Categories
librev navel gazing

The view from the ivory tower

The first time anyone ever accused me of being “Ivory Tower” happened in the last 24 hours, and I was leaving MPOW when I saw this statement for the first time. I had just stopped by to check on our book drop because I knew a lot of seniors were coming back to town to move their stuff out of the dorms and I had reminded them about dropping their library items off while they were around for that. I also got some measurements and mental models in my head for the sake of coming up with a concrete plan for social distancing, and practiced running between my office and the downstairs workroom, knowing it may well be part of my job to be vigilant on two floors very soon. Thing is, I have only two staff members, may have no student workers in the fall, and the library is one of the most well-loved and well-used places on our little campus.

I initially only got through the first few paragraphs of this post, a rebuttal to my LibraryJournal piece from earlier this week, and as I biked back to Boston, this is the part that stuck with me:

“The Ivory Tower mentality of privilege is blowing my mind. The emotional argument of ‘librarian as sacred being’ will come back to haunt us…No one else is in government work is exempt from doing that.”

There are two reasons why it stuck: one is that positioning a nationwide campaign to advocate for library workers’ safety in this moment as an “emotional argument of ‘librarian as sacred being'” is misleading, unfair, and wrong. As Donna Lanclos said more eloquently than I can right now, “#VocationalAwe is not a “double edged sword,” it is a description of the constructs used to oppress library workers when they attempt to assert that they have rights. ‘Don’t you care for your community??’ when library workers shelter at home is straight-up [vocational awe].” This accusatory language of “librarian (notice not ‘library worker’) as sacred being” is more of the same construct. And lest you think think this is a quote taken out of context, or that I didn’t read the rest of it when I got home, the post goes on to say, “There is a heavy and heartbreaking dose of privilege that comes with librarians expressing they are too precious to roll up their sleeves and get to work.” Is this what we are saying, or are we saying that library workers deserve basic dignity, rights, and safety before they roll up said sleeves? Is it fair to say that in advocating for ourselves, we’re ignoring every other type of worker out there? Or is this another fence drawn around cutting us off from broader labor solidarity?

The other sticking point is that to accuse me of being Ivory Tower is just absurd. I’m a fucking millennial daughter of the Rust Belt with crooked teeth and tattoos, not some pant-suited dean who hasn’t been on the front lines in 20 years. I empty the book drop, open the mail, and help my students with every single thing they come to me with, whether or not it’s “library-related.” Did I mention I have two staff members? I’ve used my position, privilege in being a director and at an institution where we’re expected to stay home, and connections to the Massachusetts library community to try to affect some kind of meaningful protection for my colleagues for the last two months. It’s defined many of my weeks, I’ve given it every brain cell I didn’t allocate for my day-to-day job, and it still seems like it’s been a drop in the bucket against the rapid pressure to reopen right this second. This image of me kicking up my (sneaker) heels and saying “nah, I’m too precious for this shit” is offensive, so belittling and dismissive of how I approach my work, and the path I’ve taken to get to this current job (though my LinkedIn profile is, intriguingly, linked to in the post).

But I wonder if there’s something more to this, something that even goes beyond the fixation of me as an academic library director up in my ivory tower, when we get to this part:

And why should people listen to “people who are no longer working making declarations about how we should direct our energy in the first place?” Because we just may have a clarity of vision about what it is really like, on the other side, to use the services libraries are providing their communities.

To me this sounds at best like, “We have decided who has privilege and voice in this current system and it is not you, o young academic library director who is putting uncomfortable pressure on those of us already in power,” and at worst like, “Oh honey, someday you’ll understand.” I have been in this game long enough to see this pattern of certain female-identifying directors worshiping the ground walked on by young male-identifying directors, but treating young female-identifying directors as if they are problematic trash that should be disposed of forthwith. I know this when I see it, just as I know the public vs. academic crap when I see it.

