Emotional labour as a shock absorber

Our bodies are made up of bones, muscles, and organs. Yet that’s not all. There is a wide network of nerves, blood and lympathic vessels to connect them, and there is connective tissue to hold the whole system together: cartilage, tendons, ligaments, and membranes.

Our animal life depends on that connective tissue. Elastic fibres enable movement by stretching, collagen holds the structure in place. This is what keep us whole, and mobile.

The same applies to the social world. Collectives are made of more than bones, muscles and organs. They need shock absorbers, cartilage and glue, to keep us from hurting too much as we bump against each other.   

Diplomats, connectors and care-takers play that role. Gentle movements to soothe inflammation, politeness to reduce the risk of ripping a fragile social fabric. Emotional labour of all sorts.

Those efforts are particularly valuable in all settings where misunderstandings arise easily. Whenever there is difference, injustice, or inherited tensions. Whenever things shift, rub or chafe. Yet as for all harm prevention, we fail to value those who keep society together, then clap those who remediate – or worse, encourage the trouble-makers.

As we face major disruption around the world, it may well be time we rewarded our shock absorbers – or at least, celebrated them enough that they don’t leave us dry when we need them most.

The art of editing

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

The most preventable risk is the risk of misunderstanding. Yet as any teacher would know, getting a point across is difficult work. For we must build not on top of a student’s knowledge, but through their ignorance and prejudice. In the classroom – or in any one-on-one conversation – pointed questions and personal charisma compensate for hazy wording and brain fog. A text has to stand on its own, and withstand the winds of ignorance, with no live human crutch to prop it up.

Ensuring its robustness is the role of an editor.

For this, we use two complementary tools: the scissors and the glue. 

Coco Chanel is our patron saint when it comes to wielding scissors. Our end goal is invisibility, so that the curtains of language won’t obscure the light of intent, meaning and imagery, or drown an original voice under their heavy ruffle. So, before sending a text out the door, we like to take an extra thing off.

More complex is the art of mastering glue. For it requires two different sets of skills.

Editors must engineer the mechanics of a text. We closely follow the sequence of words, sentences, and paragraphs, to make sure that rhythms, emotions and ideas will achieve their intended effect on the reader. For this, we carefully track every cog in the machine, checking that it catches the right wheel, and that nothing comes to block their movement. If things don’t click properly, we must guide the author either to craft and place a new cog, or take apart the whole machinery, and re-assemble it on the basis of a different logic.

Editors also need to master linguistic chemistry, because our text will circulate out there in the world, and interact in the brains of its readers with all sorts of unexpected compounds. We must foresee where an argument might corrode when exposed to the air of media discourse, and place appropriate coating over its more fragile joints. We must anticipate where the cogs will catch and grip, and place just enough oil that the reader won’t get stuck, nor slip. We must expect all sorts of distractions to take eyes away from our text, and therefore lure attention with emotionally loaded scents and decoys. Most importantly, we must consider the natural decay of all things alive: if our aim is longevity, we must ensure that the core web is made of solid verbal material, genuine spider silk, not a flimsy suit of clichés. And finally, we must ensure that the various elements of this textual chemistry, once activated in the brains of readers, will not bring about a toxic shock by reacting with each other, or what was already there – or if there is a risk, ensure that it is taken consciously.

This is the work of an editor. Wow, that’s a lot!

A difficult transition 

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

Our modern society was born of energetic abundance. This is not something we can rely on long-term, not even to the end of our lives. On the one side is climate risk. On the other, even if the climate was stable, we are running out of fossil energy, with no clear prospect of replacing it all with renewables. Not to mention the exhaustion of other natural resources.

We will, at some stage, come to a new regime. We can continue on our course, wait for the crash and hope for the best. Or we can focus our efforts on smooth landing.

If we want to achieve the latter, time is of the essence. We need to work decisively and fast towards a new stable state that is less wasteful. The less fossil energy remains, the more carbon is in the air, the more the climate changes, the more people will suffer and die.  

Our challenge, then, is to negotiate a radical transition as safely as we can. In this, we face three major difficulties.

First, we need a new ‘we’ to take form. The change needed exceeds the mandate of any company, state, or even region of the world. It requires most of humanity – if not all of us – to coordinate our activities. As we come together, we will meet and we must confront the wounds of the past, of colonialism, war and ingrained inequalities, and overcome the mistrust and resentment that is their legacy. We can do so in conscious collaboration, in a constitutional act of global peace-making and reconciliation. Or we can do so by force and cunning, through mass surveillance, physical threat, mind-numbing and propaganda.

