Laura Kalbag

Laura Kalbag is a designer working as part of the ind.ie team. She can be found via her personal site, Twitter, app.net, and out on long walks with her big fluffy dog.

Published Thoughts

Don't rock the boat

I've always been someone who avoids confrontation. Known as the diplomat, or the "calm one." It's kind, it's a compliment, but maybe it's not a trait that serves me well.

Often my calmness is because I let things wash over me. Trying to not let myself get caught up with trivial annoyances. They're a boring waste of time. But sometimes the calmness is really because I'm too fearful of the repercussions of speaking out against other people or causes.

Disagreeing with popular people or widely-held beliefs will make you unpopular. There's a reason it's considered bad manners to talk about politics or religion in polite company. And who wants to be unpopular? I want people to like me, to think I'm a nice person, and treat me accordingly. We don't trust people who would risk their popularity because we don't understand their motivations. Nobody wants to rock the boat.

Looking back over my year of writing for The Pastry Box, I can see my internal struggle through my chosen topics. Do I talk about ethical issues that I really care about, though they show my naïvety? Or do I write a crowd-pleasing bit featuring dog photos because it'll get a positive response? Do I re-post the clever words from somebody else's mouth, or write something vague and thinly-veiled, reactionary and passive-aggressive?

It's not easy navigating a world full of other people. We have our own ways of dealing with social situations and our own feelings. And maybe it's because I'm a big sister or a big scaredy-cat, I've become a person who will only defend my opinion when I'm angry. My brain simmers away, eating at me, until it consumes me entirely. At that point it's usually too late to sound reasonable.

We're particularly discouraged from rocking the boat when we're privileged. We've got it good, why make ourselves unpopular and spoil our good lives? It reminds me of Shanley's post on the women in the tech industry who support the patriarchy with a "Fuck you, I got mine" attitude. The privileged amongst us have got it good, we don't want to rock that boat. Why would we defend an unpopular position, like trying to promote women in technology, when it's only going to diminish us in the eyes of others? We're sitting pretty in our positions of privilege.

Working as a part of Ind.ie, and having many opinions on the issues of privacy, data, and human rights, I'm now frequently in new and scary situations. People often say new and scary is good. If you're uncomfortable, then you're moving forward. But for all the reverence of these times and qualities, we forget that it actually feels genuinely unpleasant. It's why we avoid scary situations. They are actually scary.

There's a little voice in the back of my head that tells me to distract myself from controversial discussions. I should resist the urge to fight back against injustices that might make me unpopular. Save myself that grief. Just shut up. If you read my Twitter feed, you'll find a lot more about my dog and working tools than you'll find about my political and religious beliefs (or lack thereof…)

I busy myself, I block out the noise that makes me feel uncomfortable. TV shows and podcasts are great for curbing distracting thoughts when I'm trying to get stuff done. I'll put something on in the background to deter ugly thoughts and the controversial opinions. It'll also stop me from echoing hurtful criticism around my head.

If we're constantly distracting ourselves in this way, we can become consumed by surface. That's what happens when we don't want to look any deeper. I'll switch from conversations about equality, privacy, data, and human rights, and focus on the tools we're using. How we use SVG, why we use web fonts, my preferred graphics editor, the processes we use as a team. They're perfectly OK topics of conversation, useful and interesting in their own way. But if we only talk about those things, we're deliberately avoiding more meaningful discussions that affect the technology we use and its impact on the rest of the world.

It's not because I'm not intelligent enough to think deeper or further, but because the ramifications of doing so scares me. You're reading tweets about #blacklivesmatter, right? But are you retweeting or trying to find out how to make a difference? I'm asking this of myself, here. Getting into these discussions tend to make the boat feel a bit wobbly…

If we do decide to wade into the deep water, and care about something, we're presented with a new difficulty. If we don't have an answer to the problem, then our voices are considered unnecessary noise. We're troublemakers if we're not also sharing a potential solution. If we complain about the lack of women in technology, we're asked "what should we do about it, then?" If we don't have solution, then we're not supposed to criticise in the first place. We think that Google and Facebook are compromising our privacy? Well, what are we going to do about it? If your plan isn't watertight, then why are you rocking the boat?

