Session Transcripts

Live transcripts from all the talks and several of the sessions at SRCCON:WORK.

SRCCON:WORK Talks: Mandy Brown

Day & Time: Friday, Dec. 8, 2017, at 10am

RYAN: Hello, hello, hello, hello. Hi, SRCCON:WORK folks! It’s so good to see all of you this morning. I hope you had a great time with each other. I want to share a few things about. But first I want to ask: did y’all have a good time last time exploring Philly, eating dinner with folks? Was it good? Awesome. I have to tell you, at the end of the day yesterday, I was feeling a little bit tired. All of us here in this room together, we were in talks, in sessions, in conversations, and we spent a lot of different kinds of energy. So when I got to dinner, I feel like I was dragging a little bit but, man, by the end of dinner, I was feeling so good. And it was not because of the queso, which was delicious, and pulled pork; it was because of the folks sitting around the table, folks I didn’t know super well, getting to talk to people, getting to know each other, it just felt so good. So when I walked out. I felt energized. When I see those folks today it’ll be nice to know that I know them a little bit better. I hope that many of you have you have had similar experiences.

And so I want to call out a couple of colleagues for planning the dinner plan last night, Erika Owens who may not be down here yet put together an amazing plan. Picked out all the restaurants, coordinated all the sign-ups, and Erik Westra sitting over here, did so much contact with so many restaurants. So if y’all had a good time like I did, can you help me appreciate them? So that was last night. Let’s look forward today about how today will go. Cordelia today mentioned the sign-up boards on the hallways. Sign-up boards for things to do together after SRCCON is over. If you have ideas that occur to you over the course of the day, really encourage you to use those and to communicate with each other in that day. We’ll also have talks and sessions throughout the day, again, divided into morning and afternoon like we did yesterday.

And then after the final breakout session this afternoon, we’ll gather back all together in this room at 6:00 p.m. for just kind of a short closing together to put an end note on SRCCON:WORK.

So I’d love to see you back here in this room at 6:00. That’s where we will end today. But we are super excited to be in this room together to start today together. After yesterday, we had some amazing conversations on hiring on building meaningful careers and on taking care of ourselves, taking care of each other. This morning we’re going to move into our third conference theme, spend some time talking about collaboration. So we want to talk about how we make team work just the way that we always work, right? We want to talk about building relationships across departments, about mentorship, management, about leadership, and what goes into the kind of healthy communication that makes our newsrooms capable of doing their best work.

So we’re super excited to start off this morning with Mandy Brown. Mandy’s the Executive Director of Publishing at Vox Media. And she’s also a co-founder of a book, in fact, she walked here this morning. Lives in Philly. 200-year-old house with her husband, Keith who I think is also in this room. They live with a cool dog named Furiosa who’s not in this room but you can find Furiosa, on Facebook. But they’ll be talking about the kind of newsroom tech that respects humanity. So Mandy thank you so much.

[ Applause ]

MANDY: Thank you. Good morning, everybody. Can y’all hear me? It’s great to be here in the room with the first SRCCON. It’s really an honor to be up here. As I said, the topic this morning is collaboration and team work and I’m going to talk about that, but fully permit me, I’m going to take a somewhat expansive definition of collaboration. First you know where I’m coming from at Vox Media, I build the publishing platform course. Creating the conditions under which groups of designers, researchers, and community staff can productively and happily work together. And with that team, we are together responsible for building our tool, which the editors, writers, and peers use to create the news. In turn, others use the news, we hope, to understand the world a little more clearly, maybe even try to make the world a little better.

So part of my definition of collaboration this morning is when we think about collaboration, we have to not only think about who we work closely with, but also people who are a step or two away who use the systems that we build, whether they are using a system we’ve devised, or reading, or watching, or responding to the news that we produce.

