While we were helping other students with plot points and grammar and chestnuts of futurity, he wandered over to a small group of girls who were each telling their future stories in the same scenario. He finished his own story with aplomb, moving to the posh suburb of his classmates’ aspirations, working a fun and safe job, and “not smoking, doing drugs, or going to prison.” He found a transformative future, anchored not in any of the futures we offered, but in a future shared with his peers.
Thanks to Kathi Vian, Jamais Cascio, and Alex Zautra for conversations that inspired this piece.
Thanks also to Jeremy Smith for asking me to write this, and to the editors over at Shareable.net who found the awesome images!