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.

Magic Mushrooms, Mourning, and the Death of Carrie Fisher

Two pieces of news have got me thinking about death (again).  Most immediately, mere hours, I learned that a heroine and icon Carrie Fisher joined the stunning ranks of Great Voices who didn’t make it out of 2016.  The other I’ve been sitting with for a while: the confirmation with a second, more robust trial that psilocybin, the active compound in magic mushrooms, is a cure for “existential anxiety.” In other words, a cure for the fear of death. The latter is great news.  The former is deeply sad, but we’ll all get through it.

carrie-fisher-at-premiere-of-walt-disney-pictures-and-lucasfilms-star-wars-the-force-awakens

You see, I am not the kind of futurist who thinks that indefinite life extension is desirable, let alone a good idea for society.  I think that death is necessary, and that fear of death is natural.  Grief is a compound emotion, the elements of which vary for each moment it’s experienced and each person who experiences it.

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Invisible Tattoos: In search of intimacy in the panopticon (updated)

High off the creative rush of Inktober 2016, I wrote a short story the other day.  I wrote it in the world of my desk-drawer-half-written-novel, in which the San Francisco Bay Area of 2115(ish) is blanketed by a soaring, window-filled arcology.  I’ll get back to that ambitious undertaking eventually, but nothing stops me from worldbuilding in the meantime.

It starts like this:

Stories about people’s tattoos are the worst. Listening to them tell about the pattern and the inspiration is boring, repetitive, and whatever meaning they capture on a person’s skin is utterly opaque to any other person. The aesthetics though, can be pure. Clean. A statement of commitment. A moment of clarity captured forever.

No one asks me about my tattoos during my work day, or even out at public clubs with friends. It’s not that they’re hidden under sleeves or skirts, though some are. They are not for common display. Their aesthetics are private; selective. And they are not drawn in ink, but in light and cells.

You can read the full story here.

pexels-photo-194074

The futurist debt I owe to the Institute for the Future for this story stems from two streams of work: the soon-to-be-released New Body Language research I led (UPDATED: listen to my release podcast with Mark Fraeunfelder!), and it’s continuation under my colleague Bradley Kreit Everything is Media.  We drew on signals from cutting-edge DARPA funded research on implants, artists and hackers, and entertainment both popular and fringe.  We also included my talented colleague Jamais Cascio, who has long explored the notion of the panopticon and it’s participatory incarnations in the present and nearish future. My contribution this year was to think about the implications for intimacy, hidden meaning and interpersonal care. The contrast of these two streams of foresight research beg the central question of this story: in a world where everyone could be watching all the time, what would you do to have an utterly personal, strictly intimate experience?

But I was also inspired by extracurricular science and art.  The morning I wrote this I was reading about this fascinating study about how plants use light. This small finding, about how light may be beamed from leaves to roots, helps us get closer to understanding how living organisms perception of wave-based energy (light, sound etc) interacts with chemical signaling (molecules in host and symbiote tissues) to go about the business of living and growing. Signals of light excite plants and set of more chemical signalling than photosynthesis.

I’ve also been thinking quite a lot about the skin microbiome, both professionally and on my own.  Throw a little CRISPR on humans and epidermal chimerism in there, and you get the possibility of a tattoo that altered the substance of human skin and its interaction with different fungi and bacteria.  In other words, tattoos that are completely invisible unless excited by certain kinds of light and promicrobial mists.

Finally, we’re already in a world where privacy is something that you pay for (one way or another).  Private clubs have been the work-around for a variety of intimate experiences, up to and including sex, drugs, and rock and roll.  What would be more intimate than sharing invisible tattoos and dropping acid with 20 strangers with whom you share nothing else?

 

 

 

 

 

Wanted: Adaptive Encouragement

Or, Health Horizons S&T Map Blog Posts, New Year’s Edition.

I am sick, writing in bed, but that seems to be good, since I don’t really want to do anything, so I might as well write.

Bang! Posted.

 

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 you out 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.

Writing, death, and vat-grown kidneys

Hey, wasn’t I going to blog more and stuff?  Did somebody die or something?

