Making a return

Posted on | September 6, 2013 | 6 Comments

When I think of the maker movement, I can’t help but think of three things that the current wave of interest doesn’t refer to:

Making do (an antipodean sensibility; if you don’t have access to something in the first place, you improvise around that absence. That’s why women were so good at sewing where I grew up. They didn’t have access to cheap clothes)

Make do and mend (the war-time slogan, now captured in posters sold in fancy design stores)

Home makers, home economics and the history of domestic science (gender matters in deciding what counts as making).

People are forever making. So why is it fetishized now?

The difference with making today is the source of the cultural and financial investment, namely Silicon Valley. The notion that ‘everyone is a maker’ keeps the hacker ethos alive while drawing on the more recent elevation of ‘you’ as the active pro-sumer. In addition, venture capital and media coverage translate to serious corporate and institutional resources. If ‘make do and mend’ served the propaganda needs of a state-sanctioned war machine, it was ideological state apparatuses (education primarily) that determined the curriculum and gender norms for home economics vs. trade classes.

Today’s maker ‘movement’ is an evangelist’s response to the deficiencies of the state. The standardization of schooling to meet performance metrics has led to a drain on the manual and creative aspects of education, such that learning is limited to knowledge that can be tested. This is one way that data exerts agency on institutions. Metrics matter more than content. By contrast, maker kits and a culture of making beyond the classroom each offer a solution to pedagogical anemia, a set of tools for an emerging trade.

The broader impact of off-shoring in the US economy has turned manufacturing into a problem: when it exists at all, (non-creative) making is outsourced to the so-called developing world. Wage discounts are sought wherever they may appear as companies chase tax breaks and legal loopholes. These multinational conglomerates profit by commanding the trade routes, protection zones and brand names that materialize the need for all this making.

In the US the maker ‘movement’ is a response to austerity, as opposed to scarcity. It bears a relation to the expense of war time commitments (Iraq, Afghanistan, among others) – in the sense that this impacts government spending on education – but it also fits the broader move towards financialization that comes with our dependence on hyper-consumption.

Making reappears as a perverse reaction to overconsumption. In wealthy countries, we are invited to relearn our making skills when the need to make has been obviated. Meanwhile, in ‘developing’ countries, making is the short-circuit towards entrepreneurialism and modernity. This is why the tech industry calls these countries ‘emerging markets’.

So who are the makers? Who is making what? Which forms of making are valued? How will an investment in STE(A)M in the US change the idea of manufacturing as it currently exists, both for workers experiencing it and consumers benefiting? Will it leave the creative dimensions of making reserved for an elite and educated few, continuing the legacies of colonialism that carved up the laborers of the world according to profitable routes? Or will it mean that an appreciation of ‘making’ will be championed at every level of the service and supply chain, so that its rewards may be equitably distributed?

The Swiss Cheese approach

Posted on | September 4, 2013 | No Comments

What is it about corporate strategy and cheese?

According to Louis C. Feuer, the ‘Swiss Cheese Approach to White-Collar Stress’ is a practice of ‘selective mingling’ that enables workers to navigate the corporate hierarchy and arrive in a better place. As he puts it:

Getting through to the other side of the cheese is easy, if you carefully pick the people you want to help you pass through the holes to professional success (137)

The careerist maneuvering Feuer endorses promotes the benefits of self-interest:

You are constantly looking for the holes to go through, never seeking to rock the entire organization and not wanting to make corporate headlines, but yet anxious to move to the winning side of the business. It is like moving through a piece of swiss cheese. You can pass through those holes and no one will know you have arrived to the other side until they see you there.

Professionals have been using the swiss cheese approach for years. Is it dishonest and unethical? You make your own judgment after you have read all about the tactics.

