Data overload



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How do we proceed to live in a world in which data overwhelms us? At every point we seem to be participating in capture schemes that reduce us to data sets. As consumers, and loyalty card holders, as citizens and voters, as students and subscribers, just scouring the net, or engaging in everyday civic activities, as well as so much more. And even if we unsubscribe, organisations don’t forget us. Our data is kept and a reminder may be sent, asking if we want to rekindle relationships again. If it’s insurmountable now, what’s it going to be like in future?

It wasn’t that long ago that we didn’t have a digital footprint, that we weren’t known by systems in the way that we are now.  There was an anonymity to life, where you were mostly only locally known.  Now there are analytics of which I’m part of, indeed through this blog even seek to engage with.  “Life was simpler then” we lament. And it probably was, but that had its limitations as we know. With all pros come cons though.

In recent weeks I’ve been involved in discussions with groups about data, about how to work with data, about how to analyse and interpret data, and about obligations to maintain, store and use data although this latter part comes solely from me.  We are all firm believers it seems in the romantic idea that data is everything, a resource, unharnessed, like energy that once harnessed will illuminate our lives and provide the means for the implementation of greater improvements overall, somehow. This must have been like discussion about what to do with electric light. Everyone was wanting it, everyone would be improved by it, the potential was limitless, and people probably didn’t know what they really had. Data is like that too.  And it probably affects our sleep patterns too.

The people  that I speak with are sometimes confused about data. After all, it’s a small word, it’s known and not ambiguous or difficult at all. It seems approachable, knowable and usable, both the word itself and the concept that it stands for.

But here’s the thing,  sometimes we do not know what constitutes its nature, we do not know the boundedness or plasticity of data, and believe that it’s somehow a thing that will serve us, somehow, if only they can figure out how exactly.   As anthropologists we recall our undergraduate lectures on the dangers of reification, of the abstract made somehow real.

Data is the real made into the abstract.  Behind the data are the experiences, choices, options, measures, thoughts and actions of people.

And data is not unproblematic. It comes to us loaded with permissions, limitations, missing bits, mistakes, and unknown complexities. It may be old, useless, unusable, not relevant, partial, lost or not allowed to be reused. It may be in a form that can’t be used by other people, or inaccessible or locked up.

And what is data anyway? As an anthropologist I would always ask too, wells what isn’t data?   And that has broad implications for how we think about and ‘use’ data as well.

Is data only that information that exists in computer databases? Is data only on paper? Or on tape or in audio visual recordings? Is it only digital, or is this the latest format, on an as yet unknown, and unknowable future capture?  What about body parts? Cells, or blood or other body specimens?  What about sound recordings? What about the data that isn’t yet captured or recorded in these or similar ways – are we living as embodied data potentials? What about conversations? What about asides? What about lists that are meaningful or those that are meaningless?  And what about context?

Is data only data when it’s valued? What determines value? Sometimes it’s only time…

And is there a morality of data collection, storage, analysis, reporting and usage that extends beyond the usual ethical considerations that accounts for the inherent greed associated with its volume, capture, storage and use?  Will the philosophy of data be subject to scrutiny by philosophers, scientists, social sciences and the humanities?  This already has begun.

Will data be the new money?

When I next meet with my data chat buddies I wonder what our conversations will be about? Will they honour me by sorting out these questions, or will we move straight into working with questions based on assumptions that we’re all just trying to figure out what to do with it all?  As if that task will ever end.

Scared of my own voice

I publish under a pseudonym, that of the ‘The Anxious Anthropologist’. This suits me as it’s like donning a mask and going to a party. You get to attend, participate, enjoy yourself, express a different side of yourself, be a little bit risky but not compromise your real self, because after all, you were wearing a mask. You’re putting on or trying out another personality perhaps, one that is less accountable because all the threads can’t be drawn together as in real life. Real life is contextual, we add all the pieces of information that we know about a person together to form a picture, a view, and get a sense of a person. But that doesn’t happen when you wear a mask, unless you are exposed and we get to see who you ‘really are’. But wearing a mask too allows us to show who we really are as we participate in the truth telling of the bus stop syndrome. So it’s this paradox of both being able to shield oneself yet at the same time be more fully exposed in the display of oneself that I wish to explore in this essay blog.

