The Pixel-Based Employee: In Praise of Remote Working

This is how most of my press releases get written.  Image by Shutterstock
I work from home, but not because I wanted to stay home with the kids. At the time of the arrangement, I had just moved to Maine, this position opened up, and my employers were willing to give the idea of my staying in Maine and working remotely a shot, and it worked out. I’ve been very glad and grateful for it.

While I know there are a lot of benefits to in-person interaction with one’s coworkers, and that there really is something useful about being able to pop by someone’s desk to check in on something or air an idea, I do think there is something very freeing about remote work that binding oneself to an office environment can stifle.

Mandy Brown, who writes the wonderful A Working Library blog, has a great piece on making the best out of remote-working teams, scenarios in which most or all members of a working group are in disparate locations. “Our communication is no less real for its delivery via pixels rather than sound waves,” she says, and I agree. She writes:

Remote working encourages habits of communication and collaboration that can make a team objectively better: redundant communication and a naturally occurring record of conversation enable team members to better understand each other and work productively towards common ends. At the same time, an emphasis on written communication enforces clear thinking, while geography and disparate time zones foster space for that thinking to happen. In that way, remote teams are more than just a more humane way of working: they are simply a better way to work.

I recommend the whole thing, but a central bit of advice she gives really rings true to me, the bit in the above quote about redundant communication. Because so much of remote work is done over email and other written platforms, it’s understandable to think that anything said in those media are now set in stone, as it were, now enshrined as part of the Official Record, and now generally understood. But as anyone who deals with a lot of email knows, these messages can come through in such volume, often with so much content and insufficient context , and often with tons of gobbledygook embedded in endless email threads, that it’s rather easy for important things to be missed. Decisions might have been made, ideas finalized, plans made, and yet not everyone will be up to speed because the data was lost in the back-and-forth. Better to be repetetive than to lose time and effort to easy misses.

While at my job there is a central main office, there are also branch offices and other folks in different parts of the world, so we are in large part a “remote team,” even if unofficially, meaning that we have to contend with this kind of thing organizationally anyway. As Brown says in her piece, it makes sense for everyone in organizations and teams to get into the headspace and practices of remote working regardless of whether they themselves come into the office every day:

It’s easy … for the remote team members to end up as second-class citizens, always a step behind their in-office counterparts. Many remote workers I spoke to voiced anxiety about being neglected, simply because their colleagues naturally prioritized the needs of the people they could see face-to-face each day. It’s necessary for everyone on a team to adapt to remote work, even those who continue to commute to a traditional office each day.

I don’t feel this kind of neglect, other than missing out on what I metioned before, the unavoidable fact that there are benefits to being in the same space as other folks, learning more about them personally from day by day experience with each other, which leads to a particular kind of understanding and chemistry. But as an introvert, working remotely removes many of the stresses I might feel from constant human proximity and the social pressures that stem from that. For me, it’s been a great arrangement, and I think I perform better as a result.

Bolstering my good feelings about remote working is a piece at Quartz by Anna Codrea‑Rado on the opposite of remote working: open-plan offices. And it turns out, while kind of faddish in recent years, they’re not all that great for, well, work:

Writing in the Journal of Environment and Behavior, Aoife Brennan, Jasdeep Chugh and Theresa Kline found that such workers reported more stress, less satisfaction with their environment and less productivity. Brennan et al went back to survey the participants six months after the move and found not only that they were still unhappy with their new office, but that their team relations had broken down even further.

Other research she cites notes the problem of distractions from conversations and phones and other sounds stunting productivity. Additional research shows that workers in open-plan situations were taking more sick days – and quite possibly because, well, it was easier to get sick!

And again, this is an introvert’s nightmare, having to do productive, thoughtful work while always feeling the press of impending social stress.

Now, when I worked in media research at the 2008 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, we were in an open-plan situation (“plan” used loosely), but we were all so unbelievably consumed and busy, that we were largely de facto cubicled. There just wasn’t time to look up or over at your coworkers for much. But even then, it added to the stress for me. Which is saying something.

