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.

Deciphering a Meal

Momentous news! Maybe. The USDA has graduated from geometry into (okay, still pretty symbolic) imagery today as they released the new food guide, which lays the 19-year-old food pyramid to rest.

But aside from the purported question of how to convey to Americans what to eat, this image actually does something more specific, and I think, more important. By depicting our choices on a dinner plate, the USDA has pulled our conversation explicitly to meals.  Everyone understands the structure of meals.  But meals are not the only way we eat.

When I saw that image, my nerdy brain went immediately to one of my favorite articles by classic British anthropologist Mary Douglas: “Deciphering a Meal.” A structuralist, her focus is on boundaries, comparisons, and the operation of ordered elements in social contexts. This results in the delightful dizzying table here, where she maps the grammar of meals (in a decidedly English way, from continental breakfast to high tea to nightcaps).

And (although she is actually depicting in weird ven diagrams what is fit to eat) these images in their resonance to her discussion of what actually appears on a plate in a meal had a profound influence on me when I was studying charity meals as a social phenomenon in school.

In “Deciphering a meal,” Douglas’ major foil for the unit of the meal is “drinks,” structurally and socially distinct from meals in a number of interesting ways.  But, for today’s issues and question the more pertinent contrast is meals and snacks. Much of the food industry thrives on snacking–what doesn’t fit into the unit Meal. I’ve actually heard as a research question in RFP’s “what are the new ‘eating occasions’ for X?” These things fit into the old food pyramids, however elliptically.  They are not eaten off of plates.  They are eaten out of wrappers, out of bags, out of cleverly designed dispensers to fit into all the nooks and crannies of modern live that are not sitting down at a table, with a dinner plate, and eating a meal.

I think it will have legs.  It uses patterns and logic that have solid cultural foundations, that I’ve heard echoed from women arranging their daily meal on a chipped plate at a soup kitchen to enthusiastic design students hoping to curb obesity.  And I agree with Marion Nestle when she notes that there’s more science behind this than any previous incarnation.  But I think it’s also important to remember that meals are only one element of our daily menus.

De Kas. Or, a long post for a longer meal. (updated)

To eat a meal like this is to live like it’s worth never dying.

*quotation corrected, found the napkin on which I scribbled it.

And how.  Diana recalled her father describing such exquisite meals thus, as we chomped our way through five courses over four and a half hours at Restaurant De Kas. They tried to give us a sixth, another round of delightful perenappelstroop-filled muffins, I think because my incessant picture-taking and absurdly detailed question-asking had given them the impression that I was some kind of Canadian food critic.  Ha! No, kids, all of 20 people read my blog (and I love every one of you).  But seriously, if you’re in Amsterdam and in the neighborhood of Frankendael Park and have a couple hundred euros to drop on the best meal you’ll have all year, go to Restaurant De Kas.

We arrived just at sunset, to discover that the storks on that huge chimney-thing in the park were in fact read, huge birds.  We were still buzzing with appreciation of color, composition and emotion that are the requisite take-aways of the Van Gogh Museum.

We were also still giddy with freedom, leftover from our epic escape from Corporate Netherlands, ironically located in the bucolic Dutch countryside. But basically these culminated into bliss:  sitting in a gigantic greenhouse lit by Chihuli-like jellyfish lamps and fireplaces was exactly where the cosmos meant us to be at that place and time.  There’s a profound contentment that comes with that knowledge.  It’s a taste that permeated the olives and crusty, not-to-be-triffled-with bread and the first few glasses of wine.

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