Care, automation and design

amelia abreu
Jun 28, 2016 · 8 min read

I’ve been thinking about care work and technology lately, and last week, I gave this talk at Open Source Bridge, here in Portland. Here’s Part II.

Part I introduced care ethics and care politics. Part III discusses what Star Trek and Cheers tell us about care and the workplace. In Part IV, I conclude and talk about next steps.

Subscribe to my Tinyletter to get occasional updates on this project and other things I’m working on.

Image for post
Image for post
Chore Board at Hazelnut Grove Camp, North Portland ( via OPB)

The walls around the tech industry are really high. It’s easy to forget that - I know I do. But I want to talk a little bit about the discomfort this brings me, and ponder it a bit.

It’s not just that these walls are high —this condition makes our our thinking and connecting and collaborating really insular, both in local and global contexts. The rise in income inequality is particularly egregious in North America, but present throughout the world. And it’s important that we think about the role of the tech industry, not just in the ways we see around us, but on a global scale. My focus in this talk is not on global issues, like substandard labor conditions in hardware manufacturing, or the environmental impact of our supply chain. But these are crucial to note, and to question. With our focus on metrics, on data, on transparency, why is it that the supply chain of our technology is so opaque? As I’ve said before, why exactly should I be more concerned with the number of steps I’ve taken in a day than the labor and environmental conditions behind my gadgets?

I believe in the transformative possibilities of technology, but I can’t ignore that we are living in a time where, as my own grandparents would say, (all of whom lived long lives full of hard work and sacrifice and required extensive care at the end of them), “they make old people eat shoe leather”.

Here in Portland, the safe sleep measure has made tent camping legal, making our homeless population visible, in the midst of the biggest housing crisis we’ve seen in my lifetime. The fastest growing portion of the homeless population are families with children. My heart breaks every day at the thought of other mothers living on the street, or in their car, with kids. As I bike down the Springwater, along the highway corridors, I see old folks, young folks, folks my own age, with no other choice than sleeping on the street. The growing income inequality gap terrifies me, I cannot look away.

Care ethics seem absent not just in the development of technologies, but in their design. The tech industry is so proudly disrupting care and service work: Uber, TaskRabbit, Instacart, Postmates. These are triumphs of so-called service design: aligning interfaces with infrastructure with human labor on demand, allowing for maximum convenience for paying customers, lowest wages for laborers. It’s an automation of care, with humans holding the various parts together and doing the things we haven’t yet been able to get machines to do.

This leads me to feel a deep and growing sense of ambivalence about my own work, in experience and service design, and its social consequences. Look at this graphic from the design agency Adaptive Path. It advocates obscuring systems, and replacing them with “magic”.

Image for post
Image for post
Adaptive Path, you do great work, don’t get me wrong. But this is childish and cruel.

(and yes, I know the reference to Clarke’s third law, but let’s unpack that some other time.)

Because to take such an approach is both insulting and ignorant to the people who maintain the systems and further, infantilizing to those who consume them. Where is the supply chain? Where is the responsibility? There is a balance, I would argue, in transparency and convenience.

This leads me to ask (really, to shout) the question: WHO ARE WE BUILDING TECHNOLOGIES FOR ANYWAY?

Tech leadership remains, stubbornly, white and male, clustered in a handful of affluent urban and suburban environments, despite the fact that, uh, everyone uses technology.

People of color are underrepresented in technology work overall, and in leadership even more so. In my own work, I struggle with advocating for a user-centric approach when the folks making it seem removed from a larger reality, so lacking in an ethic of care, or a sense of caregiving, for the people who rely on technology.

I’ll gladly talk about theories about and benefits of participatory approaches to designing technologies, but who gets to participate?

Image for post
Image for post
Design thinking bro sesh at Google Ventures’ Design Sprints (via Fast Company)

A few weeks ago, the brilliant Katie Notopoulos wrote, of Apple’s implied subjects:

The prototypical Apple demo person is someone I’ll call Apple Man. Apple Man is a fortysomething dad who just wants to FaceTime his adorable children while he’s on a business trip, and also find a local pourover coffee shop while he’s in town. Apple Man has an Apple Watch (obvious). He needs a way to manage his photos of his adorable children and hiking trips with friends. He loves jogging and mountain biking and wants to use his Apple Watch to monitor his workouts, because he LOVES working out. Apple Man is very fit for his age — you can just barely tell he’s totally ripped through his light blue, off-the-rack, wrinkle-free, button-down shirt. Apple Man has a great head of hair. Apple Man owns his home and wants to be able to open his garage door from his phone to park his family-sensible-yet-sporty-crossover. (He’s on the Tesla Model 3 preorder list.) He wants to make brunch plans, and it would be great if he could add a brunch plan to his calendar app directly from text messages. Apple Man wants to track his health, but of course he has no need for a period tracker. His calendar is full; his inbox is zero.

