Missing out

Posted on | November 10, 2013 | 1 Comment

Notes from Adam Philips (2012) Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York

We make our lives pleasurable, and therefore bearable, by picturing them as they might be; it is less obvious, though, what these compelling fantasy lives – lives of, as it were, a more complete satisfaction – are a self-cure for. Our solutions tell us what our problems are; our fantasy lives are not – or not necessarily – alternatives to, or refuges from, those real lives but an essential part of them (xvii)

So we may need to think of ourselves as always living a double life, the one that we wish for and the one that we practice; the one that never happens and the one that keeps happening (xvii)

Knowing other people, in psychoanalytic language, can be a defence, the defence, against acknowledging their actual existence, and what we need their existence for (74)

Psychoanalysis, as a treatment, is an opportunity to recover the freedom not to know or be known, and so to find out what people might do together instead. One of its aims, one disclaimed by Freud, was to reseparate sex from knowing (75)

…you can know a person but the one thing you cannot, in any real sense, know is their sexuality; partly because they do not know about it themselves; and partly because it is not the kind of thing that can be known (it isn’t information) (76)

…insofar as we can accept people… as sexual we have to concede that knowing them in any conscious way may not be the best, the most promising, thing we can do with them. We may know what food they like, their favourite colour, their artistic tastes and distastes, and these are things we can know. But it amounts… to very little; in fact, what all this knowledge of people discloses is how little knowing can do for us, and, indeed how anguished other people make us (77)

[…as Proust wants to persuade us] this wish to know is more pernicious, less clueless… what one wants to know about the other, unconsciously, is what will cure us of our desire for them (77)

Not knowing someone, not getting it, then becomes integral to the project of sustaining desire (78)

Can we learn how not to know, as well as how to know, and what could be the benefit that might accrue from this? Or, in which area of our lives does not knowing, not getting it, give us more life rather than more deadness? (80)

…getting out of things is all too easily a form of spurious omniscience. It is as though when we get out of something we know too much: we act as if we know far more than we could – about what would happen if we stayed. That in order to free ourselves from certain things we have to fake an omniscience about the future; and acknowledging this need not be a (masochistic) counsel to endure oppression, but another way of thinking out alternatives. Sometimes, perhaps more often than we realize, we live as if we know more about the experiences we don’t have than about the experiences we do have. And sometimes we need to be able to do this in order to free ourselves (114)

My supposition is that sometimes – perhaps more often than not – we think we know more about the experiences we don’t have than about the experiences that we do have, ‘frustration’ being our word for the experience of not having an experience (117)

…the satisfaction has already happened in fantasy. So, at least unconsciously, there is nothing about which we are more certain than the nature of our satisfactions; or, to put it another way, Freud describes how much work we do to ensure that our satisfaction is no surprise. And this leaves us with a paradox, which has to take the form of a question: when you already know what satisfaction is, how can you possibly find out what it is like? (139)

Fantasy is the medium in which we jump to conclusions. And the conclusions we jump to are about satisfaction, and are themselves satisfying. Imagining satisfaction is a way of not thinking about wanting, not thinking about the experience of wanting (140)

The something about wanting that is unbearable is transformed into the something about being satisfied that works. We need pictures of satisfaction to make bearable, to make plausible, to make attractive, to make viable, our desiring. They are like adverts for desiring. How strange this is; the ways in which fantasy at once blackmails or seduces or lures us into going through with our wanting and at the same time pre-empts our going through with it; that we have to do this to ourselves, as though we are at best resistant and at worst phobic of wanting, of acknowledging our wants. We have to be attentive, in other words, to what we use fantasy to do; whether it becomes, as we say, an end in itself (141)

It is worth wondering what happens to our erotic life, or to our sociability with each other and ourselves, when certainty becomes our picture of satisfaction. And what happens to our satisfaction, to our possibilities for satisfaction, when it does (145)

How do you know what your desire is? It is that which makes you feel guilty when you betray it; not when you betray someone else, but when you betray yourself; indeed, for Lacan self-betrayal, the self-betrayal of giving up one’s desire, is the source of guilt. We suffer from failures of ruthlessness (147)

The ways we cure ourselves of frustration are the ways we cure ourselves of satisfaction. And the ways we cure ourselves of satisfaction are through too knowing, too efficient pictures of satisfaction. We use satisfactions to cheat us of our satisfactions. …Whatever else he has done Freud has exposed our avoidance of love as an avoidance of satisfaction. We need, as he suggested, to have better – more interesting, more enlivening, more satisfying – conversations about our frustrations (168)

