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Hustle harder: how TV became obsessed with stories of workism | US television

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The third episode of WeCrashed, Apple TV+’s eight-part series on the precipitous rise and fall of the WeWork founders Adam and Rebekah Neumann, gives the viewer a small taste of being a startup employee. It’s 2012, and a nameless female employee arrives for her first day; she’s given a key card, an Apple laptop, a reminder that there’s a 7pm “Thank God It’s Monday” meeting, and a mimosa. In one of the most effective montages of the series – largely because it draws attention away from the two eccentric, delusional founders who take up the vast majority of screen time – we whirl through the nameless female employee’s hedonistic, exhausting life at WeWork. Coffee, shot, staff party, sex with a co-worker in a supply closet. Adam Neumann leading employees in a “we!” “work!” call and response. Another shot, another day, pass out, wake up, repeat. Is it night or is it noon? At a desk or at a party? Doesn’t matter – she’s at work, which is life.

This ethos of so-called “hustle culture” – the idea that work is life and the self derives value through constant work – courses throughout a number of recent shows set across the 2010s. It’s most overt in WeCrashed, based on the Wondery podcast of the same name, in which Neumann literally urges workers to “hustle harder” (also the title of its fifth episode, which airs this Friday). The Theranos employees in The Dropout, Hulu’s eight-part series on Elizabeth Holmes’s fraudulent blood-testing company that was once the darling of Silicon Valley, work through the night, missing kids’ birthday parties and dinners in the name of changing the world. Same for the Uber staff in Super Pumped, Showtime’s series on Uber’s relentless, now disgraced founder Travis Kalanick, who berates employees to pursue growth at any cost (and change the world.) Anna Delvey, the scammer at the heart of Netflix’s Inventing Anna, is most chagrined that her notoriety as the “Soho grifter” overshadowed how hard she worked at the business plan that ultimately exposed her; the journalist who covers her is so obsessed with the story and its import for her career that she goes into labor in the office.

These shows, which all depict headlining stories of singularly deceitful, messianic people, have been loosely classified as true-con TV, “bad entrepreneur TV” or modern grift series in the headline-to-TV pipeline. These are all fair descriptors – all four series, which premiered in the span of a month, evince our evergreen fascination with the art of the scam (see also: recent Netflix docu-series hits The Tinder Swindler and Bad Vegan). But they are also, in piecemeal fashion, building the iconography of a certain slice of millennial experience now barely discernible in rear-view. There are the deliberately dated nods to the late 2000s/early 2010s – the music (Katy Perry gets a name drop in both WeCrashed and The Dropout), the fashion, the fascination with (and mourning of) Steve Jobs. And there is an awkward, inchoate through-line of “hustle culture” or “workism” – the distinctly American, quasi-religious belief system among the college-educated elite (myself included) that work is not merely a job but an identity, an arbiter of self-worth, and a cause worth believing in. WeWork was not a company, Adam Neumann infamously said, but a movement.

Hustle culture, like other ideologies, is amorphous. It undergirded the #girlboss, the rise of the influencer, the complete elision between self and livelihood online; there’s no clear start or end, though look around and you can see evidence of its demise. There’s recent blowback over Kim Kardashian’s advice to businesswomen to “get your fucking ass up and work”, eulogies for the heady, doomed early days of venture capital-backed digital media, the so-called Great Resignation and The Age of Anti-Ambition. These shows appeal to current prestige TV sensibilities – antiheroes, timeline jumping, expensive hair-and-makeup transformations by famous actors – but they feel distinctly of another era, a time of “rise and grind” sloganeering. They may ultimately each focus on a singularly fascinating, loathsome individual and uncomfortably posit that the people who believed them weren’t rubes, but to describe them as portraits of modern grift is an incomplete picture. Together, they compose a limited, loose and imperfect mosaic of a belief system that transcended those roped in by Holmes, Kalanick, the Neumanns or Delvey.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Super Pumped
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Super Pumped. Photograph: Showtime

They’re also part of a larger evolution of workism on television. Showtime’s Billions and HBO’s Industry, both shows about the financial industry which became modest hits in the late 2010s, hinge on the hook of watching (hot) people run their personal lives and morals through the (lucrative) grinder of a hyper-competitive, all-consuming job. HBO’s Succession, one of the most critically acclaimed shows on TV, is about a group of people with absolutely no distinctions between work, personal life and family. In a buzzy New Yorker profile about Succession star Jeremy Strong, the British actor Brian Cox, who plays patriarch Logan Roy, said of Strong’s notoriously intense acting method: “It’s a particularly American disease, I think, this inability to separate yourself off while you’re doing the job.” That’s a good summary of Apple TV+’s current sleeper hit Severance, in which characters undergo a brain procedure that literally separates their work and life selves. Severance is, as the Ringer’s Alison Herman argues, the eerie latest entry in the genre of “uncanny office” shows like Corporate, Better Off Ted or Loki. Call it the mystery-box inverse to the hustle culture show – instead of blurring the lines over an 18-hour day, Severance is an extreme allegory of work-life balance that also points to something sinister in the corporate office.

