Is the future of work going to be determined by the rise of the machines? Is the development of artificial intelligence going to leave us humans as redundant fleshy blobs? Or is it the case that, far from reducing the importance of humanity, the tech revolution will release it in a way that has never been possible before?
When we think about the future of work, we think about tech. How could we not? We are living through a revolution that will change the World forever. This is our industrial revolution so it is understandable that we will be excited, anxious, and at times overwhelmed by both the scale and the impact of that change. Alvin Toffler, who died this month would have called it ‘Future Shock’. In Mega City One we would be talking about people turning ‘Futsie’. The future has imploded into the present and science fiction has become our reality. We are struggling now with what that means for our lives both in and out of the work.
The enormity of this revolution leads us to question our fundamental values and identities. What do we become when the erstwhile narrow parameters of our local culturally constrained lives collapse and reveal endless cyberscapes of possibility? Our identity is no longer given to us, we choose or find it. There is a process of selection and exploration that happens here. No longer limited to dieting or lifting weights, we now augment to create a physical presence that we desire. Not a physical presence we are comfortable with – that process never ends – but one that takes us down a line of flight that we wish to explore. We were always desiring machines; new technology enables us. As organism and digital come together we become cyborgs. So is the Future of Work really Human? Or is the future of work Cyborg?
Our tech lives have reached a level of maturity now where tech becomes an extension of ourselves. When we think of ourselves we exist both in physical and traditional social spaces and also in cyberspace. Our avatars become part of our identity and what we say in cyberspace, the decisions we take and the choices we make, contribute to our definition and understanding of who we are as humans. The electric guitar and amplifier did nothing to reduce the humanity of Jimi Hendrix – it enabled a new level of expression and reality. Watch that old footage again, hear the squealing feedback and bending strings. It is not mechanical or digital. It is human and analogue. The tech was simply a surface over which Hendrix’s desire could flow free of the accepted constraints of the time. Make no mistake though, constraints existed. If Jimi were to arrive back in a flying saucer in the 23rd Century he would make new and different music and it would be just as human and just as strange and new.
The steps we are taking today in our evolution towards the cyborg are baby steps. We have sought and been given wireframe models of how to play this game. Here is Instagram, here is the Apple iPhone, here is a platform, here is how to use it. Here is the Fender Strat and the Marshall stack. They (we) are the proto-cyborgs. Tech has become an extension and limited form of expression. This is a game of recognising patterns and following them rather than creating them. The real Cyborgs are coming. In fact, they are already here.
For this new generation, the Network is not something they remember being invented. It has always been. When they ask questions of fact it is the most natural thing in the World to interrogate a system and access the knowledge of others in a systematic way. Their reach and vision far exceeds that of the preceding generations. They are able immediately and intuitively to grasp technology and – being children – play with it. What could be more human than intuition?
The Cyborg is born when tech becomes a mainstream form of expression rather than something to adopt. The Cyborg is not simply a consumer of finished off the shelf products, but instead becomes author and creator of the non-organic parts of their own identity. We can see the first tentative steps today. The introduction of low cost hackable tech such as the RaspberryPi computer, the increasing interest in free open source software including the various flavours of the Linux operating system is making this possible. Don’t like something? Change it. Open the code. Make it do something else. This is the future of wearable tech. People designing their own functionality, constantly tweaking exploring or learning. Want the tech to work differently? Then make it work differently. Build your own solution, don’t wait for ‘experts’ or the commercial world to have the same idea you’ve had. Struggling to understand this? Visit opensourcediabetes.org to read about how diabetics are hacking open source code to build their own condition management tools.
We are seeing it in the workplace too. We are all becoming handy men and women. It is no longer about commissioning the bespoke product that the consultant can provide. It is learning how to find the open source add-on to do the same job from your desktop. We are creating in new ways and expressing ourselves in new ways. We have countless new ways of presenting data and making our case, of expressing what is in our minds in a way that makes sense to others. None of this makes us less human.
What we are seeing today is not the rise of the machines (as we understand the term). We are seeing instead is the rise of the cyborgs. Infinitely expressive, constantly developing and exploring, following new and unexplored lines of flight. This is not digital, this is analogue and, as tech enables the expansion of our horizons, the cyborgs will be more human than us.