Selectively doing and acting in a particular way, for special people at a particular time: what’s wrong with that? Realizing that you cannot help everyone at the same time, you, as a social business climber, may find it necessary, because of short time, to help first, those who can help your career the most. (130)

Climbing the rungs of the corporate hierarchy includes participating in civic activity:

Successful people usually, no matter how busy they are, find some time to join civic and charitable organizations. Joining these organizations or committees where the “right people” attend will help you develop a network of professional contacts who can hopefully smooth any rough roads for you. Certain civic groups attract a particular type of professional and you may want to attend some of these meetings in your community to see who is there (132)


You are joining an organization not only because of what it stands for, but also because of the constituency of its membership. Does this sound like you are joining a group for selfish reasons? Well, to some degree you are. But the organization gains because of the energy you will devote to the group and you will gain, hopefully, by the people you will meet. It may not be a totally philanthropic reason for joining, but right or wrong, it is done all the time! (133)

Feuer’s Swiss Cheese analogy is not unique in name. A ‘Swiss Cheese’ approach is also mentioned in Alan Lakein’s (1973) How to Control Your Time and Your Life - a book that is credited (by Lakein!) as the inspiration for the field of time management.

In Lakein’s use, the Swiss Cheese approach is a tonic for procrastination. It is a way of getting started on an important goal ‘by poking some holes in it’. Applying Swiss Cheese turns large projects into smaller, ‘instant tasks’, knowing the difference 5 minutes can make. Even if you don’t have time to fully accomplish a pressing objective on a busy day, spare moments can be used to advance some tiny portion of the larger whole.

Lakein’s formula is partly a means to overcome feelings of helplessness, as in the following passage:

Admit to yourself: “I just cannot plan.” Then say to yourself, “But if I could plan, what would the plan be?” Now, set about to answer the if question. (136)

The following list of ‘holes’ offers simple tips to get started. They are cheese puncturing methods for generating mindfulness:

- get more information
- try a leading task (eg. sharpen your pencil)
- take advantage of your current mood
- give yourself a pep talk
- make a commitment to someone

By contrasting the two authors’ use of the same phrase, we can begin to recognize the particular mix of mythology and platitude that attends business self-help (‘professionals have been using the swiss cheese approach for years’). The Swiss Cheese method is clearly catchy as a title, but its application differs greatly with each author. This slippage in citation or method, and the lack of any authority that would ever establish such a flaw, remain mysteries to ponder. Meanwhile, following these phrases as they gain purchase illustrates the work they do in legitimating culturally and historically specific attitudes.

Compared with Feuer, Lakein’s philosophy of career survival appears almost selfless. It speaks from a time when diligence to career and service perhaps served broader ends. For Feuer, writing from the mid-80s, White Collar Stress is ‘worth it’ because of the satisfaction to be found in power, control, and ultimately money. On the latter, he concludes:

If this is your key ingredient for success, do not panic. If we were more often honest with ourselves, more people would openly admit the same incentive. What we need to accept is how important it may be to each of us and that working hard for it is OK! (143)

White-collar stress

Posted on | September 4, 2013 | 1 Comment

Notes from Louis C. Feuer (1987) White-Collar Stress: A comprehensive, practical approach to relieving stress and insuring professional and financial success. Federick Fell Publishers, Hollywood (Fl).

A book ‘for those who will play some games, for those willing to engage in some non-offensive manipulative behaviors, and for those willing to take on a new consciousness about their image and the stressors created by the business environment… It is written for those who want more: more respect, more recognition, more power, and more money. White-Collar Stress is not for the timid, all-trusting professional, nor for the complacent, the self-satisfied, or the unmotivated’ (2)

Sources of personal stress

To some, your home and its furnishings may not depict your real sense of success, and aren’t indicative of your financial status at the time, or your present available spendable income. The pressure to join the local country club, to purchase a new car almost every year, or to take that exclusive vacation, can lead to a traumatic home life and subverted resentment which may unknowingly continue to fuel the disastrous lifestyle. Learning to live within your budget—not the one set by your colleagues and friends—may be your answer.

Anything in your lifestyle that you can control, do so. A home you can afford to pay for, children’s education that is not financially smothering, living near work—these are factors which you can control to reduce home-related stress.