I was on the other side of the public vs. academic line not long ago, and I will readily confess that my perception of academic library life was way off base. Maybe I also believed in this ivory tower, but didn’t call it as such; I thought academic librarians had a work experience at a distance from their patrons and didn’t form relationships like we did with them at the public library I worked for at the time. I thought that there was a privilege and stability in academia that blanketed over all of the myriad realities of staff and students. I was wrong. I have developed deep relationships with my patrons now that go far and beyond what I experienced in the public world. And I am out on the floor in sensible shoes, not only emptying the book drop and opening the mail but reshelving the books, weeding, ordering, cataloging, working with student groups both in “traditional” instructional services and in the role of a community organizer, of sorts–we read books about systemic oppression’s influence on technology, and have long meandering conversations about the better world we dream of. I challenge students to fight their way through the anodyne trappings of engineering education and embrace activism. And you know what? I had no idea this kind of work was possible as an academic library director until I saw the need and found myself doing it.

My point here is, I get the divisiveness between public/academic, but SHUT. UP. Have you seen the common refrain on library Twitter that we need a national union like, a thousand times over by yesterday? While I’m not going to be the person to provide that, I can say that if we’re going to be pitting publics vs. academics, we’re getting nowhere fast – certainly not to the “disrupted, innovative” future. This past week, everyone’s favorite grievance bot had some juicy posts about the notion of vocational awe being a mechanism for academic librarians to oppress and criticize their public counterparts from positions of relative safety. Guess what? No matter what your thoughts are about the application of that term, you’re fundamentally undermining the future of your field by making unsubstantiated, intentionally polarizing claims like it’s an academics vs publics thing. And similarly, to claim that you are interested in innovation for libraries right now but do not want to produce this in alignment with worker needs, you are not acting in the best interest of your field! Like, I’m sorry that you’ve worked with people who have been “resistant to change,” but as a wise librarian once said on Twitter,

“I resist changes that are done to me, for me, in spite of me. I am usually a reliable booster of change done with me, alongside me.”

I’ve had employees who’ve refused to meet baseline expectations, too, but no matter how much they pissed me off on a day-to-day, I would NEVER want them on the frontlines with no protection and no cohesive guidelines for safe operation. The argument I can’t help but hear in this post isn’t so very different from the GOP ghouls who think it’s okay to sacrifice COVID-prone folks for the good of the economy. Wouldn’t it be convenient for some directors to get rid of the workers “who want to do a job that doesn’t exist any more, if it ever really did?” And the thought that haunts me through all of this is one Ruha Benjamin quotes in Race After Technology:

“[To] take the place of progress, ‘innovation,’ a smaller, and morally neutral, concept arose. Innovation provided a way to celebrate the accomplishments of a high-tech age without expecting…too much in the way of moral & social improvement.”

We’re in the same boat if we keep lionizing these stories of perseverance with no context about the jobs, health, and emotional and financial stability lost. But do go on about me being up here in the ivory tower. If we can’t band together behind the acknowledgment that 6,000-10,000 layoffs and furloughs is a professional crisis, all of our realities are about to get a whoooooooole lot more miserable.

Categories
navel gazing

A graduation speech no one will ever ask me to give and that’s ok

Hey Class of 2020,

Shit is rough, but you are wonderful. And the wonderfulness of you will endure, in the exact way that the rain pouring in my backyard right now will not. Uncertainty defines everything, yes, but I know this because I’ve seen who you are and what you can do.

I had a conversation with some of you today about how you come to trust people and the expectations you have for the relationships you’ve got and the ones you’ll build, and the courage that’s taught you how to understand and embrace criticism, and to speak truth to power. People might laugh this off as “wokeness,” or your would-be employers might avoid you because your school has a reputation for producing graduates that say what’s on their minds. That’s because they’re afraid. They’re afraid of embracing a new mindset, a new way of framing things that may require them making concessions or redistributing their power, a recompense for their own conservative actions and shortsightedness, especially in your chosen realm of STEM.

Though it may not happen immediately, and though you will no doubt find yourself at the unforgiving whims of a tanked economy, you will one day find workplaces that do not see your brave curiosity as a liability, but rather as a benefit, a key part in their strategy. Whether your work fulfills you or you yearn for something more, you can become an activist. You can engage with your community in so many ways that are sorely needed – you can volunteer, teach, discuss, mentor, build. The skills you have brought with you to your learning and have honed throughout your education will keep you going in this work, in ways that many folks (including me) have had to develop through studying and peer guidance much later in life.

