Tag: Quartz

Sometimes even to live is an act of courage

Thank you to Seneca for the quotation for today’s title, which sprang to mind after reading Rosie Spinks’ claim in Quartz that we’ve reached ‘peak influencer’.

Where once the social network was basically lunch and sunsets, it’s now a parade of strategically-crafted life updates, career achievements, and public vows to spend less time online (usually made by people who earn money from social media)—all framed with the carefully selected language of a press release. Everyone is striving, so very hard.

Thank goodness for that. The selfie-obsessed influencer brigade is an insidious effect of the neoliberalism that permeates western culture:

For the internet influencer, everything from their morning sun salutation to their coffee enema (really) is a potential money-making opportunity. Forget paying your dues, or working your way up—in fact, forget jobs. Work is life, and getting paid to live your best life is the ultimate aspiration.

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“Selling out” is not just perfectly OK in the influencer economy—it’s the raison d’etre. Influencers generally do not have a craft or discipline to stay loyal to in the first place, and by definition their income comes from selling a version of themselves.

As Yascha Mounk, writing in The Atlantic, explains the problem isn’t necessarily with social networks. It’s that you care about them. Social networks flatten everything into a never-ending stream. That stream makes it very difficult to differentiate between gossip and (for example) extremely important things that are an existential threat to democratic institutions:

“When you’re on Twitter, every controversy feels like it’s at the same level of importance,” one influential Democratic strategist told me. Over time, he found it more and more difficult to tune Twitter out: “People whose perception of reality is shaped by Twitter live in a different world and a different country than those off Twitter.”

It’s easier for me to say these days that our obsession with Twitter and Instagram is unhealthy. While I’ve never used Instagram (because it’s owned by Facebook) a decade ago I was spending hours each week on Twitter. My relationship with the service has changed as I’ve grown up and it has changed — especially after it became a publicly-traded company in 2013.

Twitter, in particular, now feels like a neverending soap opera similar to EastEnders. There’s always some outrage or drama running. Perhaps it’s better, as Catherine Price suggests in The New York Times, just to put down our smartphones?

Until now, most discussions of phones’ biochemical effects have focused on dopamine, a brain chemical that helps us form habits — and addictions. Like slot machines, smartphones and apps are explicitly designed to trigger dopamine’s release, with the goal of making our devices difficult to put down.

This manipulation of our dopamine systems is why many experts believe that we are developing behavioral addictions to our phones. But our phones’ effects on cortisol are potentially even more alarming.

Cortisol is our primary fight-or-flight hormone. Its release triggers physiological changes, such as spikes in blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar, that help us react to and survive acute physical threats.

Depending on how we use them, social networks can stoke the worst feelings in us: emotions such as jealousy, anger, and worry. This is not conducive to healthy outcomes, especially for children where stress has a direct correlation to the take-up of addictive substances, and to heart disease in later life.

I wonder how future generations will look back at this time period?


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Insidious Instagram influencers?

There seems to a lot of pushback at the moment against the kind of lifestyle that’s a direct result of the Silicon Valley mindset. People are rejecting everything from the Instagram ‘influencer’ approach to life to the ‘techbro’-style crazy working hours.

This week saw Basecamp, a company that prides itself on the work/life balance of its employees and on rejecting venture capital, publish another book. You can guess at what it focuses on from its title, It doesn’t have to be crazy at work. I’ve enjoyed and have recommended their previous books (as ’37 Signals’), and am looking forward to reading this latest one.

Alongside that book, I’ve seen three articles that, to me at least, are all related to the same underlying issues. The first comes from Simone Stolzoff who writes in Quartz at Work that we’re no longer quite sure what we’re working for:

Before I became a journalist, I worked in an office with hot breakfast in the mornings and yoga in the evenings. I was #blessed. But I would reflect on certain weeks—after a string of days where I was lured in before 8am and stayed until well after sunset—like a driver on the highway who can’t remember the last five miles of road. My life had become my work. And my work had become a series of rinse-and-repeat days that started to feel indistinguishable from one another.

