August 09, 2015

Curios Cargo 5: Of Battled Matter & Chains Supplied Soylently

I begin by introducing two Highly Revealing Terms: Matter Battle and the Soylent Supply Chain. I end by making an attempt at linking these notions to emotional labour and its place in the time of automation and small-run manufacturing.

The Matter Battle was defined in 2011 by Bryan Boyer.

One enters a Matter Battle when there is an attempt to execute the desires of the mind in any medium of physical matter. Any act of construction (such as building a building) is a good example of a Matter Battle. To lesser degrees, reaching for something on a high shelf, baking a pie, drawing a line, and other similar acts also qualify as Matter Battles.

Boyer warns that in the physical world, there isn’t an undo, that three-dimensional things can’t occupy the same space, that material is hard to work with, and expensive, and prone to breaking.

There is a dark humour to the term—it’s an attempt to explain the behaviour and properties of the physical world to people who have spent so much time working in a virtual/digital context that they’ve forgotten how objects operate. It’s a reversal of the crude desktop metaphors and folder/trash can icons used to make the alien rules of the computer intelligible to paper office workers. A world that needs notions like Matter Battle is one that takes seriously the idea that atoms are the new bits! (No they aren’t!)

Andrew ‘bunnie’ Huang’s 2014 chapter contribution to Maker Pro which he calls Soylent Supply Chain could have just as easily been called People Battle. In an eerie parallel to the Matter Battle essay, Huang explains to his hardware startup audience that even though the global supply chain seems like a fully automated series of connected factories and distribution centres that you can query with APIs and purchase orders, there are in fact people operating them and perhaps you’d get better results if you were kind to the people. One gets the impression from the chapter that he’s had to dispense this advice to individuals many times. There are two threads I want to tease out of this.

First thread: This offers an interesting twist on the question of emotional labour. Jess Zimmerman writes about unwritten rules and expectations that govern pervasive beliefs that women should be patient listeners, that this work is important but not valuable and not to be paid for (and not even work). In commercial practice, emotional labour is the idea that service should always come with a smile, whatever the disposition of the customer. The gender/service division of emotional labour is blurred by the tendency of service jobs to employ women. Huang’s chapter reverses the polarity, suggesting that if you can bring yourself to do some emotional labour as a client, it could be a competitive advantage.

Second thread: There is a class of startups all loosely gathered under the very large ‘sharing economy’ umbrella that are the current darlings of venture capital in Silicon Valley. Unlike past waves of Internet startups that were primarily interested in organizing information or converting the physical or social worlds into information, the sharing economy startups are interested in using information to organize the physical world into services. Uber will turn your car into a taxi, AirBnB will turn your home into a hotel, TaskRabbit will turn you into a Passepartout.

To varying degrees, these services are trying to implement the algorithmic automated relationships that Huang warns hardware makers not to expect. All offer some kind of reputation system by which each side of a transaction might distill their experience to a star rating for their counterpart. In turn, these ratings are used to govern how users of the services relate. The base philosophy is that “interpersonal exchanges are more appropriately mediated by algorithms than by one’s own competence,” writes Adam Greenfield in an analysis of Uber’s values. All it takes is a button push to start or end a relationship.

But in those reputation systems, People Battles lurk. Greenfield documents the advice that Uber drivers leave for one another on message boards. “Those who wish to receive high ratings from their passengers are advised to ensure that their vehicles are well-equipped with amenities (mints, bottled water, WiFi connectivity), and remain silent unless spoken to.” Drivers whose reputation scores fall too low don’t get as many ride requests. “Judging from conversations among drivers, further, the criteria on which this all-important performance metric is assessed are subjective and highly variable, meaning that the driver has no choice but to model what they believe riders are looking for in the proverbial ‘good driver,’ internalize that model and adjust their behavior accordingly.”

Let’s bring those threads together: “It is hard to communicate in words. It is work,” writes Joanne McNeil. “What was once the concern of professional writers is now a burden we all share, as we communicate all day long over email and texts.” Tired of doing the work, she made a Chrome plugin to do it for her. Click a button after writing your email and it adds stock phrases and exclamation marks to make the email seem more cheerful.

McNeil’s plugin is an art project, but it’s a response in part to Romantimatic which is not an art project but an earnest attempt to automate the sweet little nothings that strengthen the bonds of an intimate relationship. Romantimatic’s creator, Greg Knauss found himself at the centre of a firestorm after he released the app, which was taken to be emblematic of a software solutionist approach to human interaction.

“I don’t mean to play on stereotypes, but the app was basically written for nerds,” Knauss writes in its defence. “These are my people. The whole notion of being so over-focused that an entire day goes by is basically nerd canon. Plus, nerds are used to using tools, especially digital ones. They’re comfortable with it. They have entwined software deep into their lives, and like it that way. Beep boop beep, nerds! Greetings!“

Greetings nerds! Remember that matter is different from software. Remember that dealing with humans is different from sending commands to an API. Consider the possibility that the sweet nothings people want to hear are not valuable in and of themselves, but only as indicators of an internal state. Consider that an automated “can’t get you out of my mind” does not carry the same message as those same words in that same order written and sent in the moment. Recognize that emotional labour is hard and that what your partners are probably looking for is someone willing to work hard for them.

