March 8, 2017
This is the second of two responses to an excellent article by Antony Slumbers, the first being this perspective from my mirrored room, in this instance offering that his views offer a far too presumptive picture of how technology will shape our work future. The paragraph headlines are from Antony’s original article. One person’s optimism is another’s pessimism. A decade ago the dream of liberated commute-free teleworking was, to many, the nightmare of enforced seclusion to the soundtrack of the dishwasher. The deployment of robots for the performance of menial tasks creating time and wealth for leisure is another’s horror at the loss of employment and resultant anomic fragmentation and decay. The fatally pointless optimism of Candide’s Dr Pangloss was agnostic in regard to every such outcome. It was positive only because there could be no alternative, and therefore no better alternative.
A work almost a decade before Candide offers an interesting insight at this point, Rousseau’s Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (1750). The competition he entered with the essay sought to explore the reasons why the arts and sciences had aided the development of humanity, yet Rousseau controversially held that they had instead had a corruptive effect on morality. From within its text, it gave us the title of this paper. While flawed in its arguments, it nevertheless jolted the self-satisfied literary and scientific establishment of the time and set the tone for works of significance to come. It illustrated that optimism can take an unchallenged, self-perpetuating collective form in which all advancement is deemed necessary, worthy and beneficial. So too with digital encroachment, as our submission to the binary appears irreversible both in practice and in desire. Yet the digital casts a long analogue shadow, in which we shall now explore.
You should assume the office really is dead
Despite the exercise of the collective will of an army of anaemic techies declaring the premature passing of almost everything tangible, the office has never been more important. From its complacent past as the de facto place of repetitive clerical process work, it is increasingly taking on a status as the fundamental associative root in a rootless world. Its essential analogue antidote to the saturative digitisation of the fringes of our humanity will only become ever more important. We will crave its comforts, and the company of those who inhabit it. Co-working centres, our latest silver-plated bullet, are physically an office like any other, and are increasingly drawing in those within small enterprises from the false promises of a nomadic digitally-connected life. Buildings like the Edge, despite being heralded, serve only to pose a threat to its contribution to our working lives, encroaching on the need for our minds to make decisions affecting how we work and with whom. Never quite working well enough, they will remind us of where lines need to be drawn, and we shall draw them. These buildings will serve a purpose, but not as intended. The apps will flicker, unused, unloved, as we make up our own minds. Who can love an app?
Machine learning is a double-edged sword
Quite possibly the most futile pursuit in the field of technology is the attempt to replicate even the most basic elements of the human mind. It is our model of sophistication, perfection even, and so we are drawn to mimic it. Machine learning will remain locked at where it lies, in the realm of logical processing where the decision path can be altered by accumulated data. Even the most advanced game engine that can defeat a human at Go, a logical game simpler than chess, works within the construct of a logical neural network. The divide between logic on the one hand and instinct, intuition and emotion on the other is the gulf that will ensure machines remain our servants. They may be developed to help our decision-making or automate routine functions within our life and work in previously unimagined ways, but they will thankfully remain forever imprisoned in logic. We struggle with the idea of “forever” in regard to technology, as the future offers space for our wildest imagination.
The death of distance will re-appear
In the same manner as the eternal constraint of machine learning, technology will likely never replicate the full and necessary experience of face-to-face human communication. We exchange information on more levels than even entirely non-sequential processing can replicate. An interesting angle on this is the degree to which we are distracted, and the role of distractions in hiding or conveying meaning. Communication via technology asks us to focus for its duration. We enter a room, connect, speak, nod, do the things the screen and microphones will allow us to do in the confines of a sound-proofed and sealed box, and then we leave. We are led to believe this is effective because all distractions have been removed. Yet in effect they deliver little more than a telephone call at a fixed landline. The metaphor of a telephone line, whether mobile or fixed, visual or audio, remains dominant. Only when technology begins to absorb unscheduled, occasional, distracted, interrupted and uninvited multi-participant conversation will it begin to scratch the surface. In this respect, forget the cloud, technology needs to be in the crowd.
There is no such thing as work-life balance, and that is good
In a recent survey making the front page of last week’s Sunday Times, work stress is seen as a more likely killer than the traditional bedfellows, alcohol or smoking. We are increasingly struggling to separate our work and home lives but of course it’s the latter that is at risk as the former eats steadily into our mental and emotional focus on our family life. It’s rarely, if ever, the other way around. It’s not ways serious stuff either – you see an e-mail at 10pm and hit reply-all to say “yep, I’m still working over here too”. We used to consider that the work/life balance was about time spent, but this is increasingly irrelevant. Legislation in the expected places is a sad necessity, but in all likelihood the stimulus we need to take matters into our own hands and put something into our own hands other than our digital companion. The pattern is set at a less responsible age, the under 25’s leading the new Puritanism with a quarter now tee-total, more likely to be -xting something than throwing up outside the Top Rank. Nothing about these trends is good, because the underlying reasons are disturbing. This consciousness of our disappearance into the tiny screen, just the soles of our feet protruding from a tedious, twitching and sleepless oblivion, is at last the turning point. Clear water between work and life will emerge once again, and this time it will be of our conscious doing.
