Reflections 28th January
There’s a fine difference between mild paranoia and wise caution. Decades ago, Andy Grove, then CEO of Intel, told us that “only the paranoid survive”.
It feels like a good time to find ways to harness that energy to create something new.
I have a sense that our worlds are getting smaller, even as our ability to reach out to and communicate over distance is getting larger.
Horizons feel closer, and the walls we shelter behind are higher and closer as our trust in what we see and are told decreases. Newsfeeds become ever more intense as they compete for attention. I’ve noticed how even the BBC, as it moves from the World Service to a domestic audience around 05:30, changes tone on either side of the zen-like shipping forecast from thoughtful reflectivity and reporting to something altogether more manic, as though preparing the ground for the politics of the day.
In economies where our prime role is as consumers, our information is geared towards that end in ever more efficient and cleverly designed ways. Decisions that affect us are made in places to which we have little effective access and in which we have even less say. An ecosystem of algorithms shepherds us towards opportunities to consume in much the same way as airport check-ins herd us through the gauntlet of duty-free where we have to avoid ambush before we can find somewhere to sit and wait before being funnelled into the duty-free at our destination.
Whether we work from home, the office, or some form of hybrid, technology is used as a blunt instrument to measure our performance in the same way our parents used to put pencil marks on the door frame to show us how fast we were growing.
And all the while, the rules seem to change. It is as though we’re in a never-ending exam, where we don’t know what’s on the next paper or how it will be scored.
Change we must. Far too often, what we promote as innovation and progress are merely new ways of doing old things rather than real change. Lots of PowerPoint and PR, but the same old structure with the same old people with the same mindsets. That, though, will end. The manifold systemic changes we face and the sheer power of the technology we have created will ensure it.
Greater productivity and efficiency will not save it. We need to apply the first rule of holes: stop digging when you are in one.
AI, even well and thoughtfully applied, will change the architecture of work. Jobs have already reverted back to their original definition:
"piece of work; something to be done," 1620s, from phrase jobbe of worke (1550s) "task, piece of work" (contrasted with continuous labor), a word of uncertain origin. Perhaps a variant of gobbe "mass, lump" (c. 1400; see gob) via sense of "a cart-load." Specific sense of "work done for pay" first recorded 1650s.
job. (1) A low mean lucrative busy affair. (2) Petty, piddling work; a piece of chance work. [Johnson's Dictionary]
The indications are that notions of careers (a well-laid road), professions, and retirement are following. (This week, the Economist has an article titled “Why you should never retire, " citing personal well-being and economic volatility.)
AI loves the complicated so beloved of professions that bill in six-minute increments and those that hoard knowledge and intellectual property like pirate gold. Anything digitally recorded is accessible, processable and distributable whether we like it or not.
As the current world of work becomes ever more transactional, homogenised and soulless, and we find ourselves pursued by challenges of our own making, where do we find sanctuary?
The tradition of sanctuary is thousands of years old, predating its most frequent associations with the Church. Derived from Sanctuarium, it implies a container, a place of safety, respected by all sides in a conflict. It is a place to think, reframe, and restore before facing the difficulties that do not go away. It is a place of pause.
Sanctuary is a space between, a liminal space between doing and being, where we can make decisions about what to let go of and what to embrace as we come to terms with the changes we must come to terms with.
Sanctuary is neither episodic nor "on-demand”. It is more systemic, part of our lives, and, in a contemporary way, reminiscent of ideas of ritual and ceremony, rites of passage and community. Achieving that in work cultures that value and promote individual performance, competition, and disposability is a big question in all but the most enlightened enterprises.
Sanctuary is a temporary space where we can gather our thoughts and get our bearings. It is a place of conversations without agenda, somewhere we can be heard without judgement by those whose intent is to walk alongside us, illuminate rather than diminish us, but who will not rescue us from whatever it is we need to do.
Technology has turned us into a cash crop. Sanctuary requires that we disengage from social and other media we do not trust, from the immediate pressures of always being on work communication, and sometimes even family, for just long enough to observe and orient. To spend time where we can be held and heard without advice, listen to our own voice, and be illuminated rather than diminished. To be somewhere that the data can’t find us, where we are open to the unpredictable, the surprising and the provocative.
“Top Gun" fans will be familiar with the parts where people hang their heads and say, “Maverick’s disengaging!” as though it’s a disaster. Anyone who understands that sort of environment knows that disengaging is what you do when you don’t know what’s going on. It is making space to observe and reframe before orienting and re-engaging. In its own way, it is a place of sanctuary.
In a world full of advice, it is important to have somewhere where we are heard for who we are, not the money we bring. A place of community, of mutual support, a curated space populated by those who know us for who we are, not what we do or consume. A place where we can take risks without being condemned. Somewhere outside the system we occupy, where we can see it for what it is, good, bad and indifferent and consider how we want to re-engage with it.
We have lost these places gradually but within my lifetime. We have hollowed them out and privatised them. What used to be cornerstones of community, from banks to doctors’ practices, local lawyers, accountants and schools, are now part of large integrated practices measured in money. As value has become prized over vocation, we have lost the ecosystem of community, and it is difficult to imagine that being reversed; it has gone too far, and the continuing, expanding Post Office is a good metaphor for what has happened.
But quietly, they are re-emerging, shaped by technology. I thought that perhaps the small informal groups we formed during the pandemic were one-offs - but they are not. Lots of others were doing the same, centred on the same core of conversation. Now, they are beginning to find each other and places to gather in person. There is no organisation other than that to be seen in mycelium; it will not be rushed or labelled like mycelium. It is, however, there and is growing as organisations measure employees in money rather than more social, human qualities and become socially sterile.
Sanctuaries are not being built or created; they are growing organically, and connecting as their hyphae find each other. They are perhaps the fruiting bodies we are beginning to see forming on decaying work cultures. Much as it may offend our trained instincts to organise and control, they do not require it.
All that has to happen is that we start to join in conversations where we find them, turning up there as ourselves, and listening to others as themselves. We will still go to work in the normal sense and do what is asked of us, but increasingly, we will not belong there.
Sanctuary is to be found in the emerging gentle rituals of conversation with others in community, centred on what matters to us, #outsidethewalls of work.
And, if we find sanctuary, who knows what the space it gives us to rethink and reframe what we might do could lead to?