The Vacuum, the Void, and the Deep Dark Truthful Mirror
A few years ago, I had the good fortune to have dinner at the Goldeneye Hotel in Jamaica. With a name like that, you won’t be surprised to know that the hotel is built around the house where Ian Fleming wrote most of the James Bond books in the 1950’s. Before dinner I looked at some of the memorabilia of Fleming’s time there, which included his typewriter and the Birds of the West Indies, the book by “James Bond” that gave Fleming the name of his eponymous hero.
While sniffing around, I read a newspaper interview with Fleming, framed on the wall, where he talked about his writing process. In it he said that he went to Jamaica in January every year to create a vacuum out of which the books would emerge. In London, he said, there was too much going on to concentrate on writing; too many people around, too many opportunities to go out and get into mischief, too many parties and too many pals as the great American anthropologist, Hiram Williams, might have put it. In contrast, in Jamaica, there was pretty much nothing to do. Apart from swimming and lying in the sun and the occasional super with other ex-pats scattered around the island (including the mother of Goldeneye’s current owner, record mogul Chris Blackwell) there was nothing to get in the way of wondering how Commander Bond could save the free world once again and getting those thoughts down on paper.
As seemingly insignificant moments and occurrences are wont to do, this little idea caught my eye and has over the years burrowed its way deep into my psyche and my way of looking at the world.
The notion of a “vacuum” – and of deliberately setting out to create one – was, to a mid-ranking member of the global professional technocracy, online 16/7, and working hard to surf the digital wave, somewhat eyebrow raising.
But the more I thought about it the more sense it made. Vacuums get filled because Mother Nature abhors them and if the amount of money in your bank account is directly tied to the amount of words on a page there is a strong incentive to make vacuums to make art.
Fast forward to today and the vacuum is as extinct as Jamaica’s indigenous monkeys which died out in the 18th century at the hands of Captain Morgan and his charming pals.
Here’s a question for you; when was the last time you sat on a plane or a train or a bus and just stared out of the window? When was the last time you sat on a park bench and just looked around? When was the last time you sat at a pavement café and just people watched? Just sat there, without looking at your phone or computer or the tablet in your hand?
I trust you get my point; you’re probably chuckling as you read this because doing any of those things seems – in August 2016 – absolutely ridiculous. You probably haven’t done any of them for a long, long time.
Now, if you sit in Starbucks with a Grande Latte and just look around without an electronic device to hand people probably think – in the nanosecond when they lift their head from their own device – that you’re a lunatic. Now, if you sit on a plane not looking at a screen people probably think you’re too poor to afford one. Now, if you stare out of the window on a bus, people probably start making mental notes about your appearance in case they have to help the police later with their enquiries.
In the 70th year of our Computer Age it’s clear that our addiction to our machines is total and complete. I read a statistic today that people check their mobile phones on average 46 times a day. Whilst at face value one might nod at this and go, “yes, that seems about right; crazy, but right” on further reflection it completely misses the way in which we interact with machines nowadays. We don’t “check” our phone, with the implication that we “log” on to see if there are messages from our boss or our kids and then “log” off and go back to our actual lives; we are “in” our phones from the moment we open our eyes in the morning until the moment we close them at night. Doing email, watching the Olympics, checking the weather, the stock price, tutting at the egotism and vanity on display from our friends on Facebook, figuring out where we are, WhatsApping and SnapChating and FaceTiming and Prisming and Shazaming and asking Siri if she knows what Justin means when he asks What Do you Mean?
Our lives are now lived with and through and around our technology. Our technology – encapsulated via the form factor of the phone now but in due course spreading out into every screen and every thing – is weaving its way into a double helix with humans in a way that will leave a human without technology on a path to meet up with Xenothrix McGregori (that’s the posh name for the Jamaican Monkey!) in the great beyond in the not too distant future.
In short, the vacuum is dead. Now, not being online is the exception, not the norm. Now, FOMO of the parties and the pals – or the new assignment or the next promotion – is so overwhelming that putting the device down is an unnatural act. The vacuum is dead; killed by our incredible technology.
920 words into this metaphysical musing you may, I suspect, be beginning to wonder “so what”? Why is the death of a ‘vacuum” such a big deal in Ben’s overly caffeinated mind? The war is won; the deed is done. We have voted with our fingers; we love our machines. The vacuum was overrated; good riddance.
“What’s your point”?