It's no wonder that we have to navigate the tech industry with so many elephants in the room. It's difficult to get by if you're not trying to fit in. And this makes me wonder whether the "diplomacy" of avoiding certain topics of conversation is really just pandering to those who want to shut that conversation down. It might be because they fear confrontation, or it might be because they don't want you to rock the boat, to upset their comfortable position. There are two kinds of people who don't want to talk about big issues: those who risk their popularity by speaking out, and those whose livelihoods rely on nobody speaking out.

There's only so much we can care about, and get upset by, before we find ourselves genuinely depressed. Every other week there's some wise person saying they shut themselves off from news and current affairs because they're a distraction. They question how we can have a positive effect on the world if we're consumed by the negativity of every tragedy and injustice in the world. It's important to find a balance, and be able to function despite the world the around us. But I wonder how much we can disconnect ourselves from current events and issues before we're not living in the real world anymore. Who are we to decide which causes are important and deserving of our attention? If we're in a position to make those decisions, we're living protected by our privilege.

It's incredibly hard to be productive when you're spending your energy on being defensive.

Support and #geekmentalhelp

I've just sat and read all the posts on the Mental Help Week website. It's not easy reading, and it shouldn't be. That's why Geek Mental Help week is a great idea. We need to better understand those around us, and support them as much as we can.

Support

I've led a very privileged life. Not only have I always been physically well, but my mind has been healthy too. Of course I've have colds, and their mental equivalents; some burnout, some crises of confidence. But I've seen mental illness; depression and other illnesses, and I know I'm fortunate I've not suffered to that degree.

But many people I care about have suffered with mental illness. It's really hard to be there for them in the right way, it's difficult to know what to do and say. These are the things I try my best to do, to be there for those I love. They may not work for everyone.

Supporting others is the least I can do.

Listening

*Really* listening is much harder than it sounds. When people want me there, I need to listen to them. I shouldn't try to solve any perceived problems for them. Just because I'm listening, it doesn't mean I should offer advice. I'm there to be quiet and open my ears.

Giving people space when they want it

Sometimes people just want to be alone. And that's an easy thing to do for someone else. I need to understand that when people want space, it's not that they don't want to be around me. It's just that they don't want to be around people right now.

Being company when they want it

Being there and being quiet is an underrated skill. When I sense a tense situation, it can be easy to try to fill the quiet with chatter. But being good company doesn't mean I need to be noisy company. Sometimes, my being there is a comfort, but any further interaction is unpleasant for them. I can be there, be close, and do my own thing, with little disruption to the other person.

Don't press too hard

It's worth asking if I can help, occasionally, just in case I can. But if the answer is that I can't help, I don't need to press further. No one has to answer to me.

I'm not a medical professional, so I should never tell anyone they should be medicated. The exception is if they've specifically asked me to nudge them about their medication. Don't tell them they should be taking X meds, or doing Y therapy. If they ask my opinion, be honest, but never offer “medical” advice without them asking outright.

It's not about me

It's easy to take it personally when someone else's health issues mean they act differently with me. But it's not about me. I need to put my own feelings to the side and try to be the best person I can be for those I care about.

Just be there

Don't abandon the people I care about. When it's hard to get in, it doesn't mean I should walk away. These are the times when people need me most. And need me to remember how much I care about them, and that it's always worth being there for them.

5 reasons why you should get an office dog

1

An office dog means you always have company.

dog squashed under desk

2

When you need to rest your eyes and look away from the screen, an office dog will provide you with a good distraction.

dog lying in a ridiculous pose

3

Who needs rubber duck debugging when you have fluffy dog debugging?

dog listening attentively

4

If you’re struggling to stay motivated by yourself, an office dog can keep a watchful eye over you.

dog watching from another room

5

There’s no stress that can’t be eased by the cuddles of an office dog.

dog snuggling against cushion

So we must protect and respect each other, no matter how hard it feels. No matter how wrong someone else may seem to us, they are still human. No matter how bad someone may appear, they are truly no worse than us. Our beliefs and behavior don’t make us fundamentally better than others, no matter how satisfying it is to believe otherwise. We must be tireless in our efforts to see things from the point of view we most disagree with. We must make endless efforts to try and understand the people we least relate to. And we must at all times force ourselves to love the people we dislike the most. Not because it’s nice or because they deserve it, but because our own sanity and survival depends on it.

