On privilege, awareness, debate and moving forward

You might say that my antennae are finely tuned to issues of gender in the workplace as reported by the media, but the latest crop of interesting reads has been, if ever, more depressing than usual. I will not dwell on the vicious backlash against women who brought to the media’s attention physicist Matt Taylor’s poor outfit choice in a press conference about a comet landing – if only because I tend to defend women’s right to wear whatever the hell they want -, other than to quote writer Roxane Gay (someone I will return to) and her essay “Blurred Lines, Indeed” (previously published as “What men want, America delivers“): “It’s hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you’re going to float the fuck away. ”

So, here is a multi-industry selection of recent articles pointing to the inescapable fact that, again in Gay’s words, “the problem is not that one of these things is happening, it’s that they are all happening, concurrently and constantly”:

  • In finance: “When I was younger, I assumed that it would change. […] The results of this generational experiment are now in and they are pathetic.” From “Men alone should no longer run finance“, John Gapper, Financial Times, Dec. 3, 2014.
  • In asset management“One in five women in asset management has suffered sexual harassment at work… another third of female asset management staff had experienced sexist behaviour at work on a weekly or monthly basis… 15 per cent had felt pressured to exploit their sexuality at work…” From “Sexism still plagues fund management“, Chris Newlands and Madison Marriage, Financial Times, Nov. 30, 2014.
  • In architecture: “In the UK […] one recent survey found the number of women in architecture firms fell from 28% to 21% between 2009 and 2011.” From “If women built cities, what would our urban landscape look like?“, Susanna Rustin, The Guardian, Dec. 5, 2014.
  • In technology: “Women make up a tiny fraction, roughly 15%, of people working in technical roles in the tech industry. And amazingly, that percentage is dropping, not rising. Multiple studies have found that the proportion of women in the tech workforce peaked in about 1989 and has been steadily dropping ever since. […]The women I know in tech are tough, resilient and skilled [… ] The women who quit tech aren’t fragile. I think they’re fed up.” From “Why women are leaving the tech industry in droves“, Sue Gardner, LA Times, Dec. 5, 2014.
  • In videogames: “The campaign grew and morphed and got a name, “gamergate.” Very few people came out looking good in the ensuing hashtag war—an example of social media at its worst, with childish insults, sarcasm, disingenuousness, and threats of rape and other violence. […] Unfortunately, law enforcement hasn’t shown a willingness to take online threats seriously.” From the weirdly titled “The Gaming Industry’s Greatest Adversary Is Just Getting Started” (does one really become the greatest adversary of the industry by way of cultural criticism?), Sheelah Kolhatkar, BloombergBusinessweek, Nov. 26, 2014.

This latter article prompted an interesting discussion among some of my Facebook friends, in particular a (male) friend claiming that videogames aren’t really that bad in their depiction of women, and that the academic in question – Anita Sarkeesian – was overrreacting to online haters’ threats, since they are rarely carried out. I find it hard to describe the frustration I felt. Here was a man – a good friend, and not someone I believe would indulge in online hate – telling me, a woman, that another woman was wrong to fear for her safety. Perhaps this is what black males in Ferguson feel like when they are told by white authorities that the police is there to protect them, I replied.

But the point is, I don’t really know what black males in Ferguson feel like. I can attempt the necessary exercise in empathy – as one does, for example, in storytelling of many sorts -, but outside that exercise I can only truly speak to what I feel, if and when I am able to articulate it. If the lottery of life has allowed me a privilege, it is my job to be aware of it, just as it is for others who have a different type of privilege. I learned this in another of Roxane Gay’s essays, “Peculiar Benefits” (you can find it, along with the one quoted above, in her collection Bad Feminist), which suggests the beginning of a personal agenda for each of us who is somehow privileged:

There is racial privilege, gender (and identity) privilege, heterosexual privilege, economic privilege, able-bodied privilege, educational privilege, religious privilege and the list goes on and on. At some point, you have to surrender to the kinds of privilege you hold because everyone has something someone else doesn’t. […]

We tend to believe that accusations of privilege imply we have it easy and because life is hard for nearly everyone, we resent hearing that. Of course we do. Look at white men when they are accused of having privilege. They tend to be immediately defensive (and, at times, understandably so). They say, “It’s not my fault I am a white man.” They say, “I’m working class,” or “I’m [insert other condition that discounts their privilege],” instead of simply accepting that, in this regard, yes, they benefit from certain privileges others do not. To have privilege in one or more areas does not mean you are wholly privileged. […]