I believe the systems we build with each other are reflected and reinforced by the work that goes out into the world. And I believe that we’re not building for our users, be they editorial teams, or news readers, or posts, but with them, there’s a reciprocal relationship between our own teams and the people who interact with our work. And that that relationship, that collaboration needs to be nurtured and respected.

Much of thinking about this comes from the late great Ursula Franklin. Franklin, if you’re not familiar was a Holocaust survivor who immigrated to Canada, known for her feminism and pacifism. If I were to read her entire list of honors, I would be run off the stage. But she’s most well known by doing mass lectures on the CBC, in 1989. This lectures were titled “The Real World of Technology.” And I believe they’re extraordinarily relevant to the work that we do today. Franklin referred to the work not only as machines and devices, but of practice, the organization of work, and people. That she thinks of technology not only at the black mirrors that we stare into today, but the people that hold them, but the social work, that arise. We calls this the real world of technology and calls enough to investigate how this technology works, what kinds of actions it enables, and what it concludes and how it impacts and intersects our social, economic, and political systems.

Franklin developed several frameworks which are useful for understanding this real world of technology in which I would like to adopt here. The first is what she calls work-related technologies versus control-related technologies. A work-related technology is one that assists someone do their work. Maybe a sharp knife, or a hammer. In contrast, control technologies may seem to make work easier but it makes it easier to control people. Franklin uses a word that I like: processor. It kind of tasks by copying and pasting, or checking spelling, or rewriting that last sentence a hundred times but if you collect a bunch of processors into a network, say, a content management system, an editor could monitor the word count output of her team and enforce hourly quotas. Or she could rank her writers by page views and fold or fire them — to morph into technology designed to control. And I venture that networked technologies like content management systems, like the project management tools that we spend all day in, like news platforms and social media are more likely to develop into control-related technologies than non-network tech simply because there’s so much data to observe and act on. Surveillance can be a vector for control-related technology.

It may seem cliché but it’s actually really useful so I’m going to bring up our first favorite people, the will youedites. They were opposed to technology that reduced their autonomy, that degraded their skills. There’s a great book called Fossil Capital by Andreas Malm. Malm explains that at the time of that transition in England, water was free and abundant, whereas steam, which is dependent on coal is very expensive. We had to go through quite a lot of effort to dig that coal, and then you had to haul it over to where the engines are. And all of that cost a hell of a lot more than sitting by the rivers. But the owners of the mills were determined to switch to steam power anyway because it gave them more control over the workers.

It allowed them to adopt rigid production processes and to operate working hours that couldn’t be interrupted by the weather. It allowed in modern terms to increase productivity. The Luddites knew steam power was a control-related technology and they rejected it as such.

Control-related technologies are a component of what Franklin terms prescriptive technologies. Again, think of technology as something that encompasses the divisions of labor, not only what it does, but the way it is used, the effects it has on the people who use it, and that framing of prescriptive technology is one in which the work is broken down into discrete steps and parceled out to different people, each of whom has to do the work as prescribed. It’s easy to think of factory work when imagining prescriptive tech. One person creates the aluminum, someone else fashions the battery, someone else creates the glass, and then finally, the phone is assembled. But these processes can feed into any work, including our own. Franklin frames other primary source of work in the division of labor, that is the breakdown of tasks across different specialties and different people. That breakdown can contribute to an environment in which each person’s skills, and autonomy are degraded because they have no control over the overall process.

No say over how things happen, and how work is negotiated between disciplines and because their skills can be sliced to narrowly that they can become meaningless, devoid to any connection to the output of the work.

What I take from this is not you should never collaborate processes. Clearly we would need to or we wouldn’t be here. But that you need to take a lot of care to can a frame that collaboration in a way that doesn’t reduce people to following a prescription. There are many requirements for healthy process collaboration but I’m going to call out three that I think are especially critical and also really, really hard.

