This is not just another article about the Future of Work

This is not just another article about the Future of Work

In Article — By Salvatore Iaconesi — 07.06.2017

How to think about the changes of work leaving room for dreams and a surprise ending.

Why is it important to create a shared, inclusive process to gain better understandings about the future of work?


To understand this, we need to understand, first, what we mean by “work”.
Work can mean very different things: from physics’ and mechanics’ definitions of work, which are used to study the movement of bodies and masses, all the way up to different ones which are economic, philosophical and political, where work is the physical or mental activity in order to achieve a result, which usually corresponds to an economic compensation of some kind (or, at least, used to).
We will use this last family of definitions.


In this sense, work has really changed in these last decades, under multiple perspectives.
First of all, it must be said, these transformations are not homogeneous: working in a lithium mine in Zimbabwe is radically different from working as a financial broker in Wall Street, or as a postman on an island in Greece. They are completely different experiences in themselves, and they also suffer transformative processes which are completely different from one another.
Then, the activities which correspond to working have changed, as well as the ways in which we distribute and use our time, and wealth, and what rights and duties we have, and which freedoms and obligations, which liabilities, which relationships we can form while we work, and what power and economic architectures work embodies now. And, well, multiple other things.


Radical transformations on work have happened before in the past, for example in the transition from agriculture to modern industry, and again during each industrial revolution. Most of the time the emergence of new jobs compensated the ones lost due to emerging technologies, and working conditions generally got actually better than the ones which came before. Which does not mean that they were “good” working conditions, or that there haven’t been abuses, or complicated situations in which unemployment arose, or in which conditions got actually worse. It means that if we look for trending curves, conditions generally got better: if we look at the beginning of the 20th century, for example, we generally live longer, have more money, more services, more welfare, more education and so on.
Social revolutions and revolts took place, criticizing “work” in itself, and setting the highlight on workers’ rights, freedoms, on the role of children and women, on education, on the role of work in society, and of salary, or on the right to abstain from working altogether. First was the right to work, then it was the right to stop working.

Find the difference: robots don’t smoke.

However, in these extraordinary times a new type of transformation is taking place. New technologies are not being created to replace physical hard labor, but labor that was previously thought to be irreplaceable: human, intelligent, relational work. Moreover, new types of work are being promoted and pushed onto society, which are driven through platforms and are algorithmic in nature (for example all forms of gig economy), or machine related in scope and objective (for example all the forms of free or underpaid labor in which human beings manually train neural networks by providing examples and describing patterns).
These unexpected and direct competition and conflicts between humans and machines have created a deep discontinuity, and people and organizations are struggling in trying to evolve the cultural paradigms according to which they live and operate.


Furthermore, the emergence of “gig economies”, the ever-spreading use of social networks and pervasive technologies, the opportunities for the ubiquitous extraction of data from human activities, relations and interactions, radicalizes these processes, as much of our free time progressively becomes indistinguishable from work, as it generates data and value, and describes different power and economic architectures.


Robots and AIs enter the scene by augmenting our capabilities (strength, information, knowledge, awareness, safety), or by replacing us altogether.


Expectations about work change, too. In a recent research from Accenture a large majority of the interviewees expects their work to be automated within a few years, and feels that they need to acquire new skills and capabilities to remain relevant, up to the point of investing their free time to learn and upgrade their professional knowledge.


The Future of Work is now a buzzword: there are hundreds of conferences, books and articles on the topic. This is attributable to multiple issues: quick job turnover; extended work on contingent basis (gig economy); rate of increase in automation; classical structure of organization under attack, in favor of more agile, distributed, platformed and algorithmic organizations which are the ones which survive and prosper; income inequality; algorithmic control.

Phone-app that make you money through everyday gesture, is it work?

This has impact at personal, organizational and societal levels. Workers overwhelmed by notifications, tasks and continuous stress; Careers that change continuously (and simultaneously) and do not simply go “up” anymore; AI transforms organizations under the stimulus of augmented intelligence and under the pressure of the certainty of the fact that their current form does not work anymore; education is transformed as companies make serious interventions in the education systems to obtain workers which they can actually use, public sector prepares for radical transformation of workforce regulation, experiments shared security accounts and with forms of basic income; or, even people who simply do not “work” anymore, and they don’t look for “work”, and they do things which are just not understandable as “work” in the ways in which we defined it “before”.


Holacracy, Lean orgs, Responsive orgs, Semco style orgs, Sociocracy, Teal orgs, Wirearchies, Platforms, Platform Cooperatives, and more: each year new types of organizations emerge, trying to confront with scenarios which change rapidly and radically.


In the meantime, only a few global organizations have the power and influence to steer understandings, perception and comprehension about the future of work.
As we are progressively locked into our communication bubbles, and as only a limited number of subjects have the power to control them and also to invest in global campaigns for information, awareness and action, we become confined into a singular version of possible futures, a cartel of imagination.

It is here, within this monopoly of the shapes of dreams, that the preconditions to the design of education systems are set, and of innovative platforms, of funding schemes and, in general, of all those opportunities we have, individually and collectively, to obtain the skills, resources and relationships to change how things work.
In the Near Future Design method which we use at Nefula we try to reverse things, and to set the stage for a plural, inclusive, participatory performance of futures, to describe desirable, preferable, ethical futures, instead of only technically feasible and profitable ones.
First of all, we have started with an investigation about what we perceived as normal, or, on the other hand, curious, strange, problematic, evolving and in transformation about work, jobs, labor.


