Pandemics, remote work, and global phase shifts
Last week, I tweeted this:
I get the feeling that, between film and TV shows on Netflix, Amazon deliveries, and social interaction on Twitter and Mastodon, beyond close friends and family, no-one would even realise if I’d been quarantined.
Writing in The Atlantic, Ian Bogost points out that Every Place Is the Same Now, because you go to every place with your personal screen, a digital portal to the wider world.
Anywhere has become as good as anywhere else. The office is a suitable place for tapping out emails, but so is the bed, or the toilet. You can watch television in the den—but also in the car, or at the coffee shop, turning those spaces into impromptu theaters. Grocery shopping can be done via an app while waiting for the kids’ recital to start. Habits like these compress time, but they also transform space. Nowhere feels especially remarkable, and every place adopts the pleasures and burdens of every other. It’s possible to do so much from home, so why leave at all?Ian Bogost (The Atlantic)
If you’re a knowledge worker, someone who deals with ideas and virtual objects rather than things in ‘meatspace’, then there is nothing tying you to a particular geographical place. This may be liberating, but it’s also quite… weird.
It’s easy but disorienting, and it makes the home into a very strange space. Until the 20th century, one had to leave the house for almost anything: to work, to eat or shop, to entertain yourself, to see other people. For decades, a family might have a single radio, then a few radios and a single television set. The possibilities available outside the home were far greater than those within its walls. But now, it’s not merely possible to do almost anything from home—it’s also the easiest option. Our forebears’ problem has been inverted: Now home is a prison of convenience that we need special help to escape.Ian Bogost (The Atlantic)
I’ve worked from home for the last eight years, and now can’t imagine going back to working any other way. Granted, I get to travel pretty much every month, but that 95% being-at-home statistic still includes my multi-day international trips.
I haven’t watched it recently, but in 2009 a film called Surrogates starring Bruce Willis foreshadowed the kind of world we’re creating. Here’s the synopsis via IMDB:
People are living their lives remotely from the safety of their own homes via robotic surrogates — sexy, physically perfect mechanical representations of themselves. It’s an ideal world where crime, pain, fear and consequences don’t exist. When the first murder in years jolts this utopia, FBI agent Greer discovers a vast conspiracy behind the surrogate phenomenon and must abandon his own surrogate, risking his life to unravel the mystery.IMDB
If we replace the word ‘robotic’ with ‘virtual’ in this plot summary, then it’s a close approximation to the world in which some of us now live. Facetuned Instagram selfies project a perfect life. We construct our own narratives and then believe the story we have concocted. Everything is amazing but no-one’s happy.
Even Zoom, the videoconferencing software I use most days for work, has an option to smooth out wrinkles, change your background, and make everything look a bit more sparkly. Our offline lives can be gloriously mundane, but online, thanks to various digital effects, we can make them look glorious. And why wouldn’t we?
I think we’ll see people and businesses optimising for how they look and sound online, including recruitment. The ability to communicate effectively at a distance with people who you may never meet in person is a skill that’s going to be in high demand, if it isn’t already.
Remote working may be a trend, but one which is stubbornly resisted by some bosses who are convinced they have to keep a close eye on employees to get any work out of them.
However, when those bosses are forced to implement remote working policies to keep their businesses afloat, and nothing bad happens as a result, this attitude can, and probably will, change. Remote working, when done properly, is not only more cost-effective for businesses, but often leads to higher productivity and self-reported worker happiness.
Being ‘good in the room‘ is fine, and I’m sure it will always be highly prized, but I also see confident, open working practices as something that’s rising in perceived value. Chairing successful online meetings is at least as important as chairing ones offline, for example. We need to think of ways of being able recognise these remote working skills, as it’s not something in which you can receive a diploma.
For workers, of course, there are so many benefits of working from home that I’m not even sure where to start. Your health, relationships, and happiness are just three things that are likely to dramatically improve when you start working remotely.
For example, let’s just take the commute. This dominates the lives of non-remote workers, usually taking an hour or more out of a their day — every day. Commuting is tiring and inconvenient, but people are currently willing to put up with long commutes to afford a decently-sized house, or to live in a nicer area.
So, let’s imagine that because of the current pandemic (which some are calling the world’s biggest remote-working experiment) businesses decide that having their workers being based from home has multi-faceted benefits. What happens next?
Well, if a large percentage (say we got up to ~50%) of the working population started working remotely over the next few months and years, this would have a knock-on effect. We’d see changes in:
- House prices
- Community cohesion
- High street
- Home delivery
…to name but a few. I think it would be a huge net benefit for society, and hopefully allow for much greater civic engagement and democratic participation.
I’ll conclude with a quotation from Nafeez Ahmed’s excellent (long!) post on what he’s calling a global phase shift. Medium says it’s a 30-minute read, but I reckon it’s about half that.
Ahmed points out in stark detail the crisis, potential future scenarios, and the opportunity we’ve got. I particularly appreciate his focus on the complete futility of what he calls “a raw, ‘fend for yourself’ approach”. We must work together to solve the world’s problems.
The coronavirus outbreak is, ultimately, a lesson in not just the inherent systemic fragilities in industrial civilization, but also the limits of its underlying paradigm. This is a paradigm premised on a specific theory of human nature, the neoclassical view of Homo-Economicus, human beings as dislocated units which compete with each other to maximise their material self-gratification through endless consumption and production. That paradigm and its values have brought us so far in our journey as a species, but they have long outlasted their usefulness and now threaten to undermine our societies, and even our survival as a species.
Getting through coronavirus will be an exercise not just in building societal resilience, but relearning the values of cooperation, compassion, generosity and kindness, and building systems which institutionalize these values. It is high time to recognize that such ethical values are not simply human constructs, products of socialization. They are cognitive categories which reflect patterns of behaviour in individuals and organizations that have an evolutionary, adaptive function. In the global phase shift, systems which fail to incorporate these values into their structures will eventually die.Nafeez Ahmed
Just as crises can be manufactured by totalitarian regimes to seize power and control populations, perhaps natural crises can be used to make us collectively realise we need to pull together?