… staying close to friends and family that have become parasitic, or “adopting” a family member who lacks the ambition to make it alone—these should be carefully evaluated. It is important to determine how much anxiety your lifestyle generates and how it can subsequently affect your professional plans (27)

Much stress is related to your personal responsibilities. At work, there are usually more clearly defined and outlined job requirements and typically clearly defined objectives are delineated. Success is easily measured. Unfortunately, your personal life does not provide these same guidelines (28)

If you have accepted too many responsibilities and feel nervous, anxious, and pressured about completing all of your tasks, realize the time has come to streamline your schedule. You need to begin withdrawing from some of your responsibilities; letting people know that in your enthusiasm you had over-extended yourself and now need to decline certain roles… People appreciate honesty, since they usually want only the best from you. There is a limit to your time and energy and you need to let others know as you approach that point! (29)

You can avoid undue stress by managing your environment… For example, you may find yourself attending social functions where you feel uncomfortable. You should have graciously declined the invitation. You may have found yourself working on community projects that hold little interest for you, or were forced to deal with an army of incapable volunteers. It is imperative to think about yourself and your happiness before you commit to any activity, function, or social event, especially situations that can negatively affect your mental health (30)

Much stress is caused by the inability to cope with those around you. People become stressors for other people… Socializing and doing business with those who upset you should only be continued after you determine (1) if you must continue seeing these people, and (2) why you have allowed these people to control your feelings (30-1)

Suggestions: Tell yourself that “In the end I will be a winner.” Keep in mind that you have trained and worked hard at being successful, and that you will not allow yourself to fail (31)

Conceptualize time as an empty box to be filled with meaningful personal and professional experiences. Fill it with people you enjoy and events that you like (32)

Stress stems from how you perceive events and people. You can interpret the same issue differently—and with varying degrees of stress—based upon how you feel on a particular day… realize your behavior and reactions are controlled by you and exhibited at your discretion and for the benefit of your image (32)

Frequently ask yourself, “How do I feel?” and then try to determine if the feeling is created by, (1) what you did, (2) what you are now doing, or (3) what you are planning to do

Use the “Compared to What” Analysis for Stress Reduction: When you want to judge the significance of a stressor and rate its meaning and importance to you, stop for a moment and compare it to the most upsetting and stressful event you have experienced (42)

Call and invite friends to your home, meet them for lunch or share an evening out. Don’t wait for them to call you. They are just as shy and unsure of whether you will accept them as you are about how they feel about you. Make that first move. Pursue that relationship you sense could be right for everyone (44)

Data sweat

Posted on | August 30, 2013 | 1 Comment

A link to more work in progress. This paper is my first effort to bring cultural studies in to the world of high tech. It starts with some ground clearing etymology before introducing three new concepts: data agents, data sweat, and data exhaust. All three are efforts to expand the critical and ethical vocabulary for the emerging data economy.

I am especially keen to hear feedback on the idea of ‘data sweat’ from those of you working on corporeality and bodies… and also whether ‘data agents’ fits the claim for a new kind of ‘below the line’ work. This material is a gender- media- cultural studies bonanza!

How we became professional, part 3 – From organizations to collectives

Posted on | August 27, 2013 | No Comments

(… continued from parts 1 & 2)

Now that I work for industry, this interest in the history of professionalism needs to bear relevance to the practices of a company. Part of the learning curve for my job so far is grappling with the ingrained register of critique that has been an inheritance of my humanities training. There is a difference between being a critical theorist facing industry and producing critique for a living, and that is one way of explaining the difference in my job role now. I have to know both the reasons why something is wrong and the better alternatives that should be pursued. As my fellow engineers at Intel keep telling me, what they want from social science is not a list of problems but recommendations for things they can fix.

Adjusting my research to these conditions means thinking pragmatically and ambitiously about what change I would like to see in the workplace. It means contemplating outcomes in areas such as policy, practice and design – and finding stakeholders in and outside the company to advance this agenda. The beginnings of this approach can be seen in the following set of questions:

Instead of promoting productivity as the primary application for workplace technology, how can we design for composure at work?

How can we design for positive but not necessarily aggressive values – like modesty, thoughtfulness, and cooperation?

Is there a way to design for efficiency through collectivity, rather than pitting employees against each other?

What would our workplaces be like if technology helped us think about the health and environmental impact of our jobs, including the ways that our jobs isolate us from each other?

We are moving away from a 20th century concept of professional identity attached to particular workplaces and organizations to a more mobile and improvised work world. Many have theorized this as the time of the “network”; it can just as easily be thought of as a bubble. This shift may turn out to be quite damaging if it means workers spend more of their time alone. The psychological impact of mixing entrepreneurialism and precarity is already well documented.

