Capitalism with a Fluffy Face

The latest way tech companies have promoted their questionable self-image as the antithesis of old, evil corporations has been to open their offices not to unions, but to dogs

When Boris Levinson presented his paper, The Dog as Co-Therapist, at the American Psychological Association annual meeting in 1961, he confessed to having once dismissed its central claim as “much too unorthodox.” Levinson, a professor of clinical psychology at Yeshiva University in New York, had accidentally begun using his dog Jingles to treat children with severe psychological difficulties eight years before. The results were wonderful. Withdrawn patients unresponsive to treatment, those on the verge of institutionalization, played with Jingles and then slowly opened up to Levinson, earning the dog a regular job and prompting its owner to share his findings. Levinson ended the talk with a proposal to use dogs systematically in this capacity, perhaps in the form of a Canine Counseling Corps for Children: “A dog corps served this country heroically in the performance of military tasks in World War Two,” he concluded, “Why not as psychotherapeutic aides?”

The assembled experts thought the idea was hilarious—one asked, laughing, whether Levinson split his fees with Jingles. But as similar stories came to light from unlikely places, the therapeutic use of dogs gradually gained credence as a serious notion. Dogs turned out to have already been used successfully to help patients recuperate in hospitals and the military. Recently published letters revealed that Sigmund Freud’s beloved Chow Chow, Jofi, regularly sat in on his sessions—one patient grumbled that Freud was “more interested in Jofi than he was in my story”—and that Freud believed the presence of the dog helped patients relax into the analysis. By the 1970s, two psychiatrists in Ohio, Sam and Elizabeth Corson, began studying the phenomena systematically, reporting significant physiological and psychological benefits for all kinds of patient interacting with therapy animals in a range of institutional settings.

Levinson aided this transition by rebranding ‘pet therapy’ as the more respectable sounding ‘human/companion-animal therapy’ or ‘H/C-AT’—anemic acronym or wry pun depending on how you look at it—while grounding it in contemporary psychological theories of attachment, development, and object relations. Adding an extra layer of seriousness to his endeavors, he even provided a biochemical explanation of the therapeutic phenomenon, claiming that contact with animals produced neurological effects similar to morphine.

You might giggle at Levinson, Jingles and a few kids in 1961, but two decades later they were backed up by hefty allies: Freud and Winnicot, Bowlby and Harlow, neurochemistry, military hospitals, blood pressure studies and Midwestern nursing home residents. Therapy animals had become credible.

Nowadays dogs regularly comfort the stressed and depressed in college libraries, hospitals, retirement homes, and disaster zones. Their most intriguing workplace to date, though, has been in and around the corporate campuses of tech companies. From Google’s pet policy to the “Dogs of” Amazon and Uber to Mark Zuckerberg’s semi-celebrity pooch, Beast, Silicon Valley loves dogs, and isn’t afraid to show it. Promoting what cultural theorist Andrew Ross has dubbed ‘no collar’ culture, tech firms have long been famous for boons ranging from free lunch to gyms to video game rooms. So perhaps it’s not surprising that the latest way for tech companies to promote their questionable self-image as the antithesis of old, evil corporations is to open their offices not to unions, but to dogs.

 
It would be easy to see these professions of puppy love as a cynical distraction from the problems ignored or created in the quest to ‘disrupt’ us all into a brighter future. Don’t worry about the housing crisis, institutional misogyny, shady data use, PTSD inducing outsourced content moderation, or the boom of micro-waged jobs, such companies seem to say, just look at this picture of a cute Corgi.

Yet the love affair is also a symptom of the changing role of affect in labor in the past two decades. Affect has emerged as a key part of managing a workforce, conceived as a group of thinking, feeling, sharing beings who, potentially, might not see their interests as fully aligned with those of their employer.

