“We Can’t Launch It Today, I Hafta Watch My Baby. Okay Bye.”
Working parent runs meeting
Kina likes to steal my headphones and pretend that she is working on a very important project with a bunch of people who just don’t understand how hard she is working. Sometimes, she lectures her invisible coworkers on the chocolate she sees them eating on her imaginary video call. At other times, she urges them to eat lunch at the proper time of day. Mostly, she insists that whatever they’re working on can’t be launched as planned and needs to launch tomorrow or whenever she’s not watching her baby. All of these vignettes draw on her intimate familiarity with her parents’ work lives, played out from behind a hollow-core door as she wakes up from her afternoon nap.
It is very strange to see yourself portrayed in brutal detail by a four-year-old. Her exasperation is impressive to behold, all squinty-eyed and head-cocked. Sometimes, she puts her chin in her hands, to signal that she is listening extra closely, and I see every career tic I’ve ever developed. She is a careful listener. She offers direct feedback.
We don’t really know what Kina’s job is. She’s definitely a member of the class Professional, genus Manager. Could be that she’s a consultant expert, like her mother, or supervisory, like her father, but it’s clear that her “job” is talking. It’s weird to have a kid whose only non-superhero career model is White Collar Yammer Drone. When I was her age, did I want to be a firefighter? I remember wanting to drive a bus. I never thought I’d be doing the job I’m currently doing; I wouldn’t have even known the job existed.1 I worry sometimes that society is collapsing in on itself, carving off the steady, organized labor in construction and manufacturing with robots and gig work, while touting a narrow class of keyboard jobs for college graduates. Not much room to role-play as a factory robot when you’re a kid. All that’s left is the headphones.
Ursula Franklin, in The Real World of Technology, talks about “holistic” and “prescriptive” technologies as a means of delineating the kinds of work and workplaces that are characterized by, respectively, specialization by product (a single artisan who hand-carves glasses made of wood) and specialization by process (a factory floor on which each worker performs a specific and repetitive task). It was not always the case that people who work with their hands were considered the underclass—see the long tradition of people who hand-craft watches and violins—but it has, for a very long time, been those people whose jobs are most easily decomposed into assembly lines, where ten times the people can produce a thousand times the output, with a fraction of the control over their work. Out, expertise; in, efficiency.
When I first read The Real World of Technology, I got to thinking a lot about what my role was in my own workplace, and how I do and don’t contribute to the reinforcement of prescriptive technologies in society. In the context of this newsletter: Is Kina modeling a factory foreman? I did highlight a single passage in the book, when I came to it, that I have never forgotten:
Any tasks that require caring, whether for people or nature, any tasks that require immediate feedback and adjustment, are best done holistically. Such tasks cannot be planned, coordinated, and controlled the way prescriptive tasks must be.
At my other (real) job, I am sometimes asked, “What is it we should consistently expect of [job title]s?” As I think about that question, I often wonder if that consistency of expectations is itself a prescriptive tool. Why should I expect the same behaviors and expressions of skill from two different people? What makes me think, even, that creating two separate and distinct buckets to hold them—and others like them—is much better? If we are thinking carefully about each other, we understand that our expectations—each for each—are unique, and that we must be cared for and engaged with similarly, as individuals.
I have long believed that the core expectation of the job I perform at work is, in fact, “caring, whether for people or nature”. I sometimes ask of my boss what his expectations for my job function are, and whether those are, in fact, consistent among me and my peers—not because I think he’s being unfair, but because I wonder if the work that I do for the people who work for me is by its very nature different from the work that my peers do for the people who work for them. If my job is what I think it is, then Ursula Franklin would likely caution me not to refer to myself as a White Collar Yammer Drone. What Kina is modeling, when she tells her invisible coworker “go eat when you’re hungry” and “you look sleepy”, is the holistic behavior of caring.
Kina is rolling with the punches and doing her best and making sure her coworkers are doing okay, just like everybody else these days. There’s a long tradition of care as a craft, arguably much stronger in the years that preceded the Industrial Revolution, and when she puts her headphones on in the morning, that’s what she’s setting out to perform. In her view of the workplace, we carry our babies and delay the launch for a day in order to make our lives possible. We take our work seriously, and we take each other seriously, but we always eat lunch and we are always considerate. There’s somebody on the other side of Kina’s phone call; I don’t know what they do for a living, but I know they’re doing okay, and that Kina hears them just fine.