Notes from Joan Didion’s “White Album”

The White AlbumThis is one of the rare books I kept highlighting as I read through it (or would have underlined and dog-eared, if I’d read it on paper). Joan Didion was fascinated with complex systems such as waterworks and dams, highway operations centers, jails and prisons, orchid greenhouses. Joan Didion suffered from migraines. Joan Didion had no patience with a women’s movement concerned with “the litany of trivia” used to politicize “women who perhaps had been conditioned to obscure their resentments even from themselves” (The Women’s Movement, 1972):

These are converts who want not a revolution but “romance,” who believe not in the oppression of women but in their own chances for a new life in exactly the mold of their old life. In certain ways they tell us sadder things about what the culture has done to them than the theorists ever did.

A woman who starred in Céline ads in 2015, aged 80, Didion never tries to be anything else than a woman of her time; yet her notes on political sentiment in Hollywood in the 1960s (Good Citizens, 1968-70) sound as if written about today’s Silicon Valley, a place where public life “comprises a kind of dictatorship of good intentions, a social contract in which actual and irreconcilable disagreement is as taboo as failure or bad teeth, a climate devoid of irony”, and where she describes the attitude of the screenwriters of the McCarthy era just as if she were writing of today’s tech philanthropists: the particular vanity of perceiving social life as a problem to be solved by the good will of individuals.

She is also oddly prescient in her encounter with biker movies, a genre started by Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels (1966), starring Peter Fonda. She watches nine of these movies over a short period of time, “the first one almost by accident and the rest of them with a notebook… I was not even sure why I kept going” (Notes Toward a Dreampolitik, 1968-70). Remember that Didion, a child of the West, loved John Wayne, and that she is believed to have voted Republican through most of her life; Didion’s obvious discomfort with the behaviors and ideology that these movies portray – and that scared her, even back then, as “ideograms of the future” – are a measure of the gaping void between the conservative values of Didion’s screenwriting years, and those of an “alt-right” so shamelessly blandished by an American President today:

I suppose I kept going to these movies because there on the screen was some news I was not getting from The NewYork Times. I began to think I was seeing ideograms of the future. To watch a bike movie is finally to apprehend the extent to which the toleration of small irritations is no longer a trait much admired in America, the extent to which a nonexistent frustration threshold is seen not as psychopathic but as a “right.” A biker is goaded on the job about the swastika on his jacket, so he picks up a wrench, threatens the foreman, and later describes the situation as one in which the foreman “got uptight.” A biker runs an old man off the road: the old man was “in the way,” and his subsequent death is construed as further “hassling.” A nurse happens into a hospital room where a biker beats her unconscious and rapes her: that she later talks to the police is made to seem a betrayal, evidence only of some female hysteria, vindictiveness, sexual deprivation. Any girl who “acts dumb” deserves what she gets, and what she gets is beaten and turned out from the group. Anything less than instant service in a restaurant constitutes intolerable provocation, or “hassling”: tear the place apart, leave the owner for dead, gangbang the waitress. Rev up the Harleys and ride.

To imagine the audience for whom these sentiments are tailored, maybe you need to have sat in a lot of drive-ins yourself, to have gone to school with boys who majored in shop and worked in gas stations and later held them up. Bike movies are made for all these children of vague “hill” stock who grow up absurd in the West and Southwest, children whose whole lives are an obscure grudge against a world they think they never made. These children are, increasingly, everywhere, and their style is that of an entire generation.

Sadly, more than one.

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Where’s the (woman) expert? Practical suggestions for better media and better events

Why do we still see professional events, academic conferences, media interviews where only men speak as experts? (Pictured below: a panel at an innovation summit last year where all panelists were men and no one had been born after 1965).

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I spoke about this with Sandra Mori, Donatella Sciuto and Paola Caburlotto at a panel I had the opportunity to host at the 2017 International Journalism Festival in Perugia. Because we know the problem well, and we know its soul-crushing impact on what girls and young women believe they can achieve, I would like to focus here on our responsibility as conference organizers, journalists, speakers: because we each have a role to play.

The answer, we agreed, is two-pronged: don’t be lazy and try harder. I was recently asked to help find a woman speaker for a panel on cryptocurrencies at a digital economy conference taking place three weeks later, because throughout the many months it took to plan it no one had thought about asking for help making that panel diverse: within 6 hours I had three names of young women speakers (and one of them got on stage at the event).

Here are some suggestions on how to make our TV interviews, conferences and panels more gender-balanced.

As journalists, TV producers, editors:

  • Think twice. Of course you have a deadline, but… You’re doing a story on white collar crime, and your first instinct when picking up the phone is to call the corporate law professor you interviewed last year. Can you get a new perspective, maybe from a woman law professor this time?
  • Measure gender balance in your publications and programs. What gets measured gets fixed.
  • Get help. Sometimes you will have academic watchdogs and media studies programs measuring things for you: enlist them to help you. You need a vulcanology expert – can they put you in touch with one, preferably not a white man? You would like to interview a woman on cybersecurity – can they suggest one?

