Representation, Familiarity, Opportunity, and Diversity

This is a very, very long piece about ways an imaginary corporation (from a story I am writing) might ensure that diversity is “baked into” its corporate culture, and wondering how that might work in the real world. It’s written largely from a USAian perspective with regards to the background. I know it’s a lot of words, because I’m approaching the topic in a really roundabout way, but there will be no TL;DR – I’m afraid you’re just going to have to bear with me.

In Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, Enoch Root makes some observations about Bobby Shaftoe, a Marine who’s addicted to morphine. He states that he’s not fond of the label “addict”, because it’s a noun — “a noun that obliterates Bobby Shaftoe”. Root is fond of the German term for morphine addiction: in German, you would say a person is Morphiumsüchtig (“morphine-seeky”) — it’s an adjective, and thusly modifies “Bobby Shaftoe”, indicating that Shaftoe has an inclination, instead of replacing him entirely with a label.

I mention this because I like the term “(whatever)-seeky”. I especially like it when it comes to humans — for example, I like to say that we are extremely pattern-seeky. Not just pattern-seeking, in the sense that we sometimes engage in pattern-seeking behavior, but that our whole brain is wired with a constant inclination towards seeking patterns. That inclination is always there. In fact, I’d even argue that we’re always doing it to some extent — subconsciously, if not explicitly, which can get us into trouble (which I will get into in a minute). We’ve evolved to recognize and identify and catagorize patterns.

But assessing new patterns takes a lot of energy: what is that new thing? Can I eat it? Is it going to hurt me? What do I need to understand about it? Throughout the majority of our evolution as a species, the energy to do that has been expensive, in terms of the effort to acquire the calories to provide it. So I think we evolved to conserve the energy at the same time, just in case the hunting and/or gathering fell short, because it often did (not to mention that the effort to get those calories had its own caloric cost to boot).

So I think that in addition to be pattern-seeky, we’re also familiarity-seeky. We receive positive feedback when the patterns we see are familiar: familiar patterns, habits, things, environments, and people, which are predictable. Predictable things don’t require us to expend that expensive energy on additional thinking or action, and allow us to reserve those precious calories for something else. I think it’s why we get into ruts, for example, and why sometimes, it’s just too damn hard to think about that next new problem, so we just kick it down the road to deal with “later” (or park it in orbit around Typhon).

I personally think that this is why we tend to congregate with people who look like ourselves, and clump in cultures. Because I’d argue that interacting with people has historically been one of the more dangerous and stressful things we can do, especially if we don’t share some kinds of familiar qualities (“Oh, look, that’s a kind of boat I haven’t seen before. Strangers on board – wonder if they’re nice?”). Predictable appearance, behavior, language, culture — these all serve to form a constant, unconscious reassurance that there’s no threat there, and allow us to focus our energies elsewhere (“Oh, hi, Pat. Hm, is this meat too rancid to eat?”).

I would like to say that in this day and age, we’re (generally) much more peaceful & open to the idea of diversity as being desirable and useful (and not necessarily dangerous), and that a large chunk (but, alas, not enough) of us have access to adequate (or even too many) calories, so any kind of instinctual concern for starving to death if we use up too much energy dealing with unfamiliar things is, for many people (but not nearly enough!) not an issue. But the fact is, we’re still struggling to come to terms with things like grinding systemic racism and sexism (and various other -isms related to dealing with people who are, for whatever reason, don’t fit the familiar pattern of the people with the power & privilege).

A lot of that has to do with absolutely overt actions taken throughout history to ensure that communities remained homogenous and separated, particularly along racial and ethnic divisions, and to prevent people who were not of the majority (in the case of the USA, white people or pale-skinned people who, after a number of generations, were assimilated enough to be considered white) from having the same access to resources and privileges of “the majority”. It is so much easier to maintain your power when there’s less competition, and so much less stressful when everyone around you is reassuringly familiar.