For a more professional approach, there is Crystal, a service that promises to analyze your contacts based on their social media presence etc. and give you customized advice on how to communicate with them. This person prefers direct questions, that person likes it when you mix in a little chit chat. “Crystal is a new technology built upon an ancient principle: Communicate with empathy,“ says the marketing copy. “Crystal helps you understand how your personality-type blends with others, even if you haven't met them yet.”

I have some pointed questions about the idea of automated empathy.

Before I get up too high on my horse, history has some pointed lessons for me. Though the details are wrapped into the exiting new realm of digital screens, mobile phones, and factories reachable by email, my questions are not new. How to Win Friends and Influence People is 79 years old. The smoothing of urban space for the affluent that Greenfield laments in his Uber analysis is not that different from that one that Walter Benjamin laments in Arcades Project. I’m sure that with a little looking I could find plenty of earlier instances of advice manuals for controlling and persuading others in your mission to Get Things Done. Machiavelli’s The Prince for one.

Is there something special about the present condition? People have been battling matter for a long, long time. People have needed organizing and managing for a long, long time. But the Matter Battle and the Soylent Supply Chain only become worth naming and explaining once enough people have spent enough time immersed in the digital realm that these other realms become mysterious. And also the digital had to spread far enough and grow strong enough that its denizens could look at those newly alien worlds and believe, “Yeah, I should run them too.”

Think about the disposition necessary to say (and think!) “software is eating the world” instead of something like “the world is finding uses for software.” Consider the process by which software financiers gained the swagger of kings. It is not that long ago that the social awkwardness attributed to software makers was understood as a weakness, not a strength.

Maybe what’s different is geographic—the fragmentation and dispersion of these conditions made possible by mobile devices and telecommunications and warehouses full of servers. It is one thing to have the mall over there, keeping out undesirables. It is another to have bubbles of that exclusivity available at the push of a button. Is the fact that these same technologies allow demands for emotional labour to follow women around in their inboxes and IM clients relevant? Is the fact that these same technologies allow us to work from home or to order up 2,000 parts from home relevant? These blurring divisions seem important.

Maybe digital/physical is the wrong axis. Maybe the more important thing is the blurring of retail and wholesale. Retail transactions have long been smoothed for the client’s benefit. The rise of small run manufacturing—made possible by new production methods and lines that are more quickly tooled up—has meant that more retail-class people think they are wholesalers. Or maybe what’s at play is that these wholesale manufacturers haven’t yet learned how to be retailers. Perhaps we will be able to trace the history of the power relations between hardware startups and small run manufacturers by who needed to become polite faster. Which side of the transaction has the most to gain from something like Crystal? Will someone launch Uber for manufacturing?

Hanging over all of this are long term trends in labour. Jerry Kaplan suggests the ongoing waves of automation will be worse for men than women because “women typically work in more chaotic, unstructured environments, where the ability to read people’s emotions and intentions are critical to success.“ Which is to say that service jobs have historically been devalued and relegated to women’s work, but they are much harder to automate because relating to people is haaaaard. Jamais Cascio calls this the pink collar future. Kaplan suggests that this could lead to a world where the men stay home.

But the stereotypes and expectations around gender are fluid. Computer programming used to be women’s work until it was masculinized. Despite the idea that emotional labour is women’s work, few bat an eye at male psychologists, male coaches, male salespeople, male attorneys, male managers, male interrogators, and male high-powered negotiators. There are plenty of ways to rewrite all kinds of jobs into heroic situations where the ability to read people’s emotions and intentions are critical to success.

The dark humour of the Soylent Supply Chain is that it’s an attempt to explain the behaviour and properties of the social interactions to people who have spent so much time working in a virtual/digital context that they’ve forgotten how people operate. Or to pick up on Zimmerman’s reading, it’s an indictment of people who’ve never had to learn, and who—for whatever mixture of privilege and retail living—believe they can just demand good service for free.

These are, ultimately, questions about how power mixes with messy feelings—who gets to have the messy feelings and who gets to clean them up. Even high-powered negotiators, managers, and psychologists typically have personal assistants who are expected to absorb all kinds of strange situations.

One enters a People Battle when there is an attempt to execute the desires of the mind in any situation of human relations. Any transaction (such as hiring a supplier) is a good example of a People Battle. To lesser degrees, managing a company, ordering dinner, talking on the phone, writing an email, and other similar acts also qualify as People Battles.

Thanks for reading these emails! And—I mean this sincerely, now more than ever—I hope this finds you well.


PS: I had some idea when I started writing this that I’d weave in Codes of Conduct, but it didn’t work out. So I’m noting that here as a possibly instructive Road Not Taken.

PPS: For a glimpse into the ways a fully functioning retail peer-esque economy smooths things over, please enjoy this video aimed at people trying to sell things through Amazon. It is basically a supercut of Amazon employees throwing their hands up in frustration at your terrible packing.

PPPS: Should you ever doubt the possibility of masculinizing emotional labour, I draw your attention to the Alec Baldwin speech from Glengarry Glenn Ross. And then to the rest of Glengarry Glenn Ross.

INCIDENT REPORT: This letter series has gone ONE publication without mentioning Apple.