Society in Transition (Dr. Caitlin McDonald)

COVID-19 is changing our society, but how are we coping? Ben is joined by digital anthropologist Dr. Caitlin McDonald to discuss our collective re-examination of common assumptions about work, community, and life.

Intro / Outro Music by DJ Quads


Ben: Hello everyone, and welcome to episode eight of The Hired Thought Podcast. I am very pleased to be joined today by Dr. Caitlin McDonald. Dr. Caitlin McDonald is an award winning scholar. She’s a digital anthropologist and professional thought provoker. She works for the Leading Edge Forum. And Caitlin, you describe your work as helping industry leaders make sense of our technological future.

I was wondering what does that work look like and what kind of topics do you focus on right now?

Caitlin: Yeah, absolutely. So digital anthropologist is such a, I love it because it’s, it’s a, it’s a wonderful job, but it also could mean a lot of different things. and the great thing about the word anthropology is it just means the study of people.

So that covers a lot of ground. and the digital part of course can mean anything from, I, I will bet anything Ben that you have a drawer of cables in your house that you’re saving because you think you might need them someday and you refuse to get rid of them, but you haven’t used it in years.

Ben: You’re not supposed to know that

Caitlin: This is my skill as an anthropologist. This is, this is the thing that I know. but it’s things like that, the material culture aspect of digital lives. it can be anything from looking at, remote working practices, which of course, right now many people are being forced into with little preparation and practice, to looking at digital ethics.

but in essence, I cover a range of issues that have to do with how digital, whatever that means, shows up in people’s lives.

Ben: I know you’ve been doing a lot of exploration around this topic of remote work before coronavirus really started becoming the driving constraint, I guess, for the shift to remote work, and I imagine that there are a lot of people struggling right now because they just don’t even know how to make this thing work.

But at the same time, this is kind of a liminal space where. Because we’re forced into these circumstances, we’re going to learn a lot. So from your perspective, what are the tools that people can put into play to, to learn about how remote work is unfolding in the world right now?

Caitlin: Yeah, great question. And I think the important thing to focus on is, that a lot of information is available about the actual tools themselves so, of course, there’s that. Whole situation to get used to dealing with new tools and new technologies. but really the thing that I think has to change is people’s behavior because, they, when you are used to working in an office where, for example, you have many, many times that you can have micro interactions with your colleagues and you move online and suddenly those informal places for connecting are no longer physically there for you.

How are you going to build space as in mental space? How are you going to build space for that collectively. So we’ve seen lots of different ways that people are doing that. there’s one team who I really love has called their kind of afternoon meeting for 15 minutes afternoon recess. So they all kind of go out at lunchtime and they do something and then they come back and they show off what they’ve done, or they have pictures or dogs or whatever it might be.

But there’s plenty of ways of doing that. You can create remote coffee hours. That’s one thing people have done. If you have a standing meeting already, you can, for example, introduce like a warm up or a cool down time to those kinds of meetings. but it’s really, really critical to introduce those informal ways of connecting because otherwise all of your interactions become really formal because you’ve set up a meeting and you’re going to stick to that meeting.

And that’s the meeting that we’re having and it’s very bulleted. So developing that kind of sense of low level trust is really important for when you really need the high level trust to come into play.

Ben: Yeah that makes sense. I, I’ve heard Kevin Behr just in my, in the back of my head saying, you know, your organization moves at the speed of trust and I think trust depends greatly on communication.

And then I hear Jabe Bloom on the other side of my head just going. Pointing out the difference between transactionality and reciprocity. And so when we don’t have these in person conversations where we, we have reciprocity, we have like, we can see facial expressions, we can know what it’s like to be with you when you’re feeling this way.

but now it’s like, by default, highly transactional show up in the meeting at this time. So, so what’s at stake and how can companies learn to explore this in a safe way?

Caitlin: Yeah, it’s, it’s a really wonderful question because, so many of the companies that work effectively, really well remotely, so this is in the kind of pre coronavirus pandemic situation.

What they were telling us was we, we are a remote company, but we would never say that we don’t get together physically. We always have some cadence of time that we’re spending time all together. And that really accelerates the pace at which we’re able to innovate together when we’re not together.