In industrial and organizational psychology these problems are understood as part of ‘organizational commitment,’ a field rooted in the theories of Elton Mayo and Chris Argyris, and revitalized in the late 1980s when attracting and retaining workers was still considered necessary, but benefits and stable contracts were not. To add to the trouble, critiques of staid office life had moved from counterculture to mainstream, prompting management to adjust accordingly. How to solve the problem of giving less material compensation to potentially restless employees without sacrificing productivity or turnover?

The work of several psychologists and management theorists gave an answer. Taking feelings seriously—that is, treating employees as something more than bodies to be disciplined—offered a solution the growing conundrum. Studies suggested that even relatively small concessions, especially when discretionary, had considerable effects on employee commitment. Although none of this research mentioned dogs, arguments for cuddly management resonated with the animals’ emergent therapeutic powers.

Silicon Valley has excelled in expanding on these “soft” approaches to workplace governance. In their 2014 book, How Google Works, former CEO Eric Schmidt and Senior VP Jonathan Rosenberg share management lessons from the company, which revolve around collaboration, minimal hierarchy, and the belief that fun and productivity are not mutually exclusive, but complimentary. “To be effective,” the two executives tell us, employees “need to care about the place they work.” How do you get someone to really care about an advertising company like Google? The executives give a spirited defense of extreme pay disparities as one way of attracting and retaining superstar employees. Yet in the flaunt-shy world of tech, hard cash is not the most valuable kind of capital. “Smart creatives,” or ideal-typical Silicon Valley employees, “place culture at the top of the list.” And the best way to generate that more ephemeral incentive is by appealing to employees as social, emotive individuals. “You can attract the best smart creatives with factors beyond money: the great things they can do, the people they’ll work with, the responsibility and opportunities they’ll be given, the inspiring company culture and values, and yes, maybe even free food and happy dogs sitting desk-side.”

 
Dogs are good at attracting employees and great for PR, but their role in reducing stress and fostering sociability—the benefits first promoted by Boris Levinson—are now used to herd employees toward more industrious working days. The initial silliness of dogs on the job threatens to obscure (and paradoxically helps enable) their serious role: handling the living, feeling ‘human resources’ of the post-industrial workplace.

Google is likely the most developed in its officious embrace of dogs, going so far as to claim that “affection for our canine friends,” as the company’s code of conduct puts it, “is an integral facet of our corporate culture. We like cats, but we’re a dog company . . .” Employees are allowed to bring their dogs to the office, which executives suggest improves socializing, boosts morale, and encourages short, productivity boosting breaks. And yet, the pet policy is careful to note, bringing a dog to work is a privilege: a discretionary benefit rather than an automatic right.

This constrained largesse is not limited to the Googleplex, though. Consider ‘Puppyforce,’ a special unit for employees bringing dogs to work at Salesforce, a cloud computing company. The space is isolated from the rest of the office to stop unwanted barking from disrupting business. Physically containing the dogs’ unruliness in this way offers a safeguard to profitability. But why simply box up the subversive power of puppies when you can sublimate it into a simulacrum of a labor dispute? In April 2016 the Salesforce blog offered up a spoof mutiny of its office dogs: “We’re the ones barking orders today! Our humanagers threw us a bone and left the door to Puppyforce wide open . . . we’re taking over and terriering things up.” Of course, the more tangible consequences are a little less seditious than that. One employee, quoted in Fortune magazine, noted the effects of the pets: “I think it elevates everyone’s mood,” she says. “And at the end of the day it makes me more productive too.”

