A Q&A with Erica Morphy

Erica Morphy of CMSWire only used a few sentences from a recent email Q&A. Here’s the whole thing.

Erica Morphy: Do you believe that most people can be retrained to have productive work in this future, one characterized by artificial intelligence, robots and increasing automation? Why or why not?

Stowe Boyd: In a recent post (10 work skills for the postnormal era), I discussed the skills that we will need in the near future.

First of all is boundless curiosity, and while the behaviors of productive curiosity can be learned — like writing down ideas and observations as thy occur, for example — much of the engine for curiosity is psychological and cultural, and can’t be taught like trigonometry or tap dancing.

Second, I mentioned ‘freestyling’ derived from freestyle chess, where teams can use any sort of aid, including chess books, AI, and their cousin Joe, to decide what moves to make. As I wrote in that post, we have to learn to dance with the robots, not to run away from them. But that means we have to develop AI that is dance-withable, and not unrunnable-away-from.

The biggest challenge is that the transition to a workscape dominated by AI in every niche may happen so fast that people just don’t have time to retool. And, how will we decide what occupations are most likely to need human beings?

EM: Also, what in your opinion, does the “future of work” look like? And when will this vision manifest? Five years? Fifteen?

SB: The rise of AI has emerged to color every discussion about work. Andrew Ng, founder of Coursera and Stanford professor, famously said ‘AI is the new electricity’. It’s hard to talk around that.

The only thing we can really bet on now is to believe in ourselves, and to hold onto hope.

Even a few years ago I proposed that the future of work would be a transition from rigid industrial era command-and-control hierarchic models toward more fluid post-industrial networked egalitarian models. But I think a number of major trends are converging so quickly that a simple maturation from one phase of work history to the next is being disrupted, like a butterfly emerging too soon from the cocoon.

The economy and society in which work is a part is being disrupted from top to bottom by a number of converging trends, including AI, but also these:

  1. the collapse of the employer/employee social contract and it’s replacement by precarious freelance contracting and part-timeism.
  2. the dilemma of corporate ‘alignment’ around the vision setting of founders/senior management on one side, and the premises of work autonomy, and purpose and meaning for individuals, on the other.
  3. the continued obsession with workism — the cult of overwork, the desire to follow leaders who are narcissistic sociopaths, and the embrace of folklore instead of science with regard to human interaction
  4. Techism — the unverified belief that the right technology will make us more productive, engaged, and happier, instead of proven approaches like working less on a daily, weekly, and annual basis, increased peace and quiet in the workplace (no open offices!).

But, just like the aftermath of Pandora’s Box, I am still holding onto hope, that we can make things better, one idea at a time. Rebecca Solnit wrote ‘Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists’.

EM: Finally, what kind of training would you suggest workers strive to get NOW for this future?

SB: The trend of having a ‘slash’ career, like my friend who is a marketing consultant/chef/children’s book author, suggests a sensible course. So get training in both modern and timeless skills.

We’re circling back to a preindustrial model, where being a jack of many trades was the norm. We’ve seen the end of the ’40 years at one company’ model, like my grandfather lived, and even the late industrial norm of six companies over 40 years is done. I can’t even count the number of jobs I’ve had or the companies I worked with, on a full-time or consulting basis over the past decades.

Nowadays people are living different careers in parallel, because who knows? The only thing we can really bet on now is to believe in ourselves, and to hold onto hope.

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

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