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Future of Work? Hold Your Horses

Dror Poleg
Dror Poleg
6 min read
Future of Work? Hold Your Horses

Forget about getting things done. Most work can be done elsewhere. An office is necessary because it allows people to socialize and learn.

Over the past few weeks, I've heard a variation of the above from many landlords and consultants.

It's a compelling argument. But it relies on the assumption that while "work" is evolving, socializing and learning will follow the same old patterns. In reality, the way we socialize and learn might be changing even faster.

On January 3, 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche was walking across a public square in Turin, Italy and saw a horse being flogged by its owner. It was too much for the 45-year-old philosopher. He threw himself towards the animal, embraced it, broke into tears, and collapsed on the floor.

The scene was immortalized in hundreds of paintings, films, and books. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera speculates that Nietzsche was trying to apologize to the horse for being treated like a "machine" by his human coachman. And that, more broadly, Nietszche was apologizing for the philosopher Rene Descartes' decree that animals are soulless machines that can be thus flogged.

Whatever triggered Nietzsche's outburst, the Turin incident signaled his departure from human society. He spent the next 11 years "under the spell of profound madness" until his death in 1900, at the dawn of a new century.

The 20th Century was not great for humans, but it was pretty good for horses. In 1908, Henry Ford introduced the Model T automobile. By 1913, Ford perfected the production process by splitting it into "84 discrete steps... and trained each of his workers to do just one". As horses were becoming redundant, human work was becoming more mechanized and soulless. Nietzsche would have laughed.

But horses did not disappear. As Marshall McLuhan observed, "the horse has lost its role in transportation but has made a strong comeback in entertainment." It was now something to look at or play with when one needed to learn about nature or take a break from modern life.

McLuhan wondered whether early car executives could have predicted that horses would become so obsolete and that cars would become so dominant:

Had the infant automotive industry, in 1910, seen fit to call a conference to consider the future of the horse, the discussion would have been concerned to discover new jobs for the horse and new kinds of training to extend the usefulness of the horse. The complete revolution in transportation and in housing and city arrangement would have been ignored.

The turn of our economy to making and servicing motorcars, and the devotion of much leisure time to their use on a vast new highway system, would not even have been thought of.
In other words, it is the framework itself that changes with new technology, and not just the picture within the frame. Instead of thinking of doing our shopping by television, we should become aware that TV intercom means the end of shopping itself, and the end of work as we know it as present.

McLuhan wrote this in 1964. He predicted what would happen to retail and what might happen to offices.

Back to school

The 20th Century democratized access to cars. It also democratized access to education. In 1900, less than 3% of the U.S. population had a bachelor's degree. 20% had one by 1950, and today more than 33% of Americans are college-educated.  Universities played an important role in producing the employees and executives that filled the nation's factories and offices.

The pivot towards a larger audience sparked the convergence of mass education and mass media. In 1954, a fellow named Walt Disney published an article in Educational Horizons, an academic journal, to point out that there is no longer a gap "between what is generally regarded as 'entertainment' and what is defined as 'educational'".

By the 1970s, "edutainment" expanded to a new medium — video games. Titles such as Logo, Oregon Trail, and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? sought to teach children and adults mathematics, history, and geography. Those of us who played computer games in the 1980s and early 1990s learned many important facts about adulthood by playing Leisure Suit Larry.  

In 2020, edutainment is ubiquitous. 51% of the viewers of YouTube, the world's most popular content site, cite the "ability to learn how to do new things" as a key motivation. 7 in 10 YouTube viewers use the site for "help with a problem they're having with their work, studies, or hobbies".

For many young viewers, YouTubing is not just a way to acquire new skills, it is a skill in itself. A 2019 survey among 3,000 kids in the U.S., U.K., and China found that nearly a third wanted to become "YouTubers" when they grow up. 11% wanted to become astronauts.

It's easy to dismiss edutainment as frivolous and low value. But many people go to web sites such as YouTube or Twitch to learn complex skills such as programming and data science. Often, viewers learn to employ cutting edge tools and methods that are not yet part of the curriculum in the world's best universities.

Experienced professionals don't just "teach" online, they broadcast themselves working. In doing so, they allow millions of viewers to "peek over their shoulder" as one would do with an office colleague or classmate.

Many more changes are afoot in the world of education. My friend Packy McCormick wrote a great analysis of where things are headed. For the purpose of our discussion, it's enough to point out that digital media allows humans to share tacit knowledge without sharing a physical space.

But the fact that we learn on our own does not mean we want to be on our own.

Thirst for the water cooler

I try not to be spend all of my time online. In an effort to help, my wife got me a print subscription for the Financial Times. Glancing across the pink sheets over breakfast, my eye caught an interesting letter to the editor from a Londoner named Ravi Sawhney:

Having been working at home for the last few months two things are very clear: first, how remarkable it is that many of us in the knowledge sector can continue to perform our duties from home with a solid internet connection; and second, the increasingly evident lack of unstructured interactions with colleagues as the weeks pass.

The word "unstructured" struck a chord. The letter touched on a topic that I've been writing about for many years: the fact that a large – and growing – amount of our social interaction with other humans is now a structured commercial activity.

Many people are no longer able to "catch a ride with someone", "borrow from a neighbor", "share an apartment", "housesit", "help a neighbor change a lightbulb", "ask a colleague for advice", or "ask someone on a date". Each of these use cases is now "solved" an app. Five years ago, I even built an app to help people talk to those standing next to them.

Americans are now more likely to meet romantic partner using a web site or an app rather than through personal connections and introductions. At the office, "community" is now a perk — optimized with sensors, apps, and algorithms. The best way to discover new people and ideas is on Twitter or — for those who made the cut — in a curated Slack or WhatsApp group.

I do not mean to say that there is anything wrong with the above. The point is that the way people socialize is no longer dependent on physical proximity, at least not in the same way it used to.

Are Landlords still Zucked?

Online dating is still just a digital means to a very physical end. Even in the realm of work, discovering new people and ideas online often leads to spending time with the same people offline.

Last week, I wrote that remote workers still require plenty physical workspace — but "less of the kind of office space that's currently on offer". To remain relevant, office space would need it to be designed, packaged, and delivered in new ways — allowing (and enticing) knowledge workers to access a variety of locations and tools. The same is true for the space we use to learn and socialize.

Human work is becoming more human. All the mechanized and soulless stuff is gradually handed over to software and machines. At some point, entertaining and teaching other humans will no longer be something we do at work; it would be the only work left for us to do. Like McLuhan's horses, we will evolve from being a work animal to being a show animal.

And show animals require plenty of space. What would it look like? I will continue to explore.