Andrew W.K. on Right-wing vs. Left-wing in “Ask Andrew W.K.: My Dad Is a Right-Wing Asshole

It’s not a long read, but well-worth reading the whole reply. Sometimes the wisest advice comes from the most unexpected places.

And for a little context, listen to Party Hard if you’ve not heard of Andrew W.K.…

Last week we hosted the first Indie Tech Summit. It was an awe-inspiring event filled with exciting discussions, positivity and mutual support.

One talk summed up the group mentality of the event. Thomas Marzano, Head of Global Brand Design for Philips, quoted his father:

The future is made by those who take responsibility for it.

It's easy to do nothing while huge corporations take control of technology, the internet, and other data. It's incredibly hard to be noisy, make a fuss, and work against the flow of so many of our friends and colleagues. The future is made by those who take responsibility for it. And it may be destroyed by those who look the other way.

And I accidentally became a control freak…

It’s easy to make jokes about how unemployable you are when you’ve been a freelancer for so long. As our own bosses, nobody tells us freelancers what to do. Therefore, we often like to paint ourselves as rebels: we’d be terrible in an office because we don’t like authority and we like to do everything our own way.

Freelancers might excel at collaboration with clients and their teams, but project work is usually short and sweet. I love working with clients for long periods of time, and repeatedly. But let’s be realistic, we know these client relationships are never going to be a full-time commitment. Freelancers aren’t having to maintain these long-term relationships face-to-face every day.

Recently I’d been talking to people about how I wanted to collaborate more. I feel like I could level up my design skills by working with others, understanding their angles and goals, and make a project better than one person could ever make it.

And then I started working part-time in a team.

And, as it turns out, I’ve become a bit of a control freak.

I love working with other people, but I’m way too invested in my own way of doing everything. I’m argumentative and very capable of justifying my point until everyone (including me) is bored and wants to go home.

Working in client services, for myself and by myself, hasn’t made me as good at collaborating with my peers as I’d hoped. Actually, I’m quite scared that I’m terrible at it.

Still, I’m glad I’ve only left it 5 years before working as part of a real in-the-office-together team. It will make me a better designer. I can feel it happening already as I learn to distinguish the bigger picture from the details, and the battles worth fighting from the compromises worth taking. 
It’s easy to make jokes about being unemployable when you’ve been a freelancer for so long, but make sure you haven’t also made yourself incapable of collaborating.

It’s been nine months since I gave up caffeine. I never drank coffee; I have the taste buds, and general sophistication, of a child. Sugary energy drinks were my vice.

Caffeine had taken over my workflow. You know it’s bad when you don’t feel you can start work until you’ve had your breakfast can of Red Bull, and a second serving is required after lunch to get you through the day. 

MY work was planned around my caffeine hits; jobs that required critical thinking, design and writing, would be queued up to make the most of the sudden burst of creative energy. Admin and menial tasks would be saved for the come-down, when I couldn’t focus on much for more than five minutes. If I needed to knuckle down and solve a tricky problem outside of my “up” time, I’d need some extra cans of energy. I didn’t feel I was capable of anything without them.

Last year, I went cold turkey, giving caffeine up completely on the 27th of August. And stuck to it. My sugar addiction held strong, and without caffeinated soft drink alternatives, my alcohol intake went up by a couple of units. But I’ve not wavered on energy drinks. I’ve not had a single can.

My work is now scheduled in a more reasonable way. Porridge is enough as my breakfast gets me started in the morning. I can work longer days and when more focus is required, I just fire up some metal on Spotify.

