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.