How are workplaces will look like in 20 years depends on two basic factors. One factor is the development of technology to aid us in our work. Think of all those IT-related things such as the speed and capacities of computers, networks and data storage systems. The Windows-icon-mouse paradigm developed by Xerox in the seventies has been enourmously refined over the last 25 years. This has made computers usable for almost everyone but is certainly not the end point. In the coming years scientific insights will make gadgets even easier to use and more effective. An improved understanding of human cognitive and neural processes will allow for better information-processing tools. Then there is the physical location (slowly but surely becoming less important); new materials make for better chairs, desks and ultimately an entire building specifically designed to facilitate mental work.
The other factor is us. Our (in)ability to actually use all these tools effectively may become the major bottleneck in improving the efficency of office workers. Techno-scientific developments tend to outpace the ability to change of most organisations (and the people in them) by at least a decade or two. There will be major difference between and within organisations. Age, education, upbringing and attitude will all be factors determining a worker’s ability to absorb the skills required to use new tools to do things better or to do better things for their organisations.
The paperless office has been technically possible for 15 years at least but old habits die hard and cheap IT also means cheap and fast printers. For the time being our useage of paper is on the rise. Small start-ups are often the first paperless organisations existing today. New organisations can also abandon classical hierarchical structures. Open source communities very efficiently developed the complex systems underpinning the Internet, without any formal organisation or payment. But even in these communities of early techno-adopters there is a need to meet up in a physical place every now and then.
The type of work is also relevant. Graphics designers, architects and other creatives usually want and need the best possible tools and know-how to use them. Someone writing a policy document can probably make do with the same word processors we use today. Some people may perform relatively simple administrative tasks in an organisation with a low level of automation, while another may perform complex, creative and knowledge intensive work where the limits of technology are sought. Thé office of the future therefore does not exist.
In 2028 many office workers will still be behind desks while others will be plugged into the Internet from anywhere on the planet. Some of them will work alone, but more will work in teams assisted by intelligent systems that take most of the analytical and non-creative work out of their hands. Education, training, good leadership and access to communities of knowledge will be the determining factors of their productivity and creativity.
Last year I was asked to contribute to a book by XS4All (PDF) about the history and future of the Internet. I decided to make some broad brush points on page 102. My colleague Menso also contributed (page 36), or here on his blog.
Long ago there were some monkeys on the African savannah. It was difficult for them as they hunted other animals that were stronger and faster. Other animals could digest the dry grass and live with little water. The monkeys could do none of these things. You would think they would never survive, let alone go on to play an important role in the evolution of the Earth. That they did so is through a unique combination of two things that led to everything else: an opposable thumb and big brains.
Separately, each of these makes little difference. Dolphins have large brains and are certainly intelligent. But without hands to apply that intelligence they cannot build complex civilizations. Chimpanzees have thumbs but lack the brains to make hand axes and build terabit optical routers. So dolphins and chimpanzees are in our zoos instead of vice versa.
Mankind dominates the planet by intelligence, not by running faster, breathing deeper or chewing through the hide of an elephant. Intelligence, the ability to create new solutions to new problems, is the key to all that we have and all that we are. First we use the thigh bone of an antelope as hand axes or javelins, and not long after (in evolutionary terms) we have the improved spear we call the “intercontinental ballistic missile”.
At the same time people tend to associate intelligence with book learning and unworldly academics. "You need more than intelligence to make it in this world" is often said, as if charisma and emotional sensitivity come from the kidneys instead of the brains. When you say the word “intelligence”, think not of a crazed professor but rather of the difference between humans and chimpanzees.
Technology comes from intelligence and has a fundamental influence on who we are and how we live. Fire, agriculture, bronze, the wheel, the domestication of animals and irrigation systems fundamentally changed our position in respect to all other animals. But with writing came a technology that improved on our most valuable feature. For the first time it was possible to record knowledge outside our brains, and save it over long distances in time and geography. This had enormous implications for the scale at which we could organize and the speed with which we could develop new ideas by building on the ideas of others.
Around 1440, the modern printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg. The effects of this invention pulled Europe out of the middle ages and into the renaissance, the scientific/industrial revolution and on the path to democracy. Suddenly books were affordable for an emerging middle class. There were books about issues, history, politics, science, and culture. For the Vatican this free dissemination of knowledge and ideas was a threat and it therefore hired troops to destroy all the printing presses across Europe. Fortunately the citizens objected and a few tough fights over the right to freedom of thought were the result. Currently, this fight is being repeated all over again by Scientology and the music and movie industry, with an equal lack of success.
Now that knowledge could not only be written down and shared but also cheaply reproduced on a mass scale, our civilization developed rapidly. Science brought new technology and soon the smoke stacks of the industrial revolution existed throughout Europe and then the rest of the world.
Then things really accelerated. The complex societies existing over a century ago needed counting machines and from this came all the computers we use today. The logical next step was for these computers to talk to each other, so the researchers who used them could work smarter together. Forty years later it is impossible to imagine our daily lives without the InterWeb. Now we all have a printing press with a global reach.
Access for all is the next step in the development of our civilization. It is a step that is as fundamental as ensuring everyone can read and write. It makes us smarter as we get more information, knowledge and ideas more quickly and cheaply and we have more people to share with. The Internet and cheap computers in everyone’s pocket create as much change the printing press 550 years ago. Only this time those changes will develop ten times as fast.
But it may be that the effects of networked computers obediently following Moore’s law are more fundamental. As computers make us smarter or even smart, they can be used to make more sophisticated systems even faster, which will in turn create more sophisticated systems, etc…. If the difference between us and chimpanzees ensures that we walk on the moon and the chimps are our pets, what are the implications of a system (artifical intelligence or human-machine combo) that is fundamentally smarter than the smartest man who ever existed? And if that cleverness is deployed to always smarter successors, a self-perpetuating process begins. This would reduce the entire information revolution of the past millennia to a very minor precursor of the real landslide that is about to happen.
How did the monkey get to Mars? By using his big brains, opposable thumbs and some technical tools. And the Internet is one of the most important of those to come along in the last 500 years.