Ahead of this month’s Idler Dinner with management guru Charles Handy, we’re sharing an extract from his thought-provoking manifesto The Second Curve.
We have to contemplate a day when most factories – if they are still called that – are largely staffed by robots and call centres by talking computers, when cars, lorries and trains are increasingly driverless, when cooking is fully automated, the menu of your choice brought by robot to your table, when most shopping is online and entertainment on tap in your lounge or bedroom. Much of our lives will be organised by algorithms and computer-controlled systems. It will be, some say, a world where humans service the machines rather than the other way round, science-fiction become fact. The new servants, better termed technicians, will need to be highly skilled, but, and here’s the rub, few in number.
I am unconvinced. Computers and the internet of things may remove some of the drudgery of life, but we humans will not lightly surrender our lives to machines, particularly when those machines may one day be able to think for themselves. People will always congregate to create things, to gain power or influence, to make money or to help and care for others, things machines cannot do. There will always be organisations and places of work with the conflicts and excitements that come when people seek to do things together. The world of work may look different and be arranged and organised differently but there will always be organisations of some sort.
The new variety of the physical workplace, from office to club to hub to home, is one sign of a changing workforce. The day of the mass employment organisation, with everyone under one uniform corporate umbrella if not one physical roof, could be the first to go. That may be no bad thing. Size breeds inhumanity, reducing individuals to mere human resources, costs in the account books. In the lower regions of these vast armies one can feel like a very small cog in a huge machine. At their worst they can be prisons for the human soul. The likes of Walmart and G4S have a huge headcount but are actually collections of small organisations, not the conglomerations of old, massed behind the factory gates. Other large organisations, my old oil company included, are gradually going federal although they don’t necessarily call it that, aiming to be big where it matters and small where they can in order to keep it human and flexible. They look for a requisite variety of shape and size and style, while keeping it all connected by company websites, emails, Skype, messaging and even the old-fashioned telephone turned smartphone.
It is not religion that is today the opium of the people, as Karl Marx once suggested, but the smartphone
The new fashion for this virtual connectivity means that our laptops are effectively our offices and, of course, they need not reveal to anyone where we physically are. Convenient though that is, it also means that I can never leave my office. Unless I am disciplined enough to turn off all the technological gadgets I am more enslaved, not less. It is not religion that is today the opium of the people, as Karl Marx once suggested, but the smartphone. Where once people took comfort in their rosary or worry beads now some seem unable to sit without gazing at the small screen in their hand, twittering to all and sundry, pressing ‘reply all’ too automatically and ‘delete’ too seldom. The new worry is that people are over-communicating because of this new peripatetic office, leaving too little space for reflection and contemplation.
Charles Handy and Idler editor Tom Hodgkinson will be speaking at the Idler Dinner on Wednesday 31 January, with music by brilliant harmonica player Ed Hopwood. Buy tickets here. The Second Curve: Thoughts on Reinventing Society (Random House Business) is available to buy here.