Daily Rumination No. 29: What Royal Commission?

I spotted an update from LinkedIn today called Top Companies 2019: Where Australia wants to work now. Here is the opening paragraph that explains the purpose of the update and how it is put together:

‘Every year, our editors and data scientists parse billions of actions taken by LinkedIn members around the world to uncover the companies that are attracting the most attention from jobseekers and then hanging on to that talent. The data-driven approach looks at what members are doing — not just saying — in their search for fulfilling careers. The result of that data is Top Companies, our 4th annual ranking of the most sought-after companies today.’

I was shocked to see that the four top companies in the list for 2019 are:

  1. Westpac Group;
  2. National Australia Bank (NAB);
  3. ANZ; and
  4. Commonwealth Bank.

Yes, that’s right… the Big Four banks are the most desirable Australian employers. How can this be? Has no one heard of the recent Royal Commission into the Australian banking sector? These massive institutions drove their own employees to screw customers in completely illegal and unethical ways. One of the most unbelievable findings was that Commonwealth Bank had been charging dead customers for over a decade. Aside from the investigation, there has also been considerable negative sentiment online over three of the banks’ prolonged, public refusal to adopt Apple Pay.

I have no doubt that people are enthusiastic about working for such large and successful companies, however, I do believe that this article is evidence of why a ‘data-driven approach’ is not always best. Just because there is a lot of chatter about the companies on LinkedIn doesn’t mean that they’re decent employers. What could we have learnt with a more human, qualitative approach? ‘LinkedIn Insights’ can only tell you so much.

The article also includes a little ‘What may surprise you’ section under each employer. Rather than mentioning anything ‘surprising’ about despicable, scandalous behaviour, LinkedIn spends time talking about leave, gender diversity, leave for volunteering and involvement in the Special Olympics. How lovely…

People trust social media like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter as their news sources and quickly become absorbed in such information bubbles. If this is the sort of lazy reporting that big tech companies are going to continue to publish and share, that’s not good. What’s even more concerning to me is the idea that LinkedIn’s data could in fact be representative of people’s attitude towards the banks. Do people really have no moral compass?

Daily Rumination No. 28: Valuing Education

Earlier this evening, I had the great opportunity to hear Dr Brendan Nelson, Director of the Australian War Memorial, speak at an Illawarra business dinner. He gave an extremely impressive, rousing speech about his work at the memorial, his values and also his experience as former federal Leader of the Opposition and Ambassador of Australia to the European Union, Belgium and Luxembourg.

The entire crowd was silent and transfixed. At the conclusion of his speech, he received a standing ovation.

I have no doubt that most of the audience members were impressed by the touching stories of fallen soldiers and their families and how he has transformed the memorial from a museum into a more interactive, inviting place for contemporary storytelling. As he explained, there are conflicts and peacekeeping missions that are happening right now and the more information that we have to understand current issues, the better. It’s more than just wars of the past.

What I found the most impressive in Dr Nelson’s speech was his discussion of a man called Neville Bonner, who was the first Aboriginal Australian to be elected to the Australian Federal Parliament. Dr Nelson apparently keeps a large portrait of Bonner in his office and has taken it with him wherever he has worked. Bonner overcame extreme adversity and prejudice against Indigenous Australian peoples and was inspired to join politics during the 1967 referendum, which saw Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders finally regarded as human citizens and counted them in the census.

Dr Nelson posed the question: how did Bonner achieve this? The answer is education. Knowledge is power and I believe that the opportunity to learn (along with others) is something for which we should be grateful.

Too often, I fear that learning is taken for granted, particularly with regard to university studies. I hear people complain constantly about their university courses and assessments, just counting down the days until they get their piece of paper. University study is now seen as a necessary evil and a kind of transaction for ‘job-readiness’. You give them money (now or later) and they give you a certificate. That’s it.

Learning to understand the world and expand your horizons appears to be out of fashion. I went to university not just because I needed a qualification for a job; I went because I enjoyed learning. I could have finished my studies after three years of my undergraduate degree, but stayed for an extra honours year and then did a year of distance with another institution. I’m by no means exceptional and many people do postgraduate studies, however the majority of people just whinge and whine about doing the minimum. Why go if you’d prefer to do something else?