It was really hard to give up something I believed was responsible for all my best work. I didn’t get the headaches that people had warned me about but I was SO sluggish. Lethargy doesn’t begin to describe it. I wondered if I’d ever be able to produce good design work or writing again. It was impossible to concentrate.

There are still days when I wish I still had caffeine to fall back on. After exercising on the weekends, I can lose afternoons to naps, but I’m learning to do the right thing by my sleepy body. Every time I wish I had an energy drink to pick me up, I remember how I didn’t just want, but needed caffeine last year. And now I just feel balanced without it.

There’s something strange about having to write regularly for somebody else. It’s a different feeling from writing on my own blog. I’ve only been writing this way for the last 9 months, but the pressure of needing to produce something so often is changing the way I write.

I’m no longer writing because I feel angry or frustrated enough to vent out a blog post. I’m delving into myself for something worth writing about. Other writers have loads of life experience and stories to tell. Other writers have lessons to teach and clever metaphors to help you understand the value. I don’t.

Every few weeks when I’m trying to find a little something to write about, I find myself digging harder into my mind. Regardless of the topic, the insecurities come tumbling out. Am I saying something that sounds foolish? Am I being naïve? What will my clients think? This is very public… Why have I even chosen to write about this topic? What has made me think this is valuable or important?

While it might be making me a little bit crazy, it’s also forcing me to examine my motivations. Every time I’m scrabbling around, trying to pull together half-formed ideas, I’m understanding myself and my actions a little bit better.

And now I understand why people say that good writers are good thinkers. I’m not good yet, but I’m definitely more thoughtful.

First Things First and Cathedrals

Last week something great was launched. First Things First 2014 is a pledge and a manifesto. It outlines where we, as designers, have abused our skills and used them to promote a society built on consumerism and manipulation. It explains how we could make better use of our time working on projects that genuinely benefit other humans, that help solve real problems in “areas such as education, medicine, privacy and digital security, public awareness and social campaigns, journalism, information design, and humanitarian aid.” (You should give it a good read, and then sign it too!)

I was lucky to have a sneak peek at the document and make a few suggestions over the last few weeks, and then see Cole Peters introduce First Things First 2014 at Design and Banter in London last Monday. Coincidentally, that night also hosted a fantastic talk by Nicklas de León Persson on a similar theme.

Nicklas spoke about how the cathedral-building attitude has been lost. The people who built cathedrals, which would take a hundred years or more to build, weren’t just building things for quick gratification, but because they felt part of something bigger and more long-term than themselves. Nicklas was saying that we need to focus on more sustainable digital products, which should in turn make us consider the value of those products on the world around us.

Purpose

After watching these talks, and spending the last couple of months trying to understand the ethics of working in the tech industry, I serendipitously came across slashpurpose.org by Fictive Kin. I had seen Rushmore’s wonderful purpose page before, but I hadn’t realised it was part of a bigger idea:

…we think the world would be a better place if the people trying to shape it spoke openly and plainly about their vision for the future.

That’s cool! Of course I should have a purpose page too!

But I’m a little different from the majority of the very admirable companies on that page: I’m in client services. I’ve not got a product and I work on many different products throughout the year, mostly with startups and small businesses.

“What can a lowly designer do…?” There were numerous questions along these lines at Cole and Nicklas’s talks. These were mostly from designers working in client services, and from what I could tell, often as part of an agency. This didn’t feel right to me. Why do so many people feel as though they have no say in the work they create? In order to pay our rent, do we have to work on projects that could have a lasting negative effect on the world we live in?

It made me realise that, as a freelancer in complete control of whatever work I take on, I’m in a position of enormous privilege. Yes, I could make a lot more money if I wanted to take on projects with big evil corporations, but that wouldn’t make me feel good. I love my job and I don’t want it to just be about profit.

It also made me realise that, being in such a position, I must make the most of it.

