admonishment to vigilance

Standard

“‘Drive,’ she said when she sat down next to Sami. ‘Where to?’

She thought for a moment. Without looking at him, she said, ‘To where the country ends.’

‘For me it ended a long time ago,’ he hissed.” –To the End of the Land, David Grossman

Each day, the least democratic thing we could imagine (or even couldn’t imagine) happening happens. And then the next day, something even less democratic happens. This is true in the political realm, and it’s increasingly apparent in technology (now that we have algorithms deciding for us what we can/will see).

“‘I went,’ he told her, ‘because every day I ask myself the same question: How can this be happening in America? How can people like these be in charge of our country? If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I’d think I was having a hallucination.’” –The Plot against America, Philip Roth

How much of what we think and see is influenced by what we are fed pre-emptively? How can we think for ourselves and discover new things when there are limits on what we see (thanks to algorithms and our blindly, blithely feeding all of our own data into massive data crunching/manipulating machines)? I have been thinking about this for some time. Most of the jobs I’ve had were directly within or at least adjacent to/dependent on the collection, analysis and use of data about users and their behaviors and habits. Many companies exist solely because of their access and ability to harvest data – it has created entirely new business models and applications. But it’s never been mysterious what was going on (even if most average people don’t consider the implications). I don’t know why people are now, suddenly surprised.

Just as I was trying to figure out how to discuss this, an article appeared on HBR.org:

“The ability for an elite to instantly alter the thoughts and behavior of billions of people is unprecedented.

This is all possible because of algorithms. The personalized, curated news, information and learning feeds we consume several times a day have all been through a process of collaborative filtering. This is the principle that if I like X, and you and I are similar in some algorithmically determined sense, then you’ll probably like X too. Everyone gets their own, mass-personalized feed, rationed by the machines.

The consequences are serious and wide-ranging. Fake news and misinformation are pervasive. Young kids are being subjected to algorithmically generated, algorithmically optimized pernicious content. Perhaps the least concerning implication is that there is systemic bias in our information feeds, that we operate in and are informed by tiny echo chambers. It’s a grotesque irony that our experiences of the world wide web today are actually pretty local, despite warnings from the likes of Eli Pariser back in 2011.”

My own words – base oversimplifications – are totally inadequate to deconstruct and intelligently discuss the complexity of these issues. But almost every book I read contains a warning. Almost none are direct cautionary tales in the vein of 1984, but almost all advise us to consider what we have and how easy, without vigilance, it is to lose:

“Because civilization isn’t a thing that you build and then there it is, you have it forever. It needs to be built constantly, re-created daily. It vanishes far more quickly than he ever would have thought possible. And if he wishes to live, he must do what he can to prevent the world he wants to live in from fading away. As long as there’s war, life is a preventative measure.” –The Cellist of Sarajevo, Stephen Galloway

But then, we also need to consider that the erosions and explosions of “civilization” also come about because not everyone agrees about what constitutes civilization – this fundamental disagreement poses its own dangerous fragmentation.

Photo by paul morris on Unsplash

The changing workscape: New frontiers in virtual office possibilities

Standard

Given the fact that people do have different work styles that lend themselves to working in different ways – and that workplaces are constantly paying lip service to the idea that we have to infuse our entire organizations with innovative ways of working, and we finally have the mostly seamless technology options to make this feasible – we are in a unique place to encourage virtual work and home offices now more than ever.

Everything is affected by the interplay and interconnectedness of technology and our work lives. Why would workers accept being forced to be chained to a desk in an office – or conversely, why would employed limit their talent pool to the immediate vicinity? Especially in global companies that seek budgetary solutions to increasingly competitive and austere business landscapes. Not every employee is going to want to work remotely all the time, and not every job or project is ideal for this set up. But being flexible enough to see where efficiencies can be gained, employees can be happier and more productive, where costs, sometimes significant, can be saved and even semi-unrelated matters, such as increasingly long and taxing commutes to and from offices and traffic gridlock can be reduced, is the first step toward a new “frontier”. Looking at the way a remote worker thinks, or how the workforce thinks about remote work, it is clear that the trend leans toward a more flexible future. And would give people the sense that they had greater freedom and more control and balance in their lives.