Because you, like you said, you’ve developed that sense of reciprocity. I understand that that person’s making a joke, or I just have that sense of,  they’re a bit tense or whatever it might be. So you develop that in person at a much accelerated rate compared to what you can do offline, but then you can work really effectively, asynchronously if you have that trust established already.

So in this era where. Really being forced not to have those in person interactions. being able to develop those, those kind of micro interactions is so critical. and I, I honestly think that, in some ways we are there. and in some ways we’re not there. So we have lots of tools and technologies that support us being able to have, for example, remote calls.

but one thing that I really think is missing, for example, is being able to triangulate around something. So like, I could share my screen with you on this call right now, but essentially it’s like we’re at a table, sat across from each other, so we couldn’t then mutually say, Oh, why don’t you come look at this with me?

And nobody could kind of wander by and say, Oh, that’s cool. What are you working on? You know? So that kind of stuff, which happens very easily in person, doesn’t happen so well online. there are many great things that do happen while online. but I would suggest that scenario that I’d like to see more innovation happening, for example.

Ben: One of the things that has been on my mind a lot lately is how like literacy in the tools is not enough, and it might be that in a lot of cases, the way we facilitate these discussions and interactions is where we’re just missing so many common sense practices.

What are some of those kinds of things that you’ve seen that could enable people to more effectively attempt to experiment with things like triangulation or emulating that in a virtual space?

Caitlin: I think one of the critical things is we have an assumption that everyone has equal bandwidth and equal ability to get online and the reality of the situation is far different.

so one of the things that’s really critical is having lots of fallback mechanisms so that you can fail gracefully. So if for some reason my screen fails and I can’t present to you anymore, or we can’t be on the video call anymore, we can only do phones. having lots of kind of fallback mechanisms and redundancies that allow us to continue the, the communication flow less impeded than we otherwise would be is really, really critical.

but you then of course, have to agree all of those terms essentially in advance so that you know what’s coming. and that’s true also of our social interactions. So, having a kind of, we’ve started calling it the Manual of We, so, you know, what’s the kind of expected, essentially service level agreement for how long I can leave a message in, the team chat versus email versus whatever it is. So there’s the, having a sense of expectation about which of these channels is absolutely rapid response, which of these channels is, can you get to this when you get to it? And which of these is important or low urgency? So, really having an understanding of what do I need to be paying attention to right now, a shared collective understanding is really critical.

and then there’s some questions about, I think that the main question that I’ve been seeing over the last few days among, people who are suddenly being forced to, to remote working is video on or video off. And this is a really big debate. and my answer of course is as an anthropologist that it depends on your situation.

So, one thing I would say is if you’re having a difficult conversation, have the video on, because it’s really critical to be able to see all of those extra signals beyond what I’m saying. But other things that I’m communicating as well. the second thing I would suggest is, If you’re not in a situation where you can have your own very nice kind of work setup with a beautiful background and all of these nice things, which not everyone can, especially now if you’re, if you’re working from home and you have caring responsibilities, for example, or if you live in a city that’s overcrowded and has very high price in housing and, you can’t have your own office. you know, it’s a little bit unfair to expect people to have the video on in those situations because, it’s, it’s a bit of an intrusion. so, so thinking about those kinds of things, especially now, I’m thinking about all the, the parents in the team that I work in who are, not only trying to carry on with their regular lives, but also have family responsibilities, especially as some of their schools have been shut or their children have been quarantined because of exposure to the virus.

You know, it’s, but their lives are going to be interrupted, their working lives are going to be interrupted, and we need to be more understanding of that than previously we have been. So I think that kind of behavioral change where your, your expectation is different than it previously was, is really critical because, you know, not thinking that people are not paying attention or slacking off or whatever it is.

there are important things happening and urgent things happening in their homes as well. And so we just need to be a little bit more mindful of, being flexible about our schedules as well.

Ben: Okay. Yeah. In this moment in time, it seems reasonable to maybe lower our collective expectations of, you know, we, we, we expect certain things in the workplace, right.

Constant attention. And maybe there are some negative dynamics to that, that we get to revisit by experiencing this situation together in the, in this sort of coronavirus pandemic. I am worried like. People who are going to be caring for their kids. Like usually we kind of hold that against folks. Not, not explicitly, but implicitly in the way that we design our experiences.