Which is not to say that all the hustle culture shows work as effective critiques, or as entertainment worth sinking 8-10 hours into. Inventing Anna, as I’ve written previously, is both too credulous of Anna and yet not interested enough in her. In a strange and unrewarding decision, the modern workplace soap master Shonda Rhimes turned the scammer story into a newsroom drama in which a fictionalized journalist, Vivian Kent (loosely based on Jessica Pressler, the New York Magazine writer who reported the definitive Anna Delvey feature in 2018) obsesses over saving her career through Anna’s story. Super Pumped, created by the Billions co-creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien, matches Uber founder Travis Kalanick’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)’s carnivorous business leadership – growth at all costs – with gonzo flourishes (narration from Quentin Tarantino, breaking the fourth wall) that ultimately underscore his self-importance. The Dropout is by far the best of these shows, the only one to nail the tricky balance between the thrill of the scammer and the devastation of their lies.

Naveen Andrews and Amanda Seyfried in The Dropout
Naveen Andrews and Amanda Seyfried in The Dropout. Photograph: Beth Dubber/AP

WeCrashed, created by Drew Crevello and Lee Eisenberg (a writer, producer and director on The Office), has a better grasp on the absurdity of the office setting than one might expect and a compellingly toxic duo in Anne Hathaway’s Rebekah and Jared Leto’s Adam, but comparatively frivolous stakes. Adam seems to convince and succeed by the inexorable rising tide of plot; valuation numbers are batted around with too many zeros to feel consequential. The Hollywood Reporter’s Angie Han called the series “amusing but ultimately inessential”, and I cannot think of a more accurate description.

Part of the appeal and the issue with the hustle culture shows is that they depict a history that is too recent to see clearly and yet too distant, especially since the pandemic cleaved the timeline for many viewers, to feel of the zeitgeist. Still, there is something unsettling about watching WeCrashed, a series which depicts an idea in extremity – the neon “hustle harder” signs and “do what you love” mugs are hustle culture at its most explicit – that is barely out of date. (Full disclosure: in 2019, I worked as a member of the Guardian US at a New York WeWork office.) The Thank God It’s Monday parties and billion-dollar valuations are supposed to seem ridiculous in this 2022 show, and they always were. The haphazard results of these hustle culture shows reflect a culture just beginning to understand that.

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Zig Serafin, CEO of Qualtrics

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Qualtrics CEO Zig Serafin sat down with Silicon Republic editor Elaine Burke to discuss his leadership style as an expert in experience management.

It has been an eventful few years for US tech company Qualtrics, and not least because of the pandemic.

The company founded by a family out of Utah was bought by SAP in 2018 for $8bn. It then went public in January 2021 with a successful IPO that valued the company at $15bn. That same year then saw Qualtrics earn $1bn in revenue for its experience management technology. But what is experience management?

CEO Zig Serafin says it’s the “ultimate advantage” for modern businesses. It’s about tuning in to the needs and desires of customers and taking action on that knowledge “with empathy, with speed and at scale”.

Serafin was in Dublin recently while on a tour across Europe meeting with Qualtrics clients. He spoke with SiliconRepublic.com for our Conversations with Leaders series shortly after checking in on the company’s new office in the Irish capital.

Qualtrics’ already substantial footprint a stone’s throw from St Stephen’s Green is expanding in response to the company’s global growth. “Dublin is the epicentre of how we operate across Europe,” said Serafin, and this European HQ is fully equipped with all the fixings of the modern tech office and more – including its own pub.

But Serafin said Qualtrics, a company obsessed with creating optimal experiences, knows that these days workplaces need to offer flexibility and the ability to work from home as well as a workspace that provides a “home from home”.

“Both experiences are important,” he said. “That digital experience and the physical experience, and how they come together.”

Qualtrics’ own research shows that it can take just one negative experience to lose a customer, or an employee, and with the sheer array of tools available to businesses today, it is possible to continuously track and improve experiences. But possible doesn’t mean easy.

There’s plenty of data available – from user analytics to customer support chats to online sentiment analysis and everything in between. And while Qualtrics has all the software and AI capabilities to parse this information and make it not just digestible but actionable, Serafin said the secret sauce is something altogether more human.

“At the end of the day it comes down to this notion of empathy,” he said. And that’s the throughline of Serafin’s leadership, too.