In well-compensated jobs, the performance of professionalism means being engaged in work-related activities in a range of places beyond any one physical office hub, fortified by resources available “in the cloud”. In previous writing I called this the territory of the post-professional. The case studies I am working on now suggest it is more accurately described as ad-hoc professionalism.

Ad-hoc professionalism is a term inspired by the ad-hoc network – the technical infrastructure that enables a device to draw from a common pool of possible connections in order to achieve specific and timely objectives. This is the work environment professionals increasingly deal with. It is mobile, opportunistic, spontaneous, cobbled together, unpredictable, intense and fleeting. It simultaneously makes work more fun and exhausting, more autonomous and risky. It involves investing in one’s own technical and subjective capabilities because there is no one else likely to do so.

The trouble comes when organizations try to control or instrumentalize this work practice, whether by locking it down through proprietary software, formalizing it through mandatory training policies, or conscripting it through stupid terms like “gamification”. The attraction of the ad-hoc work mode is its very informality, its apparent spontaneity, its simulation of voluntarism. To bottle it is to kill it.

I say simulation because these work preferences evolve in response to the fact that few organizations pretend to provide the foundation for exploring sustainable long term collegiality: no company wanting to sound ruthless enough to shareholders or challenging enough to potential employees is going to suggest the possibility of a job for life. “No layoffs, ever!” seems hopelessly naïve to us now, even if it captures the high watermark for modern professional ambition.

As individuals, we are left to discover the psychological and material resources necessary to thrive in a new context. As we do this, smart companies will be those that allow independent, innovative and generous workers to explore the possibilities together across hierarchies. In a culture of ad-hoc professionals, the best workplaces will be those that find sympathetic ways to let their employees speak collectively about work and about feeling. They will match investment and confidence with technical tools that equip workers to self-manage. Only at this point will we finally break with the Oedipal model of daddy-daughter transference inherited from Mayo, and apply our motivation to pursuits more significant than the blind dictum of productivity.

How we became professional, part 2 – Managing without women

Posted on | August 26, 2013 | No Comments

(…continued from part 1)

2. The emergence of time management manuals, from the 1970s to the present.

As Boltanski and Chiapello show in the French context, management manuals are a useful archive to understand dominant registers of professional ambition and success. Over the past half-century in the US, popular versions of more formal instruction books shed light on the intersection between business discourse and the self-help industry (although this has a complex history, one that a larger version of this project would certainly address). As instances of voluntary professional training, the books provide guidelines, tips and insights through which motivated individuals might learn to conduct themselves appropriately in office space. They are technologies of the self, in Foucault’s sense, or technologies of composure, as I suggested previously.

Elaborating on the scientific management tenets first tested in the factory, business self-help addresses the middle-class employee arising alongside the corporation, often without the family or class pedigree to equip him for this move. Not everyone gets the chance to go to Harvard; time management manuals document as much as they play on the illusion that anyone can learn to become professional.

I read them not only for the lessons they hold for middle class subjectivity today (the sense of embattled disappointment that attends the death of the career path and the investment of higher education). I also read them to document the formulaic structure of productivity advice. Like any genre, the role of productivity literature is to provide ideological resolutions to the lived contradictions of daily life. Ideologies make us feel better while leaving the status quo in place.

As I argue elsewhere, the time management tips first outlined in the early 1970s are adopted in almost identical form in today’s self-help subcultures of “life-hacking” and “getting things done” (GTD), even if the glamour and ahistoricism of the tech industry makes this lineage difficult to identify. What this proves is that there are longstanding anxieties attached to the experience of white-collar work that predate any one technology or platform. Knowing this is a powerful means of situating oneself in a broader story, to recognize that technology is neither a cause nor an adequate means of coping. A brief history of time management reveals that any individual solution to workplace pressure diverts attention from the structural nature of the specific anxieties we each feel.