I’m hoping maybe some of that gets to be revisited.

Caitlin: Yeah, it’s, it’s really interesting to watch the kinds of conversations that are happening now. In particular, one area that I’ve been seeing a lot happening is in academics who are being forced to work from home, especially in couples. so you get lots of people saying, Hey.

Newton developed the theory of gravity when he was doing this. And you know, Shakespeare wrote Lear, so what are you doing? And all of the, the female academics who are, who have children or have caring responsibilities are saying, excuse me. what I’m going to be doing is all of those things. And then my husband is now like, I can write 15 million papers.

So, you know, that kind of disparity and fairness and access, which has to be honest, already been a very much existing dynamic, is really showing up right now. whether we will be able to leverage that. Towards more effective equality for everyone. I think is an open question.

Ben: Yeah. Thinking about that question in particular.

One of the topics that has really been on my radar right now is this, this thing called epistemic injustice. And, it was introduced to me by Cat Swetel and epistemic injustice is something described in a book of the same title by Dr. Miranda Fricker.

 Fricker outlines two different kinds of injustice. One is about credibility and the other is about what we can even come to know because we have the language for it or don’t. And so one of the things I’m noticing even in this conversation now is that we’re starting to be able to analyze.

These circumstances, like the fact that there will be a discrepancy between what, women who are academics versus men who are academics who might or might not be sharing caring responsibilities during a time when people are being encouraged to perform social isolation and things along those lines.

We are now able to more explicitly analyze those. what does it look like from the anthropological lens. To observe a community coming into knowing that a certain kind of thing is happening.

Caitlin: I, it’s very, very difficult to talk about epistemology without delving into, areas where you have no language for what you’re trying to describe, because that is the nature of what you are trying to describe.

So I think that there are several fascinating aspects. One is that. certain kinds of social dynamics, which were already very much in existence, are now coming into the highlights of, of people’s consciousness because there is this enforced shift in their behavior. and whether that will exacerbate those existing social dynamics or provide a catalyst for change, again, I think is up for grabs, but simply the fact that it is coming to people’s notice.

although of course, many people have already noticed those dynamics for many hundreds of years. So it’s, it’s essentially, there’s a kind of novelty and yet not, which I find really interesting. I think the second thing as well is, I’ve been thinking a lot, speaking, from an anthropological perspective, less about the justice side and more about like literally the physical distancing part.

So, the reason that we have the phrase personal space comes from an anthropologist in the 1960s named Edward T. Hall, who developed a theory called proxemics. And this theory essentially outlines the kind of physical distances at which you feel, naturally that you are either in kind of an intimate space with someone, a personal space with someone, a public space or et cetera, et cetera.

You can go all the way out to kind of, you know, addressing a crowd. and the dynamics of those things are extremely different. So if I suddenly lean into my camera really far, that has a very different personal feel, in fact, I’ll do it just to kind of simulate that. Or have you ever been on a, like a, a multi-group conference call with someone and there’s someone who’s just.

Too close to the microphone and you’re, it feels really icky because it feels like they’re too close to you, even though of course, they’re like actually at a great distance from you. that’s the kind of thing where, you know, or someone standing too close to you on the tube or in the supermarket or wherever you might be.

you have a sense of when, they’ve invaded your personal space or when they’ve really pushed into your intimate space. and of course, that’s a little bit cultural. So actually Americans have a different kind of concept of personal space than Italians, for example. et cetera, et cetera. So there’s some really interesting cross cultural studies about this.

but the thing that interests me right now is, there is a concept emerging concept of digital proxemics. So if you look at the way that both you and I have set up our cameras, in your case, you can see mostly just your head. In my case, you can see my head and my shoulders, which makes it feel like I’m probably about four or five feet away from you, which is about the distance between me and the camera.

but sometimes I get on conference calls with people and they’re like lounging on the couch and they’re holding the phone right there and things. And of course that has a really different feel. so, and. It feels different, but because people haven’t really strongly considered what that does feel like.

they aren’t making proactive choices about how they want to show up online, specifically in video calls. And I’m seeing one thing that I’m seeing more of now is people wanting to get together virtually instead of going to the pub, for example, which is something we could have always done. But now my friends around my city and around the world, it seems less weird to say, Hey, do you want to have dinner over Skype or whatever, than it previously did, which is super fascinating.

but what I’m getting to with all of this kind of rambling thought is, the, the anthropological piece of this really to me is, enabling people to understand a pattern that previously existed and that subconsciously they were behaving in accordance with. But they maybe never thought about before.