Anonymity, like donning a mask, is protective because it allows you to express yourself through a voice that is uncensored, unafraid and keen to tell the truth. You get to explore truths in a way that is unfettered. You don’t worry about what people might make of what you say, what you’ve experienced, what you’ve suffered. You get to spare yourself the judgement. Even if you the reader judge, it is an anonymous judgement of an anonymously expressed piece of writing.

There is a history attached to anonymous writing but the common theme is that of wanting expression and not being able to, or not seeking to publish under one’s own name. People have had very real reasons for doing so, often political, related to gender or to the expression of truth that is hard to bear.

This form of communication also has its downside. By distancing myself from my own, my real voice, I’m also distancing myself from the experiences, feelings and situations that I relate here on the page. I don’t own them, they don’t come from me. That is both liberating, yet suffocating. I’m free to perform, to narrate and to share. But at the same time I’m more stifled, less, understood, less comprehended because I am not known and therefore not attached to those experiences.

And worse than that by writing in this way it is a tacit acknowledgement, indeed an agreement between myself and the reader – you – who are also party to this process through your acceptance of this writing regime, in your approval through your participation in the act of reading. Of what? Of conspiring with me in my attempt at stifling my real voice.

So this begs the question: what am I afraid of? Why have I been complicit in silencing myself all these years? In the old days I kept a private diary where I worked things out on the page. Even if I didn’t work it out, I certainly got it out. But blogging is different. Blogging includes an audience wider than one. Blogging means that there is an audience who will participate, who will imagine through my writing, who will visualise and ponder what I say, and how I’ve said it and most importantly ponder that which I’ve left out of my writing on the page.

So what am I afraid of? Am I frightened of the truth? By stating it in my own voice, with my own name attached to it, I give it an authenticity, a reality that my truth deserves. Through authoring this privately/publicly through an anonymous pen, I don’t really have to own this truth. It’s like little kids when they tell, that’s when they get upset, that’s when it hits them, that’s when they feel the emotion and that’s when they cry. Because that’s when it’s dawned on them and their truth has become REAL.

That is the issue: writing anonymously is like writing naked. You have a shawl wrapped tightly around you, and that shawl is made up of fabric, texture, materials, shades and colours that are reflective of you, that constitute your personality, your self, your personhood, known, accepted and acknowledged by others. You have it wrapped very tightly around your naked self, it holds you together, it holds you in, it keeps you bound and consistent in your interactions with the world. But for this bright, or sombre, thick or thin, expensive or cheap, mass produced or handmade garment that binds you, you would be NAKED, exposed and vulnerable.

And when we write anonymously we drop the shawl, drop the self that binds us and write freely in an unencumbered way. Our self is not limited to the materials and textures of our ordinary lives: you don’t need to know that I am the engineer, that I work in a factory or that I write science text books for a living. At this moment when the shawl has dropped I am just another human being with a story to tell. Tasteful or distasteful – that remains to be seen – but it is an experience with which you seek to participate because of the promise of the representation of an authentic, free and unencumbered voice.

But in our naked, exposed and vulnerable writing through donning a mask, a pseudonym, or just dropping the veneer of our selves, paradoxically there is greater freedom. It’s a risk to write, and it’s a greater risk to divulge truths about oneself. Once they’re said, well, they’re out there, whatever they may be.

There is such a cult of personality and even as ‘The Anxious Anthropologist’ I too will be prone to this as I continue to write, continue to share my truths. Will you continue to read me if I become known? Will I want to write if my ‘real’ self wraps herself up in the shawl that details her name, her ego, her persona, at least the one that she shares with the wider world? So many industries require the success of a name, you have to be a flagrant self-promoter to get by, to move forward in so many creative industries. It is essential in academia. No mousing around not promoting yourself or attracting dollars and prestige to yourself and your department. I can’t do this, that’s why I’m not there. Wrong side of 40 anyway.

