Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Quick Sips - Escape Pod #716 & #717

Escape Pod kicks off the new year with a pair of original stories that explore futures were...elements of our world that are perceived as increasing productivity (but which also might lead to rampant burnout and misery) are embraced at a governmental level and expanded. Making sciences more (yes, moar!) competitive, making listening to people's issues a job where compassion isn't allowed. These stories reveal times and places where people are ignoring the toxic costs of their corrupt systems and instead push forward because it's what "get results." Only the end results might be much different than the hoped-for outcomes. To the reviews!


“Physics by the Numbers” by Stephen Granade (3811 words)

No Spoilers: Nevaeh is one of now two grad students working on a physics project at their university. I say now two because students keep getting cut thanks to an algorithm that is...helping steer funding because of deep cuts to academic research. It’s made the experience tense, making everything inside the lab and out a metric by which the remaining two students, Nevaeh and Mason, can be judged. And through that, the piece gets a bit into bias, and how it tends to push people into hiding things that might get counted against them. Far from being objective and “fair,” the numbers baldly favor those not who work the best but who fit better into the box the job, and the policies and ideologies behind the job, prefer. And despite the late capitalist claustrophobia it might inspire, it’s ultimately about the living your truth, and following your heart, no matter how perilous the road might seem.
Keywords: Academia, Physics, Research, Algorithms, Queer MC
Review: I really like how the story shows the ways that research and academia sometimes become...about anything other than the work. They become about metrics, about showing “results.” About proving some sort of return on investment when, well...that’s not really the point? Or isn’t supposed to be the point. And yet when government agencies, which have become more and more politicized, are in charge of giving out money, they hold power to make universities dance for their bread. Which a lot of universities are only too happy to oblige, because of a mentality that rises out of academia, of grades and evaluation and that constant kind of scrutiny. And for Nevaeh there’s the added wrinkle that other people are not only racist and phobic, but that they get to couch those things in feeling wronged that she must be getting special treatment, diversity points, whatever, just because she’s there. Despite her doing as good or better work. It’s a situation that pits everyone against everyone, where teamwork is more about trying to climb over the bodies of the people around you. And all for no real reason. Indeed, their science only works when they work together. And they don’t dislike each other. But both of them have a lot to lose, and the system is using that as a brutal leverage to try and wring more and more out of them, to further and further exploit them. And it makes them into worse people, willing to sacrifice other people, yes, but also their own beliefs, their own compassion and kindness and trust. It’s something that Nevaeh has to face when it seems like she’ll be next cut, and that she’s been put in that position by someone she kind of trusted, who was supposed to be her friend. And I absolutely love that she makes the call not to hit back. Not to play that game. Even if it works out poorly for her. Because it shows her what she really wants, and who she really wants to be, and that if she has to give that up to do the work she wants to do, then it’s not really the work she wants to do. It’s sharp and powerful with a great ending, all-too-real and slightly terrifying but with a sense of hope that even as people find new ways to be awful toward one another, people also find new ways to stand together and reach out. A wonderful read!

“Listening” by Bob DeRosa (4092 words)

No Spoilers: Karen is an employee at a government-funded listening line, a place where anyone can call into at any moment and just speak and be listened to by an actual person. It’s not quite a crisis line, but just gives people who want to have someone to talk at a place to do so. It’s not exactly glamorous work, and after years there Karen approaches it mostly mechanically. And yet one day she gets a call that knocks her out of her comfort zone, and makes her question everything about her work and her life. It’s a piece very concerned with jobs and human connects, that seems to act how we’re doing and where we might be headed toward.
Keywords: Phones, Help Lines, Employment, Listening, Marriage
Review: I feel the story takes on a lot with regards to listening and...I guess I’ll call it genuine human interaction. The future described is one where the pressures of capitalism and a failing infrastructure, growing instability and needing to work longer and longer for less and less, all contribute to a population that is Stressed The Fuck Out. And because of that, and because of what they have to do, their IRL support network is both spotty or thin and also with limited time and resources to offer. So the government, instead of dealing with any of that, has opted to slap a band aid on it, and instead of treating the issue, seeks to manage the symptoms enough to keep things going. And that’s where I think the story is at its strongest, where it is pointing out that this isn’t enough, and not only isn’t it enough, it’s actually making it so that more action isn’t taken, because it’s something that people have come to rely on to make it through their days. Unfortunately, tucked into that feels to me a light critique of people, as well, for...well, for seeking to manage their symptoms. The story clearly identifies, at least in my opinion, the human need to talk and to be heard. In a time and place when so many feel so powerless, being able to speak is powerful, and it’s obviously being exploited. But I bounced off some of what the story, through the one character who still cared about their work, said about the system, and what they prescribed as the solution. Because to me the implication (and the ending) landed a little too hard on people needed to make time for IRL interactions. To have friends, to reconnect with intimate partners. It didn’t, though, really look at how, given the world of the story, sometimes managing the symptoms is really all a person can do. And while Karen might be able to walk away from her clearly rather toxic job, it’s not something that everyone can do. And, further, that she was actually helping people through her work. It might be ultimately a device to allow exploitation to continue, but removing it without first removing the underlying issue will only hurt people, and leave them without even that relief, and maybe without means to find or connect with IRL people. So yeah, I do like a lot of the ideas the story brings up, but I’m not sure on some others, and very much encourage people to check it out for themselves.


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