Dogs on the job, though clearly just one part of a broader trend of workplace reorganization, nicely condense the new spirit of management: humane gestures to conveniently align employee sentiment with companies whose underlying business models remain wholly corporate. And this dynamic of pseudo-peer-to-peer interactions veiling status differences and profit motives flourishes out of the office, too. For those who can’t take their furry friends to work, two startups, Wag! and Rover.com, offer on-demand dog walking, day care, and boarding services, allowing busy dog owners to enjoy the perks of pets without the hassle of constant care. Wag! aims to make dog ownership easier for people like its founder, a self-styled “busy tech entrepreneur from LA,” who wanted a dog but was worried about the commitment. The platform borrows its organizational model from ride-sharing companies, offering a pool of on-demand dog walkers and sitters to attend to dogs at short notice. Customers, former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick among them, can call up a carer, monitor their walk via GPS, and then receive a report with a write-up and photo, all for around $20 per thirty minute session. As with so many other platform services, managerial control does not need to stride ahead of the bowed worker, as it once did, so much as lounge around, the power of the rating replacing the stopwatch.

Seattle based Rover.com (tagline: “We’re the dog people”), with more venture funding than Wag!, is well set to dominate the fast-growing market for app-mediated pet care services. It’s the Airbnb of dogs, relying on a rich ecology of reviews, ratings, and self-narration to create trust, and relying on advance arrangements rather than immediate availability. It’s not hard to understand why people would want to leave their pets in safe hands, and one of the more significant but underappreciated features of app-mediated matchmaking markets is giving a new way to do it: trust can be conferred from party to party without recourse either to a unifying belief system (the trustworthiness of the Protestant businessman, visible in his habits of dress) or to a privileged form of expertise (the credit-rating agency, its industrial successor). Now competence can be expressed through the accumulated judgments of all past users, or, to say the same thing, management itself has been outsourced to all customers.

The result is that the classic features of affective labor—the smile of the flight attendant, the gestures of the waiter—mesh with newer genres like profile self-narration, pictures, or GPS, to allow a temporary manager to select hires and then assess performance. The relationship entails risk on both sides, but is here resolved firmly in favor of the paying party, who gains a previously unprecedented ability to manage at a distance and determine future employment prospects. As with official pet policies, though, that structural inequality is obscured by the staged fiction that client, service provider, and digital intermediary are friendly equals united by their love of dogs.

As clear 20th century divisions between work and leisure collapse, the two historical roles for canines—dogs with jobs and dogs as pets—have collided. But now domestic dogs are no longer simply, in the words of Donna Haraway, “commodities and consumers of commodities”; they are workplace therapists, productivity enhancers, and clients of app-mediated on-demand services.

All this would likely come as a surprise to Boris Levinson. To him, technological society was the problem, the cause of alienation “not only from our inner beings, but also from nature and our natural allies, the animals.” To interact with animals was to brush against a more authentic existence. Pet therapy was powerful because of that connection, but by the same token it remained limited, as it could never resolve the underlying causes of alienation. To see liberation in such therapeutic innovations without connecting them to systemic change, he thought, was akin to “chasing a shadow.”

Today changing the world has become the boilerplate promise of any business pitch; critiques of alienation fuel new genres of self-discovery and markets for ‘wellness.’ As dogs get assimilated into these narratives, it seems worth pondering what alternatives might exist.

We don’t need to appeal to Arcadian states of nature or bemoan the disappearance of the old dog days to do this. It would be odd to argue against people having freer, more fun working conditions, or against dogs having more attention. Yet we can still wonder about the effects of repurposing dogs to provide the kinds of support once demanded through political organization. We can remain skeptical of the way pets are cynically used to reinforce social stratifications, in which low-wage workers without job security are tightly policed—with a smile, from a distance—as they service the dogs of the rich. And we can question the culture in which remarkably utopian specters of play and plenty are rehabilitated as a discretionary perk for the few, managed in a corporate playground, rather than promoted as a desirable political goal for the many. Perhaps the most appropriate reaction to the changing role of dogs in contemporary capitalist society is therefore neither fawning boosterism nor cranky pessimism. Perhaps, to echo Levinson’s call for a (presumably public) Canine Counselling Corp, these changes allow us to glimpse the possibility of a more radical animal welfare state, in which dogs and the rest of us are able to enjoy a good life together, regardless of pay or productivity.