And that to me, relates to the epistemology piece around, being able to bring to light types of knowledge and describe types of knowledge that didn’t exist. So, you know, you, you haven’t a learned sense of when close is too close. And you will behave in accordance with that.

Even if you’re not consciously thinking, I must step one, one half foot further away for this to feel comfortable. You’ll still do that. Now, how we do this online in an era where we are all being forced into relatively static, camera capabilities. You know, most people don’t, I would suggest have excellent home setups or work setups, for conducting conference calls. so even though the camera technology is available, where you position it, how you set up the keyboard, to how you set up your camera. If you’re doing it on your phone, how do you make sure it stays in place? All of that stuff. despite the fact that we have the capabilities to do video calls, all the stuff about how you position yourself relative to the camera and how the other person positions themselves, that stuff is very much emergent.

So I’m really curious about how the next, let’s say six to nine months emerge, both in terms of the technological innovation that will happen. And also the etiquette that will emerge around how we conduct our calls and whether that’s going to be explicit as in, you know, Ms Manners manuals or whether that’s going to be much more implicit and it just becomes normal or weird to, be close or far or whatever it might be or have the background on or have the background off.

All that stuff I think is very much up for grabs. So we’re going to start seeing new rituals and habits emerging in this time period. Definitely.

Ben: I’m really looking forward to the listicles with “top 10 things you need to know about proper etiquette on a zoom call” or something along those lines. And what I really appreciated about the way that you explored that whole space was the anthropological lens of the sort of social practices that are emerging from these, these moments in time where our norms get kind of disrupted.

Something that a friend of mine talks a lot about. his name’s Tasshin Fogleman. He talks a lot about disfluency. So sort of like all that regular everyday stuff that we’re just sort of ignoring, cause it’s not apparent to us. If we slow down long enough to notice those things, then we can start making more explicit decisions about them.

I love the example that you just raised about cameras because the decisions we make every day are often oriented around our own individual perspectives. The considerations that were, you know, at the time important. for example, the consideration behind me using a very close up view of through my camera is based on my embarrassment about the background in my office.

And so I was like, can I put a whiteboard behind my head and then cut off all the rest of the images? The side effect that I did not have a language for until you just now raised it was that. I am probably a little bit more intimate with all the folks that I get on a call with from that standpoint of, you know, the proximal kind of view of that.

than maybe I was intending to be right, and now it’s not that I’m going to sit here and say, now, Caitlin, give me the good or bad value judgment on that. It’s more like, Oh my goodness, I’m aware of this now and I can make active decisions for each call even depending on who it is that I’m talking with.

And so these emergent kind of things become more, it’s like decision spaces that are now accessible to us. Now. I’m really into that idea.

Caitlin: Yeah. And to be honest, I think that that’s one of the core kind of anthropological skills is learning to journal your own experiences and keep, keep field notes about what’s happening that you observe, that you see, that you feel that you experience, and then use that to, forward your decision making.

So it’s, it’s almost like the, the anti metrics, let’s say. Right. You know, so you, you’re still, you’re still engaging in a practice that allows you to engage in decision making, but the inputs that you’re using for that are much more qualitative than they are quantitative, which is not to dumb down quantitative stuff.

I think it is very important. I’m speaking as a former quantitative analyst as well, but I have thoughts about under-utilizing qualitative, inputs as well. So.

Ben: That makes sense. Yeah. I’m thinking about what it looks like for you to do this kind of work. you mentioned the interest in the qualitative side of things. I know ethnography is in your background, and it’s something that I’m really interested in, especially, ethnography around stories and what, what kind of narratives people create for themselves as they go about their daily lives.

but I know you’ve also done the interesting things like social network graph analysis and stuff like that. I was wondering if you could share a little bit about what’s in your toolbox as a digital anthropologist.