In our interview, he expressed how empathy (and a helping of TACOS) is at the core of Qualtrics. He also shared what he learned about leadership from his early years on the family farm through to 17 years at Microsoft, where he faced a review with Bill Gates in his first week on the job.

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.

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Pushing Buttons: Happy 50th birthday to Atari, whose simple games gave us so much | Games

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Welcome to Pushing Buttons, the Guardian’s gaming newsletter. If you’d like to receive it in your inbox every week, just pop your email in below – and check your inbox (and spam) for the confirmation email.

Sign up for Pushing Buttons, our weekly guide to what’s going on in video games.

This week marks a truly important video game anniversary: it is 50 years since Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney incorporated Atari Inc, the company that laid the foundations for the video games industry. There have been many appraisals of the company and its landmark achievements in the games press over the past few days – from the arrival of a Pong machine in Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale, California, in 1972, through classic titles such as Breakout, Asteroids and Missile Commands, to the iconic home consoles. So many moments of creative genius, so many genres, concepts and conventions bursting into existence at the hands of scruffy engineers and designers such as Ed Logg, Larry Kaplan and Dona Bailey.

But one element that often gets overlooked in these nostalgic reveries is the way in which Atari taught the first generation of electronic gamers how to think symbolically. With two rectangles and a square, Pong invited us to visualise tennis, while Night Driver’s series of moving rectangles convinced us we were driving a car. Some will point to the 1972 console the Magnavox Odyssey as the originator of these concepts, but it was Atari putting them in arcade machines – and later consoles –all over the world.

It was also Atari that generated a whole universe around its simple games. Through beautiful cabinet designs, expert use of iconography and graphic design, and the gorgeous illustrations on its Atari VCS cartridges, the company sought to simulate the imagination of players before they even held the controller. The boxes for titles such as Berzerk and Defender, all highly abstract and visually simple games, were alive with drama; they showed human characters, explosions and colours that were impossible to achieve on screen at the time, quietly providing players with the imaginative tools they needed to become immersed. Would we have cared so much about the fate of the lifeless rock at the base of the screen in Missile Command if it hadn’t been for George Opperman’s package art? The tense commander at his desk, the explosions, the missiles seemingly scorching out of the box itself …

It was George Opperman who also designed Atari’s now legendary logo, consisting of three simple lines, the two exterior shafts curving inwards toward the peak. Over the years Opperman claimed many influences for his design – Mount Fuji, Japanese alphabet symbols, Pong itself – personally, I’ve always viewed it as a spaceship. But it’s how the image seems to sum up the excitement and futuristic promise of the company that really matters. When we see the logo flash briefly on the screen in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, it’s a quick visual signifier that this is a highly technological landscape. It fits in perfectly with a world of androids and flying cars.

Nolan Bushnell saw how video games could naturally bleed from the screen into real space, meat space. During the 1970s, the industry started in pubs and taverns, then moved into arcades and eventually the home, and they had effects on all of them: they changed behaviours and got written into our lives in subtle ways. His introduction of the Chuck E Cheese pizza restaurant chain, which combined family eating with a video game arcade, brilliantly monetised the ways that games, although graphically simple, had worked their way from the TV screen to dinner table conversation. We laugh about how the original VCS console had wood panelling, but this was a deliberate attempt to ape the aesthetics of the 1970s living room, with its wooden furniture, TV and stereo cabinets. Atari understood that assimilation would be a vital element of success.

Even now, in this age of near photorealism, video games rely on the kind of abstractions that Atari perfected. The heart symbols to denote the number of lives we have left; the heavy use of icons and exterior narratives; the endless references to familiar cinema tropes. We saw Atari being played on TV shows and films, we saw Atari in comics. While its games were still being drawn with two sprites each a single byte in size, the iconography of Atari was out there in the world. It’s something Nintendo would learn from, and later Sony, with its cultural melting pot of a console: the PlayStation. Atari was a myth maker too: from the Easter egg hidden in Adventure to the buried copies of E.T. in the California desert, the company itself became a source of digital folklore that took on meanings beyond anything portrayed on your TV.

50 years ago, Atari began to show us that games exist in a strange liminal space between the screen and the brain, and they are constantly able to escape. The dots on the screen are only ever part of the picture, and the picture never stops moving.

What to play

This week we recommend the knockout Capcom Fighting Collection.
This week we recommend the knockout Capcom Fighting Collection. Photograph: Capcom

While we’re in a nostalgic mood, I’m really enjoying Capcom Fighting Collection. You’d probably expect a dozen famous titles from the Street Fighter series, but that’s already been covered by Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection. Instead, we get five games from the spooky, goth-infused Darkstalkers series, the mid-1990s fantasy-themed Red Earth and a bunch of offbeat Street Fighter dalliances including the ridiculously compelling Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, which brilliantly combined fighting game dynamics with … Tetris. The games are filled with blistering attacks and truly imaginative character designs, all lovingly updated for the modern era.