Second, technology will play a role in whatever new system we create, and in negotiating the transition. But that role is ambivalent. We can make more efficient machines, to capture energy from renewable sources, store it, and transform it to our benefit. We can use digital technology – Blockchain, Internet, Artificial Intelligence – to think, exchange and communicate more effectively, and to better coordinate our actions and those of our machines. Yet because technology can do so much, we are at risk of leaning on its promise, meanwhile neglecting the human software, and overshooting our window of opportunity. And, we’re at risk that a handful of people will control and optimise technology for their short-term gains, rather than creating a desirable new balance and negotiating the transition for an emerging global ‘we’. 

Third, and most worryingly: we don’t know who to trust. The task ahead has no precedent, and we face it because our elders have failed us. The people in power today, or in the recent past, have a proven track record of radical failure. They did not shift the course of society nearly fast enough or sharply enough. People who never held power have no proven track record of achieving anything. As we look around for prophets and leaders, or struggle to get things done without them, we are at serious risk of falling prey to madness – and give up on the task through sheer overwhelm. 

Corona thoughts – uncertainty

Last year, I joined some sort of day-long leadership retreat. First stop: the St Kilda botanical gardens. After an initial yoga session and nut-heavy breakfast, we formed a circle, and were invited to write about our ‘biggest fear for the future’. After four years working on global catastrophic risk, this is a question I had been reflecting on quite a bit. I realised then that I no longer feared the material collapse of civilisation itself, nor the deaths of billions, nor resource exhaustion. Writing about ecosystem collapse and asteroid impacts is a good vaccine against that. No, but my fear had gone deeper: what I was afraid of, was the moral and spiritual consequences of civilisation collapse.

The fear remains, amplifies even, as the pandemic sweeps across the planet. Oh, by global catastrophic risks standards, Covid-19 is a gentle caress – for it is highly unlikely that more than 2-3% of humanity will die, most likely far fewer people. That’s an order of magnitude smaller than the risks I have grown used to considering. But ethical and moral consequences – yes, I am concerned about.

For one, will we maintain a rational approach to solidarity, or fall for the national fallacy? A friend of mine was circulating a photograph of starving children on Facebook, a reminder that famine is a far greater killer than Covid-19 – but as older white people suffer far less from it, the media pays less attention. Will we, then, continue giving to charities assisting the poorest and most vulnerable on the planet? Will we direct our sanitary efforts where they might have the most impact, and save the most lives? Or as borders close, will we forget about the wider world, and let our concern extend no further than the limits of the state we live in?

Beyond this, I wonder – what do the current patterns of action and spending tell us about our priorities, and what will be the future consequences? Because we were able to – willing to – put the nation on hold to protect our health system and, with it, some of the weakest among us (disproportionately, that is the older part of the population), will we learn that we can demonstrate such solidarity, and will we rally with similar enthusiasm for the sake of the young and  generations yet to be born, ensuring we protect our environment and their future? Or is our current collective behaviour, rallying as one to primarily save the lives of the older among us – not a form of generous solidarity, but another, deeper manifestation of short-termism? For now, we simply do not know.

Corona thoughts – on risk-taking and courage

When I attended the Asialink Leadership program in 2012, I had one important self-discovery: that I was able and willing to operate in very uncertain environments, with no clear short-term reward in sight. What, in career terms, is known as ‘taking risks’. And that it was not the norm.

It came as a surprise. I had been working almost exclusively for the public sector, this program was my first opportunity to spend significant time with ‘people in business’: I had always thought they were the bold ones, and I was meek. Not so: as it turned, they were extremely risk-averse, and their professional life was one of very limited freedom.

Later, I started evolving around start-up and innovation circles. Now, ‘risk appetite’ was hailed as an essential quality: fail often, fail fast, fail forward. I fit in better, but started experiencing myself as too cautious for my way to deal with risk. I would carefully consider options before moving forward, try and assess risk, and only then move ahead – often saying ‘this might go bad, but it might not: let’s do it’. I went against the grain. By default, risk taking came with denial. It seemed impossible to know the risks, acknowledge them, and still go ahead. As if courage would never manifest.

As Covid-19 strikes, our perception of risk might change very deeply.

I originally drafted this note when reading Naomi Klein’s This changes everything, where she follows intricacies of environmental damage and its ethical and political implications. In this field and context, risk-aversion becomes a desirable trait. It may be worth stopping the oil rig before we trigger disastrous chain reactions for an ecosystem – or the whole planet, even if we’re not entirely certain how big the risk is. Just as it is desirable to stop a pandemic early, and for that, know that things might go bad, quickly.