I know there is a middle ground here, an office environment in which people’s personal space is respected, and a good in-person rapport is free to develop (assuming such a rapport between two given individuals is possible). I sometimes see office environments I admire and think about how it might be a cool thing to work in a setup like that. But I wouldn’t want to trade the freedom and, yes, increased productivity that remote working provides me. I usually wear pants, too. Just to make it feel more like work.

But I’d never do remote working with the kids at home all day. Not at their current ages, anyway. I can’t parent rowdy and needy toddlers and at the same time work to save secularism. For now, my kids have a great daycare that really enriches them, and builds them up socially.

They commute.

Thoughts on an iMortal Podcast

My public is waiting to hear from me!!!
I think that iMortal should have a podcast.

The subject matter of the site is ripe for conversational exploration, and I have a number of friends and colleagues who would be great to talk to about the various topics that fall under this site’s (admittedly pourous) umbrella; technology, humanism, media, and culture. I feel that as the site’s author, I can better elaborate on my own thoughts, and explore new ones with guests and panelists.

Less nobly, I am (or was?) a performer by trade. I enjoy the act of expounding upon subjects for which I have a passion. And I feel like a broadcast of some sort would go a long way to help with the iMortal “brand,” open up the site to new audiences, and reveal new avenues as yet unconsidered. Who knows?!

I’m about to take a week off of work with some vacation time I’ve saved up, and I’m not traveling. Among the things I want to do with this time (which includes healthy doses of “nothing”) is seriously explore the possibility of, and perhaps even launch, an iMortal podcast.

But what should it be?

You might know that on my personal site, Near-Earth Object, I did eleven episodes of a show called the Obcast which primarily used a longform interview format; me and a guest for one to two hours. There were also two “special” episodes that were panel discussions with me and two guests conversing about a specific topic. Though I really enjoyed the interview shows, they were stressful to set up and prepare for, and relied heavily upon the availability of guests, and over time I grew to look forward to them less. (Though I always enjoyed the actual interviews themselves, with every guest, from episode “zero” to the last.) After a couple of booked guests had to cancel on me (totally legitmately), I lost some momentum, and simply never recovered it.

At this point, I’m pretty sure an iMortal show would not exclusively be an interview show, but I don’t want to rule solo interviews out entirely. I have a number of potential guests in mind I’d like to speak to on their own, as opposed to sticking them in a group setting.

But largely I did find the panel discussion format far more fun. I worry that this is because it’s more akin to hanging out with friends than anything else, and might not be as enjoyable for the listener, who may prefer a more focused interview. But who is “the listener”? No one right now. So, again, who knows?

This is all to say that I’m still working out what this ought to be. And it doesn’t even begin to address the issues of who I would have on the show (regular co-hosts? rotating panelists?), how often I would do it (I have a full time job and small children), on what platform I’d host it, how I’d pay for said hosting, what specific topics I’d cover, what structure the show should have, and a pleathora of others concerns.

But it’s amazing how sometimes questions just answer themselves once you resolve to do something. I wager that if I plow ahead next week, I may have something before I know it. What will that something be?

Who knows!?!

Update: One thing I do know, is that it won’t just be a bunch of dudes. If the last thing the Internet needs is another podcast by some nerd guy, the super-last thing it needs is one that only has other nerd guys on it.

The Apple Ethos is Bigger Than Apple Itself

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The idea of Apple as a “cult” or “religion” is often expressed somewhat derisively, but there’s no doubt that for many, many people the company represents something beyond the products it produces, particularly when referring to Steve Jobs’s Apple in particular. When Jobs died, I wrote about how the grieving wasn’t exclusively about the loss of a man, but of an ethos, a way of thinking and working. Here’s John Gruber explaining that ethos back when Jobs resigned in 2011, as his illness was overtaking him:

The company is a fractal design. Simplicity, elegance, beauty, cleverness, humility. Directness. Truth. Zoom out enough and you can see that the same things that define Apple’s products apply to Apple as a whole. The company itself is Apple-like. The same thought, care, and painstaking attention to detail that Steve Jobs brought to questions like “How should a computer work?”, “How should a phone work?”, “How should we buy music and apps in the digital age?” he also brought to the most important question: “How should a company that creates such things function?”

And then Gruber ends with the refrain that was often heard during the transition from the Jobs era to that of Tim Cook:

Jobs’s greatest creation isn’t any Apple product. It is Apple itself.

