Snapshot of the new workplace and the symbolic content of Karen Owen’s “horizontal academics”

Penelope Trunk’s “Snapshot of the new workplace: Karen Owen’s PowerPoint” is one of the very few insightful posts about “An education beyond the classroom: excelling in the realm of horizontal academics.” For those of you who haven’t been caught in the media blizzard, Karen Owen turned her sex life at Duke into a PowerPoint narrative. As Trunk says, “She has bullet points, charts, and graphs. How can you not admire a woman who can graph her sex life?”

Trunk is writing about the changing workplace, but the significance of this media event goes beyond that. I mentioned the story to a literary female friend and said that agents had started calling Owen. My friend read the PowerPoint and said that she couldn’t see where agents would go , and I replied that it didn’t matter: Owen is a hilarious (and unusually clear) writer. It’s harder to develop voice than any other trait; if you have voice, structure, plotting, and the like can follow, if the writer wants them bad enough. Owen might.

Notice too Owens’ command of genre: she combines PowerPoint (typically boring), a bloggy style (think Belle de Jour: The Diary of an Unlikely Call Girl) and narrative (which most PowerPoint presentations lack) to make something that defies expectation: PowerPoint is usually stodgy and bad; blogs are nice, but Bell de Jour doesn’t use graphs (to my knowledge); and the Owen’s subject (sex) is of near universal interest, especially when it violates conventional norms, which still exist enough for Owen to capture attention.

Of course, it’s easy to argue that this affair of the moment is trivial, and in the long term it certainly is. But the incident is also emblematic of larger changes. Karen Owen’s story isn’t only interesting because she’s a good writer or because she engages the questions of genre: it’s interesting because it marks an intersection or fault point between ways of living and codes of morality. Despite the sexual revolution, parents still engage in daughter guardian, per the 2008 Perilloux, Fleischman, and Buss journal article I’ve cited before, “The Daughter-Guarding Hypothesis: Parental Influence on, and Emotional Reactions to, Offspring’s Mating Behavior” (Evolutionary Psychology, 6, 217-233). They use strategies to restrict girls’ sexuality more than boys’, which probably contributes to the kinds of gender standards we see as adults.

Parents—who, by now, almost all came of age after the sexual revolution—still nonetheless attempt to shape the behavior of their offspring along more “traditional” lines than they might have wanted their own shaped. And that’s probably true beyond the sexual domain—consider what Paul Graham says in “Why To Not Not Start a Startup:”

… parents tend to be more conservative for their kids than they would be for themselves. This is actually a rational response to their situation. Parents end up sharing more of their kids’ ill fortune than good fortune. Most parents don’t mind this; it’s part of the job; but it does tend to make them excessively conservative. And erring on the side of conservatism is still erring. In almost everything, reward is proportionate to risk. So by protecting their kids from risk, parents are, without realizing it, also protecting them from rewards. If they saw that, they’d want you to take more risks.

“Parents tend to be more conservative for their kids” because parents will probably experience the ups more than the downs. Karen Owen presumably enjoyed her sex life (based on her description) and enjoyed writing her PowerPoint. Her parents probably derived near-zero pleasure from the former and a lot of grief from the latter, since she’s probably hiding out at home. For the rest of their lives, her parents will be hearing—”Karen Owen? Name rings a bell. Was she on TV for something?” and variations on that. Unless they’re unusually snarky, they’ll probably find it difficult to deal with queries about their offspring’s supposed failings.

Parents become “excessively conservative” for their children relative to themselves, and in protecting kids from the risks of sex, they also work to protect kids from its rewards. The same is probably true of work (as Graham says) and of expression: had Owen’s parents known about their daughter’s PowerPoint, they probably would’ve discouraged her from making it. But The same creative impulse that drove Owen to write her PowerPoint might also drive her in the working world, and that’s what Trunk wants to highlight.

I don’t see any route around these fundamental preference differences between parents and children. A lot of teenagers are, from what everyone has observed in popular culture, outraged at their parents’ seemingly cruel, capricious, and arbitrary rules. But those rules often have reasons behind them, as Perilloux, Fleischman, and Buss point out in the context of sex and Graham points out in the context of career, and when one looks at the cost-benefit analyses parents make, one begins to understand why parent-child conflicts exist: the two have different risk-reward profiles.

Parent-Offspring Conflict over Mating: The Case of Mating Age“, another article from Evolutionary Psychology says that:

Parents and offspring have asymmetrical preferences with respect to mate choice. So far, several areas of disagreement have been identified, including beauty, family background, and sexual strategies. This article proposes that mating age constitutes another area of conflict, as parents desire their children to initiate mating at a different age than the offspring desire it for themselves.