Available on: PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One
Approximate playtime: As long as you want

What to read

  • Eurogamer is running a whole series of features for Pride, including this piece talking to Captain Fluke about being the first openly trans esports commentator and this one on the joy of gay fan faction and mods. Elsewhere, IGN has listed its favourite ever LGBT+ characters in video games.

  • Verge has a really interesting piece on a group of creatives making branded worlds for big companies in Fortnite. Everyone talks about Facebook when referencing the coming era of the metaverse, but I’m pretty sure Fortnite is going to be just as important as an explorable shared space for interconnected worlds – and the advertising potential therein.

  • We also found out this week that Hidetaka Miyazaki, the creative genius behind Dark Souls and Elden Ring, is almost finished on his next project. This is good news for me as, after 225 hours, I’m nearing the end of Elden Ring and would be very happy to slide straight into his next game if possible.

  • If I’ve got you interested in Atari’s design and illustration philosophy, The Art of Atari by Tim Lapetino is a gorgeous book. For a more technical analysis of the company, try Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost.

What to click

‘A little bit addictive and the right amount hard’: new video game is based on poems of Emily Dickinson

Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest review – lovable gamers on mission to break record

Fire Emblem Warriors: Three Hopes review – wild battles liven up a familiar anime franchise

Melbourne startup raises $9m for mental wellness game based on tending houseplants

Question block

This week’s question comes from Tim and his daughter Caitlin, and is answered by Keza:

“We got really into Hades over lockdown, loving the ‘it’s the same each time but really different too’ concept as well as the lore and the artwork. Can you recommend a similar game that we could play together?”

Hades is what’s known as a roguelike – one of those games where you have to start again from the beginning each time, but each playthrough throws different challenges at you – and, happily for you both, this genre has been having a moment over the past few years. Hades is a contender for the very best game in this genre, so it’s hard to rival, but here are some others to try.

Dead Cells is a kind of cyberpunk-fantasy action game where you gradually explore a shapeshifting castle; Spelunky 2 has you delving down below the Earth through caves full of amusing hazards, and has a great sense of humour (you can also play co-op); Into the Breach is something a little different, a strategy game where you have to defend the world from hostile invaders, travelling back in time after each failed attempt. And for a story and art style as good as that of Hades with a different gameplay feel, try developer Supergiant’s previous games Pyre, Transistor and Bastion, if you haven’t already.

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China says it has photographed all of Mars from orbit • The Register

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China is claiming that as of Wednesday, its Tianwen-1 Mars orbiter has officially photographed the entire Red Planet. And it’s shown off new photos of the southern polar cap and a volcano to prove it.

“It has acquired the medium-resolution image data covering the whole globe of Mars, with all of its scientific payloads realizing a global survey,” state-sponsored media quoted the China National Space Administration (CNSA) announcing.

Among the images are one of Mount Askra with its crater, shots of the South Pole whose ice sheet is believed to consist of solid carbon dioxide and ice, the seven-kilometer deep Valles Marineris canyon, and the geomorphological characteristics of the rim of the Mund crater.

Mount Askela

Mount Askela. Click to enlarge

Mars South Pole

Mars South Pole. Click to enlarge

Valles Marineris

Valles Marineris. Click to enlarge

Geomorphology of the rim of the Mund Crater

Mund crater. Click to enlarge

Tianwen-1 had been in orbit around Mars for 706 days. The orbiter circled Mars 1,344 times, as of an announcement from CNSA. The space org said Tianwen-1 has completed its scheduled missions.

In conjunction with its rover Zhurong, Tianwen-1 amassed 1,040 gigabytes of raw scientific data through 13 onboard scientific payloads.

The mission has allowed CNSA to observe solar occultation and solar wind together with international observatories – including those in Russia, Germany, Italy, Australia and South Africa – to improve the accuracy of space weather forecasts. Good news for Matt Damon.

CNSA said it will share more scientific data with the international community in due course.

In December, Zhurong and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft performed an in-orbit relay communication test to demonstrate it was possible to relay data from Zhurong back to Earth via Mars Express. The demonstration was successful, if a bit complicated – Mars Express had to “listen” for Zhurong since the rover was unable to communicate directly because the frequencies used don’t match.

Even though the mission is officially over, the orbiter and rover are still in working order. The orbiter will stay in orbit and continue its remote sensing and data relay activities while Zhurong will hibernate until weather conditions improve – likely in December. ®

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