I’ve always felt that a lot of this was reinforced by representation in popular media: I remember that even in the 70s and 80s, when corporations were waking up to the idea of representing non-white people in, say, board game commercials on TV, I could look at a diverse mix of kids (black, brown, white, boys, girls) playing a game in a commercial and say, “white boy wins,” and, sure enough, at the end of the commercial, the white boy would win. If you were watching media that was aimed at, say, white people (i.e., the majority who had the majority — of the channels, of the broadcast time, of the production resources, of the advertisement money), you just wouldn’t see much by way of minority representation, and when you did, the white people would “naturally” come out on top. If you did create content that centered minority persons, well, those were generally very restricted in their availability — not only to the target audiences, but to people who arguably needed to see it more (the majority).

Okay, so what does diversity in representation do — why is it important? Well, some argument has been made that it’s important to give kids the opportunity to see people who look like them being represented constructively and importantly and victoriously across all walks of life. And I’ve also seen people write that it’s just as important for (majority) kids to see people who don’t look like them being successful: to open up the idea that it’s not only possible, but even ordinary, for all kinds of people to be active in the public sphere in a variety of roles, and to be their own successful agents in compelling stories.

Oh! About stories, because this is important, too: our other great adaptation as a species — which was pointed out by the late, great Sir Terry Pratchett and with which I wholeheartedly agree — is that our brains are innately wired for narrative. We tell stories about everything. History? That’s telling the story of our past. Planning? That’s telling the story of how we’d like the future to go. We are natural, inveterate storytellers.

Think of conspiracy theories. The core of every conspiracy theory is that you — you alone, or you in a very small company of special people in the possession of shocking knowledge — are set apart from the common masses. You’re unique, a true protagonist, most definitely not some non-player character or extra who’s briefly introduced just to populate the background. No! The hero is you! Which is why conspiracy theories are so damn tenacious, especially if you try to counter them with paltry things like <scoffing> facts. Because the facts aren’t the point. The point is the story: the story about the believer, and how unique they are, at the center of their own fantastic personal story.

And this is why I believe representation in stories (both fiction and history) is so, so incredibly important, and why kids (and adults!) need to see themselves — as well as persons who are different — as the heroes in books, comics, movies, TV shows, and especially history, and to see different cultures and backgrounds accurately represented. Because it digs into the deep narrative structures of the brain, and if we’re going to overcome the “different = bad!” instinct, we need to bombard ourselves not only with “different = awesome!” but maybe even “different = natural!”

What would society be like if people grew up to actually notice, and be uncomfortable with, a lack of diversity in a community / governing board / legislature / body of people? Not just because they grew up reading and watching stories that underscored diversity, but because they grew up in communities / groups / schools that were either purposefully (or, maybe one day, naturally) diverse? What would it take for this to actually happen – for a lack of diversity to be odd? And what would it take for a lack of diversity among all levels of its population to be a tripwire at a company or within an industry? How would they deal with it?

It got me to thinking about current equal opportunity initiatives. For example, in the US government, there are policies that underscore the importance of giving government employees equal opportunity, and not discriminating based on (in a nutshell) “non merit-based factors”. Most corporations and companies have something smiliar. See? If we just look at people’s merits, then we won’t discriminate against people for the color of their skin or the shape of the bits between their legs or who they’re attracted to or how they express their gender (or lack thereof), right? I see this used as an argument against Affirmative Action in particular. Why do we have to go out of our way to hire a specific number of women, or persons of color, or other minority persons? Isn’t that discrimination? Isn’t it better, fairer, more noble to only look at people’s merit?