This prototypical subject isn’t just a fringe case of extreme privilege, he’s also someone who is unconcerned with the work and logistics of care, yet very excited by making things just a little bit easier, especially relationships. He can’t be bothered with the day-to-day care of his children, but he can FaceTime them. (Absentee fathers are a recurring theme in FaceTime and Apple’s marketing, if you haven’t noticed.)

In this mindset, self-tracking and life documentation isn’t framed as self-care, or care of others. Rather, monitoring metrics for fun - Product Management for daily life.

The Apple Man she describes looks a lot like leaders in the tech industry.

It’s perhaps not by accident that Silicon Valley, and by extension the tech industry as a whole, sees as its ideal employee a healthy, able bodied, unmarried, young, cisgendered male, preferably white, one who has, in relation to other folks in the world, very few care responsibilities: no elderly parents to care for, no children for whom he is their primary caregiver, no time-consuming obligations in the community. One who is happy to engage in impromptu all night code sprints, travel freely for off-sites and conferences, and require few accommodations doing so and appearing to enjoy it among his peers.

It’s telling the aspects of caregiving, and general self care, that Silicon Valley has invested money into automating: food with Soylent, countless laundry startups, services to send computer generated texts in the interest of romance, (Chris Trout very kindly sent me some autogenerated romance texts this winter) grocery shopping with Instacart, shopping for clothes, buying snacks.

Anna Weiner writes, describing life in a San Francisco startup: “my coworkers all signed up for (a personal shopping service), and three guys came into work wearing the same sweater”.

In this mindset, care is a problem to be solved.

It’s too bad if you or your loved ones require an amount of care that might get in the way of productivity, of seamless integration. We tend to operate from an assumption of “no caring responsibilities”, and thus can only act reactively to situations where care makes one stand out: If you have to pick up your children from care by a certain time every day, if you have a loved one whose care you oversee.

But these markers of care, they come up not just around who has to leave the office at 5:30 every day, but also in ways that demonstrate (dis)ability, neurotypicality, health, gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and religious or cultural differences.

If you yourself need routine medical care. If you get pregnant. If you have to skip the pizza at the hackathon, because you need be careful with your diet, and need to prepare your own meals. If you have a pet with a medical condition you need to tend to. If you have an eating disorder. If you’re a recovering alcoholic. If you need time alone, down time, as a means of self care.

If, in order to be connected to your culture, and your community, you have to find that community outside of work, outside of, gasp, the internet.

All of these “ifs” serve, as Leigh Star phrased it, “a good vehicle for understanding some of the small, distributed costs and overheads associated with the ways in which individuals, organizations and standardized technologies meet”. (She was writing about her own allergy to onions).

We are told, in the discourse of power and productivity, by many small costs and at many little intersections individuals, organizations, and standardized technologies, implicitly, that taking time to care for others, or even taking time for oneself, does not add value.

But where does it leave the rest of us?

I struggle constantly with this tension: that folks who work in technology want to build things for people like themselves, who are, in fact, a shrinking minority. I don’t understand how their lives work, and despite my best efforts, I can’t become one of them. Attrition spikes for women in tech at around age 35.

I struggle so much that caring about people and things sometimes feels like hitting a wall. That being the primary caregiver to a kid: taking her and picking her up from school, taking care of her when she is sick, being present in her life, is something my peers don’t think is valuable. My life, and my work is enriched by being a part of my community, and my extended network of friends and family. Moreover, I’m made to challenge my beliefs, my attitudes, when I encounter people different from me: from different backgrounds, different beliefs, different abilities, different ideas about what constitutes a good life.

These are the people I want to build technology for, not just to entertain them and deliver conveniences, but to make their lives, especially as workers, safer, more just, and more meaningful.

I’m not here to make normative judgments about how other folks live their lives, but I fear the consequences of how little care work is recognized by the current crop of tech leaders.

The lifestyle of the productive, 10x tech worker, or tech manager ideal, relies heavily on outside care networks, on spouses, on domestic labor, for day-to-day comforts, for community, for childcare, for companionship. And this is short-sighted, because it overlooks how most of the world lives, and the real challenges of our current political and economic climate, and the health of our planet.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch

Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore

Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store