If you struggle to find your feet beneath you as you move on to this next stage, fear not; this is the natural course of things. Maybe the most important things millennials like me can bestow upon Gen Z is that 1) the “insert college degree, expect economic prosperity” model has been proven a myth for some time now, 2) your life is going to feel like a series of fits and starts, “forever delayed,” 3) it’s really alright if you don’t go straight from point A to points B and C, etc., and 4) all of this is not a personal indictment of you. You are living through history, as are we all–and what’s more, subject to a timeline that is not human.

I want to spend a little more time on point 4 because this is where I stumbled the most when I graduated in 2009. Shit was rough then, too, but there at least was no global pandemic to contend with. I moved just outside Boston a few weeks after I received my degree on a frigid day in upstate New York. I tagged along with a group of people I hardly knew but, I thought, had the right idea in bouncing out of town. That summer was cruel, and our painstaking spring this year brings it back; it rained 27 of 30 days in June. I had nothing much to do, though, no job and no prospects, so I walked the streets of Waltham until I knew them like the hilly, curving roads of my hometown.

Eventually my money ran out and I took a job at the CVS in Wellesley that’s closest to campus. I was the photo lab manager, but I still felt a shame that I carried around like an unshakeable aura; I felt like I’d failed myself, my parents, my brother who was currently working on a PhD in computer science, my boyfriend at the time, a chemistry major who had snagged a job downtown. We didn’t have a proper darkroom at the store so I used to have to go down to the basement with the lights all turned off, stumbling over the off-season merchandise, to change the photo printer paper cartridges. I got told to smile more about 40 times a day. My shift leader, Elio, was from Peru and had a master’s degree in mechanical engineering but he was stuck working at this stupid photo lab-less CVS along with John, another 2009 grad who was trying to get on the fast track to store management. They tried to entice me down that road, too; at the time, the chain was targeting an expansion in Hawaii, and I remember being told I could wind up there if I wanted to stick with it. “They’ll need all kinds of managers in Honolulu, Cal!”

I quit a couple weeks into the new year, 2010. I had decided to go back to school at this point, to get my Masters of Science in Library and Information Science from Simmons then-College-now-University. I still needed money–needed it more, with that first tuition bill in my hands–but a phone call with a customer on Christmas Eve, amidst all the last-minute purchases of tape and candy canes, so many candy canes, had put me over the edge.

“CVS Wellesley Central, this is Callan speaking, how can I help you?”

“I’m calling to see if you have any Snuggies1. They’re the last thing on my list and I know you have them.”

“Let me go double-check – I haven’t seen any in the store, but I’ll look around. One moment while I put you on a quick hold. … Ma’am, are you still there? We don’t have any Snuggies on the shelf or in storage, unfortunately.”

“(scoffs) Are you lying to me?”

“… What?”

“I said, Are. You. Lying. To. Me?”

“No, ma’am. I just checked our stock and -“

“I know you’re lying. I’m going to come down there and I’m going to get you in so much trouble when I prove that you lied.”

“Um -“

“Don’t try to explain yourself, liar. I’m coming down there right now.” *click*

For the record, she never came down, but after a few months of this kind of nonsense and men throwing newspapers at me when I asked them to walk five feet over to an open checkout station, I was all set. I left CVS and took a job north of Boston at a hair salon software company and built websites for stylists and spas in New England for a few months, and it was also terrible and unpleasant for a different set of reasons, and then started my program at Simmons almost exactly a year to the day after I arrived in Massachusetts. I lived in a different apartment with different people by then. I’d lost some friends and made some new ones. I got my cats.

So, happily ever after, right? Lol, no. It took me years, including a cross-country move, a stint in a mildly successful electronic goth band, a failed marriage, and the death of my grandmother and near-death of my brother to get me even close to “on track.” I went from point A to point Q to some point not even identifiable in this alphabetic system before I got to point B. When I thought I’d gotten all of the deliberate fucking up out of my system, I got involved with a person and almost ruined my career, or ran myself out of it, in the aftermath. The day the sense got knocked into me wasn’t even when I woke up in the hospital after a hit-and-run, but probably the night two months after that when a set of stairs collapsed under me in Allston while I was carrying my bike out of the house of a giant asshole who was not only two-timing me with someone half his age but also constantly texting her while I was around (thanks loads, Tinder). And even after that, I have continued to fuck up. I have fucked up prodigiously in these last ten years and I’ll probably fuck up routinely forever, but you know what? That’s the deal. We’re all on board for it. There’s nothing you can do to stop the majority of your own fuckups, but you can do one thing to help you through it. You can remember point 4.