Part of this lack of work/life balance comes from our inability these days to simply have hobbies, or interests, or do anything just for the sake of it. As Tim Wu points out in The New York Times, it’s all linked some kind of existential issue around identity:

If you’re a jogger, it is no longer enough to cruise around the block; you’re training for the next marathon. If you’re a painter, you are no longer passing a pleasant afternoon, just you, your watercolors and your water lilies; you are trying to land a gallery show or at least garner a respectable social media following. When your identity is linked to your hobby — you’re a yogi, a surfer, a rock climber — you’d better be good at it, or else who are you?

To me, this is inextricably linked to George Monbiot’s recent piece in The Guardian about about the problem of actors being interviewed about the world’s issues disproportionately more often than anybody else. As a result, we’re rewarding those people who look like they know what they’re talking about with our collective attention, rather than those who actually do. Monbiot concludes:

The task of all citizens is to understand what we are seeing. The world as portrayed is not the world as it is. The personification of complex issues confuses and misdirects us, ensuring that we struggle to comprehend and respond to our predicaments. This, it seems, is often the point.

There’s always been a difference between appearance and reality in public life. However, previously, at least they seem to have been two faces of the same coin. These days, our working lives as well as our public lives seem to be

Sources: Basecamp / Quartz at Work / The New York Times / The Guardian

 

The résumé is a poor proxy for a human being

I’ve never been a fan of the rĂ©sumĂ©, or ‘Curriculum Vitae’ (CV) as we tend to call them in the UK. How on earth can a couple of sheets of paper ever hope to sum up an individual in all of their complexity? It inevitably leads to the kind of things that end up on LinkedIn profiles: your academic qualifications, job history, and a list of hobbies that don’t make you sound like a loser.

In this (long-ish) article for Quartz, Oliver Staley looks at what Laszlo Bock is up to with his new startup, with a detour through the history of the résumé.

“Resumes are terrible,” says Laszlo Bock, the former head of human resources at Google, where his team received 50,000 resumes a week. “It doesn’t capture the whole person. At best, they tell you what someone has done in the past and not what they’re capable of doing in the future.”

I really dislike rĂ©sumĂ©s, and I’m delighted that I’ve managed to get my last couple of jobs without having to rely on them. I guess that’s a huge benefit of working openly; the web is your rĂ©sumĂ©.

Resumes force job seekers to contort their work and life history into corporately acceptable versions of their actual selves, to better conform to the employer’s expectation of the ideal candidate. Unusual or idiosyncratic careers complicate resumes. Gaps between jobs need to be accounted for. Skills and abilities learned outside of formal work or education aren’t easily explained. Employers may say they’re looking for job seekers to distinguish themselves, but the resume requires them to shed their distinguishing characteristics.

Unfortunately, Henry Ford’s ‘faster horses‘ rule also applies to rĂ©sumĂ©s. And (cue eye roll) people need to find a way to work in buzzwords like ‘blockchain’.

The resume of the near future will be a document with far more information—and information that is far more useful—than the ones we use now. Farther out, it may not be a resume at all, but rather a digital dossier, perhaps secured on the blockchain (paywall), and uploaded to a global job-pairing engine that is sorting you, and billions of other job seekers, against millions of openings to find the perfect match.

I’m more interested in different approaches, rather than doubling-down on the existing approach, so it’s good to see large multinational companies like Unilever doing away with rĂ©sumĂ©s. They prefer game-like assessments.

Two years ago, the North American division of Unilever—the consumer products giant—stopped asking for resumes for the approximately 150-200 positions it fills from college campuses annually. Instead, it’s relying on a mix of game-like assessments, automated video interviews, and in-person problem solving exercises to winnow down the field of 30,000 applicants.

It all sounds great but, at the end of the day it’s extra unpaid work, and more jumping through hoops.