My purpose

My rough first draft:

  • Work on projects that are sustainable and have a positive effect on the world around me
  • Work for the benefit of others, to provide good experiences for users and clients alike
  • Work hard to provide true value from the money I am paid
  • Be honest, even if it means I won’t benefit financially
  • Keep learning and collaborating so I can learn from others
  • Share as much as possible, try to contribute back to the web community that has taught me so much
  • Create products that make both me, and my clients, proud

These guidelines are intentionally wooly round the edges. I’m trying to heed the words of my grandpa’s thoughts last month; principles aren’t always black and white. Having these guidelines as a purpose gives me something to check myself against. If all they do is ensure I properly examine my reasons for taking on a project, then they’ll be worthwhile.

Last month I wrote about voting with our money, and how the work we do acts as an endorsement. My grandfather, Ramanand Kalbag, follows me on Facebook. He read my thoughts, and wrote an essay in response.

At 87 years old, a retired neurosurgeon, and with a lifetime of writing and speaking on a variety of topics, my grandpa thinks in a more reasoned way than I do, and writes much better too. Of course, there’s grey areas to any topic, but my grandpa takes the time to point them out, with references. With his permission, I’ve published his response below. I’ve added links to Wikipedia entries where relevant.

Voting with ones money

Laura’s quandary

After listening to an interview conducted by Jeffrey Zeldman with Jason Fried on The Big Web Show podcast, Laura felt somewhat guilty that she had bought particularly cheap consumer goods whose production may have involved sacrifices made by others, in an article she wrote on 11th January on http://the-pastry-box-project.net.

Her concerns were heightened by a discussion she had with Andy Clarke on the Unfinished Business podcast, after which she was left wondering “where the line was between working on something that would be harmful to others and something that would indirectly contribute to the harm of others”. She wants to test herself but, understandably, would not be happy with either.

Her concerns are commendable, but, a Manichaean attitude, where actions are viewed as either white or black is unrealistic. In practice distinctions are never that clear; there are always shades of grey in between. The only way one can approach such a topic is pragmatic. Shankara, a medieval Hindu philosopher, defined true knowledge as the ability to grasp both sides of an argument. And unless you know all that is to know, can you make a fair judgement? But one cannot know everything and we can only make decisions in the light of facts available at the time.

One should balance the effect of buying a product and the consequences to the worker if you turn away from the deal. Will the exploited worker and/or his family starve because of your isolated act of protest? Have you the time, the energy and the resources to organise a better alternative? Is there an alternative made under fairer conditions? Her analogy about cogs in a wheel without which the wheel wouldn’t turn is appropriate. But what if you are the only cog, would it have any impact?

Imagine the plight of a mother whose child is near death’s door: would she worry about what conditions the drug that is most likely to save that child’s life is manufactured? What would her decision be and could you blame her for making her child’s needs, the only criterion, ignoring all other?

Many people live such stressful lives that they cannot afford the luxury of spending time weighing up the pros and cons of every purchase made or every action they take. Others in a consumerist society will not bother to weigh up the rights and wrongs of any object before buying it, the sole aim being to possess or consume the desired object.

Unfortunately consumerism seems to have gripped society in every part of the world. Gandhi once said, “There is enough in the world for every man’s need but not for every man’s greed.” But while admiring him in public, Gandhi’s teachings and personal example have gone by the board, and there is probably no country in which more spiritualism is preached and less practised than India.

I have thought for a long time that if you are not an idealist when you are young, you haven’t got a heart, but if your idealism isn’t tempered by reality, you haven’t got a head.

The film “12 Years A Slave” has revived interest in the horrors and brutality of slavery, but if one looks around many of our valued institutions were built on the profits the donors made from their properties in British Imperial territories abroad.

Just think what happened to British industry. Workers were being exploited by the factory owners, and miners by the colliery proprietors. It took generations for trade unions to gain recognition, and fight for fair wages. But some union leaders started misusing their powers and led strikes for better wages, but had enough hold over their union members to get out of their members’ subscriptions large salaries which gave them the same material privileges as those who owned the industries. All these factors combined to make the products of those industries so expensive as to put them out of the reach of the ordinary public. So retailers turned to foreign manufacturers, whose workers were paid subsistence wages, to satisfy public demands for cheap affordable goods in the West.