That said, my own experience reading these books in the midst of career turbulence has been to find a degree of solace in the tactics they offer. That may only be fitting given the theory I am trying to outline – that these vernacular pedagogies suit those lacking a white-collar habitus. Taking a genre approach, one can certainly appreciate the range in quality within the broader corpus. That’s something I’ll point out in future writing. But I find the language of cultural theory most useful here, specifically Certeau’s distinction which allows us to see how workers forge their own ‘tactics’ in response to the seemingly unaccountable ‘strategies’ of the corporations or organizations that employ them.

The book I wanted to write to bring these two projects together (I even have a title! Counterproductive) would have used alternative philosophies of time to question the notion that time can in fact be managed. Such a move was crucial for feminists pioneering the field of science and technology studies – and can be seen in so much contemporary feminist philosophy devoted to the concept of time. For the feminists of the 1980s, mastery over technology and time was symptomatic of patriarchy in the sense that it implied mastery over nature. It was a fantasy of control that had been men’s exclusive right to exercise over women. We don’t often hear that language today, but by returning to it I wanted to pitch this important legacy of thought against business practices that were established long before women were entering salaried workplaces as managers.

How we became professional, part 1 – Mayo’s missing women

Posted on | August 25, 2013 | No Comments

Before joining Intel, I was planning a project on the history of professionalism. Specifically, I wanted to study genres of popular pedagogy devoted to teaching office workers self-management skills. I was interested in two areas, to be explored in the next series of posts:

1. The establishment of human relations as a discipline, particularly the influence of Elton Mayo on the formative curriculum at Harvard Business School.

Mayo was an ex-pat Australian most famous for studies of workers conducted at the Hawthorne plant of Western Electric in the 1920s. What is not often known is that he misrepresented a number of qualifications in the process of securing his position in the US (obviously this is not symbolic of Australians more broadly!). Mayo’s sphere of influence included patrons in business and physiology, which is only to be expected of someone who wanted to conduct scientific research but who dropped out of medicine three times. He was also connected to thought leaders in philosophy (Alfred North Whitehead) anthropology (Bronislaw Malinowski) and child psychology (Jean Piaget). As Abraham Zaleznik explains: “These latter figures provided Mayo with support from the social sciences for his methodology of field work and of his strategy of simple theory and complex fact” (from the foreword to Richard Trahair’s biography of Mayo, commemorating the 75th Anniversary of Harvard Business School).

This intellectual milieu is interesting from the perspective of affect theory. It suggests another legacy to complement those that take their departure from Spinoza, the moment of systems theory, or Freud, for instance. Mayo’s well-documented charisma – his reliance on transference, as Zalaznik quite frankly puts it – seems to have played a role in perceptions of his competence, whether from financiers, protégés or study participants. Mayo’s idiosyncratic interview technique mixed therapy and work, indeed blurred this boundary purposefully, if we are to believe his assistants.

His preference for interviewing women alone is just one part of this history that I would like to investigate further. According to Trahair, at various stages Mayo treated his wife and her sisters for “irrational fears” (112), to the point of having one sister-in-law sent to “a quiet room in a new a hospital” (117) so that he might interview her twice daily. There are many silences in Trahair’s biography when it comes to these diagnoses and details.

Of course, these issues may say less about Mayo himself than the power of men over women at this moment in history. We might wonder, though, why and in what ways the one-on-one interview continues this legacy in the mentoring and performance management practices in the workplace today. Such practices normalise an isolated relationship of power and dependence, a process that served the infantalization of women in previous points in history. On this, my further motivation in revisiting Mayo’s legacy is to ask what happened to the two participants who were kicked out of the original Hawthorne study for what Trahair only terms “uncooperative behavior”.

Explaining the fate of Adeline Bogotowicz and Irene Rybacki, Trahair notes:

The former had married, and after being dropped from the study and taking an assembler’s position elsewhere in the plant, left the company in August. Rybacki had lost interest in her home life and work during the months leading up to Bogotowicz’s marriage. Both girls’ output had fallen, and the other girls teased her about it, and she became irritated. Also, despite the assurance of company officials to the contrary, she began to believe her friends whom she had left in the regular department when they told her that the test-room study was a management scheme to maximize profits. In management’s eyes she turned “Bolshie,” and in December 1927 was asked by George Pennock, assistant works manager, and his associate Mark Putnam to explain her change in attitude. She could not, complained of fatigue, and said she wanted to leave the study. Ten weeks later when Mayo visited the Hawthorne Works, he asked to see her medical report, noticed immediately that she had symptoms of secondary anemia, and suggested referral to one of the company doctors. He put her on a special diet, and a two-week vacation was planned for her in the summer. Her blood count improved, and she regained weight and began to take a positive interest in life at home. She continued as an assembler in the regular department until she quit the company in September 1930 for health reasons about five months after her marriage. (230)