The games are designed so there are no wrong answers— a weakness in one characteristic, like impulsivity, can reveal strength in another, like efficiency—and pymetrics gives candidates who don’t meet the standards for one position the option to apply for others at the company, or even at other companies. The algorithm matches candidates to the opportunities where they’re most likely to succeed. The goal, Polli says, is to eliminate the “rinse and repeat” process of submitting near identical applications for dozens of jobs, and instead use data science to target the best match of job and employee.

Back to Laszlo Bock, who claims that we should have an algorithmic system that matches people to available positions. I’m guessing he hasn’t read Brave New World.

For the system to work, it would need an understanding of a company’s corporate culture, and how people actually function within its walls—not just what the company says about its culture. And employees and applicants would need to be comfortable handing over their personal data.

For-profit entities wouldn’t be trusted as stewards of such sensitive information. Nor would governments, Bock says, noting that in communist Romania, where he was born, “the government literally had dossiers on every single citizen.”

Ultimately, Bock says, the system should be maintained by a not-for-profit, non-governmental organization. “What I’m imagining, no human being should ever look inside this thing. You shouldn’t need to,” he says.

Hiring people is a social activity. The problem of having too many applicants is a symptom of a broken system. This might sound crazy, but I feel like hierarchical structures and a lack of employee ownership causes some of the issues we see. Then, of course, there’s much wider issues such as neo-colonialism, commodification, and bullshit jobs. But that’s for another post (or two)…

Source: Quartz at Work

Tech will eat itself

Mike Murphy has been travelling to tech conferences: CES, MWC, and SXSW. He hasn’t been overly-impressed by what he’s seen:

The role of technology should be to improve the quality of our lives in some meaningful way, or at least change our behavior. In years past, these conferences have seen the launch of technologies that have indeed impacted our lives to varying degrees, from the launch of Twitter to car stereos and video games.

However, it’s all been a little underwhelming:

People always ask me what trends I see at these events. There are the usual words I can throw out—VR, AR, blockchain, AI, big data, autonomy, automation, voice assistants, 3D-printing, drones—the list is endless, and invariably someone will write some piece on each of these at every event. But it’s rare to see something truly novel, impressive, or even more than mildly interesting at these events anymore. The blockchain has not revolutionized society, no matter what some bros would have you believe, nor has 3D-printing. Self-driving cars are still years away, AI is still mainly theoretical, and no one buys VR headsets. But these are the terms you’ll find associated with these events if you Google them.

There’s nothing of any real substance being launched at this big shiny events:

The biggest thing people will remember from this year’s CES is that it rained the first few days and then the power went out. From MWC, it’ll be that it snowed for the first time in years in Barcelona, and from SXSW, it’ll be the Westworld in the desert (which was pretty cool). Quickly forgotten are the second-tier phones, dating apps, and robots that do absolutely nothing useful. I saw a few things of note that point toward the future—a 3D-printed house that could actually better lives in developing nations; robots that could crush us at Scrabble—but obviously, the opportunity for a nascent startup to get its name in front of thousands of techies, influential people, and potential investors can be huge. Even if it’s just an app for threesomes.

As Murphy points out, the more important the destination (i.e. where the event is held) the less important the content (i.e. what is being announced):

When real technology is involved, the destinations aren’t as important as the substance of the events. But in the case of many of these conferences, the substance is the destinations themselves.

However, that shouldn’t necessarily be cause for concern: There is still much to be excited about in technology. You just won’t find much of it at the biggest conferences of the year, which are basically spring breaks for nerds. But there is value in bringing so many similarly interested people together.

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Just don’t expect the world of tomorrow to look like the marketing stunts of today.

I see these events as a way to catch up the mainstream with what’s been happening in pockets of innovation over the past year or so. Unfortunately, this is increasingly being covered in a layer of marketing spin and hype so that it’s difficult to separate the useful from the trite.

Source: Quartz