Well, there’s a problem: these merit-based policies are at the end of the process of making workers & citizens. The beginning of that process is birth, rearing, culture, community, education & training, and in this part of the process, our society as a whole absolutely does not have equal opportunity processes that require us to consider only merit. We see breathtaking systemic inequities in health care, schooling, food quality, wages, insurance, environmental quality & safety, policing, justice, you name it. So what this results in is people who rarely had the opportunity to acquire the merit in the first place because, as a community, they’ve been systematically marginalized and disenfranchised and oppressed and even outright harmed and/or killed if they dare “step out of line” (as established by those in power and privilege). “Yeah, I’d love to learn calculus or accounting or coding or some other high-paying white-collar job (to “pull myself up by my bootstraps”), but right now I have to work three hourly, part-time jobs just to afford rent and overpriced processed foods because otherwise my family starves and I just don’t have the brainspace right now, not to mention that my childhood schooling wasn’t really geared to give me the foundational knowledge that I need to learn those things so I’m at a disadvantage to begin with — also, I’m dealing with depression due to a polluted environment plus dealing with having to constantly experience discrimination and harassment and microagressions, and I don’t have equal access to health care and, get this, the majority doctors are telling me I’m just imagining my symptoms, and even if they weren’t, I wouldn’t be able to afford my meds because my employers have a loophole that relieves them from having to provide me with health insurance, which I can’t afford on my own.”

But because there’s this equal opportunity policy on the back end of things — the one that directs hirers and appointers to “only look at merit”, those in power can continue to feel good about themselves. If they notice any lack of diversity in their hiring or appointments at all, the response is usually: “hey, all the people who have merit for the jobs that offer real pay and benefits and security just happen to be, by and large, white (and usually men). For some reason, minority people must just not be interested in gaining these skill sets, or (cue a recitation of stereotypes). It’s just the way it is, I guess.”

Think I’m exaggerating? I have heard something like this very response, said to my face, when I mentioned the astonishing lack of diversity I had observed among a division of my workplace.

This is why we had Affirmative Action in the first place, by the way: the government had to mandate it, just to get any minority representation at all. And now that there are a few minority people scattered about, we think we can just relax and say “okay, let’s just focus on merit now”? No. We cannot. Because those discriminatory cultural structures that have such wide-raging effects on the development of people are still in place.

Note: I am painting with a big broad brush here. I know it. I know there are numbers of successful minority/women in a lot of places, and I’m not trying to minimize those people’s success. But we do have a real, deeply-rooted, profoundly systemic problem with diversity in power, and when you’re looking at bodies of power in general, you’re going to notice that those minority people are, by and large, outliers in those places. I’m glad that successful minority persons have gotten where they are, but my point is that we should not notice the presence of diversity in places of power and influence and prestige — we should notice the absence of diversity in those places.

Anyway, so why am I thinking about all of this right now? I’m writing my Journeyman story (set in the universe of Obsidian’s video game, “The Outer Worlds” in 2355) and I’m thinking about SEPA, the “mother corporation” of my protagonist. I have it in my head that the company is very diverse — my main character and her biological family are genetic mutts, and everyone she knows are familiar with and value diversity. It’s important to me because of what’s going on in the country right now, which is rooted in these deeply discriminatory structures. I think that we can combat those structures with diversity in media representation and by maybe changing how we approach opportunity. Imagining how SEPA does it, particularly with opportunity, allows me to imagine how, maybe, we’d start working towards something like that in our world.

So here’s what I’m thinking: in addition to ensuring diverse representation in media and education, when SEPA posts a job, there are two components to the posting. One comprises what we’d consider standard for a job posting, the practical stuff: what skills are required? How much education, training, and experience?

But the other component is what I’m calling the “oddness quotient” at the moment (I’ll probably come up with a different, more story-appropriate term later). The oddness quotient captures the answer to the following question: In what non-merit-based ways is the person different from the majority of the other people who comprise the group or community with which the new hire will be working? Different gender? Culture? Sexual preference or expression? Ethnicity? Physical presentation and/or level of physical ability? Every difference that the person possesses brings diversity to the table, and could serve as a catalyst for some new perception, solution, or innovation.