You don’t necessarily have to do anything once you acknowledge your privilege. You don’t have to apologize for it. You don’t need to diminish your privilege or your accomplishments because of that privilege. You need to understand the extent of your privilege, the consequences of your privilege, and remain aware that people who are different from you move through and experience the world in ways you might never know anything about. They might endure situations you can never know anything about. You could, however, use that privilege for the greater good–to try to level the playing field for everyone, to work for social justice, to bring attention to how those without certain privileges are disenfranchised. While you don’t have to do anything with your privilege, perhaps it should be an imperative of privilege to share the benefits of that privilege rather than hoard your good fortune. We’ve seen what the hoarding of privilege has done and the results are shameful.

This should be, perhaps, if enough people in good faith agree, a way to move forward.

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Photo: https://www.facebook.com/roxane.gay

 

Personal branding at the top

Dear readers, it is not often (yet) that one gets invited to blog on LinkedIn, and even more infrequently does one get to use pictures of Queen Rania, Marc Andreessen, and Sir Richard Branson to make essentially the same point.

I would love your comment and feedback on these three blog posts in a series titled Personal branding at the top:

QueenRania

marc-andreessen-handsSir Richard BransonI hope you find them a good read and you get some inspiration for your own personal brand, too!

Update Sept. 30: See the fourth and (I think) last post in the series, where I take a case study from close to home (Mr. Rosso and I are both from a small town near Vicenza in Northern Italy) and highlight effective habits and improvement opportunities:

Renzo Rosso Instagram 26 09 14

20,000 Days on Earth. Nick Cave on himself

20000daysonearth-1Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth’s 20,000 Days on Earth, a docu-fiction on the polyhedric Nick Cave shown at Sundance and Berlin earlier this year, is coming to theatres at last.

Cave gets to make music,talk about his creative process, drive people around while having conversations with them, and narrate himself in flashes and bursts such as this one (from the NY Times Magazine):

The first time I saw Susie was at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. And when she came walking in, all the things that I have obsessed over for all the years, pictures of movie stars, Jenny Agutter in the billabong, Anita Ekberg in the fountain . . . Miss World competitions, Marilyn Monroe and Jennifer Jones and Bo Derek . . . Bolshoi ballerinas and Russian gymnasts . . . the young girls at the Wangaratta pool lying on the hot concrete, all the stuff I had heard and seen and read . . . all the continuing never-ending drip-feed of erotic data . . . came together at that moment, in one great big crash bang, and I was lost to her. And that was that.

It takes a remarkable woman to inspire this description; it also takes a man with an unusual poetic imagination to put it in words. This is a movie I look forward to.

 

Set up two-factor authentication now

Screenshot_2014-09-03-08-13-41 If you have no idea what this screenshot means, then your online accounts are not sufficiently protected.

Google Authenticator is a little smartphone app (iTunes; Play Store) that you can – and should – use to ensure that whoever logs into your account on Gmail, Dropbox, Tumblr and so on not only has your username and password, but also is in physical possession of your smartphone, i.e. is most likely to be you. This is important in general, but phenomenally important for your primary email account, since whoever gets into that has a good shot at full-scale identity theft if they want to.

Two-step verification means that when you login to Gmail from a new machine, after your usual username-and-password step, you are asked for a six-digit verification code; and you obtain the code – which changes constantly – by opening the Authenticator app on your smartphone. You only have to do this once if you check the machine as a trusted computer (obviously, don’t do this at shared computers).

Here are the instructions for Gmail and all other Google services; here is an article from the Financial Times (login required) that explains how to do the same thing to protect any nude photos you might have on iCloud through Apple’s two-step verification.

Finally, even if this post is about taking your online privacy seriously, let me close on a lighthearted note from the FT’s Chris Nuttall:

Have hackers put any nude photos of me out on the web?

Not if you haven’t taken any of yourself. If you have, they probably won’t have bothered trying to hack you unless you’re a celebrity.

 

 

Yoga for all

A few days ago, the yoga world mourned the death of B.K.S. Iyengar, an enormously popular and influential yoga scholar and teacher. All three of the men who became the main conduits of yoga into the West are now dead: Satyananda passed away in 2009, the Belgian André van Lysebeth in 2004. Their work is continued by legions of followers, and a body of knowledge that had languished in obscure ancient texts until the middle of the 20th century is now, in one form or the other, a daily practice for millions of people worldwide.