First, each member of a team needs to respect and be curious about the work of other disciplines. Engineers need to be able to love and recognize good design. Designers need to be curious about editing and reporting. And engineers good enough to ask code about the engineers. We have to understand that we have a shared territory. It’s easy to imagine that the of people here at SRCCON are especially good at this because so many of us have hyphenated titles. And working in intersections. But none of us can have all the expertise to do all the work. The work is too complicated for that and it isn’t sustainable to ask us to become an expert in everything. So that means we have to enable a culture that supports real, humane interdisciplinary collaboration and then we have to build the institutions that support and maintain that culture.

Second, we have to work through justice. That is we have to make every effort to ensure that everyone on our teams can bring their full selves to the work regardless of the circumstances of their worth. We have to foreground intersectionality, we have to recognize that improving diversity does not simply mean hiring more white women. It does not mean — and it sure as hell does not mean expecting people from different backgrounds and different privileges to conform to the culture set in place at a time when they were excluded.

To be clear, this work is endless. But we have to do it anyway and with our full hearts. Real collaboration does not abide by the existence of oppression. Finally, we need to leave room for making a mess. True collaboration across disciplines requires a lot of negotiation and questioning. Despite our best efforts, it always leads to miscommunication. It demands patience, comfort with nuance and complexity, and a willingness to keep talking until things make sense.

The speed of our industry makes us extraordinarily hard. We’re driven to be more efficient, to save time, to increase productivity, to get to the next thing before someone else does, to respond to the breaking news that never stops. But a healthy collaboration will never be as neat or efficient as our Trello boards, spreadsheets, tests. Absent an effort to be curious, to be inclusive, to be messy, we can succumb to prescriptive technologies. We can become automatons. Machines doing the work of unseen powers. And here Franklin calls out the real danger of prescriptive tech, which is a tool of compliance, by engendering a prison by eliminating individual agency that enculturate us to obedience. They lead to the notion that there’s one right way to do things, and it’s the way that we’re doing things now. They make it harder for us to say no, to object to the way things are being done. So make principle choices about our work.

I want to come back before I leave you to Franklin’s definition of technology. Technology is practice of how we do things because, again, I draw a straight line from the way we build our teams, the way we collaborate with each other, to the way people read and watch and learn and respond to the news. The cultures we build on our teams beget the technologies that we build with one another, which in turn beget the systems and contexts in which people need the news and so it’s instructive to ask: how do people read the news today?

And one answer is that people read the news by quietly staring at a device in which a steady stream of information about friends and family is interwoven with news of the world, some of it’s true, but, sadly, many of it’s not so. All mixed up with advertising, and branding designed to manipulate us, to play off our worst psychological weaknesses. New information appearing every few seconds until we can no longer think clearly or process any of it and are left to do nothing but what the technology demands of us, to scroll, or pull, or swipe for more. I hope I speak for everyone when I say, this is not how we should read the news.

Now I don’t have a fix for this. Like everyone else coming up on the stage or running sessions here at SRCCON, I have lots of questions and few answers. The way that we read news today is a problem of the scale of technology. It’s a tangled mess of design, advertising, patterns of network tech and social systems that have emerged or adapted to this new way of communicating. Not to mention, corporations, white supremacists, and foreign powers looking for every opportunity to take power in our midst. We’re going to have to work together. We’re going to have to collaborate and only on our own teams, but across the field and that field includes the people who make the technologies that we have long considered we’re beholden to.

We’re going to have to organize. My challenge to you as you approach how to do that is to think critically about the technology we use with each other. The technology we build for ourselves, and for others to keep an eye out for control-related tech. To watch for prescriptive processes, to curtail surveillance whenever you can.

I believe that one way we can build better, more humane news tech is by being stubborn. By refusing to comply. By refusing to accept that the current conditions, no matter how seemingly intractable are given. Start with your own teams, but don’t start there. Thank you.

[ Applause ]

RYAN: That was awesome. Thank you so much for reminding us to bring our hearts into this work. Folks, we’re going to take just a second and set up a laptop here and mics and we’ll be right back up with our next speaker. Thanks.