Jobs himself probably knew this, that the ethos of Apple was the product, the one that would birth all others to come. And that’s why he established Apple University in 2008, an institution internal to Apple that would formalize the propagation of the company culture long after he’d be there to do it himself. Brian X. Chen at the New York Times got some rare glimpses into Apple University, which, like the rest of Apple, is kept under tight wraps.

Read the article if you’re curious about things like the individual classes, but this quote from analyst Ben Bajarin is a good idea of what the motivation behind it is:

When you do the case studies on Apple decades from now, the one thing that will keep coming out is this unique culture where people there believe they’re making the best products that change people’s lives. That’s all cultural stuff they’re trying to ingrain. That becomes very difficult the bigger you get.

And from Apple folks Chen spoke to:

[Employees] described a program that is an especially vivid reflection of Apple and the image it presents to the world. Like an Apple product, it is meticulously planned, with polished presentations and a gleaming veneer that masks a great deal of effort.

Most folks will hear about Apple University and the attempts to codify the Jobs ethos and presume this applies more or less exclusively to the goings-on in Cupertino. But I can tell you from my own experience as a blue-shirted retail drone that, university or no university, the culture and values of Jobs and the company are instilled across the corporation’s many manifestations.

Matthew Panzarino understood this when he wrote his own response to Jobs’s resignation:

This philosophy has been instilled in Apple employees from the Retail Stores to the executive staff. No other major technology company employs staff as convinced that they are producing some of the best products in the world. This is a result of Jobs’ ability to lead by example, infusing the corporate culture with that same passion and pride of a creator.

To the retail employees, the store was (and I assume is) as much an iconic product as any iThing, where even those of us at the bottom of the ladder felt a little drunk on the effects of Reality Distortion Field and googly-eyed from the glow of the logo. There’s a reason why a customer’s experience with employees at Apple Stores is so vastly different from anything else in the mall, and most anywhere else for that matter.

It seems to me, given that the Apple ethos is being instilled in a formalized way within the company, that it’s kind of a shame that it isn’t done outside the company as well. Not by Apple itself, of course, as that would be against its interests as a company; why teach competitors how to do what you do?

But go back to the retail example. Now that I know how things were done within Apple Retail, imperfect as it was, I’m now ruined for all retail experiences outside the metallic box of the Apple Store. From high to low-end, I leave most retail experiences sorely disappointed, shaking my head and thinking about how whatever I just went through would never fly at Apple. There would have been an extra mile not traveled, a question unasked, a consideration not made.

This is just one example. Imagine if more aspects of life – be they commercial, governmental, artistic…anything – were to take more of an intentional queue from the way Apple works, or at least strives to work. Maybe there’s something funny about the idea of the “Cult of Apple” and the messiah Steve Jobs (peace be upon him). But if someone truly qualified offered a course or a certification in this ethos, I’d sign up right quick.

Apple may have been Steve Jobs’s greatest product, but it’s the ethos that fuels it is an even better one. I certainly wouldn’t want a world of short-fused, megalomaniacal Steve Jobses, but I would like a culture that aspires more intentionally to the fractal Gruber described: “Simplicity, elegance, beauty, cleverness, humility. Directness. Truth.” That’s a church I could believe in.

One Way to Play “50 Ways”

My dad and my daughter.
What happens if you play Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” as a slow, bluesy, pained, Neil Young-inspired number?

Let me back up. Yes, I’m a musician and songwriter, and I don’t think I suck or anything, but the real musical powerhouse bearing the Fidalgo name is my dad Phil Fidalgo, a true savant with guitar and songwriting, and who knows more songs than a troupe full of Edemah Ruh. He regularly meets up with some musician friends of his and they come up with interesting arrangements for various tunes, and this new one I thought was particularly brilliant.

You’re going to be listening to it, you’ll be thinking “Well this is good, but this style is just not going to work once he gets to the faster chorus,” and then you hear it and you’re like, “OMG this is how this song should always be played.”

Enjoy.