How workers think about remote work

How workers think about remote work

The change is coming – it’s happening – but it is slow. When Marissa Mayer made the controversial decision to call the sheep back to the farm (her Yahoo! workers were told that telecommuting was strictly verboten and were required to return full-time to the office – a topic I cannot seemingly shut up about), it seemed like the most backward move, and the tech media dissected and analyzed this perplexing choice to death. A Forbes writer captured my thoughts in a nutshell:

Some research published by the MIT Sloan Management Review suggests that bosses are roughly nine percent more likely to consider an employee dependable if you spend time at the office. I know that was the consensus when I entered the workforce thirty years ago, but I thought we were a little more enlightened now.

Not too long ago, a friend of mine sent me an article written by Robert Pozen for the Harvard Business Review. This study conducted by Kimberly Elsbach found (agreeing with the MIT study), after interviewing 39 corporate managers, that they all generally felt like employees who spent more time in the office were more dedicated, more hardworking, and more responsible. These guys sound just like my dad.” (Emphasis in italics is mine.)

The writer goes on to argue the same points I am always making – as a knowledge worker, it is not like we are ever really “turned off”. The idea of a 40-hour-work-week and the whole 8 to 5 mentality just does not exist. The writer continues, “When manager(s) judge their employees’ work by the time they spend at the office, they impede the development of productive work habits.” He goes on to question whether Mayer, in making her unpopular decision, ignored research on the subject. It seems to me that Mayer ignores data and research all the time since taking the helm at Yahoo! Her choices, as I write about ad nauseam, seem driven by some sort of strange gut instinct (that is not well-tuned) than by data, research or good advice.

What really gets to the heart of it though is an article called “A new workplace manifesto: In praise of freedom, time, space and working remotely”, which covers the full range of benefits of telecommuting, pitting them against the downsides of the traditional work model (e.g. long commutes that lead tomisery, associated with an increased risk for obesity, insomnia, stress, neck and back pain, high blood pressure and other stress-related ills like heart attacks and depression, and even divorce”; the uncontrolled level of interruption and idle conversation, useless meetings and so on once you get to the office; go home in another hell commute. Go home, repeat.). As the article points out, it is drudgery. And the author, David Heinemeier Hansson, is in a position to know. As the creator of popular project management tool Basecamp and web framework Ruby on Rails and a partner in the software company 37signals (renamed/reinvented recently under the Basecamp name) – all active parts of a busy virtual-work future, he has his finger right on the pulse of this aspect of the changing workscape. He and co-author Jason Fried have captured a great deal of this – and addressed many of my complaints and dreams – in a book called Remote: Office Not Required. (Recommended!) You can also check out remote job opportunities on WeWorkRemotely.

The article gets to the point I have been trying to make – the drudgery of the surroundings of work is not to be confused with the work itself. “It’s time to reject the false dichotomy between work and luxury. See, none of this is about escaping the intellectual stimulation of work itself. Work is not the enemy we’re trying to outrun. We’re simply running from those accidental circumstances.”

I love my work, but I know I have always been better at it when I have the focus and freedom to do it from my home office. No commute, no being exposed to all the office illnesses that spread like wildfire, no major drains on my concentration. Naturally this works because I am primarily a writer and need the focus. Maybe someone who is a project manager who has many stakeholders to manage would have a more difficult time of it, especially in a tradition-driven, traditional industry. But this too is changing. Productivity solutions and software are making all-virtual companies a reality.

Apart from having to sell the idea to the more staid and conservative workplaces, there is still a kind of stigma attached to the idea of virtual work, as though it is inherently scammy, “But it’s still early days and it’s still “weird.” Like Internet dating was in 1997. Remote working still reminds most people of either scammy signs at the side of the road that promise, “$1,000/day to work from home!” (without mentioning what the work is exactly) or social hermits who never leave their house or put clothes on before noon.” (I love the reference to “like Internet dating in 1997”. If we have gotten past the stigma there, why can’t the same be said of something productive like work?)

That’s the Good News” – John Grant