As these various messages about risk fritter in my mind, I have started to wonder if our common language is not confusing two different types of risk: the willingness to lose personal comfort and safety for personal gain, and the willingness to sacrifice the comfort and safety of others. Many entrepreneurs are willing to take personal risks – re-mortgaging their house to fund a new venture, or take on high levels of personal debt – but may neglect to consider how their decisions, if they fail, could harm others. While corporate actors, some of them, are willing to jeopardize the future of the planet to protect their own personal sense of safety. As for public servants, and politicians, they would rather avoid all risks, personal and common. But they face budget limits in how much risk prevention is possible – and often end up developing costly process to reduce the short-term risk of embarrassment, and leave themselves and us exposed to the more unlikely – yet more serious – devastating catastrophes that fall just outside of their remit.

And so, we might ask: is it wise to dig a well of debt, and curb our civil liberties, to tackle what is no longer a risk but a present emergency? Is it indeed serving our interests? Or should we rather, today, focus instead on preventing greater harm in a more distant future? But to do this, we must be willing to see the risk, and make a considered decision through courage and determination, not a rush of panic.

A need for grief

As environmental collapse threatens, we need to grieve the future we thought we had, and the person we thought we would become. Grief for the plans and goals and trajectories we thought we were on, and which will not happen.

This grief is painful, but as long as we block it off, it will prevent us from integrating the truth of our situation. Leave us disconnected from the real, and each other. While, if we were to let ourselves feel the things that come with this new future, we might hope to build a new sense identity, start a new story, and imagine a new world we can build together.

But for this, we need to accept that this world is in its last gasp, and the pain that comes with it.

On repentance and Upheka

Upheka, if we practice it, creates a measure of freedom from past determinations. If collectively practiced, it might lead to a world of greater freedom. Repentance says, I do not want my future to be determined by my past. It is a narrative re-writing of the past in a present that connects to God – in hope that the future can bring absolute consolation. It comes with an overflow of emotion. Upheka meditation, in the same way, is a detachment from the past, an appeal to take actions today that, by their own weight, will lead to positive consequences. It is anchored in the present, finding its boundless possibilities.

In a complex system, the consequences of our action are radically uncertain. Calculated efforts to control outcomes might have severe unintended consequences. Therefore, holding on to firm values becomes a better way to lead our lives. I was invited to write about my biggest fear for the future at a leadership retreat that I joined a few weeks ago. I realised that, after three years working on global catastrophic risk, I no longer feared the material collapse of civilisation itself, the deaths of billions, resource exhaustion. My fear had gone deeper, touching on the moral and spiritual consequence. Should we try to stop climate change, or reduce its effects – certainly we should. But there is another task ahead: when the consequences come, how will we live then?

On meeting people

When preparing for a meeting, whether it’s a potential business connection or a date, it is tempting to think: what is it that I want from my counterpart? And what is it that I need to show them or tell them to get it? But presence has a funny way of surprising us, if we let her. And a simple conversation may reveal unexpected alignments and life-changing common paths ahead.

If we let her. This requires more than listening for the right cue to drop our set piece, meanwhile asking polite questions to build rapport. What shared experiences will trigger trust? Family? Geography? Similar taste in food or wine? Or a seemingly worthless but oh-so-worth-it choice of study major? There is no knowing in advance. Closeness will come in a flash, but first, there may be long, disjointed exchanges.

Often, lacking faith in the powers of genuine curiosity, we fall back on safer patterns. Let’s get to business. This is what I want. What’s your bottom line? What’s in it for you? What’s your price? The transaction might occur; the magic doesn’t. Goods, money, services, bodily fluids are exchanged: the parties can leave. But nothing new to the world has appeared. And frustration lingers.

De l’audace, toujours de l’audace: on creative work and risk

‘De l’audace, toujours de l’audace’ said French revolutionary Danton. His statue figures at the Odeon corner, not far from where I studied in Paris, and I often repeated his words to myself as I passed it. It’s one French trait I have carried with me to Australia, and I have tried to reflect on this part of my heritage.

I recently joined a reflective dinner at Hub Melbourne, where the conversation skimmed over the usual topic of corporate drain vs unpaid creative work, and how to reconcile both. I proposed a different interpretation of the facts, saying that creative work is not ‘underpaid’, but carries a very high level of risk. I was apparently the only one to really believe in that line – and yet I had some evidence to support me. The richest woman in Britain, as far as I know, made her money writing Harry Potter. She took a risk – and won. Many writers fail and remain poor, not because the world ignores their value, not even because they dramatically lack talent – but through the multitude of factors that make any risky venture succeed or fail, and which the classics called luck or fortune. Making large amounts of money from a book, a work of art, or any creative production, is partly talent, partly hardwork, partly good judgement, and partly simple fortune – like making good money from a cycle of the spice trade, on a rough sea.