My point is a question; what does it mean to live in a world without vacuums? How will we – and more importantly, the next generation – write books, create sales forecasts, build PowerPoint decks outlining the performance of the 7th grade in biology last year in a world where there are no vacuums to fill? How will we tear ourselves away from the dopamine drip of our digital devices long enough to let our brains process the incoming floods of sensory stimulation? How will we resist scratching the itch of writing the email, reading the Tweet, texting the kids away at camp? How will we sit still in rooms with nothing in them – except a pen and paper, a typewriter, or a non-online computer – long enough to make what we need to make?
In our modern professional business world, not being “crazy” busy is the ultimate crime. Not having a “million things going on”, a “gazillion emails in my inbox”, a schedule filed with day trips to Australia, marks you out as a loser; a prime candidate to walk the plank labelled “surplus to requirements”. In the modern professional business world, the vacuum is the ultimate taboo. Nobody fesses up to not being busy; nobody owns up to having plenty of time to hand. Nobody stands next to the water cooler advertising the fact that there isn’t much going on that day. Everyone is busy; everyone lacks “bandwidth”. Everyone “might squeeze it in next month”.
In essence, we’re all behaving like Ian Fleming in London, when we should be behaving like Ian Fleming in Jamaica.
Another question for you; when was the last time you turned off your phone, your computer in the process of doing whatever it is you are paid to do? When was the last time you went offline? When was the last time you put your “out of office” sign up to go and work on something undisturbed for a day? When was the last time you told your colleagues you were going to be out of touch for a while? When was the last time you told your boss that you were going to work on something and would be back in touch when it was finished, but weren’t sure when that would be?
When was the last time you sat at your desk, or on your sofa, and worked on something for 8 hours without an interruption from anything or anyone (professional or domestic)? When was the last time you holed up in a hotel on your own for a day (like I am as I write this) and acted as the outside world didn’t exist?
Probably not recently ...
If you buy the thesis that we’re in a period of incredible change, that we’re entering a software defined future, you probably instinctively know that the work of the present, let alone of the past, is unlikely to be the work of the future. If you buy that, you further instinctively know that that work of the future needs to be built and developed and nurtured and edited and refined and perfected. And you’re probably conscious that you need to get on with it, now.
If that all makes sense you’re further probably corralling all the things you need to build that future work. The tools, the skills, the platforms, the Bots.
Good for you – keep calm and carry on.
But don’t forget the vacuum.
You may not be able to go to Jamaica like Fleming, but you need to make your own Goldeneye wherever you are, however you can. You need to leave behind the parties and the pals, the email and the meetings, the overnight trips and the client dinners. You need to put the device down. You need to get offline. You need to clear the decks, to block out the calendar, to put up the shutters.
To say, “no”.
“Sorry, can’t help you”.
You need to go to your Goldeneye to make your new James Bond novel.
What do you think? Do you think you can do that? I’m going to hazard a guess; 90% of you reading this are saying to yourselves right now, “no”.
Nice ideas; too tough. Unrealistic. Not how the real word works. I’ve got email to respond to. I’ve got a project to finish. I’ve got a meeting with my client I need to get to. I’ve got enough things on the go already.
Your fingers may already be inching towards finding the next pixel to touch or click.
Fair enough. I get it. These ideas are tough. They are, perhaps, unrealistic. They don’t describe how the real world of big business works. All good points.
Except, when you read this ...
“I built the first version of Facebook because it’s something my friends and I wanted to use at Harvard … I didn’t think it would become a company”. Marc Zuckerberg http://for.tn/2btsXQ2
... or this ...
Twitter's origins lie in a "daylong brainstorming session" held by board members of the podcasting company Odeo with Jack Dorsey, then an undergraduate student at New York University, “It wasn't clear what it was. Twitter actually changed from what we thought it was in the beginning”. Evan Williams http://bit.ly/1G8Lpp6
... or this ...
"I was such a nerd coming out of high school, that in those days I had little chance of having a girlfriend, or a wife. So, when I finished designing calculators at HP in the daytime, I went home, watched Star Trek, and then worked on (building) my computer". Steve Wozniak http://bit.ly/2btwMVj
... you see that the future of work has always emerged from vacuums.
Without vacuums we’ll just keep on doing what it is we’re doing today and to me that’s a future of work that doesn’t work. Vacuums are as key to the future as Ruby on Rails or Tensor Flow; as Shoreditch or Magic Leap.
[Before I move on, the irony of course is not lost on me that the three things that I’m extolling as emerging from vacuums are amongst the reasons why the vacuum is becoming extinct in the first place. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away].
If technology is the prime suspect in the murder of the vacuum it’s worth spending a final moment or two on the motivation behind the crime.