4) all of this is not a personal indictment of you

I have gotten to know some of you better than others, but all of you are impressive to me. The things I’ve seen you build, the teams I’ve seen you working with, the speeches you gave before we all scattered to the four winds. Your tolerance for ambiguity, your willingness to speak up, your honesty and your knowledge of the importance of consensus, something folks my age and older struggle with, sometimes indefinitely. I didn’t have much time with you, but the 5-6 months I had was enough to make me a little weepy as I sit here and imagine not seeing you on campus anymore. “Man, your shoes are hard to replace.” But that’s part of the deal, too–you must go on, and you must fuck up outside the bounds of our campus, and that may well mean that for fuck’s sake, you must be the change you want to see, even if people might think that makes you a know-it-all fuck, because we’ve never fucking needed it more.

I’ve been sitting here staring out at the rainy dark for a while without many ideas for a good closing paragraph, so I’ll leave you with someone else’s words. They are a more eloquent way of stating the first sentence of this speech: “Shit is rough, but you are wonderful.” You were, after all, challenged to “do something” when you came to us, and I share this in the spirit of challenging you to keep at it after you go, even if your life is a mess because you’re stuck at point Q trying to placate the Snuggie lady.

“Nature teaches persistence and perseverance, because in the end nothing stops nature. If a rose can grow out of the concrete, so can we.”

Micah Hobbes Frazier, kind of quoting Tupac Shakur, quoted in adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy
  1. I’m pretty freaked out about how quickly culture shifts nowadays, so in case you don’t know, a Snuggie is an “As Seen on TV” sleeved blanket that became something of a cult during my CVS days.
Categories
librev

We’re Here Because We’re Here

Protesters outside Hennepin County Library branches where staff were asked to do curbside delivery after being laid off and encouraged to reapply for jobs at temporary shelters. Photo credit: Brad Sigal

There’s been a trend of articles coming out in major publications that are all about how excited people are to get back to their libraries, how resilient libraries are, all kinds of happy-go-lucky “we’re doing just fine!” stuff. It’s all well and good except for the fact that these narratives do nothing to a) tell the truth about the miserable realities that library workers are actually experiencing, and b) incite any kind of action to be taken in our defense.

Let’s start with the American Library Association, who have seemingly been going out of their way to come across as tone-deaf in this moment. On May 1, amidst thousands of layoffs and furloughs of library workers happening all around the country, ALA President Wanda Brown wrote a piece congratulating the resilience and stick-to-it-iveness of “librarians and library workers” in American Libraries magazine. There was no mention of lost jobs, slashed budgets, unsafe working conditions, managers censoring and punishing employees for speaking up for themselves, or threats of placement in riskier positions–in other words, none of what has defined this crisis for many of our colleagues.

Next up, we have a piece in PBS News Hour. The reporter did reach out to me to talk about the less savory parts of the story, but the narrative here is very much about the extra miles library workers feel like they’re expected to go because there’s no other options for their patrons. There’s a celebration of curbside pickup and enhanced social media use–and a more understandable and laudable effort to make the internet more accessible–but not much in the way of questioning why it is that libraries are the only shred of social safety left for citizens, and not much exploration of how austerity/disaster politics are currently decimating our field. Same went for this April 22 piece about Australia’s libraries in The Guardian, which quotes a public official who said, “The longer we keep our library branches closed, the deeper and more entrenched that digital divide will become.” Blaming library closures for the digital divide is like blaming our immune systems for succumbing to the virus.

A few days ago, an opinion piece written by a retired library worker ran in The Washington Post, titled “Local libraries will look a lot different when they reopen.” The author does mention furloughs, but says “some jurisdictions” have decided to do them and links to one system (this despite the over 5,600 layoffs and furloughs estimated via data collected in a tracking document, a number that is likely much higher but difficult to accurately count because of ambiguous reporting and fear of retaliation). What’s remarkable about this piece is that the writer is focused on the changes public libraries will need to contend with as they reopen, but doesn’t mention how a skeleton staff and the health risks to employees will impact those changes (I guess this is where our “librarians and library workers” resilience comes in). There’s also theorizing about print collections being supplanted by electronic ones, but no discussion of how impossible that feat is likely to be.