Oh wait.  Actually, yes.

So my SB challenge and so many other things have been on hold for the past week.  I’m not done grieving, and won’t be for a good long while, but I do need to start writing again.  My kick in the pants came from the realization that it was Viv’s turn to do the regular blog post in our blogifying map forecasts series.

I started writing it and then I stopped.  I decided to share her words instead.  It still took me most of the day to track down links and proof and whatnot. It was both cathartic and helpful to tiptoe around the cognitive dissonance of writing about forecasts bathed in optimism bordering on hubris with ruminations on mortality rattling about my brain.

Here’s the post:

Replacement parts: “We can rebuild him, we have the technology”

Regenerative medicine will replace, restore, maintain, or enhance tissue and organ functions, dramatically improving patients’ health and quality of life, and potentially reducing the cost of their care. Tissue engineering will heal diabetic foot ulcers, reducing the need for amputations; organs grown in a lab will ease our dependence on donor transplants; and tendons, cartilage, and bone regrown with autologous cells will be used to repair injuries and joints. Advanced prosthetic devices and biomechatronic-based limb replacements will interface with the body’s nervous systems to give users a range of natural function and movement.

 When we first presented this forecast at a conference, our colleague Vivian told a story that illustrates the potential, and some possible pitfalls, of the growing capacities of regenerative medicine. It was part of a complicated dance of vignettes and exposition with Vivian, Bradley and myself that will remain one of my fondest memories of working here.

Viv presenting, by Rachel Hatch

Image by Rachel Hatch

Of course, when you get sick enough, you end up having to go to the doctor for help.

That’s what finally happened with Eric, who has Type 2 Diabetes.  He is a very successful 56 year old lawyer.  He has a history of working too much and not taking very good care of himself.  He was overweight, ate poorly, and didn’t track his blood sugar levels consistently.  As a result, he has had some serious complications from his illness.  Last year, he developed a foot ulcer that just wouldn’t heal.  The doctors had to amputate his foot.  His eyesight also deteriorated because of damage to his retina.  And his doctors have been warning him that he may need to go on dialysis.  Eric’s body is failing him.

Remember that TV show in the ’70’s?  The Six Million Dollar Man?  Do you remember the show’s tagline?  “We can rebuild him. We have the technology.”

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Optimizing Healthspans: branching paths of longevity and death post up

This took me a uper long time to write, resolving my conflicting feelings about extreme longevity as a topic.  This is another one of the Science, Technology and Well-being 20202 Forecasts.

Again, full post available here.

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.

So, how will we do that?

 Flickr user kevindooleySource: Flickr user kevindooley

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Programming Immunity post up

This was a post about one of the handful of forecasts boldly written last year by my colleague Alex Carmichael, which it fell upon me to perform, promote, and continue investigating from our recently released forecast map on Science, Technology and Well-being.  I must admit that I am personally less technologically optimistic than many of the forecasts on that map.  With this forecast, my own personal experience with immunomodulators is that we are still at the blunt instrument, barely-know-what-we-don’t-know stage of understanding, more than a decade away from precision interventions for anybody, let alone brad accessibility.  Luckily the week before there was a major breakthrough in this area: the first success of gene therapy, which promised to be just around the corner back when I was in high school biotech classes. And what this therapy did was effectively re-train patient’s immune systems in a specific, fine-tuned and persistent way.  So, maybe this forecast is on a much shorter horizon than I originally gave it credit.

Excerpt from the full post:

Our immune systems are the key to humans’ profound resilience in the face of all the other organisms around and inside of us.

Over the last few decades we’ve made great strides in understanding the workings of various parts of our immune systems, as they function normally and as they get jammed up in strange ways. This forecast posits that over the next decade we’ll be able to put this knowledge to striking use: honing our immunomodulation therapies, mainstreaming the maturing promise of gene therapy, and hacking our immune systems to accelerate our resistance to all kinds of infections.