Assume everything is mobile and that the cloud rules
Humanity has embraced a quite peculiar level of trust in the last decade. We deposit the data that governs our lives – personal, financial, family – into a tangled web of computers, the nature and location of which are a mystery to us. All of this behind a password (make sure it contains a symbol and a number). Much of this trust has been borne of necessity and convenience. I have been drafting this article in bite-sized chunks, chucking them “up” into the cloud and accessing it on various mobile devices. Is anyone else following this, reading my drafts? I haven’t even questioned it, given it will be but a drop of sand in the digital Sahara. I am reliant on its proportions as protection, so microscopic as if to be invisible. Yet it always seems to come as a collective surprise when a digital leviathan is compromised and its data stolen. We have hackers versus reformed hackers working as digital security specialists, slugging it out on the unlit boulevards of the web. Our trust teeters on a tightrope, we hope day to day that the reformed guys keep it all together, and put up a decent guard. The cloud, as a singular concept, has a glass jaw. We will feel very differently about mobile and the cloud should it shatter.
The tactile fascination with gadgetry dominates our consideration of technological advance and capability, while connectivity is deemed an expectation, a right. We demand high speed broadband in the living room of every remote croft, we have exhausted our tolerance of 4G and demand 5G. Yet it is incredible how helpless ‘working offline’ feels, and how useless our gadgetry appears, we hold it at a distance and gaze scornfully at it, bloody thing. We even take conversations offline, as in, to a trivial, irrelevant space to get something minor and irritating resolved. The important, relevant conversations all take place ‘online’, where it matters. The wag who drew WiFi at the base of a hierarchy of needs wasn’t entirely spoofing. Yet we are beginning to understand the importance of disconnection, of the offline, the analogue, of human space, of mental space; of reading printed matter, writing with a pen, talking. Connectivity has been an army of occupation, and resistance is being organised. We are understanding that severing the cord for periods of time returns us to our partners, family, environment. We notice one another, and what is around us. It renders the gadgets impotent, to allow us to be potent once again.
Work is being unbundled
The automation of work tasks has been occurring since ancient times. We tend to think of the mechanised loom as the earliest example of significant automation, prompting the Luddite reaction, yet Ancient China and Greece provided centrally-run relief schemes for those affected by technological unemployment. So fundamental and integral has it been in our development as a species that it is almost a non-subject. When considered alongside the overblown and factually misplaced claims that we live in an age of unprecedented change – even taking account of the bizarre yet entirely explicable events of 2016 – we have talked ourselves into a crisis of confidence in ourselves as resourceful and adaptable beings. It is true that ‘robots’ will consume a number of jobs presently performed by humans, that is not in dispute, but in one form or another, this has always been the case. As each layer of obsolete manual activity is automated, new forms of human activity take their place, new skills emerge and increased value is placed in human-crafted over automated output. The bundling and unbundling of work is an interleaved process, as opposed to a historical phase. In addition, while it is said that all businesses are technology businesses, that is pure hyperbole and they clearly are not, and many skills and trades will remain essentially human. The ill-stoked fears fed to a generation that their livelihoods will disappear may actually spark a welcome renaissance in human-centred employment. The rise of distinctly ‘artisan’ products as a mark of value and quality already provides this clue, even if the label is rather generously applied. The myth may be just what is needed to re-connect a vast number of people with work.
Software is on demand, available as a service
It doesn’t really matter how we obtain our software, two truths persist: we still need it, and it still replicates several core basic manual tasks that Office recognised and offered twenty five years ago: writing, calculating, messaging, illustrating and presenting. Almost all general business software development since has built upon these activities. Even social media is simply a broader, un-targeted messaging format. While applications, simpler and more specific, have offered variety and sought to automate routine or research-demanding tasks, they remain focussed on singular functions and therefore perform far less demanding tasks than software is able. In many respects it’s always been on demand, even if the installation disc arrived by post. Like most things we purchase, use it occasionally it’s expensive, use it daily and repeatedly it’s incredibly cheap. The usage/ownership debate always sees the lines on the graph cross – at a certain point of consumption, ownership becomes more cost effective. Own it, consume it as a service, it has no bearing on anything in particular, it’s just another consumer choice.
And the result of all this is?
Offering caution against the inevitable conquest and scorched earth of all before it by the irresistible yomp of technology is a dangerous cliff edge on which to be doing tai chi on a cloying dawn. Anyone misting over at the memory of dropping their Kodak’s ektachrome off in a postbox for processing and picking up a VHS from Blockbuster and a diabetes-inducing juggernaut-sized chocolate wedge from Woolies for a ritzy night in front of the CRT might consider the game will probably be up at some point soon.
Yet it is also easy to predict that the train running north through open countryside will continue to run north, smooth on its rails, accelerating at will. Few doubt that technology will continue to advance and that it will continue to change the way we live and work. However the rails are not smooth, the destination not certain. The human cost of our submission to digitisation, and the frailties and their consequences are only beginning to be understood; we needed enough critical mass to begin to do so.
The result of all this will be a more difficult journey for technology. Innovation will still have the capacity to excite, but we’ll greet it on its merits, cautiously, more considerate of its effect upon us. Online business will be increasingly held to account in both fiduciary and ethical matters, more aligned with the traditional businesses they have been usurping. The rights that ‘gig’ workers have abandoned will be progressively reclaimed. The high street will be re-lamped, as people return to the browsing that gave birth to a metaphor. Disrupters will become incumbents, and be themselves disrupted, the food chain will continue to eat itself. Anti-social media will have become a rant-pen for former presidents re-writing their disgrace as history. We will switch off the small screen, and re-focus the horizon we thought we had lost, and we’ll plan journeys from which we’ll send postcards. The novelty of immediacy will wane, as we re-discover anticipation. And the poets will tell of what it means to be human and vulnerable, once again.
Image is one of Paul Klee’s illustrations for a 1911 edition of Voltaire’s Candide.
Neil Usher is Workplace Director at Sky.