Personalities have a voice, have a history, are very present and imagine the future with themselves squarely in it. If you’ve suffered any kind of trauma these can be the very things that are compromised, stolen, even attacked in your life. This is especially true of the last part, that of imagining a secure and successful future with yourself squarely in the picture. But if you don’t like the one that’s written, an anonymous voice helps you give voice to this so that you don’t have to keep hiding from yourself. Your story, your history, your life is validated through telling. Hence the importance of processes such as bearing witness. Bearing witness allows the truth to be told, to be honoured, and to take it’s place in people’s personal histories lived against the larger histories in which all our biographies take place.

I mentioned the bus stop syndrome. It’s not a real syndrome, but it serves the same purpose as donning a mask or anonymising yourself. You get to share something of yourself in a context in which you are not really known, have no common history with people and are not likely to have them in your life again. So you’re less encumbered, more spontaneous and able to relate more freely. You’ve dropped your shawl and are expressing your reality in a way that is unaffected by the person you normally present to the world.

I met a woman on the bus the other night as I travelled into the city for a night out with a group of women from work. The woman sat next to me and we commented at the number of Greek women getting on the bus at each stop who seemed to know each other, greeted each other and sat together. As I marvelled at this synchronicity, the woman next to me explained that they had arranged to meet on this bus and that they were travelling to church together for the pre-Easter services. We talked about the women’s’ black garb and the woman sitting next to me commented that it must be freeing to wear black. I explained that it was a marker for the community, that it represented an announcement that this woman had been married, was now a widow and had left society and all the roles that had been formerly ascribed to her in her married life. The woman next to me liked this idea and thought that at the very least it would simplify one’s wardrobe. She confided that she’d lost her husband two years ago and that since then she only ever hung out with women in all the activities she undertook these days. I told her that I too had lost someone two years ago, my mother who had suffered recently from cancer but for fifty years had had schizophrenia. I felt like I’d really lost my mum years ago, or even that I’d never really had a mother in the sense that everyone else understood a mother. Therein lies part of the truth of my own and of course her suffering.

Will I find my voice? I’m on the way, but how will I ever own it?
Reprinted from The Word Clown

Speaking truth to patriarchal power in the workplace.

When is a staff meeting not a staff meeting? When it turns into a platform for management to simply present their news, their ideas, policies, ‘successes’ and works in progress to a passive audience.

When staff are too scared, or too intimidated by extremely poorly managed restructures and amalgamations and dare not open their mouths in public forums, that’s when you know it’s not a real staff meeting.

When staff are no longer able to question, to query, to contradict or to simply state that they’re overworked and that management should not impose impossible work demands, that’s when you know it’s not a staff meeting anymore.

When the staff who are left are those who desperately rely on a regular pay cheque because they have children, mortgages and rent to pay and may be the only breadwinner in the household and are frightened that they may be marginalised or reprimanded for speaking their views, that’s when you know it’s not a staff meeting.

Just because all the chairs are placed in a circle implying that we’re all on equal ground, this doesn’t make it a staff meeting.

Just because there’s no formal paperwork in the form of a written agenda, giving the impression of informality doesn’t mean that there isn’t an implicit agenda at work. And it’s still not a staff meeting.

Just because there’s a morning tea afterwards with rostered staff having to provide food and drink, in a poor imitation of breaking bread together, it’s still not a staff meeting.

When the only people presenting any items for discussion are the managers, and when asked, “Does anyone want to add anything?” or “Does anyone have anything they want to say?” and you can cut the air with a knife as absolutely no one responds, no one even makes eye contact, you know it’s not a staff meeting. Staff are then reprimanded for not participating in ‘voluntary’ surveys of workplace policies and practices. How can we understand the workplace lament the managers, if we don’t know what people think? This should be evident to managers from the non-response rate, but there’s just no telling people, now is there?

And when a brave solo voice in the wilderness, aka an unhappy female staff member seeks support in her work following two years of workplace struggle shared by everyone is told essentially to “suck it up”, you known that’s not a staff meeting. And my own voice, cut off as I sanitise this post for fear of reprisals is another casualty of poor workplace communications and management. And this is still not a staff meeting.

I’m not going next time, I’m just going to read the email.