Caitlin: Yeah, sure. So anthropology covers a range of different, kind of tools to get the data that you want to have.

So, you know, as you pointed out, ethnography as one of those. And typically what ethnography entails is going to live in a community or work in a community depending on the kind of thing that you’re doing, and actually experience the things that they’re experiencing. So, that would entail a method called participant observation, which is.

What it sounds like you do, the things that you’re seeing and you see and you watch the things that other people are doing. So you’re actually trying to become, become one of the community that you are studying. And the reason for this is that, anthropologists, contemporary anthropologists believe that the  people that you are studying are the experts in their own experience.

So if you want to be able to describe that experience to anyone else, you must be part of that experience as well. so that creates some kind of interesting dynamics in terms of who you study and how you study. in a digital world, what that will often mean is, participating in online communities.

For example. when I recently did a project. That we call digital ethnography. It was much more of a kind of diary study. Really when you got right down to it. What we were doing is asking people to send in information on their phones, asking them to send us photos, giving them little prompts to send in, survey questions or, just send a little thoughts about what was happening in their day.

so. It was much more immersive than a traditional diary study where I wouldn’t see the information until the end, for example. Or they could only send in, text. And in this case, they could also send video, for example, but to, to call it an ethnography in the traditional sense. I mean, it’s very different than what you typically would do.

But still, it’s really interesting to experience all those immersive methods, especially in a time that we are becoming increasingly digital. So it was important for me to, in a way, doing that study was in itself a digital ethnography because you’re experiencing and experimenting with different, you know, new ethnographic methods.

so another tool that we often use, one of my favorite methods, in the social sciences is something called semiotics, which is the study of signs and symbols. so if you’re thinking about, for example, if you Google AI, you might find that all of the images about it are blue. Why is this? But they are.

and you know, I conjecture that it’s often because LEDs, especially in the early days were blue. So you get that kind of blue screen glow. So it’s probably something about that. But then that means that that kind of shade of blue is become very synonymous with AI. So then it becomes a self-referring system where if you want something to seem like AI, then it has to be blue.

so it becomes really interesting. So that’s really fun. You can do a lot with that. and then the other method that you mentioned is social network analysis. And I will hold up a reference book.

Ben: for those that are home, the book that Caitlin held up was social network analysis by John Scott.

Caitlin: Yes.

So, network analysis is a fascinating discipline and what it really is designed to do is to help you understand the relationships between people. So typically when you do social network analysis, but you can also do network analysis on other things like telephones and you know, objects, physical objects in a, in a computer network, for example. but the, the advantage of doing it in a social sense is you then get a sense of the, the relationships.

And how they are formed. so I’ve done quite a lot of that in the past. typically, I worked with a large education community, online education community. I’ve also done it in a slightly less online way, so it’s, it’s much harder to get the data if you’re not doing it digitally. but you can, you can do things like run surveys to say, who did you work with or who did you collaborate with?

And then get a sense of who that was and then how they. When they did it, how they did it, and you can then build your network in that way. So, it’s really fun. It’s especially fun if you can do it when you have all the data collected. The data collection is the hard bit of social network analysis. So that’s the part that I would, if you can do that digitally, I would definitely recommend it.

but then, An example of that in practice at the moment is that a, a, a social network analysis tool, a graph database called Neo4j, has made their graph database technology available to people who are studying, the spread of the coronavirus.

And at the moment, people in China can essentially upload themselves as a node, as an object in the network, and they can then see who else they’re connected to and whether those people have tested positive for the coronavirus. So you can look at the spread of the virus very quickly. so it’s, it’s an advantage in that sense.

If you want to see how something like a virus or information passes through a network that’s network analysis that means to do that.

Ben: Yeah. When I was doing a lot of management consulting one of the things that we really needed as sort of a core competency was the ability to know what the social graph was in the organization we were working, especially when it was in a larger scale, like, not even for insight, just for understanding how to orient to the system that we were a part of.

And it’s these, it’s these tools that we can build to understand the world around us that help us make more sense of it, help us act more meaningfully within it. And it’s kind of really interesting to see the kinds of tools that you’ve leveraged to understand how people work, how cultures work. And especially now that we’re focusing more on, you know, we tend to privilege the technology over the social part of our interactions, but how those two things really kind of create each other in a way. It’s really fascinating.

