Careful Industries
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Careful Industries

Systemic Digital Care

Exploring innovation as care work

Two hands holding a heart
Two hands supporting a heart

I read this post by Meg Conley this week and it stopped me in my tracks, particularly this sentence: “Care work is the anticipation of grief.” This post is a rumination on how that term applies to care in a very different context.

Being care-full

The research studio I work at is called Careful Industries. The name reflects the fact that the work we do is both deliberative and full of care: care as a craft, a political orientation, and an ongoing commitment to generosity.

Many of our projects involve looking ahead for our clients. We do research that anticipates the social impacts of technologies and develop relational programmes and strategies that, in the words of bell hooks, strive to “bring traditionally silenced perspectives ‘from the margin to the center’”.*

Anyway, as you can see, it’s hard to give that a pithy label and a lot of the commonly used terms don’t quite do the job: “digital ethics” are often subjective and sometimes an excuse for acting ahead of law; responsible tech doesn’t work because everyone should be responsible; and our particular kind of work doesn’t directly help people practice better digital self-care (although, if you want advice on that, get Seyi Akiwowo’s brilliant new book ).

But reading Meg Conley’s Substack, I realised that sentence — which relates to care in a totally different context — encapsulates something useful. Much of our work can be described as systemic digital care work in anticipation of grief.

Care as an anticipatory act

Conley’s framing seems revelatory because care work is often characterised as a bundle of physical acts and emotional feelings, but in reality it involves predicting eventualities, mitigating the mitigatable, and softening the blows of the unavoidable.

Care work is the anticipation of grief is a beautiful articulation of care as a thoughtful and a thinking practice; a constant loop of recognising and managing risk. Taking care involves noticing and remembering, writing lists and prioritising; doing the right things in the right order to get to the best outcomes in the circumstance.

When I remind my son to put a jumper in his school bag on a sunny day, it’s because I’ve looked at the weather forecast and know it will be colder later. Likewise, when we reply to a government consultation , it’s because we’ve looked at the proposals and know the outcomes will be unjust or unworkable. Both things occur in the hope of offering some protection against the future.

Not having to worry about taking care — not living in a constantly anticipatory space — is a privilege. It might mean that someone else cares for you, or that consequences cannot harm you. Perhaps you’re young and fearless, or older with established power. Maybe you consider yourself to be a rule maker not a rule taker, or your start-up is so high on VC money it feels as if the world is rising up to meet you and you’ll never need to look down again.

But — on a burning planet — exercising this kind of short-termist power is nostalgic and unsustainable. In the technology industry — which loves a quick win, a fast buck, and military metaphor — this is often mistaken for “innovation”, but it’s really just the patriarchy with added AI.

Innovation as care work

Innovation can also be sympathetic, additional, long-termist, and nurturing. It doesn’t need to involve “blitz-scaling” or “disrupting”: it can also involve replacing failing systems; removing barriers; creating ease; and retiring the old and midwifing the new .

This kind of careful innovation aligns more closely with how most of us live. Most people have to think ahead all of the time — perhaps because they care for other people, or because there is no one else to care for them. Taking care in everyday life is not an act of weakness, but a sign of preparedness; it is at the heart of all good services and is essential for renewable and sustainable policies.

Routine, anticipatory acts of care are often invisible. They might involve doing sums in your head in the supermarket, prioritising which bills to pay and/or which meals to skip. Maybe it’s getting a cab you can’t afford because you don’t want to walk home in the dark, or because you’re saving your spoons to get through the week. Whether it’s always carrying your ID in case you get stopped — or never carrying it for the same reason; keeping period products and a pack of painkillers in your bag at all times; getting the bus before the one that gets there on time because you’ll get the sack if you’re late; avoiding eye contact so strangers don’t speak to you in the street. One way or another, most people have a lot on their mind. Most people are taking care of a great deal of business just to get through the day.

Systemic digital care is the opposite of disruption — that doesn’t mean it’s easier. It involves helping traditionally powerful people find ways to give their power away or to share it with others; to make choices that will be rewarding and regenerative over time, but difficult and counter-intuitive in the short-term. It’s a process that involves both looking ahead and learning from history, developing new models and paradigms, and celebrating and centring inspirational and equitable ways of working.

There’s an extent to which we’re still working some of this out, and we don’t have all the answers, but care is also about learning and responding to feedback and continuing to try harder to get it right. Our aim at Careful Industries is to help more people make technologies that do not create grief — to champion products and services that put the concerns of people on the margins first, and to nurture new ways of innovating that are better for people and the planet.

REFERENCES

*This framing, via my colleague Dominique Barron, is from Shantel Gabrieal Buggs, Jennifer Patrice Sims & Rory Kramer’s paper, “Rejecting white distraction”, which in turn builds on bell hooks’ seminal Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center.

A blue heart

Originally published at https://www.careful.industries on July 2, 2022.

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Blogposts from the Careful Industries team, a UK research studio

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Rachel Coldicutt

Rachel Coldicutt

Exploring careful innovation, community tech and networked care. Day job: @carefultrouble .