With our class at ISIA Design University in Florence we have performed first a literature background check (featuring books, articles, news, journals, magazines) about the transformation of work. Then we searched for people expressing about the evolution and the futures of work on social networks. Then we performed a massive data capture process on social networks, collecting hundreds of thousands of posts and comments on social networks dealing with the fears and passions and hopes and curiosities expressed by people about the future evolution of what we now call work, both for themselves and in society.
Contents were tagged with categories, emotions, topics, and then clustered, analysed, processed, to try to understand what people of different kinds and cultures perceived as their current normality on “work”, what they considered curious, futuristic, problematic, unexpected, unforeseen about it, and what evolutive tensions were between the two: how these perceptions were supporting the shift from one situation to another.
It was a difficult task, and given wider resources and the possibility to call upon different skills to complement our deficiencies, we could have done more. But we have described a method in which we could observe the evolving scenario in a more plural fashion.
While performing these difficult tasks, we wondered what would be the best way to represent this data and the information and knowledge which we were able to extract from it. We could have done a report, an information visualization, an executive summary, a table of statistics, each saying something like “In the Future there is an XY% probability that A will become an important technology for human labor, and that many human beings will start doing B and C as their daily work.”
We did not embrace this type of solution, because we wanted to achieve something different.

Machine are going to replace us, we got it.

When creating an Open Source product, in a way, you are creating a think which is “incomplete” by definition. It is incomplete because Open Source requires you, the user, to take responsibility: when you use the product you don’t simply use it, you can (and should) contribute to completing it, in any way you can. By discovering bugs or malfunctions, for example, or by connecting to the community to discuss how you would like to extend its functionalities and features, or by arguing ways in which a certain issue brought on by the object could be resolved. Open Source is “unfinished” by nature, and the fact that it is provides you, the user, the fact that you can participate to its creation.
This is, in a way, something similar to what happens with books, or other lo-fi media.
In these days, we have multiple high definition media, including videos, virtual realities and more. These high-definition media are peculiar in the fact that they are very “complete”, meaning that they offer so much detail that it is really difficult for people to “add” anything to them.
In a book, on the other hand, this does not happen. There is wide space for participation to the creation of the perception. If a writer says “I was alone at sea”, different people could imagine entirely different scenarios, ranging from being on a boat, alone, or atop a terrace facing a beautiful marine landscape, or someone lost on a raft, dispersed at sea.
Even if it looks very non-interactive, there is actually more space in a book to create active participation to what is perceived and understood than there is in virtual reality, for example, in which “reality” is there, you can see it before your eyes and around yourself, in precisely coded, high-definition preciseness and completeness.
A report, with all its tables, and data, and graphs, or an information visualization, are similar to these high-definition media: they are complete and high-resolution, and, as such, exercise pressure in the direction of forcing a singular perception and understanding of the world.


Instead, we wanted to suggest active engagement, to enable people to actively participate to the understanding of the futures of work, and to also express themselves about it, heading in the direction of desirable, preferable, imaginable futures, instead, as said, of only technically possible and profitable ones.
This is why we adopted a lo-fi approach, creating simulacra composed through transmedia narratives.
Transmedia is different than crossmedia in the fact that you do not aim at creating a seamless, complete experience which can be used across a variety of devices. Instead, you try to create an environment, which can be traversed and which provides a coherent experience when accessed: a world, in which objects, information, data, knowledge, media, videos and multiple other manifestations are distributed across space and time, providing you the possibility to navigate them, and live in them. While Crossmedia aims at creating an experiential product, transmedia aims at creating a world. As all worlds, transmedia worlds feel more “real” and are more satisfying in ways that are proportional to how much they are Open Source, incomplete, requiring your interpretation and others’ interpretations and their clashes and confrontations.

NET FUTURES Conference 2016

For this reason, we have described the results of our research in the form of a transmedia simulacrum: videos, objects, things and images disseminated in the city, shops, offices, schools, homes, online and offline, so that they can form an environment which is Open Source, open for the interactions, discussions, complaints, expressions, love, hate, anxiety, curiosity and all the possible contributions of everyone which comes across it.
In this environment we will find people dealing with AIs only to discover that it has become impossible to understand why they have been fired; workers that, thanks to Big Data and their own data-profiles have become completely replaceable; human beings that have only free time, and stopped working at all; employees whose bosses are algorithms, and the funny, scary, curious, troublesome and weird things that can take place when this situation becomes a reality; people trying to be competitive with AIs and Robots, bringing it to extreme terms by extending their bodies and psychic abilities; workers replaced by robots on the workplace, only to find out that they have to become underpaid workers to train their artificial intelligences. And many more scenarios.


All this, as the result of our course at ISIA Design Firenze, will be exposed at the NET FUTURES Conference in Bruxelles on 28th and 29th June 2017. NET FUTURES is the annual event co-organized by the European Commission to explore the future of Internet, economy and society. We will be hosted by the STARTS (Science, Technologies and the ARTS) programme, launched by the European Commission in 2014 to encourage synergies between the Arts and innovation for technology and society, inside the Horizon 2020 projects.
In this occasion we’ll bring our approach to the future of work, through 6 different scenarios. It will be possible to dive in these scenarios, to touch the objects which appear in them, to start a global discussion. Not about “what will the future be?”, but about “what do we want our future to be?”

Salvatore Iaconesi

Interaction designer, robotics engineer, artist, hacker, Salvatore is co-founder and advisor of Nefula.
His artworks and performances have a worldwide public and they are always able to stimulate new visions about reality.


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