I’m sure there are other examples out there; feel free to share them with me and I’ll swipe at them, too. 😉 But I want to turn this to what I actually see happening right now, which is this:

  • Libraries are reopening to the public in states that are rushing forward to “get back to normal.” Workers at these libraries are scared for their health and safety, not only because of the covid-19 transmission risk but also because patrons are unpredictable, may not comply with rules, and may become violent and unruly, as has already been seen at public places and restaurants that are trying to operate “normally.”
  • The impacts I’ve seen on people who’ve contacted me or are posting about their experiences on Twitter are anxiety, depression, anger, frustration, sleeplessness, feelings of helplessness, thinking of leaving the field, contemplating quitting even during a tanked economy for the sake of their own safety and sanity, low morale, fear for family members, feelings that nothing they do will be enough to prevent furloughs or layoffs, and general malaise and purposelessness. Folks who have not yet been directly impacted (including me) are feeling a collective survivor’s guilt, and/or a sensation that the other shoe is going to drop at any moment.
  • In many states, libraries or their towns are acting in opposition to stay-at-home orders. The local offenders I’ve heard of that are engaging in this are the public libraries in Dedham, Watertown, and Cambridge; in Massachusetts, we are awaiting updates and a reopening plan from Governor Charlie Baker. These places are jumping the gun, and it leads one to wonder what’s motivating this: Furloughs and layoffs in nearby towns? Political or public pressure? (Or, at least in the case of Dedham, an embarrassing history of mismanagement and corruption?) In any case, we need to ask why both municipal managers and leaders of our professional organizations seem to think that putting our colleagues at risk is the most politically expedient thing to do.
  • Library workers are concerned about using PPE and cleaning supplies when there are still nationwide shortages of these items that should be prioritized for essential workers and people in vulnerable populations, such as in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and residences where there are sick or immunocompromised household members. They are also concerned about encouraging their community members to leave home and run errands before a determination of whether or not it’s safe to do that.
  • During the beginning and height of the #closethelibraries campaign, which started when many academic and public libraries were continuing to either operate as usual, refusing to provide telework options, or operating with scaled-down in-person services, it quickly became clear that many workers were being punished or threatened by library or municipal/institutional leadership if they attempted to speak about their unsafe conditions and stand up for their personal safety. As I was working with journalists trying to cover the movement, it was challenging to find people who were comfortable speaking on the record about their experiences for fear of retaliation. Leaders were exploiting the uncertainty and scariness of the job market to control these library workers and thus control the narrative of what was going on. And what was going on was not good, and continues to be very bad.

I’m only scratching the surface with what’s going on here based on the stories people are sharing with me and on social media (mostly with fear of retaliation or anxiety about how helpless they feel) and things I’m coming across in my home state. But the flipside of all of these digital storytimes and boosted WiFi signals in the parking lot is library workers forced to do jobs they never signed up for, scolded for their attempts to fight for their well-being, and the reality of slashed budgets they’re staring down from now until…who knows? What guarantee do we have of bouncing back?

Long before our lives began to be redefined by this global pandemic, library workers had plenty to worry about, specifically with their proclivity for self-sacrifice, overwork, and low morale. Our leaders are cashing in on our instincts for martyrdom and hesitance to make a fuss about our own needs, and you know what? It’s time to say not anymore. Ignoring our very real plight and slapping happy stories on top of it isn’t going to save us.

It’s not an end-all, be-all, but to at least throw something out there that you can do, consider signing this petition demanding safe reopening conditions for library workers. And push back on these stories of unmitigated success and unqualified resilience. Anyone who wants libraries to survive this needs to fight hard for library workers to survive it, too.

Categories
books/readings tech anguish

The Age of Coronavirus Surveillance Capitalism

Naomi Klein and Shoshana Zuboff had an interesting conversation last year at The Intercept’s The Rise of Surveillance Capitalism event, and the differences they evinced that night recently made themselves very clear in the form of two pieces about big tech and the pandemic both published on May 8. Klein, activist and author of No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, wrote “Screen New Deal” in The Intercept as a part of a “series about the shock doctrine and disaster capitalism in the age of COVID-19.” Meanwhile, Zuboff, scholar and author of last year’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, was interviewed by Joshua Keating in Slate.