As conference organizers:

  • Use lists. You may not be aware of it, but people are volunteering their time and energy to built list of kick-ass women experts. Inspiring Fifty can put you in touch with dozens of inspiring women in digital technology across Europe (with South Africa coming soon). 100 Esperte is a database (in Italian) of women scientists who are leaders in disciplines ranging from astrophysics to nanotechnologies. Women for Media is an Australian database of women leaders in business, finance, government, academia and non profits. Khabirat, a list launched by the MedMedia program, allows you to find women experts in fields from geopolitics to sports in Jordan, Palestine, Tunisia and Morocco. And there will be more.
  • Get yourself an Advisory board. Marketer and curator Gianfranco Chicco, who has organized dozens of conferences with thousands of speakers, told me about a week-long event he led. One of his decisions was to have an Advisory board, three women and two men, with the explicit mandate of finding diverse speakers and young speakers.
  • Adopt these 10 rules proposed by molecular bioscientists Professor Jennifer L. Martin in PLOS: Ten Simple Rules to Achieve Conference Speaker Gender Balance.

As speakers:

  • Be informed and vocal. When contacted by organizers, always inquire about gender balance in the event. If you’re the only woman on stage, consider refusing to speak unless the conference is made more diverse.
  • If the conference is a for-profit event, ask to be paid. You should be paid for your time and effort in money, not in visibility, whenever an organization makes money from your presence. And make sure you’re not paid any less than men. It’s time to end the pay gap for speakers.
  • Enlist men to help. Many men are jetsetting around the world and in high demand as speakers: ask them to take the Panel Pledge. Development economist Owen Barder has a one-line version: “I will not be part of male-only panels.” The Australian group Male Champions of Change has a longer version, here for your reference:

When you are invited to speak at or participate in a professional forum:

Request confirmation of who the other panelists/speakers/ participants are, and how gender balance will be achieved;

Insist that as a condition of acceptance, you expect women to participate in a meaningful way;

Reserve the right to withdraw from the event, even at the last minute, should this not be the case when the speaker list is finalised;

Offer names of women from within your organisation or network and, if helpful, point them to resources for support in finding women.

If you are a woman and you’d like to act, a useful thing you can do is to speak to three men who are in your network over the next week and ask them to commit to this pledge. If you’re a man, commit to it yourself. We can change this, and we will.

When ecosystems meet: Hootsuite + AdEspresso

A few days ago, AdEspresso – an ad tech company based in Milan and San Francisco – and Hootsuite – a social media management company headquartered in Vancouver, with offices from London to Singapore, from Bucharest to Sydney – announced that AdEspresso is joining the Hootsuite family. This is fantastic news for both, and I want to celebrate this moment myself as a mini-angel, because together with a small group of angel investors, notably Andrea Rota, I backed AdEspresso starting in 2013.

It is true that AdEspresso was accelerated at Dave McClure’s 500 Startups in late 2013, and that the special sauce in the San Francisco Bay Area was an important ingredient in brewing the deal. But Ryan Holmes, Hootsuite’s CEO, is passionate about rekindling a tech future in Canada. Massimo Chieruzzi and Armando Biondi, AdEspresso’s founders, point out that the AdEspresso product and design are “Made in Italy”, and the company has always kept its Italian heart.

Are we at the point where we will see more deals like this? Digital platforms with hundreds of millions, soon to be billions, of people using them every day are indeed based in the Bay Area (and in China). But while they are creating unprecedented wealth concentrated in their corner of the world, they also create unprecedented opportunity for companies to be built by “riding the tiger” of those platforms, pretty much from anywhere. The Bay Area has a huge concentration of talented and ambitious people; but it does not have a monopoly on ideas, on technical talent, on the ability to serve customers, on hustle, on grit. I would not be surprised at all if the next Hootsuite and the next AdEspresso were born out of Poland, India, Portugal or Ireland.

In the meantime, congratulations to Massimo, Ryan and Armando (pictured below) and a few more of my thoughts on the deal (in Italian) in these media interviews:

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Image: Massimo Chieruzzi (AdEspresso), Ryan Holmes (Hootsuite) and Armando Biondi (AdEspresso) celebrate the announcement. 

On prostheses, gold medals, dinners, and trolls

She wore not a prosthesis, but four. Quadruple amputee athlete Bebe Vio, 19, who lost her limbs to meningitis at the age of 11 and last month won a Paralympic gold medal in women’s wheelchair fencing, walked on her own two lower limb prostheses when joining Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi at the State Dinner hosted by Barack and Michelle Obama two nights ago in Washington. And what did she get out of it? Glamour (she wore an evening dress donated by Maria Grazia Chiuri at Dior), fun (at least judging from her selfie with Obama), some food prepared by celebrity chef Mario Batali, and a lot of vitriol poured onto her from all corners of the Web. In the last couple of days, online armchair critics have accused her of the most bizarre sins, such as flying to Washington to have fun at the expense of taxpayers, neglecting the plight of the unemployed, wearing an expensive dress by a French brand, being “politicized” in support of the embattled Renzi, and worse. Countless online trolls over the past two days have let out their own frustration against Bebe, as they have in the past against many women who have, for example, spoken out against misogyny in videogames, called for historic women leaders to be portrayed on banknotes, or written about contemporary feminism.

