In fact we can provide many examples of verifiable phenomena, such as the particle/wave duality of certain entities, that seem to contradict the manner in which experience tells us the world works. Similarly, with Time the fact that we experience it as a linear procession of events does not mean that’s what Time truly is; or that it even exists for that matter. So let’s posit a possible description of true Time. Basically, imagine a vantage point with respect to Time whereby you can see all events at once. When you observe it from this vantage point, Time is not linear. Instead, from this view, you see that events that exist in spacetime do not really precede or follow each other and therefore probably cannot be said to cause each other either. They exist all at once so to speak.
— Sergio De La Pava, A Naked Singularity
Nothing, nothing mattered and I knew very well why. He also knew why. From the depths of my future, throughout all this absurd life I had lived, a gathering wind swept towards me, stripping bare along its path everything that had been possible in the years gone by, years that seemed just as unreal as the ones that lay ahead.
— Albert Camus, The Outsider
Life is always in between. Life was what happened while you were waiting around for other things to happen. Life was what sprang up in the places you never thought to look. In between.
— James Sallis, Death Will Have Your Eyes
When does the past stop and the future begin? What about that void, that in-between, we know as the present? Author James Sallis observes that every day we reconstruct ourselves out of the salvage of our yesterdays. Past lessons and memories carry us across the in-between. How to blend them with the occasional glance futurewards? How to marry what we know with the potential and opportunities offered by social change and technological advancement? I have to confess that, while agreeing wholeheartedly with the sentiment, I find the phrase the future of work highly problematic. If we are truly building cathedrals of change, then we either need to be laying foundations or constructing on top of existing ones. Action needs to be taking place in the Now, continuing tomorrow and persisting into a vague, hazy and distant future too.
There is a danger that the future of work has already become a vacuous term, in the same way that social business and Enterprise 2.0 have. It is a momentary hit, like fast food, delivered by clever and manipulative marketeers chasing a dollar and an ego massage. There is a need either to reclaim the phrase and properly define what it means or move on. That said, it was interesting for me to be invited this week to speak about the concept at a couple of local creative workspaces in Kent. What does the future of work mean to me, on a personal level, right now? It was an ideal opportunity to both reflect back and look forwards. Ideally timed too, as I find myself in an in-between state, working out the last few days as an employee of a traditionally structured organisation and in the throes of setting up as a solo worker again. From January, I cycle back to the freelance life after fifteen years in corporate hierarchies.
Where I work and with whom I work have become increasingly important to me. I need diversity. Diversity of projects, diversity of location, diversity of perspectives. I am a neo-generalist, I am curious, I need to learn. Working for a single organisation, in a single office, on a single subject, just does not make sense to me. I feel like I am ossifying. My saving grace has been the advent of social media, learning to navigate and connect in the digital, networked world. The people with whom I have interacted the most over the past year, with whom I have exchanged ideas, argued and debated, given and received validation, and, increasingly, collaborated and cooperated, have not tended to be on the same payroll as me. Often they are not in the same industry. Invariably not in the same country. These are friendships and partnerships that have been formed online and, wherever possible, been cemented by in-person meetings.
[Picture credit: The Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dalí, 1931]
My most productive days while an employee have occurred when I have worked offsite, either at home, in a café or at a gallery. The most qualitative of learning experiences during this same period have resulted from conversation either online, face-to-face over coffee, or in motion, walking and talking. These learning experiences have resulted from networked connections and communities, never from prescriptive corporate training programmes. This is not to suggest that I have neglected my duties as an employee. Rather, that I have combined my varied interests to add value to the work I am responsible for. As an outsider on the inside, with an internal consultancy mandate, I have sought to bridge out to other organisations, other disciplines, other practitioners, serving as a conduit to other ideas, alternative working practices, different business models.
I have no background or particular interest in the industry I am about to exit. My focus has instead been on people, how they organise themselves, how they acquire and share knowledge, and how they adapt to change. It has also been on the value of neo-generalism in a hyperspecialised industrial context. The need for pattern recognition, curiosity, cross-pollination of ideas, storytelling, horizon scanning and a strategic outlook are all important facets. From the perspective of my in-between state, I have come to realise how important these are for future working practices too. Also how I want to help multiple organisations, rather than a single one, acknowledge the need for such skills. As Peter Morville has recognised, the ideal state for the future is an intertwingled one. Where science and art and business and technology all have value, connect, combine and intermingle. It seemed pertinent somehow this week to be talking about such things in Kent’s creative spaces, discussing lessons drawn from business experience with people making a new start as artists.
In my personal journey, I have advanced to repeat. I started my career as a freelancer, ill-equipped for it, fresh from many years in the ivory towers of academia and naive about business and work. I hope I return to it more knowledgable, better able to add value and assist others. But there is also a sense of simultaneously looping back and progressing in terms of the working practices now available to me and others. The advancement of technology, social structures and workplace expectations has enabled us to revisit and improve upon old traditions. Transportation, telecommunications and mobile computing make a nomadic lifestyle attractive again. The hyperlink erodes spatial and temporal divisions. Asynchronous collaboration across countries and continents is a regular undertaking. Crafts and manual skills also are becoming highly valued again. Workers, previously tied to the industrial conveyor belt, a particular place and time of work, are being freed by automation and algorithms. For some this is a threat, for many others an opportunity.
Long-established notions about time, which have governed working life since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, have become fractured. Different conceptions of time co-exist. There is the linearity of past, present and future, the ticking of the clock, the flicking of calendar dates, the sound of the church bells and the punching of the timecard. There are the natural cyclical rhythms of the seasons, Winter forever giving way to Spring, birth to death, drought to flood. There is also the helical, spiral-like sense of forward movement and repetition, echoes and mirrors of the past intruding on the present, time matching the structure of our DNA and the movement of our planet through space. Then there is a Now that may be long if you are running a 10,000-year clock, somewhat shorter if you are operating on 10-15 year cycles, and minuscule if you are focusing on the movement of the second hand. So just as the location of where we work is becoming less and less fixed, so too is when we work. In a digital, networked world we can be forever on, or we can learn to revisit the patterns of our forebears who worked the fields and find other rhythms more suited to our bodies and personal preferences.
For me, the future of work is one of fragmentation, small pieces loosely joined, diverse locations, networked connections, time both speeded up and slowed down, time chunked and repeated. It is possibly one where the neo-generalist becomes the counterpoint, the counterbalance to the highly specialised machine. It both thrills and terrifies me.
It started yesterday.
The world is infinitely complex, and any attempt to simplify, which means the elimination of contradictory elements, will fail to capture that complexity. One can, however, attempt to compress or condense those elements into a more abbreviated or altered form. That is the role of metaphor.
— Kit White, 101 Things to Learn in Art School
Time in the digital era is no longer linear but disembodied and associative. The past is not something behind us on the timeline but dispersed through the sea of information. Like a digital unconscious, the raw data sits forgotten unless accessed by a program in the future. Everything is recorded, yet almost none of it feels truly accessible.
— Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock
We want to welcome the future as a good friend that we wish to meet, not as an enemy that we hope to avoid.
— Rolf Jensen & Mika Aaltonen, The Renaissance Society
I am grateful to Lloyd Davis for inviting me to work alongside Brian Condon and himself, talking about the future of work at #workshop34 in Sittingbourne and the POP Creative Space in Chatham on 11 December 2014.