While they’re not saying wholly separate things, just as it was during their conversation last March, Zuboff shows an optimism that capitalism is not ultimately a zero-sum game and democracy is already acting as a bulwark against the potential overstepping of tech during the current crisis. Klein, meanwhile, steels us for a more dire road ahead, one where men like Eric Schmidt and Bill Gates will continue to try to “[demonstrate] the belief that there is no problem that technology cannot fix,” failing to acknowledge or address the issues neatly swept under the rug of “the digital divide.”

It’s hard for me to not agree more with Klein’s take on this, just as I did when she was holding capitalism responsible as the fundamental flaw of the surveillance machine (something that Zuboff is much more reluctant to do; she seems to come down on the side of other tech critics like Jaron Lanier who propose a different financial model with users being compensated for the data they provide). It’s weird having read The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, and having seen the measured and disturbing arguments of how human experience is now rendered into money for a select few in much the same way as human labor has for millennia before, that Zuboff still defends the democratic potential of this economic system. But having met Zuboff and talked with her in person, and now reading this interview with her, I understand where her optimism is coming from. That’s not to say I necessarily share it, but it’s important to try to; the alternative is the learned helplessness and adherence to the Borg complex that surveillance capitalists want us to feel.

In the interview with Slate, Zuboff says we live in different times than we did in the aftermath of 9/11, that people won’t be so easily sucked in by the promise of a shiny technical solution to an unutterably complex problem. She says, “In the last two years there has been a sea change in public attitudes that hasn’t yet overwhelmed the system, but it could.” And there is some truth to this, as Klein notes: “Presidential candidates were openly discussing breaking up big tech. Amazon was forced to pull its plans for a New York headquarters because of fierce local opposition. Google’s Sidewalk Labs project was in perennial crisis, and Google’s own workers were refusing to build surveillance tech with military applications.”

I think what’s missing in Zuboff’s perspective is an indictment of the structural rot that makes tools of surveillance as dangerous and devastating as they are, and why that makes the prospects of a world overtaken by them so terrifying for all of us. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is aimed pretty squarely at (white) upper middle class academics and it deals most substantially with problems they’re likely to connect with and experience, rather than the systemic analyses of inequality presented in, for instance, Ruha Benjamin’s Race After Technology and Virginia Eubanks’s work. Zuboff imagines a future where those of us with the ability and time rabble-rouse for the right thing to be done; Klein warns us straightforwardly that “the price tag for all the shiny gadgets will be mass teacher layoffs and hospital closures” and “there is no technological solution to the problem of learning in a home environment that is overcrowded and/or abusive.”

When I spoke to Zuboff at a campus visit she made right before the U.S. started to noticeably react to the pandemic, I asked her how we might bridge “the division of learning” she comes back to again and again in her book. The division of learning is the gulf intentionally kept between the architects of the new technocratic order and the people exploited by it. She said that it would be possible to reinvest capital freed up from surveillance giants into education and public infrastructure. I don’t disagree that it’s possible, but reading about Eric Schmidt’s lobbying exploits as of late in Klein’s article has me feeling not so confident in this would-be reality.

That all being said, I’m not advocating for us to just throw the towel in and give up on making a better future possible; quite the opposite, in fact. The urgency is missing from Zuboff’s piece, and I found her suggestions similarly somewhat hollow when I asked her about the division of learning. We need to be realistic about the scale of the powers that need to be checked, and as Klein makes clear, the fact that the attempts to rebuke the surveillance giants in recent months has only made them angrier, greedier, and more determined to get what they want: “[T]he pandemic is a golden opportunity to receive not just the gratitude, but the deference and power that [people in Silicon Valley] feel has been unjustly denied.”

Zuboff, meanwhile, compares this past turn of the century with the turn that came before it. She says we didn’t get trapped in a Gilded Age because “[the 1930s] ended up being a period of intensely fruitful institutional development, where all kinds of new institutions were finally invented along with the legislative and regulatory frameworks to support them, to make industrialization flip to democracy,” but, as you’ve no doubt noticed, we do not have a Roosevelt democrat in office right now. Instead of the establishment of something like a modern-day WPA, we have an administration that is urging states to reopen, bolstered by protesters who think this whole thing is a hoax.