Dr Nelson’s message was about the power of education, whether in helping people to understand something as specific as the consequences of war or to overcome societal oppression and prejudice. I just wish that more privileged Australians would realise how fortunate they are to have access to education.

Daily Rumination No. 27: Instagram Is Dead (to Me)

In 2010, I joined a new, exciting social network called Instagram. Its purpose was quite simple: post square-shaped photos with a range of interesting colour filters and follow people whose photos you also enjoy.

That was really it… until Facebook came along and destroyed everything.

Over time, the network that I loved became a cesspool of useless narcissism and commercialism. Sure, some useful features have been integrated over time, such as video, different aspect ratios and support for multiple images in one post, however most changes have led the service away from its original charm and purpose.

First of all, we now have ads… a lot of ads. Many of them, in my experience, have been totally inaccurate. I’m an Apple enthusiast, yet I have seen countless advertisements for Samsung smartphones and the Microsoft Surface. I have zero interest in fashion, yet I have often been presented with ads for various types of clothing. I’ve heard that others have received very relevant ads, yet I’ve never personally found that to be the case.

Moving on, Instagram Stories, the blatant rip-off of Snapchat Stories, was an example not only of theft from another network to which that idea fit better, it also took the focus away from photography. It’s not about quickly sharing interesting photos anymore, it’s about sharing banal moments as they happen. It’s not even something that you can ignore! They shoved the right into the top of the interface and it’s not something that you can hide.

Another frustrating example is the integration of an algorithmic feed that prioritises content according to personal interest, rather than maintaining chronological order. I don’t need a machine to tell me when I should be interested in something; I want to see photos in the historical order in which they were taken.

I could go on with more examples but perhaps the most significant (and final) one to mention is privacy. Facebook is such an appalling digital citizen and has shown time and time again that it has zero respect for the privacy of its users. As a part of Facebook, Instagram is also a part of that problem. I don’t enjoy it and now, even more importantly, I don’t trust it at all.

Today, I finally deleted my account with this ruined network, which for whatever reason, never thought that people would like to use it on iPads. The tipping point was the integration of an importing feature for Instagram content on Micro.blog, where I now host my short-form blog-equivalent on Feld Notes. With the ability to download my Instagram photos and upload them to a more trustworthy place, maintaining date order and all captions for my photos, nothing was standing in my way anymore.

I had not been using Instagram for some time, so I clicked the ‘delete’ button with only a moment’s hesitation. This pause came down to my positive memories of the service. This once iOS-only app was a network that made photography fun and accessible to so many people.

Now, with both my Facebook profile and Instagram account gone, the only part of my life that remains tied to Facebook is my Messenger account. I would delete that in a heartbeat, if it weren’t for a number of friends both overseas and on Android, with whom there is no other simple, common group-messaging app. Unfortunately, as Apple-centric as this sounds, not everyone is on iMessage, which is undoubtedly the most integrated, convenient and trustworthy instant-messaging app.

For anyone reading this, if you’re still on Instagram, ask yourself why you’re still there. Do you really enjoy the photos or ‘Stories’ that you see from others? Do they add any value? How much time to do you waste looking at (or indeed scrolling past) ads in your feed?

Just get rid of it. There are other spaces on the Web for your content, which are not only more enjoyable but grant you greater control.

Daily Rumination No. 26: Screen Time All the Time

Earlier today, Natasha and I visited Sydney Town Hall for the last day of Dr Gunther von Hagen’s Body Worlds Vital exhibition. It was absolutely brilliant and offered amazing insights into the human body. The donated, plastinated specimens were incredible.

Rather than focusing on the bodies themselves in this piece or sharing photos, which are available throughout the Web already, I wanted to discuss the statistic in the photo that I took below.

This infographic was part of a large wall-display that clearly had been customised for Australian audiences. Three hours of screen time each day is a shocking minimum for kids, who should also be allocating time to hobbies, fitness and family. It should be lower and I doubt that anyone would disagree with me.