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Nature Rocks

A while back I spent 15 minutes staring at this thing trying to figure out what it was.  I was on a hike at Uvas Falls, an obscure park outside Morgan Hill with great bugs.  (The trail is also home to one of those fantastic ladybug orgies.)  But it was a wet spring, and the waterfalls covered the trail in places, so it was all about the water bugs.   It’s not a waterbug.

It’s a caddis fly larva.

According to Mr. Gordon Ramel at Earthlife.net,

The Trichoptera have been known to fishermen since they advent of fly-fishing and to the entomological for a longer time. Mouffet the author of the first English book on entomology (the ‘Theatrum Insectorum’) writes in 1658 of the great variety of ‘cados worms’ to be found in rivers and streams. The name possibly arises from the ancient name for a travelling cloth salesmen who pinned samples of their wares to their coat, they were known as ‘cadice men’ and it is possible the name ‘Caddis fly’ is a reference to the cases many Caddis-fly larvae build from bits of debris. The Latin name ‘Trichoptera’ comes from the Greek ‘Trichos’ = a hair and ‘Pteron’ = a wing, meaning hairy winged which is a good description of the adult or imago forms.

Also that

There are about 7 000 named species world-wide of which over 400 occur in Europe and about 190 in Britain. Fossil Caddis flies have been found as far back as the Cretaceous.

There are dozens of those species in California, but my best guess based on fish and wildlife maps is Diplectrona californica. This nerd’s curiosity is sated.

Ever More Perfect Eyes

As of now, I’ve settled on this as a name for this blog (in lieu of my first, third, and any number of impulses toward more cynical, ironic or flippant names).  A quick note about where it comes from:

“We have ever more perfect eyes in a world in which there is always more to see. See or die.”
—Teilhard de Chardin

At least, that was how I encountered it in an epigraph of a book I was reading.That’s actually a condensed, slight misquotation.  The full line in context is much less pithy (according to my favorite modern translation):

“Seeing. One could say that the whole of life lies in seeing — if not ultimately, at least essentially. To be more is to be more united — and this sums up and is the very conclusion of the work to follow. But unity grows, and we will affirm this again, only if it is supported by an increase of consciousness, of vision. That is probably why the history of the living world can be reduced to the elaboration of ever more perfect eyes at the heart of a cosmos where it is always possible to discern more. Are not the perfection of an animal and the supremacy of the thinking being measured by the penetration and power of synthesis of their glance? To try to see more and to see better is not, therefore, just a fantasy, curiosity, or a luxury. See or perish. This is the situation imposed on every element of the universe by the mysterious gift of existence. And thus, to a higher degree, this is the human condition.”

—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Human Phenomenon, trans. Sarah Appleton-Weber, p. 3

Yeah, I then tracked down the book and read it, in two translations.  Occasionally I can go on a philosophy kick, it’s allowed. And that book is a trip, I recommend it.  Some sections are knock-you-on-your-ass profound, while others let me understand why when I Googled the quotation I stumbled on a psychadelic hippy poster.

In this passage I get caught up in the encouragement, the humility, and the imperative.  First, I take “seeing” as a shorthand for perception more generally.  Perfection of perception here is I think both a scientific and a theological concept (Tielhard was both a Jesuit philosopher and a paleontologist).  It’s accuracy, detail, scope, understanding, appreciation, and finally synthesis.  But I take a page here from Thoreau’s distinction, “do not observe, behold”: perception includes awe and gratitude. In a scientific sense, perfection is accuracy and understanding; in a theological sense, perfection is a measure of closeness to God.  This is a continuously ongoing process, elaborating “ever more perfect eyes. Our abilities improve and Teilhard asserts that this improvement is limitless. We will never reach that state of perfection but we will always, if we do not ignore or deny what we see, get closer to it.    But, “there is always more to discern.” No model is perfect, no perspective truly whole.  If we could achieve that we would not be “as gods,” we would be gods.   And finally it’s not just for scholars and wankers and blathering in cafes, but a vital imperative.  Blindness, denial, ignorance, unwillingness to improve are lethal luxuries.

As a species our only chance of survival is to perceive more, to think better, and to act on what we learn. And as individual people, that’s also our best shot.