To reduce ‘rushaholism’

Posted on | November 5, 2013 | No Comments


• Take brief time outs throughout the day
• Treat delays as found time
• Do nothing on a regular basis
• Nap if possible; should inhibition keep you from doing so, confront the inhibition
• Take an occasional bath
• When hurried, ask yourself, “Do I really need to rush? What’s the worst thing that can happen to me if I don’t? Is that worse than what it’s costing me to hurry?”
• Distinguish between necessary haste (late for an appointment) and mere impatience (one-hour photo developing)
• Make a conscious effort to not always take the faster path; use stairs at times instead of elevators; walk rather than drive; cut and grate food you used to process
• Reduce background noise (noise contributes to that hectic feeling and makes it hard to hear important information)
• Listen to your body; it’s giving you good advice

From Ralph Keyes (1991) Timelock: How Life Got so Hectic and What You Can Do About It, New York: Harper Collins


Posted on | September 22, 2013 | No Comments

This week I’m heading to Georgia Tech to host a ‘metahack’ – an event where we learn about hackathons by adopting many of their features and practices.

Over the past year a number of ISTC-Social researchers have been studying hackathons as unique socio-technical encounters. Fieldwork across different US cities and internationally is showing that these sites for information, enthusiasm and labor exchange produce new relationships, identities and communities as much as they do demos.

The social work of the hackathon is only partly to do with its role in normalizing an ambiguously rewarded model of binge production by adopting the values of the hacker ethic. Their additional work, as I am arguing in a paper with Carl DiSalvo, is to provide space for experimental subjectivities that can briefly enjoy the fantasy of competent civic services and the experience of data flânerie.

ISTC-Social researchers will be sharing some of this work at 4S in coming weeks; one of our postdoctoral researchers, Silvia Lindtner, hosts the second Hacked Matter workshop in Shanghai next month; and I’ll be speaking more about the Obama administration’s contradictory stance on hackers at the Apps and Affect conference later in October. In the lead up to these conversations, and to widen participation, we are starting a new space for discussion to accompany events like these. More on that soon.

Like any hackathon, Friday’s metahack will issue challenges at the start of proceedings. Here are the ones I’m most keen to see succeed:

1. The data drive: The first challenge is to develop a bibliography on hacking and hacker culture – an inventory of how the terms have evolved over time. We want this to be cross-disciplinary when it comes to academic resources, but we also want to include texts and practical materials from within and outside the formal tech sector. What are the key references on hacking / hacker culture in your field? Sign up for the hackathon and we’ll pool the resources on zotero.

2. Assembling an audio/visual archive: We want a long list of books, articles, art works, industry mythology, anecdotes, media coverage, political activism and personal reflections on what the terms hacking/ hacker mean. In addition to sharing these resources, on Friday we want people to be creative, perhaps by recording conversations with co-workers, colleagues, friends and mentors to capture the legacy of hacking and ‘hacktivism’ in different cultural contexts. We can have fun with these files.

3. Historicizing hacktivism: To begin to understand the ideological work that the term ‘hacker’ performs, we want to develop a pool of links to good journalism/ news items/ published articles that mention or draw links between Edward Snowden, Aaron Swartz, Julian Assange, Daniel Ellsberg and previous ‘hacker’/whistleblowers associated with the materiality of information. This is in line with key themes of our center which focus on ecosystems to explain the power relations and infrastructures of computing. This language takes us away from territorializing accounts of data flow that are focused on defensively protecting the institutions of the past. To dis-articulate hacking from negative perceptions is one way to appreciate some of the bigger cultural shifts that are upon us.

By organizing the metahack, we are suggesting that hacking deserves the kind of analytical attention that, at an earlier moment, the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies applied to ‘mugging’. In Policing the Crisis, the politics of a new era were revealed to have been synecdochically transduced on to the figure of the mugger, whose actions shouldered the anxieties of a particular class formation.

With the tools of collaborative open source software at our disposal, we are perhaps even better disposed to perform this kind of shared analytical project today – not least because of the work of hackers in establishing these channels of communication for us. So, this is an invitation for anyone wanting to be involved with this work and to take part in the ongoing commentary… please get in touch this week in the lead up to Friday.

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.

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  • @melgregg

    The whole "placement rate" business makes sense of many things: slate.com/articles/life/…

    About 7 hours ago from Mel 's Twitter via TweetDeck

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