It would be difficult to find many adults who lack concern or even basic interest in the health and future of children. That’s why parents now have incessant arguments about putting phones away at the dinner table—we all want them to be social, well-adjusted, healthy and able to focus on what’s important in their lives.

What concerns me, however, is that adults don’t alway cares for themselves in the same way when it comes to their use of screens. Indeed, they’re often not even able or permitted to do so. Considering that three hours of screen time is deemed to be undesirable and unsafe for kids, what does that mean for someone like me, who must spend approximately seven hours every day staring directly at a computer monitor at work? I’m only 27 and even with my moderated smartphone use beyond the desk, I already have mild astigmatism in both eyes.

Besides my job, many other vocations require constant interaction with a computer. If not office-based like my role, then other roles would at least be closer to the minimum unsafe duration of three hours. How are people supposed to earn a living without sacrificing their eyesight?

A number of useful tools exist that try to mitigate this issue. Over the past few years, Apple, for example, has introduced software and hardware improvements such a Night Shift and True-tone, which adjust the harshness and temperature of displays. Night Shift is a manual setting that increases the colour temperature, whilst True-tone uses light sensors to adapt the screen to the device’s surroundings. Furthermore, the new Screen Time feature in the Settings app enables young and old users alike to monitor their usage of devices and even set time limits for apps.

At work, I use an app on my Mac called BreakTime, which takes over my computer every 20 minutes and delivers a message to look into the distance for 20 seconds. Coupled with a sit-stand desk, it makes things somewhat more bearable.

All of these features sound very clever and useful but they shouldn’t have to exist. In theory, computers were supposed to reduce the amount of work that we have to do and as a consequence, the time that it takes each day. Instead we now sit for the same number of hours (if not more), only to develop a range of health complications from sitting and staring. The standard 40-hour week persists in Australia.

When we hear about things like ‘flexible work’, we are generally encouraged to consider a more comfortable method of being productive, whether based at home for some of the week or away travelling. This is an idealistic view. Instead, people shuffle their working times around and end up doing even more. Constantly, I witness my colleagues sacrifice their lunch breaks in front of their computers and send messages late in the evening. Why do they do this? Displays are everywhere and it’s just easier to get those few emails out of the way. With such accessible tools, it feels like there’s no excuse to stop working.

I believe that we should ask ourselves an important question: what is all of this work for? Whether it’s for our eyes or our back posture, what are we really hoping to achieve by spending all of this time in front of screens?

If only we were to treat our own adult bodies with the care and respect that we demand for our children, the world would be a much healthier, more comfortable place. Dr von Hagens has been saying this for ages.

Daily Rumination No. 25: Belgian is Belgium is Belgian

Whilst it can sometimes be unclear what constitutes Belgian chocolate Belgian (other than where it’s from), really, who doesn’t love it? Whether in the form of Guylian seashells or delicious hot beverages, it’s generally rich and super-delicious.

Unfortunately, its popularity doesn’t mean that everyone is entirely sure about how to name it. Notice that I wrote Belgian chocolate. The word ‘Belgian’ is the adjective that describes the origin and type of chocolate. Pretty clear, right? More often than not, I see shops and cafés advertising it as Belgium chocolate instead. With the use of the country’s name, it’s almost as if the particular snack on offer has official, governmental backing. It is the chocolate of the nation!

As much as I rolled my eyes over this in the past, it is such a common error nowadays that I have tried not to get too cranky about it. I’d rather not die young as a result of grammatical stress.

Today, however, I saw something different at David Jones, which may reintroduce my aforementioned health risk. See if you can find it in the picture that I took below.

Did you spot it? This Godiva chocolate is not from Belgium… it’s from Belgian! This could simply have been an overlooked typo by the retailer but it has reignited my concern that people:

  1. Don’t know the simple difference between nouns and adjectives; and
  2. Have no clue about what Belgium actually is.

I am uncertain as to whether this is only an issue in Australia, however I do believe that increased funding should be directed immediately to English and geography courses across all public and primary schools, just to be safe. There is no time to waste.