This passage leaves a lot to the imagination. In the absence of further research, one can only speculate on the full story. I wonder what happened to these women; I wonder if they had been friends. Trahair’s somber style gives us nothing of substance to go on. Still, the damning description of Rybacki as “Bolshie” gives a sense of the spirit of the times. It suggests the fate of those who would go against the emergent strain of management theory establishing the relationship between teamwork and productivity.

Speculations on Airbnb

Posted on | August 21, 2013 | 8 Comments

These notes arise from discussions at the recent ‘Privacy and Accountability’ workshop at Intel and from excellent conversations with Maria Bezaitis.

1. Who do we live with now? Airbnb allows a new scale of possibility for long-term and short-term intimacy. People share their house with strangers, every day of the week. The desire for proximity through property is reconfigured.

2. Like other matchmaking sites, Airbnb illustrates algorithmic living: strategic, convenient connections enabled through pre-defined parameters. This suits people who like some form of control over social interaction but who believe in the promise of uniqueness, i.e. the middle class.

3. Airbnb’s aesthetic attracts a self-selecting population. Clean design principles overlap with those of other lifestyle services to attract preferred users. Design invokes ideal types. For Airbnb specifically, the uncluttered page beckons an uncluttered guest.

4. Airbnb is the traveler’s version of an ideal speech situation. Just as the public sphere has certain conditions – terms of participation for entry – the form of the encounter inevitably brackets out unruly subjects. A kind of ease is assumed of the user in the ability to improvise the etiquette of the transaction. Digital literacy equates to competence in the shared aspiration of seamless connectivity.

5. Airbnb’s just-in-time provision and discovery of accommodation meets the needs of urban creatives, whose priorities determine the value of social space. The speed and precarity of the exchange reflects the work and lifestyles of those who routinely juggle intensity with vulnerability. Like the Google Bus that whisks away programmers from their community of residence, Airbnb also meets demands for an ‘entire place’, such that an encounter with proximate others can be avoided if preferred.

6. The host is an affect entrepreneur. The image of the room; the projection of pleasure and safety is produced through symbolic performance. Upon booking, immaterial labor gives way to the material provision of care and attention. The host extracts rent but does so in ways that obscure and domesticate the anonymity of the market. Sex work is the most obvious predecessor for this economy, which fits the character of ‘nightwork’ more generally.

7. The decision to host is based on judgment and adjudication. Future-oriented assessments of guests leverage minimal information in the process of selection. The social contract underwriting this sense of assurance is the most stunning of Airbnb’s accomplishments. It is why so many see promise in its business model.

Read positively, is Airbnb symptomatic of transformations to middle-class sensibility? Does entrepreneurialism respond, for instance, to the failures of community? Is ‘hosting’ an empowered response to loneliness, to the decline of recognition and reciprocity in public space, to the hyper-mobility and perceived anonymity of everyday life?

Is the retreat to the domestic scene – or, conversely, the delivery of intimate space to the market – about localising commerce in some way? If so, because I can rent out a spare room, should I? Will future norms include the social pressure to make use of all potential assets or risk negative perceptions? Are we all destined to be speculators?

What remains a concern is that Airbnb relies on two forms of enfranchisement that the US, among other places, does not bestow equally: access to credit and digital connectivity. Evidently, it exacerbates what are already pressing social tensions in major US cities. The site itself has global reach. A specific population enjoys the benefits of this data economy, culminating in a kind of ‘white flight’ from the hotel industry even as it paves the way for the further extension of distinct cultural preferences. Airbnb is a success in part because it fosters a new elitism in hospitality, one that can discriminate through algorithms in ways that formal workplaces and organizations can not. Its success therefore threatens to enshrine practices of discrimination that are part of a much longer real estate story.