Can we break this cycle? The solution, I think, is in the enlightenment philosophies of 18th century thinkers – Adam Smith and John Locke. It draws from the original concept of the liberal state: it has three pillars:

  1. The ability to take quick and collective action.
  2. Its actions are bound by the rule of law.
  3. It is accountable to the people, not just to affluent or influential classes.

Adam Smith in his “Wealth of Nations” argued for the importance of profit, and is considered the patron saint of capitalism by anti-capitalists. What these critics forget is that unless one can make a profit from ones activities, we do not have the wherewithal to extend the range of our work even if it is for charity. Adam Smith also stressed the importance of fair wages for workers to keep them motivated. You can’t produce goods of a quality to attract buyers, if your workers are paid a pittance. It isn’t profit which is to be deplored but excessive and undeserved gains.

Politicians have short term aims and their policies are dedicated to winning the next general election, which usually means “bribing” the voters. We [in the UK] are seeing this already in the three major parties, well over a year before the next general election in 2015 is due.

The next question is: how do we, the general public, decide whom to vote for? James Stimson, the American political scientist divided voters into three types:

  1. “The Passionate” who care a great deal about public affairs, have strong views, and form strong commitments to one side or the other. These groups don’t influence results of elections. They don’t move their vote and “tend to interpret political events in a way conditioned by their existing views.”
  2. “The Uninvolved” think that “politics isn’t important in their lives (and they are probably right), don’t pay attention and don’t want to be bothered”. They often don’t vote and, when they do, what moves them politically hither and thither has a random effect and cancels one another out.
  3. “The Scorekeepers” are non-ideological pragmatists who trust and distrust each side equally. They see politics not as a contest of political views, but merely as alternate teams of possible managers of government each contending they can do a better job. “The scorekeepers are not choosing directions in their votes but they are hiring managers”.

What we have seen in the past thirty years is a shift away from the passionate group swelling the ranks of scorekeepers.

The second change is that politics has become more pragmatic, less partisan and more inclined to, a sort of whom can we trust contest.

Therefore if we want justice and ethical action in the public domain, the whole community has to become score keepers who will vote for the candidate who seems the most likely to favour such a policy.

But human nature being what it is, we cannot expect too much change, as history shows. But it is still important that conscience dictates our actions as individuals without losing our sense of proportion. Alan Ryan whose “History of Politics” covers comprehensively political behaviour and thought since Thucydides and Herodotus sums up politics as being fragile.

A few weeks ago I was listening to The Big Web Show podcast where Jeffrey Zeldman was interviewing Jason Fried. They were discussing business models and how they’re willing to pay for a good product or service if that’s the cost of that product or service’s survival. A concept Jason Fried introduced here was “voting with your money.”

Voting with your money is something I’d heard before, but not given much thought. We have power in however much money we possess; wherever we spend it, we’re sending the message: “I endorse this. I want more of this to exist.”

I like to consider myself generally conscientious, but this made me feel a bit guilty for some of my past purchases; particularly cheap consumer goods I’ve bought because the value suited me, even though the production may have been through the sacrifice of others.

And it’s been stuck in my head, rattling around for those weeks. I think it should apply to the work I do, too. Wherever we look in the world today, we can see people suffering as a result of the greed of others.

As people who work with the web, we may not often be the people running the businesses or passing the legislation that causes damage, but we should still have an ethical responsibility for the work we are doing. When we’re working for a company, or on a project, that may damage our web, society or world in some way, we need to think about if we’re happy to do that for short-term monetary gain.

Recently I had this discussion with Andy Clarke on the Unfinished Business podcast, and still then it felt like my ideas and principles were half-formed. I was left wondering where the line was between working on something that would be harmful to others and something that could indirectly contribute to the harm of others. It’s an area I need to test myself, but I wouldn’t be happy with either.

The work that we do on the web has a potentially tremendous reach. And with reach comes influence and power. We may just consider ourselves cogs in the much larger machine, but we forget that without any cogs, the machine wouldn’t work. As people who are privileged to seek employment from different potential employers or clients, we can afford to vote with our work.

Is your next project something you want to endorse? Do you want more of it to exist?