For the Love of Place (Dispatch from the Steinbeck Center)

Last month Chris humored me for a trip to the National Steinbeck Center, a quirky exhibit in the heart of Salinas, California. It’s densely packed, verbosely curated, and delightful. Museums are places of discovery and reflection for me, and I set upon this one with a question.

John Steinbeck is up there among my very favorite authors, and is certainly my favorite among the non-genre literary writers. My question was: why? What is it about Steinbeck that I love just so much?

IMG_20170706_135509669.jpg

I love nearly all his books, but East of Eden has the distinction of being my second favorite novel (after Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed of course). Unlike Liza Hamilton’s bible, the eye tracks in my copy of East of Eden are uneven. I’ve been toting around the same dog eared and pencil annotated Classics Edition since high school. The first few dozen pages are especially worn. When I was traveling most intensely for work, about five years ago, I would carry it with me as a cure for homesickness. Steinbeck’s ode to those dry hills, and the wet years when people forget the dry years, remains my perfect reminder of California. Continue reading

Published! ‘Incorporating Care in Silicon Valley’…

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.

Personal Uses of Environmental Data

What can you actually do personally with environmental big data as a private scientist? As a curious person?
Gary Wolf asked in his breakout co-hosted by Carlos Ouguin, of all of these kinds of big data that are available or will be available about our world, what’s meaningful for people like us (quantified selves)? How is the quantified world useful to the quantified self?
This is a post about the first QS Conference Continue reading

Eco-Risk Artifact from the Future Post is Up

Years ago my colleague Jason Tester coined a term for a visual forecasting format: artifacts from the future.  They’re pictures of what it might be like to encounter some future force in an everyday situation, in the minutiae that are archaeologists’ usual trade.   Recently, my team and I have been doing a series of blog posts explaining and showcasing the artifacts we made for our newly public Health and Health Care 2020 Map.  Here’s a bit from my latest entry in this series:

Myriad minutiae in our environments impact our health in countless ways.  While we can look at this from many perspectives, one is to identify the risks in our environments, to empower us to avoid, change, organize and agitate around them.

This artifact from the future challenges us (from the perspective of a passerby on a Milwaukee sidewalk) to make the invisible visible: to share places at patterns in our lives that stress us out.  If we looked at the mash-up online that this poster advertises, we could validate our experiences, find ways to avoid particular places for our own health. Or, we could focus on the experiences of others that surprise us, ad be more considerate and caring as we move through places that stress out our neighbors and fellow citizens.  It posits that the ability to quantify and visualize the health impacts of our surroundings will increase our interests and engagement with eco-health issues.

HC2020 Artifact, Eco-Risk Tracking

IFTF HC2020 Artifact, Eco-Risk Tracking

In other awesome news, our Health Horizons’ BodyShock The Future contest scored more entries than a white house challenge on a similar topic.  There are some pretty fun ideas in there.