It is remarkable to me that we see the technological imperialism espoused by Schmidt and his kind sprout up again and again, no matter how many times it fails. The lessons don’t seem to be learned by our political leaders, but maybe they don’t want to learn them; many are looking for a silver bullet just as desperately as the tech giants are trying to sell one to them. Many politicians either ignore or don’t care that the end game of these companies is to get more users until they’re not needed anymore, until Amazon doesn’t have to worry about striking humans and Uber can deploy its driverless cars (with or without them needing to stop killing people first). And, remind me, what economic system requires never-ending growth at the sacrifice of individual rights and dignity?

“If we want to reimagine education, let’s start with addressing the need for social workers, mental health counselors, school nurses, enriching arts courses, advanced courses and smaller class sizes in school districts across the state,” Andy Pallotta, president of New York State United Teachers said in response to the latest Gates Foundation partnership announced with the state. Andrew Cuomo and his big tech bedfellows are united in not wanting to deal with addressing those needs, those human edges that they can’t optimize out, those consequences of decades of austerity and chipping away at the social safety net. None of these people wants to admit fault or defeat–in fact, they want us to believe we owe them a debt. As Schmidt says, “The benefit of these corporations, which we love to malign, in terms of the ability to communicate, the ability to deal with health, the ability to get information, is profound. Think about what your life would be like in America without Amazon.” What indeed. How dare we, for example, criticize them for firing Black employees who are trying to take collective action against dangerous and unfair practices in warehouses during the pandemic?

We’re already forked over our time and attention to these companies, and a not insignificant amount of our free will. We need to decide if we want to fork over what’s left of democracy to them, too. There’s a reason why they want their feet in the doors of education and public health, and it’s not because they want to make the world a better place. They still need healthy humans for much of what they’re calling “artificial intelligence” – we’re not obsolete yet – and why not start as early and pervasively as they can to train us to think more like the computers they want to swap us out for one day? The machine overlords aren’t machines; they’re people who want to turn us into them.

“The trouble, as always in these moments of collective shock, is the absence of public debate about what changes should look like and whom they should benefit,” Klein writes. We must force that public debate. The subtitle of Zuboff’s book is “the fight for a human future at the new frontier of power.” We’re in that fight, but the free market and political nostalgia won’t help us win it.

Categories
tech anguish

Zoom Doom

On April 22, BBC News ran a widely-shared piece digging into the psychological and ergonomic factors that make Zoom meetings so fatiguing. The experts offered many reasons, ranging from the dissonance of “togetherness in mind but not in body” to the irregular silences and delays in communication. They also noted the context collapse of working and living in the same place, and, y’know, that whole “living through an unprecedented global pandemic” thing. And they said one thing in particular that made me personally feel a little less alone: “It’s also very hard for people not to look at their own face if they can see it on screen.”

OK, I don’t know if anyone else is running into this problem, but it’s really hard for me to not look at my face on the Zoom screen, even in meetings where I’m looking at a 4×4 grid or more of other faces. This isn’t a weird flex. Seeing my face this often is not something I’m used to or comfortable with, and I’m starting to fixate on all the things I don’t like about it. Now, I rationally know that because I’m an adult human who spends her time with other adult humans, and not, say, on an elementary school playground, people either don’t notice or don’t much care about the things I find problematic about my face, or the appearance of anything about me or anyone else. Yet I fixate nonetheless.

Is this exhibiting a false consciousness? (Would this be a less ridiculous and more intellectual piece of writing if I examined it from that perspective? Probably.) As someone who considers herself to be a feminist with lots of axes to grind with the obsession of appearance in our culture, I’d like to think I’m beyond this shallow self-deprecation. Maybe I am, but maybe Zoom has pushed me back into it, or maybe I really haven’t overcome the pressuring societal definitions of attractiveness. However you slice it, imagine how it would be if every in-person meeting you had from now on was simultaneously being played back on a screen right in front of you, and you had the choice of turning it off but only if you made it so the person you were meeting with could no longer see your face. How on earth do people fire or break up with each other on Zoom? I’ve heard that both are happening.