Bebe, who only recently won her Paralympic gold and is not a feminist campaigner by any stretch of the imagination, pays for two original sins. First, she never let herself become a victim. Life gave her a shitload of bitter lemons, and she built a factory of very sweet lemonade: the non-profit she started with her family, Art4Sport, has helped dozens of amputee children practice sports instead of languishing in their wheelchairs. Second, she is a young woman: and women who are proud of any achievement – technology, entrepreneurship, politics, sports – end up being attacked, insulted and threatened with the worst sexist and violent attacks if they so much as dare to share their pride online. The torrent of insults unleashed on Bebe is just the latest example of how the basic rules of civil discourse seem to be suspended when it comes to criticizing women. What is to be done if we are to neutralize poisonous threats against women? One might follow the example of journalist and podcaster Alanah Pearce, whose anti-troll technique became famous after this tweet: “Sometimes young boys on Facebook send me rape threats, so I’ve started telling their mothers.” If you are disgusted by the trolls who attacked Bebe, finding out who their moms are and sending them screenshots might not be a bad place to start.

An exercise in empathy

I’ve subjected you to David Foster Wallace before, but “This is Water” continues to stick inside my head years after I first read it. Today it came back to me in a flash while I was in a conversation about the merits of changing points of view. This is David Foster Wallace, shopping for last-minute groceries and held up in the supermarket checkout line:

[…] and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough checkout lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day-rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can’t take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register. Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your check or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn’t fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic, etcetera, etcetera. […] But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-madelady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line — maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept. who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible — it just depends on what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important — if you want to operate on your default-setting — then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying. But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars — compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.

 

Habits and practicing: to succeed, learn discipline

My educational program for this fall includes taking an online class called “The Creative Habit: Cultivating a Daily Writing Practice” – and committing to stick with it. You see, I’ve always liked writing, and I’ve both taken creative writing courses and enormously enjoyed them in the past. But how can I say with a straight face “I like writing” if I hardly ever write? The word “habit” is the hook that attracted me to the course, and the reason why I think it will work. By prompting participants to write for 30-60 minutes every day, it seeks to instil the discipline of writing: to support the birth of a habit, if you will.

51ue4ydsgylA few months ago I had the opportunity to attend a speech by Gretchen Rubin based on her latest book, Better than Before. It’s about habits, or how to “decide not to decide”. It’s easier to go out running every morning if you’ve set out a rule for yourself that says “I will run every day, first thing in the morning.” You don’t have to make a decision to run, to debate with yourself whether to run, to negotiate with yourself how many times you will run this week, to wonder if the weather is good enough for running: you’ve organized your life so that each morning you run, no questions asked. It’s a habit.

Because different people form habits and stick to habits in different ways, the book offers several strategies: Monitoring, Foundation, Scheduling, Accountability, Abstaining, Convenience, Inconvenience, Safeguards, Distraction, Rewards, Treats, Pairing and so on. The author avoids being prescriptive about which strategy you should adopt – you know best – or even about what habits she recommends. It’s a good toolbox, although it won’t give you the sense of urgency you need to start a new habit tomorrow.

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More recently, thanks to my friend Laura‘s recommendation, I stumbled into Hal Elrod’s The Miracle Morning. While the book’s tone is all optimistic bounciness (you may feel like you’re watching a TV preacher; the cover image doesn’t help), the substance of the practice the author illustrates is very much about making it a habit to do the things you want to do. And if you don’t have time, the answer is easy: get out of bed one hour earlier in the morning. He describes spending that hour practising each of six things for ten minutes: meditation (or gratitude, prayer, silence); affirmations; visualizations; exercise; reading; and writing (journaling). It doesn’t make sense, I thought at first, that doing any one thing for ten minutes would change your life. Yet, open the app store on your phone and look for “seven minute workout”: you will be surprised by the number of results. And who am I to criticise small bursts of activity, when since the beginning of the year I have spent fifteen minutes a day learning French on Duolingo? And surely, if you only have ten minutes a day when you read, that’s better than not reading at all.

81x9tdjfjrlIn yoga, too, we are familiar with the concept of the daily practice, which is called sadhana; Swami Satyananda Saraswati even wrote a book about it. A sadhana is given by the guru to each disciple for the purpose of spiritual enlightenment. (But if you don’t know whom to ask, you can even request a Sadhana online from a Satyananda Yoga ashram). It has to be practiced every day until perfected, at which point the disciple should request a new sadhana.

Daily repetition is key: there is no sadhana without habit. Life in any ashram, monastery, or other place of spiritual growth is a routine, a long sequence of habits.

All of a sudden, habits seem trendy. But yogis knew about habits all along.