Yeah. So. Given the context that we’re in right now. So the date that we’re recording this is March 17th, 2020,

Caitlin: St. Patrick’s day, very important.

Ben: St. Patrick’s day, yeah! so Caitlin is based in the UK. I’m based in the United States.

I’m in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and I think we’re both kind of in this somewhat reflective place where we’re sort of getting to watch how the government response is playing out in specifically with coronavirus. And the place it puts me is sort of in this contemplative mode of, what is the responsibility of an organization to its people? One of the things I often say is that the entire point of organizations is to gather human potential and focus to a particular end. and a lot of times. Our, frankly, our institutions fail` to do that.

So now in this moment, corporate responsibility to sort of take some on a different meaning, and I was kind of curious, Caitlin, what your, your thoughts were about corporate responsibility in a coronavirus context? from an anthropological perspective. Hmm.

Caitlin: Yeah. so this is both with my anthropology hat on and just with Caitlin’s hat on.

So it’s, it’s been fascinating to me to watch the difference in responses from companies and governments and seeing some act with such responsibility and care towards not only there clients and their service users in their paying customers, but also towards their staff and others who are behaving in a very, very different way.

so for example, if you look at Microsoft, which committed to closing down their campuses, but also paying all the people that normally would be dependent on the jobs that are physically located in those campuses and can’t be moved, such as canteen workers and drivers and things like that. You know, that speaks to a kind of deep ethos of care in terms of we recognize that by shutting this, we might be very negatively impacting these people’s lives.

So we’ve decided that we’re going to take responsibility for paying their wages, despite the disruption. How long that is sustainable for them. I don’t know. But they’ve, in the meantime at least allowed themselves a breather window to figure it out. you contrast that with something like the UK government yesterday announced that it was going to not mandate that pubs and bars and theaters and, sporting events close, but they were highly recommending that people no longer go to those things.

Which means that because they’ve decided not to officially close any of those things, none of those people who work in those industries can now claim any insurance. So, whether restaurants, bars, and, and theaters can continue to operate after they’ve not been able to do that for a certain period.

it’s very much, again, an open question because those people have been left with no security and also no warning of that happening. So I have quite strong feelings about that. I think it’s extremely irresponsible towards those people. and I think it’s also very shortsighted because humans are social animals and we simply will not be able to sustain a culture where we stay inside all the time and that we, we never have any contact with each other. So, we need pubs and we need theaters and we need sporting events. and of course, at the moment. We, we can’t responsibly have those collective gatherings that we normally would have. but we simply are not going to be able to live in a world where we longterm never have any of those things.

We can’t do it. Aye. It’s not possible. So what does it mean if we then put all of those people out of business and we have no way of rapidly bringing them back into the into the fold. and I’ve been thinking about this not only with reference to social and cultural events, but also with reference to business resiliency.

So I was speaking to one of my, one of my bosses actually the other day, and he was describing a situation previously, where, you know, you as a responsible business would never have used more than 25% of your highest days network capacity when you were planning for, network outages or surges or whatever it might be.

And we now live in a world where we optimize for efficiency over those kinds of, capacity and resilience considerations. if you think about things like, just in time delivery services and, and all that kind of stuff where you’re really prioritizing efficiency, what you’re not doing is allowing for sudden change or allowing for, the ability to respond to, unexpected situations.

And to some degree, they’re unexpected, you can’t possibly know what you will need, but to have some flex in your capacity, which we’ve now decided is not a good thing because we have all these wonderful instrumentation capabilities and we can measure everything to the nth degree. So therefore we can put in only what we need to put in.

But that of course means that your system is very, very low resilience. So, you know, even if you’re not thinking about all of the poor actors who are out of work, which I am thinking about because I love going to the theater and I’m really gonna miss it if we don’t get it back. You know, just thinking about grocery deliveries and power plants and, you know, certainly on everyone’s mind, healthcare services and systems without those kinds of, thoughts about how you deal with shocks and the system.

We, we’re deeply under-preparing ourselves for, for the future where, you know, the future may be very, very different than what we’d had in the past. I think that there probably will be a real overarching change, especially for people who work in what were office jobs. but that doesn’t mean that you can remote everything.