Spark! A Telekinetic Girl Superhero is Pitched for a Brilliant New Comic

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A few weeks ago I came upon perhaps my favorite website ever, Little Girls Are Better At Designing Superheroes Than You, where Alex Law and others are sent photos of real little girls in their own, self-designed superhero costumes, and illustrate them in full comic book glory. It’s one of those “I’m glad to be alive to see this” kind of websites, delightful for a number of wonderful reasons, like its rejection of girls’ stereotypes, its celebration of creativity and imaginativeness, and the pure joy that permeates each entry.

Now Law is taking another step in a similar direction, pitching a new superhero comic book whose central hero is just such a young girl, outfitted with a persona of her own design, but with actual super powers: Spark– who can assemble and control machines with her mind.

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Law and her collaborator Ted Anderson (who’s done some of the latter-day My Little Pony comics) have posted a 15-page “preview” of the com
ic
on the Little Girls Tumblr, and it just looks great. The cast of heroes is colorful and original, the art is gorgeous, and the character’s relationships are already dynamic and full of dramatic potential. And Spark’s parents are pretty great, too.

I don’t know what the status of the pitch is, whether it’s definitely destined for publication in some form, but I hope so. If it is, I’ll be buying it, and reading it to my little boy and little girl.

Humanism in Software. Stop Laughing.

Image by Shutterstock.
When I talk about humanism, I’m really talking about compassion. Whatever the tenets of a given strain of humanism, whether you think it should have religious elements or be utterly devoid of ritualistic trappings, whatever version of whatever manifesto one might subscribe to, for me, humanism is really all about compassion for other folks, acting on that compassion, and all without any supernaturalistic component to any of it.

And heck, let’s throw liberalism or progressivism in there, too. For me, it’s all ways of saying and acting on compassion.

What a serendipitous stroke, then, as I get this blog ostensibly about tech and humanism off the ground, that I come across this post by Ben Brooks (via Patrick Rhone) about compassion in software.

What now? I know, but it does make sense, it’s not some dippy hipster thing.

Brooks sets up a dichotomy between compassion and fairness, which have absolutely never occurred to me to be in conflict, and uses the tax system as an illustration:

We should strive not to be fair on a whole, but to achieve fairness with each person. If paying taxes means you will go homeless, there should in fact be compassion there to analyze the situation and make a decision on a person-by-person basis. Fairness be damned.

But, what likely happened, is that another tax payer caught wind and shouted the most feared words in all of America: “THAT’S NOT FAIR!”

Motherfucker, life isn’t fair, get over it.

Life is about compassion, not fairness.

He then cites several examples of software that are “fair” in the sense of being as many things as possible to as many people as possible, versus those that are “compassionate,” in the sense of suiting the explicit needs of particular users in particular circumstances.

Here’s the marketing copy from Microsoft on Word:

Polished documents, anytime, anywhere, on all of your devices

Here’s the marketing copy from Ulysses III:

If you love to write, and write a lot, you’ll love Ulysses III.

Word tells you what it can do, and Ulysses tells you who it is for.

Comically, here is the one take away from Photoshop’s marketing:

Get all the latest creative apps, plus seamless ways to share and collaborate. All right on your desktop.

Compare with Acorn:

Everyone needs to edit photos at some point, but not everyone has the time to learn complicated super pricey photo editing software. This is why we created Acorn.

Again Photoshop is about its features, and Acorn is perfectly humanistic in what it will do with you.

Look! Humanism! And software! I told you this was a good find.

Now look, I don’t want to take the idea of the righteousness of user-specific software too far. But we are fortunate enough to live in a world today in which so many of the tools we use, being primarily bits of data, can be “compassionate,” having a mind to serve an individual’s need rather than check off an ever-expanding array of boxes.

When we were using typewriters, that was more or less the only available technology, so while there were different varieties of typewriter, they were all still banging-and-dinging mechanical keys and hammers slamming ink against paper. Today, you can choose the software tool that suits your specific writing needs. I’m writing this right now in TextEdit, because all I need in the drafting process is a plain text app. I don’t need Word and its vast feature set.

Come to think of it, even the hardware options today are more “compassionate” (except for the fact that they’re freaking expensive, but we’re just stretching an analogy here). You can still use a typewriter if you want (if you can find one), or you can write on a laptop (big or small), a tablet (big or small, with or without a keyboard), a phone (big or small, perhaps even using voice dictation), or pen and paper.