Simple really; the phone - and the online riches it allows us to access - has filled the void of existence. With a phone you are never alone. With a phone you are never bored. With a phone you never have nothing to do. With a phone there is always a party; always a new idea, a new email string to respond to, a new flirtation, a new rabbit hole to plunge down. With a phone there isn’t a moment to think or pause to wonder. Or to worry. With a phone there is 360 degree distraction from the nausea that is called living.
The phone has destroyed the vacuum because most people hate the vacuum. To the vast majority of mankind the vacuum is simply the void. The panic of jolting awake at 4:30am. The terror of walking alone into the school cafeteria. The hateful drudgery of filling out form A945-875BHJ in triplicate. The utter meaningless of being a bundle of DNA spinning on a rock at 1,000 miles an hour in the middle of a universe, whatever that is. The void is what has terrified man since he climbed down from the tree canopy through to the day he climbed to the top of Siula Grande.
The void is the root of all our terrors and the source of all our fears.
So, we’ve killed it. We killed the vacuum because we hate the void.
Hurrah!!! Thousands of years of anxiety and pain and dysfunction wiped away with a swipe. Thank you Marc; thank you Jack; thank you Steve!
What’s not to like?
Without a vacuum you – your company – don’t stand a chance. How many new innovations come from big companies? Very few. How many middle aged people develop game changing ideas? Very few. How many aging societies re-generate to be relevant to the future? A few, occasionally. Big companies don’t have vacuums; everyone’s too busy working hard on things already. Middle aged people don’t have vacuums; everyone’s too busy driving their kids to basketball practice (with one eye on their iPhone); big cities sometimes have vacuums (the aforementioned Shoreditch, in 1990) but mainly fill up with the present, rather than leaving open space for the future.
Without a vacuum – with a phone, with a computer – we may have slain anxiety and pain and dysfunction but we’ve also undermined the seeds of our creative impulse.
Our kids – our future employees – do not know the vacuum. They’re akin to the middle aged mid-level manager who’s “back to back” throughout the day. They’re akin to Fleming in London.
This worries me. Perhaps it worries you. I think it should if it doesn’t.
In the grand experiment called the future we’re playing with something that is very big and very potentially troubling.
Perhaps as scary as the void is, what is scarier is filling the void. Filling the vacuum.
Of course, you may be thinking, there are still plenty of books getting written today, plenty of films being made, plenty of outsourcing deals being closed, plenty of patients being helped, plenty of code being written. Things seem to be getting done without vacuums.
That obviously is true but I wonder if all this business as usual isn’t the real reason global growth is stalling, economies are struggling to generate meaningful toe-holds on the work ahead, why so many big businesses are muddling along from quarter to quarter trying every financial engineering trick in the book to keep the wolfs of Wall Street at bay.
Without vacuums we’re not giving ourselves the time and the space to build the new, the next.
Some big companies do have vacuums; most famously, perhaps not surprisingly, Google. Google’s fabled “20% time” policy is a way of trying to create and preserve the vacuum. The whole notion of “X” and “Alphabet” stems from that core idea.
That makes sense to me.
If you, your boss, your team, your company, are really serious about creating the future of your work (rather than just trying to cross the finish line with what you’re doing already) making vacuums is an act of creation, of renewal, of genesis. It’s not a trivial, frivolous way of allowing people to skive off early so they can beat the crush at the bar or put in a full six hours of binge watching Mr. Robot. It’s a survival technique; a technique to survive digital disruption.
Go for it.
A final, final, thought. As Elvis Costello put it, “one day you’re going to have to face the deep dark truthful mirror” https://youtu.be/E76PG89DiK8 and it’s “going to tell you things that I still love you too much to say”. When EC wrote that, the mirror was just a mirror. Now it’s a Black Mirror. http://bit.ly/2b2bMnn
I’d suggest that the vacuum, full as it is of the void, is actually our best chance of stopping ourselves from falling through Charlie Brooker’s looking glass.
The vacuum is where we will find the ideas that will stop us amusing ourselves to death http://amzn.to/2bnVR8c; stop us chasing Perez Hilton while he’s chasing Justin; stop us squeezing the last dregs out of today. The vacuum is where your new algorithm will come from, your new medical formula, your new fuel source that will stop the summers in New York feeling like we’re all extras in The Martian. The vacuum, and perhaps the void, is being filled in virtual reality by Deepak Chopra as we speak. http://bit.ly/2aVBU7X
The vacuum – be it on a beach in the Caribbean or a bedroom come office in Slough – is where the future of work is hiding right now. Find that vacuum; make that vacuum. Do it now. Start by finishing this piece and turning everything electronic off.
One day you’re going to thank me that I loved you enough to say it.
The vacuum awaits. Don’t be scared.