Note that this is not the kind of “flavor text” that you might see on a resume (“what are your hobbies?”) that would allow an HR rep to somehow get an idea of “how well you will fit in the organization”. This is actual, quantifiable differences in your background or upbringing or whatever that would actually add diversity to the group. Instead of trying to ignore non-merit-based factors, it seeks to elevate them.

In SEPA, these two components — the practical one and the oddness one — would carry separate weights for a given job posting. For some postings, the job would be very heavily weighted in the practical direction and more lightly in the oddness direction. For example, if you’re looking for a highly-skilled nuclear reactor repair technician, you’re probably going to want to be absolutely sure that the individual you hire is qualified and capable from a fully technical sense. The fact that they’re different from other technicians or nuclear power plant employees is less important, because you would not like an eruption of radioactive steam to melt your workers and pollute the neighborhood.

But for postings that call for skills involving broader storytelling and -crafting (marketing, planning, research & development, human management & leadership), the weight of the oddness quotient would increase. It would be very heavy for human management & leadership, I’m thinking, especially the kind of leadership that’s responsible for long-term planning. I’d also think that SEPA would have more of a weight in the oddness quotient in interns and entry-level positions (ones that would less likely to have strict technical requirements), so that new people are exposed to diversity right away, get used to it, grow to expect it, and you get a more diverse body of people who are entering into the more technically-specific jobs — those highly technical jobs will end up having their diversity “baked in” from the start, so it won’t actually matter that the posting isn’t weighted in that direction.

(It should be noted that in the lore of “The Outer Worlds,” corporations are hyper-monstrosites, countries & cultures in their own right, and most people are born, grow up, and die within a corporation, so they’d probably have learned these kinds of corporate values before they learned to walk. But there might be some cross-pollination between companies from time to time, so diversity in accession is still important. And ultimately, the point is that in SEPA, diversity is a corporate value that they reinforce at all levels.)

I wonder whether it would be possible to implement such a “oddness quotient” in the real world? How would one go about it? What tripwires would have to be in place to recognize when it’s not being employed properly? After all, there would still be people* making decisions as to just how “odd” an applicant is with regard to the community they’d be entering, and deciding how to weight the importance of such oddness for a given job. And people are still subject to the same implicit (or explicit, alas) biases, due to our instinctive pattern- and familiarity-seekiness and fears, which must always be recognized and questioned and acknowledged and countered. You’d probably need constant training and oversight and review to properly oversee such a program, undestanding that over time, humans’ innate familiary-seekingness will reassert itself and reduce diversity if it isn’t constantly checked. Which — since this is my own spin on universe of “The Outer Worlds” — is generally what SEPA has in place. In my imagination, it largely works, with the exception of the occasional spectacular corruption scandal.

* You might say “what about having AI do all these decisions?” Well, as the incomparable Janelle Shane points out in her book, You Look Like a Thing and I Love You, the problem with this is that in order for you to train AI to do things like this, you need to give it data sets to learn from. And the data sets we have come from people, and are just chock full of implicit bias. So what the AI ends up doing is learning that bias.

Another thought about SEPA: unlike Spacer’s Choice (and probably the other corporations in the game), SEPA does its best to keep family units together, and to offer as much flexibility as possible when it comes to geographic postings. But the family units would likely not stay in one place for very long, unless one or more of the family members were permanently posted in one location for “institutional continuity”, which typically wouldn’t happen until much later in the careers of the family units’ senior persons. Up to that point (or barring that kind of assignment), SEPA would move families around, as a unit, from time to time. This is so that “young” families could have as much exposure to different communities and people and places as possible. SEPA believes that a life-long exposure to diverse cultures, locations, people, points-of-view, challenges, and experiences makes for better people overall and, by extension, a better company, and a better world.

This is all still rough, and I’m not sure how to incorporate it into the story without some kind of horrendous info dump, but at least it’ll be in the bones of how this major corporate (in my own story’s grand scheme of things) works. Maybe it’ll come out in bits and pieces (or random job postings in the background).