These forums should be renamed, “Meet the workers” or “News from the CEO’s desk” or “How to break morale by undermining mid-level professional women at work” or “Policy: the CEOs mandate” It would have been far more instructive to watch reruns of the IT Crowd. At least their management style was amusing.

‘Culture at work’ is the new buzz phrase with human resources and management consultants wanting to own this terrain. They want to define it, to own it, to show you how to modify and change it. They think that they know about this stuff, but we’ve had consultants come and go and we still have a workplace culture, but perhaps not the intended culture imagined by the consultants and management. And it’s clear to see that the culture of this workplace is toxic, where management govern through fear. No one wants to contribute, no one wants to offer an opinion, and anyone who does offer up a view or contradicts the dominant discourse is made an example of.

There is a management culture here that sets itself up as transformational, as being part of progress, of positive change. They hope to usher in a revolution in business practice, in management and in the business of the company itself. But they have failed to ignite the workplace. Most of them have no idea about the business of the company. Few of them have worked at the coalface and are therefore seen as illegitimate in running the company. This is most clearly evident at the staff meetings, where staff are left to wonder if management really know anything at all except how to balance budgets and construct flow charts.

Whatever these meetings purport to be, they are NOT staff meetings. Yes, they are a group of staff who meet, but that’s where the similarity ends. Any implication of staff contributing, except as an afterthought, only in response, only to question, or ask and never as setting the agenda indicates that the process has been set up as one-way communication. Any real suffering can you please leave that at the door as you come in?

And when you sit back and observe what’s going on, you begin to see patterns. It’s the same men who have a go at the women who bravely put up their hands to comment, or to propose an alternate view. And it’s the same men that scurry into these women’s’ offices afterwards to apologise, of course privately apologise after publicly humiliating them. And they always hang their heads in shame and apologise for this behaviour. But then they do it again. They darken women’s doors after meetings just to check the emotional temperature and see if they’ve committed a professional offence again. And it’s the same management structures that support these men because these men provide legitimacy for the work of management, these men provide the police work in hunting out the outspoken women who dare to voice an opinion, who dare to challenge the prevailing views of management, arresting them through public confrontation.

Have I made a contribution through this post to feminist understandings and experiences of the workplace? Is this too a part of what’s known as the glass ceiling? Maybe the glass podium? The glass lectern? The glass microphone? Perhaps not, but it still harks to the construction of women as fragile, as illegitimate in voicing their views and that’s even outspoken women who sometimes draw out the worst in men who oppose and are threatened by them.

And last of all, this example of meetings serves to remind us that it’s a rallying call for all women to speak truth to the power of those men who seek to shatter women’s voices in the workplace.

Photo credit:

How can you lead at work when your power has been taken away?

There is an inbuilt problem with all forms of leadership training. It doesn’t matter which school, which philosophy, which era you’re dealing with, if you’re working with women and if 1 in 4 of those women have a history of sexual abuse (which, according to national statistics they do), then there is a problem with your theoretical approach if it doesn’t take into consideration the powerlessness associated with sexual trauma, women’s attempts to grow through this and the effects that this has on work performance, including the ability to take up the mantle of leadership at work.

Leadership training encompasses a variety of approaches, and often starts early with girls and boys encouraged to adopt representative and leadership roles at school through a number of avenues, including student representative councils, captaincy and heads of sporting teams and the school. The education environment mirrors the later workforce through the promotion and early adoption of leadership philosophies by sending children to mega events at stadiums to hear about leadership from iconic practitioners and embodiments of excellence in leadership from earlier generations. Youth leadership is also fostered through a number of civic, religious, sporting and state organisations with a similar bent on encouraging separation from the pack and building future leaders.

Within the workforce leadership training is endemic. Workplace trainers, specialised consultants, universities and the public sector all offer forms of leadership training and encourage staff to undertake sometimes protracted courses which can last over a period of months as workers fresh from earnest training sessions are missioned to return to their workplaces to put in place some of their freshly honed leadership skills newly learned in order to reflect on the outcome of this in future leadership training sessions.