Finding composure

Posted on | June 10, 2013 | No Comments

Kenneth Burke’s “Literature as Equipment for Living” (1941) is an early attempt to offer a sociological approach to literature – one that can account for the role of popular textual forms in cementing social relations. As a work of criticism, it proposes a method for assessing literary works as responses to ‘typical, recurrent social situations’ (593). Proverbs, to take his main example, are the ultimate example of a form designed to provide ‘strategies for dealing with situations’ (595). Their folk wisdom allows us to tell through an implied command ‘what to expect, what to look out for’ (593). For Burke, the task of sociological criticism applied to literature is ‘to codify the various strategies which artists have developed with relation to the naming of situations… to assemble and codify this lore’ (596-7).

In my current project, Burke’s model is useful for an analysis of time management manuals, the genre of popular publication that emerged on a large scale in response to the downsizing of white collar work in the 1970s and onwards. A number of strategies appear repeatedly in these works over the course of several decades, only to re-emerge (often without acknowledgment) in the ‘Getting Things Done’ (GTD) software industry today. Attending to this history sociologically reveals that ‘beneath the change in particulars,’ in Burke’s words, ‘we may often discern the naming of the one situation’ (597).

The ‘situation’ that time management responds to is the challenge of summoning professional composure. Time management manuals are a strategy individuals use to navigate the experience of ordinary office work as management initiatives press employees to ‘work smarter, not harder’ against a backdrop of broader economic insecurity. As an ethnographer and as a participant in white collar work, I am of course subject to these same mandates; they are part of the social and cultural context that colors my encounter with my research objects. My analysis therefore enacts a form of engagement that is open to subjective reformation of the kind advocated in the texts themselves. This is because, aside from my training in literary theory and sociology, my upbringing leaves me ill-‘equipped’ to know how to navigate the work world I now inhabit.

In his essay, written before such career concerns were common for as many, Burke is dismissive of popular ‘inspirational literature’ – the genre with which time management is most closely aligned. He spoofs the allure of self-help publications for providing ‘a strategy for easy consolation… in an era of confusion like our own’ (595).

    The reading of a book on the attaining of success is in itself the symbolic attaining of that success. It is while they read that readers are “succeeding” … The lure of the book resides in the fact that the reader, while reading it, is then living in the aura of success. What he wants is easy success; and he gets it in symbolic form by the mere reading itself. To attempt applying such stuff in real life would be very difficult, full of many disillusioning problems (596)

In dismissing the textual encounter as merely symbolic, in separating the critic from the presumed reader being described, ultimately, by adopting a mode of superiority over and above the text itself, Burke inhabits the classic pose of mid-century cultural criticism in this passage. It is a form of engagement with texts that cannot admit or even entertain the notion that the critic might be changed by the object of his commentary.

By contrast, in reading these books sympathetically, I aim to create a method that is appropriate to the changing configuration of authority and expertise in the knowledge industries of the present. It is a method that puts at the forefront the ‘many disillusioning problems’ that the workplace and everyday life presents. As Lauren Berlant (2011: 5) argues, norms of self-management are always responsive to the ‘kinds of confidence people have enjoyed about the entitlements of their social location’. These entitlements include, I suggest, the privilege of partaking in the critical tradition itself, which has involved specific ‘class, racial, sexual, and gendered styles of composure’ (Berlant, ibid.) Drawing on Berlant, what I am beginning to call ‘lateral criticism’ is a fitting method for studying time management techniques and the white collar work it pertains to. This method is a means to address both the ongoing politics of knowledge and representation and the forms of occupational insecurity and vulnerability that haunt my own workday as much as others.


Kenneth Burke (1998/1941) Literature as Equipment for Living (.pdf), The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, 2nd Edition, David H. Richter (ed), Bedford Books, Boston.

Lauren Berlant (2011) Cruel Optimism, Duke University Press, Durham.

Hacking for good

Posted on | June 7, 2013 | 1 Comment

JW and I debrief after last weekend’s Hack for LA.