So when we come back out of hibernation and come back out of the cave, what’s going to be out there for us and how are we going to prepare for that future?

Ben: Yeah. This is a moment of kind of destabilization where you know, a lot of the things that we hold dear, a lot of the expectations that we have are as good as gone right now.

And when we emerge from however this plays out, when we emerge, we will have to kind of put the pieces back together and maybe some of the old things will come back and maybe some of them won’t. And maybe there will be some new things. But the difficulty I think is who, who will actually, from an existential perspective, make it, right?

And I mean that both physically and literally, but also from the standpoint of these organizations who are operating on thin margins don’t have a cash reserve.  in a way, it’s a, `it’s a demonstration of how fragile a lot of capitalism is at this point where you have businesses with very low cash, suddenly put into a situation of perhaps extreme duress and unable to cope. I’ve been talking with a lot of conference organizers in particular lately because I’ve been interested in learning about the decision making processes that they’re going through right now. and first of all, most who I’m talking to are under extreme mental, mental duress.

And for many of them who operate year to year and, and frankly don’t carry reserves from one year to the next, whether or not they cancel is a matter of whether or not they come back next year. And so that existential question leads me to this other thought that’s been sort of bouncing around my brain.

And I’m kind of curious how you, perceive it and whether you agree or disagree. We need to be making the right thing to do the easy thing to do. beyond that, I think we need to be making the right thing to do the selfish thing to do. So how, how can our institutions, how can our organizations.

Look at the world in this way and maybe is that the right frame to think about this?

Caitlin: Hmm. do you make the right thing to do the selfish thing to do? I think that’s a really interesting way of putting it that will, enable people who are not automatically drawn into the ethics narrative. feel like they have a stake in the game as it were. and. Most of the time people do have a stake in the narrative already.

So, when I’ve been doing a lot, I do a lot of work on digital ethics in general and AI ethics in particular. And for the most part, people are very receptive often because they realize how much these technologies are playing into their own daily lives and they think about things from their perspective.

They’re like, Oh, I wouldn’t want my bank to be doing that. I wouldn’t want my airline to be doing that. Whatever it might be. And that makes them then reconsider. Oh, that means that I have to change the way that I behave because this also has an impact on other people’s lives. But there’s definitely an aspect where if you’re trying to highlight, the selfish value of ethics to organizational leaders.

it’s not just that narrative about do unto others as you would have done unto you. There is also, you know, real hard cash money needs to be made by making ethical decisions, including, for example, looking for underserved communities or looking for markets that are not yet really fully tapped.

and in particular talent. And this is the one that I think is the most interesting because, all the research that we did, and there’s also some other research on this by external other think tank groups, suggests that the people who are most working with the most advanced technologies right now, AI and machine learning, do want to work at places where they feel that their values align with the company.

They want to work in responsible technology organizations. And this is really important because those talented people are so rare and so valuable, that, being so rare and so valuable have the capacity to walk away and to make a difference in a way that perhaps people who are in more vulnerable situations do not.

So that means that those people have an added ability to push for senior management to behave more responsibly. and thank goodness that they are looking to work at responsible places because how awful would it be if they weren’t and still have all of that power.

Ben: You just sent me to all these places that I, I really want to explore and I almost feel like we have to have another followup conversation at some point specifically on the problem of talent.

Is there anything that you’ve come across lately that would be a recommended reading or viewing for the folks who are listening at home.

Caitlin: Well, if it’s not too much, to, push my own research. we recently published a little blog post on how to deal with remote working if it’s being suddenly foisted upon your team, so we can share that with you. I would suggest as well, if you’re broadly interested in issues around digital ethics, which I think does play into that space very nicely, I would strongly suggest Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil, which is a great book. Really explains a lot of the kind of challenges of the ethical space with digital products, in simple and easy to understand language and the kind of core concepts of what are the potential pitfalls are well articulated there.

Ben: And what’s a good way for people to find out more about your work and follow you as you publish?


Ben: Perfect. Thank you so much for being with me, Caitlin.

My pleasure. Thank you for having me. Ben.

One response to “Society in Transition (Dr. Caitlin McDonald)”

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