But who is all this aimed at? To the middle managers? To the upcoming trainees? To those with the sparkle of promise? Are they men? Or women? What happens if you don’t cut it in this regard at work, will you be overlooked and not have your name put down on the list for leadership training? And who determines whether you’re leadership material or not? And lastly, what about the self-promoters that just put themselves down for training sessions to craft and fine tune their leadership potential, because well, they’re always putting their names down for things…

Part of the trouble with this paradigm is the question of whether leaders are born or made. Clearly the industry promoting education, courses and training works from the premise that leaders are made and not born. And therein lies the problem: lots of women are unaccustomed to leadership roles, often not through choice but through circumstances, adverse life experiences and plain old sexism. And that’s before we get to the problem of histories of sexual assault. If you’ve suffered from sexual assault your power is taken away from you. You lose the ability to trust those around you and it’s very hard to put into place and embody the very values that leadership often requires.

Not everyone can wear their heart on their sleeves easily in this way, by professing their status, to mark themselves as imperfect, yet management and leadership manuals will tell you that in an effort to be an authentic and respected leader, you need to do just this. I’m not referring here to histories of abuse, but these too can be included here and are by some women.  You must offer up an imperfection because human nature is such that people will just make stuff up about you and so the theory goes, you might as well give them something because it’s better (and more manageable) than anything that they can make up.

So these days as workers we wear our soiled identities at work with pride. This is the school of authenticity, and authenticity in leadership is highly prized. This is an endearing state in which leaders are modelled on the greatest leaders known to humanity: flaws make leaders human.  There is an honesty, a humility, a frailty and an earnestness about being flawed, being real. And it’s very attractive.  Authenticity is the hipster beard of leadership training.

Authenticity is but one of a number of theories about leadership: we have models of excellence in leadership from the military, from those who think you can have it all by instigating effective habits, we not only have leaders, we have great leaders, quiet leaders, leaders on the line, leaders modelled on leaders from last century (and the one before), tribal leaders, technical leaders, high altitude and inspirational leaders, grateful leaders, servant leaders, wise leaders, principled leaders, values-driven leaders, spiritual leaders and transformational leaders. Where I wonder, is the tome on had-the-life-sucked-out-me-when-I-was-young-leaders? I did spy a volume on bad leaders and wonder if this is a joke (because hey, they’re really good leaders) or whether they’re just bad, in which case, why write a book about them?

For women who are quiet, who lack self-confidence, why are shy, who may be either introverted or extroverted in their social interactions it’s hard enough to play the confidence game in work cultures. But if on top of this women are suffering from the long term and lingering effects of sexual assault in childhood, with a legacy of having suffered the abuses of power, abuses of trust, exploitation by those who profess to care for them, boundary violations, and succumbed to the threats involved in maintaining secrets on fear of death and a misplaced, yet protective loyalty towards the very perpetrators of abuse, well, it’s not a level playing field is it? And we’re talking about one in four women here.  The echoes of this are mirrored in the present.

The trouble with child sexual assault is that the dynamics never really go away. They continue to be felt in far reaching and unanticipated ways as women negotiate their way through their everyday lives, and this includes work. A new manager starts work and asks you for something and you respond in a familiar pattern of subservience and wonder why? Someone startles you at work and you recoil as if you’re about to be hit. Disclosures on the news about the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse cause an abreaction, unusual behaviour and cause you to want to flee. You always seem to take on a lower role than you know you’re capable of, because you’re not able or willing to subject yourself to the stresses involved in taking on more.

Glass ceilings speak to the overt sexism that denies women opportunities to progress but there are far more subtle ceilings that need to be broken through in order for women to really flourish at work. And leadership roles, leadership training and all the insights, benefits and rewards that accompany this are part of this.

The seductiveness of leadership training and its potential rewards in leadership may not be available to all. However there may be a group of women at work who could benefit from all that leadership training has to offer, and in turn would benefit the workplaces to which women are attached. If leadership is part of the road to self-actualisation, then the lessons inherent within leadership training are desirable, even essential for women in the workplace with private histories of sexual assault that prevent them from becoming fully empowered both in their work and in themselves.

Just imagine it.