Conflicts are built into the family relationship system and are not incidental to it. This is not especially new; in his famous 1974 paper, “Parent-Offspring Conflict,” Robert Trivers discusses the problem and its implication from the perspective of biology. But realizing that this is a feature, not a bug, was new to me when I started reading more about evolutionary psychology three years ago.

One can re-read many of the various complaints about “youth these days” as ones chiefly about how preferences change as people age: younger people want fun, sex, and freedom; older people with children want their children to successfully reproduce and pass on their genes and culture, but what “successfully reproduce” means is different for younger people than older people. That conflict can sometimes be read along generational lines even when it’s more about preferences of the child versus preferences of the parent. In that light, “The New Dating Game: Back to the New Paleolithic Age” is less about what’s inherently good or bad and more about how time preferences function and how people are afraid of change, especially if they fear that change will hurt their economic or reproductive success.

Still, the social world is changing, and a concrete manifestation of abstract change can often become a major topic because it is really a symbolic repository for large-scale fears, hopes, desires, and conflict. Penelope Trunk says that the Karen Owen incident—notice the fear-mongering phrase I use because I can’t think of a better one—is about changes in the workplace and workplace power dynamics.

And this isn’t the first time female sexuality, writing disseminated online, and the workplace have come together: Heather Armstrong got fired for writing in her blog, Dooce, and the term “Dooced” now means to be fired for something one has written online. That she also sometimes wrote about religion and sex probably didn’t help, but they probably also widened her audience, and people like talking about religion because religious practices often function as control and regulation for sexual ones. Anna Davies addresses similar issues in I’m done writing about my sex life: It was a great way for a young woman like me to get published. But the cost of sharing sordid tales became too high. It got her published because people like reading about it—and it’s got Owen “published,” too, although perhaps not in the manner and forum she would prefer.

In his book Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why It Matters, Scott Rosenberg calls the chapter on Heather Armstrong “The Perils of Keeping it Real.” Karen Owen is now being forced to navigate the same perils, and I don’t think it a coincidence that female writers face greater perils than men. Then again, Rosenberg points out that a man named Cameron Barrett might be the first person to lose his job over a blog or proto-blog post, since he “was fired […] in 1997 when colleagues found a mildly off-color piece of short fiction he’d posted to his personal website.” The issue of “mildly off-color” material arises in other circumstances, and Rosenberg cites

[…] Ellen Simonetti, a flight attendant who got sacked by Delta Airlines in 2004, apparently because she’d posted photos of herself in uniform revealing a bit too much leg (though nothing that would put a PG rating at risk). There was senatorial aide Jessica Cutler, whose salacious tales of Capitol Hill liaisons gained notoriety for her anonymous blog, Washingtonienne, but cost her her job once Wonkette named her.

Regarding the blog world, Rosenberg says that “[…] there was plainly something about blogging itself that made it hazardous to employment. Perhaps it lulled people into thinking that words in a post had a uniquely protected status and could be cordoned off from the rest of existence.” But one could remove “blogging” and put “the Internet” in place of it, or one could just acknowledge that it can be harder to maintain separate, authentic selves in a world where the reproduction of data is nearly frictionless for a large proportion of the population. The forward button can put your PowerPoint anywhere and everywhere, assuming people want to read it, and social norms haven’t caught up to that.

In Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, the plot revolves around nude pictures of the sexually avaricious Sternwood daughters and whether those pictures will be revealed publicly. Today, we’re moving toward a world in which so many people have already given nude pictures to friends or lovers that real social punishment is becoming increasingly untenable. But those norms aren’t changing so fast that someone like Karen Owen can’t be caught up in the shift. Trunk says that “The rules are all different” and that “[Owen] illustrates why men are afraid of twentysomething women.” She’s right, and it’s probably unfortunate that Owen has unwittingly found herself the catalyst for those shifts. With a blogger, or a writer like Anna Davies, one knows in advance that the act of writing puts one’s self in the public. Owen didn’t consciously realize that the act of writing and e-mailing her PowerPoint could do the same, unwittingly.

In a way, we’re all academics now, in that we’re all judged (and might be fired) for what we’ve written. There’s a flipside to that, however: we might find jobs because of how our writing demonstrates expertise. Karen Owen has probably made some jobs harder to acquire (it’s difficult to imagine her getting past the Google screen of your average high school principal if she wants to be a teacher), but she’s probably also opened up others: hence the calls from editors and agents if she wants to be some kind of writer. If I had a new media company of some kind, I’d be trying to find Karen Owen’s number. Sure, my last sentence sets me up for dirty jokes, but, more importantly, it shows how work and life are changing.

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