Ad hoc

The presumption is that people will “hack for good,” since to do otherwise is to question the implicit gift economy underwriting the event. But since when is hacking necessarily or in any way obviously done “for good”? This is a curious development. Jason said as we were leaving: “The government wants you to hack it. Isn’t that peculiar?” It’s as if Obama’s legacy has been to co-opt change to mean good even if we can’t see change happening. Change as always already good because it’s imminent; change as whatever you want it to be. The event left both of us with the impression that in almost every way conceivable, hacking is now hegemonic. Hacking open data is the path to good citizenship.

Once the introductions were over the first thing the major sponsor (AT&T) talked about were the rules, since “we don’t want anyone suing each other.” As an AT&T employee, he wasn’t able to compete, for instance. No team could win more than 2 prizes. You were allowed to draw on team mates offsite, i.e. phone a friend. That was about it. The default assumption was that all information was sharable. So if you had anything private or personal on your computer that might be exposed, don’t bring it to the hackathon. Too late if you were already there…

Dotcom-start-up evangelism was everywhere. Another one of the LA sponsors (a guy from Scopely) was all “You guys are AWESOME for giving up your weekend!” But concluded his speech with a blatant plug – “We’re hiring.” In case anyone hadn’t already noticed that this was the most convenient CV search in years. There is much more to think about in terms of how hackathons contribute to tech industry norms and the inevitability of free labor in general. This is homework for me – and a big part of what we are studying right now in the ISTC.

I wondered what motivated kids (as opposed to unemployed or enthusiastic programmers) to be there. A lot of kids just seemed to be chilling out and enjoying not being at home or the mall. It matters that the LA venue was Boyle Heights. Young people who might normally use the center may not map on to a demographic that can code. But at least one of the winning apps seemed to be trying to create a pedagogical opportunity to encourage more local kids to learn how to. I’d love to know more about that.

I figure many of the kids would have been perplexed by the speech from Mayor-elect Eric Garcetti, who used the occasion to get some great sound-bites out to the press. I was totally seduced by all this as if I was in a scene from The Wire – I found myself tweeting in the fray and unfortunately now seem to be listed on terrifying Twitter feeds for LA Innovators and such. Eeek.

What was so fascinating about his speech was what it revealed about government. It’s broken. It cannot fix the most basic things for its citizens. Lauding the hackers, he acknowledged that anything they did that day would matter, would be better than what was in place now. “You don’t accept the world as it is,” he said, riffing off the general vibe of youthiness. The bottom line for government and civic participation was captured by the logic: “You didn’t make it worse.” This was Garcetti’s idea of a joke, but it was pivotal. It genuflected to the challenges facing LA as a city. In one breath he was championing the need to appoint a CTO and CIO in his term, admitting that cities are now best run as corporations, while pointing to the simplest services a city should be able to provide (and doesn’t). “We still need to pave that pothole with asphalt,” he said, “but knowing the pothole is there” is something open data can fix. I ruminated on this as I navigated a path to the freeway home.

Garcetti wants LA to be “The best place in the world to hack”; the hackathon the birthplace of “the next tech CEO.” In his term, he wants every kid to have access to coding classes in high school, because education isn’t about preparing people for manufacturing jobs anymore. The winner of the hackathon was promised City Hall itself: “We’re going to open up the doors and the departments… to build a city of Angels for everyone.” I needed a hose down after all that. You can see how the idea of transparency is very easily transported from data to political process and democracy in general.

Two other things stood out. The fact that (major sponsor and Intel Creative Director) and Garcetti are both from Boyle Heights made this personal. Representing the absent Will for the “I am Angel” foundation, Enrique Legaspi bridged hip hop and hacking culture by urging participants to “keep it fresh” and “take these data sets to the next level.” He also cut a cute take on gentrification and racial politics when he noted: “Boyle Heights is very creative. In the past, it created 32 gangs!!” Boom boom.

But my favorite line came from the guy who was representing LA County, a more subdued bureaucrat who was involved in making some of the county data available for the event. It was such a brief thing, but it was the most refreshing and humble voice I heard all day: “The data’s not perfect, you’re dealing with the real stuff.”

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  • @melgregg

    Sheryl Sandberg on CNN denying rumors she is running for office. My cue to leave the US (for a week anyway). Sheryl v Hilary??

    About 2 hours ago from Mel 's Twitter via Tweetbot for iOS

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