Anyway, right now, I desperately want to do something that has nothing to do with my face. My answer to “What do you want to do when it’s ‘over’?” is: Eat some fries at Porter Cafe (okay, I guess that does have to do with my face) and then go get another tattoo. A big one, another half-sleeve, probably, on my right arm. I want to experience the deeply unpleasant but stupidly gratifying test of endurance that is receiving a large tattoo. I’ve wanted to do this for a while but haven’t mostly because it’ll hurt like hell as my other half-sleeve did (and, y’know, because I’m fiscally responsible and all of that 😉), but now I just want the sensation of something else. I want to do something that’s the anti-Zoom or the un-Zoom, something that could never be done via Zoom, something that would be absurd if streamed on Zoom because it would be so outside of what Zoom can possibly convey, either to the person watching the tattooing (boring!) or from the person being tattooed (ouch!).

I’m annoyed by how privileged and childish I sound, but who among us is over a month into quarantine and free of this temper-tantrum-inducing, stomach-churning anxiety? I think we all have earned a little childishness in the form of tattoos, fries, or whatever floats your boats. And who isn’t annoyed by themselves at this point? Tell us your secrets, please (but not on Zoom, please). I’ve been astounded at the similarities between now and my life in 2009, when I was much more annoying than I am now and I moved to Boston with a bunch of other recent college grads, all of us with no job prospects. We went for big Costco runs and did little else because we had no money, and the boys played Halo all day, which I bring up because the boys still appear to be playing Halo all day. I don’t care what my partner does with his time, and video games are a great way to help us not kill each other; it’s just wild to me that it’s 11 years later and men are still playing the same frigging game on the TV in my living room. The only difference is one of them is on the couch here, and the others are all on… you guessed it, Zoom.

2009 was a rough time to be a person, especially a newly independent one. But things got better. It wasn’t easy and it took a long time, but they did improve. One has to assume they will this time, too. At the very least, we’ll probably stop using Zoom this much at some point, right?

Categories
books/readings

Cyborg Lessons, part 1

I’ve been reading a lot since we entered this new normal, and a group of friends is currently engaged in a deep read of Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. We got through the first 15 pages of it last night. I’m trying to find a good way to succinctly describe it, but this was a 1985 essay using the idea of the cyborg as a rejection of rigid boundaries like human vs. animal and human vs. machine. Haraway uses the cyborg archetype to urge feminists to move beyond the limitations of traditional gender, feminism, and politics; she pushes for unity around affinity with recognition of identity. Considering it was written 35 years ago, it feels strikingly relevant in the present day–and yet, not.

The whole essay takes delight in its own contradictions, though, and it begins with a section called An Ironic Dream of a Common Language for Women in the Integrated Circuit. One of the members of our group said it reads like the text generated by natural language processing algorithms, and another said there was enough different dimensions to it for everyone to find something in there that resonated with them, whether it be in a good or bad way. Haraway critiques drawing epistemological fences (in other words, creating specific terminology or buzzwords to define knowledge) and its impact on creating divisiveness within movements, specifically feminism, and yet she’s constructed many of her own here in the form of this essay.

We got to talking about our cyborg-ness during the current moment in a pretty literal way, like how we’re continuing to work and stay social with tools like Zoom, social media, our phones, and so on. But straying back to Haraway’s more esoteric explorations of rigid boundaries, we also found ourselves musing about the word “normal” right now, the boundary that maybe many of us want to align ourselves along, that maybe many of us are feeling we desperately want to get back to. Is it true as people have said that “If we get this right, we’ll never go back to normal?” We talked about Arundhati Roy’s piece “The pandemic is a portal” in the Financial Times, where she writes: “Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to ‘normality,’ trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.

It’s another fresh contradiction for us to mull over as we yearn for a return to what was and yet know that’s probably not only impossible but irresponsible, too. What I think A Cyborg Manifesto helps us see in this moment is the need to ready ourselves for whatever comes by teaming together, to let our nostalgia for the past be muted by the need for a more human future for everyone, to find affinity and build “a political form that actually manages to hold together witches, engineers, elders, Christians, mothers, and Leninists long enough to disarm the state.”