Now on the enterprise side of things, or perhaps in education, when one kind of software or hardware is “deployed” to many people at once, maybe “fairness” is the way to go, but even then, it seems to me that it’s in productivity’s interest to have more custom options for individual employees rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. But again, the customizing approach is likely more expensive.

All that said, I think I’m going to take another look at Acorn.

Collective Genius and Brains in Vats

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I’ve at times felt some discomfort of the idea of the “genius,” maybe chiefly because I discovered I am not one, much to my delusional childhood chagrin. But the more one knows about one’s brilliant heroes, who despite having powerful creative and intellectual gifts are also rife with human flaws, one begins to see that for “genius” to flower and actually become something meaningful, someone else needs to work alongside the genius. Last year Hélène Mialet wrote at Wired about Stephen Hawking (someone we regard as easily qualifying as a “genius”) and how in many ways Hawking is a “brain in a vat,” and what we think of as “Steven Hawking” is really a larger gestalt of brilliant people:

In another version of Hawking’s story, we notice that he is more “incorporated” than any other scientist, let alone human being. He is delegated across numerous other bodies: technicians, students, assistants, and of course, machines. Hawking’s “genius,” far from being the product of his mind alone, is in fact profoundly located, material, and collective in nature. … What I discovered was that to understand Hawking, you had to understand the people and the machines without whom he would be unable to act and think; you had to understand the ways in which these entities augmented and amplified Hawking’s competencies.

And I think this applies to a lot of people we think of as either geniuses or extremely important or powerful. There’s a reason we can refer to President Obama, the White House, or “the administration,” and mean the same thing each time. The language we use reflects the understanding that the words and deeds of “President Obama” are actually those of a vast array of human beings working extremely hard, all under the banner of “Obama.” Barack Hussein Obama the person may be the hub of that network, the brain in the vat, but he is only one part of it. The successes and failures we ascribe to him are really borne by that network.

Joshua Wolf Shenk in a piece at the New York Times narrows this idea of “group genius” to the pair.

[A]n impressive body of research in social psychology and the new field of social neuroscience…contends that individual agency often pales next to the imperatives of a collective. The elemental collective, of course, is the pair. Two people are the root of social experience — and of creative work. When the sociologist Michael Farrell looked at movements from French Impressionism to that of the American suffragists, he found that groups created a sense of community, purpose and audience, but that the truly important work ended up happening in pairs, as with Monet and Renoir, and Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In my own study of pairs, I found the same thing — most strikingly with Paul McCartney and John Lennon.

I found this both enlightening and alarming. As readers of my previous blog have been told severally, I am a pretty severe introvert, and the idea that “genius” really requires, or at least best thrives, with people in pairs worries me a bit. (The fewer the people in a group, the more the intimacy is increased, and the more threatening that can be to us introverts.) This is not to say I have never been or am incapable of being collaborative with another human being — I used to be a professional stage actor! — but especially these days it doesn’t come up much. I don’t even work in physical proximity to my coworkers, but alone in my home office.

Perhaps Lennon needed McCartney, Carl Sagan likely needed Ann Druyan, and presumably Steve Jobs needed Steve Wozniak and later Jony Ive (or Tim Cook?) — not as the person behind them, but as creative partners — and they were fortunate enough to find each other and decide to collaborate. But all these collaborations took place before the Internet dominated so much of our social lives. These people had to interact in meatspace. Even the founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, came together in person in a garage.

But what Google and others helped enable with the rise of the Internet and the Web was collaboration — deep, meaningful, substantive collaboration — between people who have never been in each other’s physical presence. That gives me hope.

Now, just because it’s been enabled, it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily happening much. I genuinely don’t know, and we’re really only on the cusp of this being a viable way to work and create together, via our connected devices, never in the same room. As someone who works from home, I feel pretty confident that good work and collaboration is not only possible, but in many ways improved and augmented with remote interaction, and I can thrive and excel in a vat-brain support network. But is this how the next “White Album” or Cosmos or iPhone will come to be?

I’d bet that probably yes, eventually, when more areas of friction in communication are removed, and there’s no meaningful difference between popping into someone’s office with a sudden whim and doing its equivalent online.