Daily Rumination No. 24: The Value of British Humour

Normally, before I start to talk or write about a show or film that I have seen, I try to finish it in order to reflect on its overall themes, plot and quality. That’s hardly unusual—you don’t leave a film halfway through it and then write a review.

Watching Ricky Gervais’s new Netflix show After Life, however, I have some thoughts to share after only the first episode. The story follows a miserable, middle-aged Englishman who is struggling after the recent loss of his wife to cancer. He treats others brutally and acts in a completely nihilistic fashion.

As much as I enjoy American comedy, there is something about the British that cannot be matched and After Life is a perfect example. Within only 28 minutes of television, Gervais and the supporting cast make legitimately funny, sophisticated jokes about death, paedophilia, suicide, mental illness, drug use and obesity. Thrown into the mix is a healthy amount of blunt profanity. Are any of the situations in the show even slightly offensive? Not at all.

British comedians like Ricky Gervais manage something that American comedians, as funny as they are, just can’t. They take crushingly awkward, embarrassing and even emotional moments and deliver them to you in a way that makes you cringe and chuckle simultaneously. Gervais is a master because he can make you sad and entertained at the very thought of cancer.

Such comedians and writers don’t seek to denigrate people or belittle their troubles, they seek to unravel situations that are seen unreasonably as sacred, taboo or just downright untouchable. In the process of avoiding topics such as death and mental illness, we don’t end up talking about them at all. In such a vacuum, harmful ideas and misconceptions take hold. As I watched the show, I thought about people I’ve known who are now dead, and I felt both sad and heartened. There’s an authenticity to British presentation and it enables us to grapple with our own personal negative experiences.

Unfortunately, too many people hear profanities from comedians like Gervais and switch off. They miss the subtlety, becoming offended without ever understanding the brilliance of the delivery and the potential relevance to their own lives. The world could do with more British humour, whether in the current era of Gervais or earlier style of Monty Python (which certainly couldn’t be written or broadcast today).

Satire and observational humour hold a mirror up to society, enabling us to mock and therefore understand ourselves better.

Daily Rumination No. 23: The Productivity-in-Transit Lifestyle

In today’s world of hyperconnected, digital capitalism, we hear constantly that careers should be rewarding, fulfilling endeavours that create meaning for our lives. This is in no way representative of most people’s experiences, particularly for those who commute long distances. Work doesn’t give meaning to your life… it just becomes your life.

I saw great evidence of collective worker misery this week whilst commuting to Sydney for two different events. For a little over three years, I also commuted to Sydney from my home town of Wollongong, optimising the trip over time to the point that I couldn’t make it any shorter. My two recent trips were a dark reminder of that earlier period.

People of all ages and backgrounds pile into overcrowded trains, jostling for seats and tiny gaps in which to stand in the stairways and vestibules. It’s always either too hot or too cold in the carriages and passengers turn to their iPhones for any kind of basic amusement, usually in the form of exploitative, free-to-play games with in-app purchases.

The people whom I pity the most are those who do their work on the commute before they even arrive at work, frantically sending emails in the hope of achieving inbox-zero before the end of the week.

Many would say that working on the train is an efficient use of time that would otherwise be spent staring out the window. I don’t believe this at all. It’s an illness. Not only do people waste months of their lives sitting in the same odorous carriages on the way to work, they then further sacrifice their time by doing extra work for an organisation that neither knows nor cares about it.

Digital devices and services that are meant to make our lives easier have become tools of oppression, enabling this productivity-in-transit lifestyle. It seems that for many, flexible work can quickly become even more work, just away from a desk.

I’m glad that I escaped this daily death march to work in Sydney and I only hope that more people can do the same. We need to ask ourselves what we’re working for and why we are motivated to do certain things. Long-distance commuting has become an unfortunate norm and I fear that many just accept their circumstances, never stopping to achieve better balance in their lives. A sacrifice will always have to be made. In most cases, that will be one’s health and time with family.