The point I’m making here does not deny that there may be multiple cases of exploitation, whereby a publishing or producing body absorbs most of the benefits and transfers all risk to the creative agent, but doesn’t share benefits in the same proportion, or keeps them willingly misinformed about the nature of the agreement. More should be said about a fair distribution of risk and benefits across actors in the creative industries – but I believe the inherent risky nature of creative work is a premise that all discussions in this area should integrate. And the recurring ‘pay the writer’ issue could be reframed, at least partly, within the framework of insurance and mutual (financial and personal) risk sharing across the profession.

This is an ongoing theme of reflection for me, and I’ll be coming back to it in further posts – meanwhile, please feel free to comment or disagree – I’m putting this forward as a proposal – it may be quite off the mark.

Shigong – on trusting Chinese infrastructure

‘No, my building is ground zero’, said a friend, ‘I’ve had jackhammers from six again this morning – so I just wake up and walk around – I can’t stay home anymore.’ Massive ‘Shigong’, or infrastructure works, have been going around Nanjing University since I arrived. I’ve had mud up to my ankles on the way back home, walked along a thin ledge of ground beside a moving excavator, and woke up to the pleasant sounds of jackhammers before 6am a few times. Yet I learnt I should count myself among the lucky ones: my jackhammers stopped after a while.

I left for Beijing ten days ago, and expected the Shigong outside my building to be finished when I came back. Indeed, I pulled my suitcase back along a freshly covered path, and the mounds of dirt had been swept clean – beside the thick layer of brown dust, nothing remained of the previous chaos. I put down my bags, and turned on a tap to get water for tea. Nothing came out – and nothing came out from the bathroom taps either. On the little path leading to my compound, I had noticed an unusual line of people queuing in front of a tap with empty water bottles and buckets. I picked up my empties from the kitchen – lazy man’s luck, I had a bunch of four-litre bottles I never bothered throwing away. ‘How long will the water be gone?’ I asked, hoping for quick respite. ‘Day after tomorrow’, replied a neighbour. Then added, philosophically ‘Lucky we got a tap working here, it would be really annoying otherwise’. I nodded. It’s been three days, and the water hasn’t come back. ‘Day after tomorrow’ seems to be short for ‘who knows?’

Running water is such a part of my daily life I hardly notice how much I rely on it every day – whether I quickly wash my hands or clean a cup, running water allows for my daily purification rituals. My dirty laundry took two journeys to the tap – and I collected the used water for my flush. I experienced something, and I’ve grown a deeper appreciation for the daily comforts of life in a developed urban environment. But it surely wasn’t fun or particularly pleasant. So for the last few days, I’ve been just a little bit grumpy, just a little bit frustrated I couldn’t wash properly – body, tea-cup or underwear – and couldn’t get a cup of tea whenever I felt like it without planning ahead.

By global standards, I am still in a privileged environment. A walk down the stairs will take me to the nearest tap, and I won’t have to queue for long. The water there may not have the cleanest taste, but if I boil it properly, I can drink it without immediate harm to my body. And I can get as much as I need for free. By relative standards, however, I am experiencing hardship: ‘if this was a shantytown, I would understand’, commented my father. ‘In a Chinese metropolis, it’s surely not normal’. I live in a rather wealthy central district of Nanjing, the capital of China’s second richest province, and an aspiring global metropolis. Yet as I discover, it’s not simple operating as a fully-connected citizen of the globo-sphere when practical details of your water recycling management require so much attention. And it’s that little bit harder to plan international skype meetings and visits to local innovation communities when you’re not sure you can get a shower, or boil yourself a cup of tea.

‘Not knowing is the worst’, right: this applies to Chinese infrastructure. It’s actually quite good when it works – but you cannot rely on it. I’ve experienced it with internet access, I’ve experienced it with transport, and now I’m experiencing it with running water. 没办法’, there’s no way, say some of the locals, resigned. Others pester with annoyance. The service is gone, the cause isn’t clear, and nobody knows when or if things are gonna work again. In other words, basic infrastructure cannot be trusted – and people treat basic service provision in the same way they deal with major weather events.

This lack of trust in basic infrastructure affects the whole society. If anything might break at any moment without sign of warning, long-term planning and risk management become laughable pursuits. Why build solid, if nothing is assured –cheap, fast and low quality makes more sense among such levels of contingency. Expected standards of service also drop accordingly: my cashier/waiter/doctor/ teacher/manager might have no running water today, no wonder they’re in a bad mood. Maybe this transaction cannot be completed on time, because some part of the system has collapsed. Let’s try it anyway – but if it seems too hard, we should give up: surely something must be wrong somewhere, or we’re just out of luck. And this attitude, in turn, breeds further chaos.