The significance of Iyengar’s passing and his impact on the Western world were underlined by multiple tweets from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Yet, in my study of these masters’ teachings (in which, as you may know, I am partial to Satyananda’s), I have sometimes found that the Iyengar style, with its emphasis on rigorous execution of forbiddingly difficult asanas, scares people away from even trying their first approach to yoga.

Mayurasana-Yoga-Pose-BKS-Iyengar

By now, people look at the popular depiction of a yoga practitioner – a 20-something woman in designer gear with a lithe physique stretched into a contortionist’s pose – and say: sorry, yoga is not for me. I can’t do that.

I disagree. As you know, yoga is routinely taught to pregnant women at all stages of pregnancy. I know teachers who teach the elderly in retirement homes; I know teachers who teach inmates in jails. There are now people who teach yoga to former pro wrestlers: yes, those guys with spines made practically unbendable by multiple injuries, stiff with thick layers of traumatized muscle. If these folks can benefit from yoga, everybody can benefit from yoga.

So: don’t be afraid to try. It is not a competition. It is not about whether and how you fall short relative to others. Ignore others. You set your own bar, test your own limits. Your practice is about your body. Stick with it, and it will be about a lot more.

Future Technologies. Have we reached “peak jobs”?

ImageIf I’m born again, I want my job to be “Senior Futurist”. This is the job title of a gentleman by the name of Klaus Ægidius Mogensen, who works at the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies and has recently released a 62-page report titled Future Technologies.

The report is only available to member organizations, but I want to thank my good friend Alessandra Losito and her employer Pictet for sharing it. Here are a few of the most intriguing possibilities that Mr. Mogensen throws our way (all dates, of course, “subject to some uncertainty”):

  • 2020: Free GMO trade agreements between US and EU.
  • 2025: The MARS ONE project sends the first colonists to Mars (however, also note the prediction for 2037: MARS ONE gives up sending more colonists to failed Mars colony.)
  • 2034: Authorities finally give up censoring the Internet. (Yay!)
  • 2040: 75% of cars worldwide are fully autonomous robot cars.

In 2035, the author also says, 50% of present-day job types are wholly or mostly automated. The rapidly growing use of robots (and more generally software, I guess, not just the variety with hardware attached) leads to jobless growth: adding to that, “individuals unemployed by automation have to find jobs in fields with lower productivity, causing a decline in overall productivity, in spite of increased productivity in industries where a lot of automation is possible.” And here is the wild card, or “possible extreme future event”:

In the long term, it is possible that robots and computers will handle all the necessary work, making it unnecessary for people to do other work. This can lead to an economy that is not based on work as a source of earning money; something that is central to present-day economics.

I have to admit that I find this scenario very extreme. It jars with a present-day reality where blue-collar jobs consume 40 hours a week and almost everybody I know in white-collar, corporate jobs is regularly working 50-60 hours per week (you’d think we’d be smarter than that). Is this prediction an extreme case of the “lump of labor” fallacy – in which case, we shouldn’t worry, because new work to be performed will keep popping out? Is it perhaps something that will truly happen, only a lot farther into the future than we think, as these things tend to do (re-read my rant about the Singularitarian future)?

But, on the other hand, unemployment is real, and jobless recoveries (where we have recoveries at all) are a fact. And well-documented authors such as Brynjolfsson and McAfee (The Second Machine Age) are worried about very much the same issues.

So, let’s go along with the futurist thought experiment and imagine a future where the work to be done by humans is vastly reduced: way after a brief moment of “peak jobs”, so to speak, that is already slightly behind us. What happens? Is this a scenario where billions of idle people consume all their time in adolescent ennui, addictive entertainment, and training for holy wars? Will capital (invested in robots) earn all the money, and labor none of it? Is Piketty right? Will the masses live in destitution? Will suicides skyrocket? And what can we do about it?

Evolutionary technologies may claim to be ethically neutral. Revolutionary technologies never are. We need ethicists along with educators, economists and technologists to help us craft a sustainable future – one that we want our children to live in. Forget about privacy, climate change, human cloning and Mars landings: the central ethical issue in 21st-century politics will be “peak jobs”. The search for a 21st-century John Rawls is open, and more urgent than it ever was.