The bumpy road to automation, dancing elephants, free beer and some other stuff

The World Economic Forum’s Annual Summit in Davos offers the world’s elite the chance to rub shoulders and address important themes of capitalism and society. Its output has largely consisted of making assured noises about Big Subjects, and especially globalisation and the effects of technology on the economy, now typically framed around the current / imminent Fourth Industrial Revolution™.

These themes mirror the regular output of WEF and I always find it worthwhile trying to form a bigger picture from the pieces that appear in its weekly updates. One thing that has been apparent for some time is that the proclamations the organisation makes have been somewhat less confident than they once were, and that was mirrored in Davos this year.


Teaching elephants to dance

Take this piece published on the WEF website in the past week. It starts by conceding that the once taken-for-granted forces of globalisation and centralised control have weakened and sometimes gone into reverse, before concluding that the solution is for governments to learn to be as agile as start-ups.

This is of course a standard refrain for large organisations, and dates back at least to the early 1990s when Louis Gerstner wrote his account of the agile-focused turnaround of IBM in his book Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance.

So it’s perhaps unsurprising that this same thinking should now extend to national governments, especially those who are seeing their authority shifting not only to other parts of the world but also the tech giants who clearly hold as much clout as they do and possibly more. Some of the tensions that arise from this are explored by Douglas Rushkoff in this piece and his new book.

So with the blessings of much of the science industry and its collaborating futurists, corporations press on, accelerating civilization under the false premise that because things are looking better for the wealthiest beneficiaries, they must be better for everyone. Progress is good, they say. Any potential impediment to the frictionless ascent of technological and economic scale—such as the cost of labor, the limits of a particular market, the constraints of the planet, ethical misgivings, or human frailty—must be eliminated.

As I have suggested before, it is the inevitable lumpiness of the coming work revolution that will be its biggest flaw. Yet for organisations like WEF, the focus remains on the big numbers. It’s a point developed by this piece from The New York Times which argues that the ‘elite’ are focussed on the bigger picture of automation and its potential for the bottom line, while ignoring exactly the sorts of inequalities that have already done so much to sow seeds of social disintegration.


Populism and the workplace

This piece in Wired sets out the core challenge. The changes to be brought about by automation will create adversity for certain racial and demographic groups and also centre on certain geographies. We’ve already seen in the past few years how this kind of thing can play out in democracies so it would be nice to see more attention placed on it now.

We should also be increasingly concerned about the changing nature of work as well as its quantity, as this piece on The Conversation argues.

Far from the ski slopes of Davos are real people struggling in dull jobs and on stagnant incomes. Any consideration of how technology will destroy or create jobs needs to recognise that the quality of the work we do is also important.

The fourth industrial revolution includes the rise of artificial intelligence, 3D printers and driverless cars. While many fear the disappearance of jobs due to digital automation, debate at Davos recognises the capacity for technology to create new jobs. It will present new sources of demand and new work opportunities such as engineers to design and service the new digital architecture.

Yet, the prospect of jobs growth is itself a problem if it means workers working in more low quality jobs. If technology erodes the skill content of work, drives down wages, and raises the duration and intensity of work, then workers may face the prospect of having to undertake work that is much worse than now.

The nature of this challenge is the primary theme of modern workplace thought, or should be. The effects of AI on the built environment itself are the subject of this podcast with the ubiquitous but always engaging Antony Slumbers who argues the changes will herald a new golden era for Real Estate. Antony is Tigger to my Eeyore so my response would inevitably be ‘for some’.

Inevitably these shifts will lead us to address how we fit in and appraise what skills and characteristics we have if we want to find a role with meaning. The question is addressed in this piece by Pat Weintraub drawing on psychological research to help people frame the question for themselves.

One thing they should be prepared to do according to David D’Souza is break some rules because the old ones don’t always apply. Ostensibly aimed at people working in HR, it strikes me that the same ideas can be applied to most people’s professional lives.

One of the rules that we should break, according to Neil Usher, is the already hackneyed idea of officially sanctioned workplace fun in certain contexts, and especially its most obvious manifestations such as the office slide, visits from puppies and free beer, or in the case of the large coworking provider cited in the piece, not-really free beer.

An idea or installation should be evanescent enough to vanish before it becomes naff and embarrassing, to slip into the shadow between myth and reality, where stories may be told and exaggerated. That’s slightly problematic for the slide, hanging like a prehistoric skeleton from the void, but easy for the beer tap.