The Future of Work is a Rorschach Test - What Do You See?

Look into the future. Stare at it. Let your mind wander. Tell me, what do you see?

Do you see possibility, opportunity, a blank canvas on which you can create your masterpiece? Do you see unchartered lands, full of new riches and new victories? Do you see adventure, excitement, fun? Do you see challenges to test you and be overcome? Do you see a vacuum that you can fill? Do you think tomorrow will be better than today? Better than yesterday?

Or, do you see danger? Risk? Do you see atrophy and decline? Do you worry that you’ll have trouble hanging onto the good things you have now? Do you see tougher times ahead? Do you see a world that’s changing in ways you don’t quite understand and in ways that don’t feel quite right? Do you secretly think that perhaps today is as good as it’s going to be and tomorrow is sure to be worse?

Do you think that self-driving cars will reduce death and destruction and grief and pain? Or will they destroy livelihoods and force more people into despair and the grip of opioids?

Will Artificial Intelligence open new frontiers in commerce, science, medicine, and exploration? Or will it decimate the middle classes and leave them as modern day Tom Joads?

Are cell phones incredible tools bringing the riches of the world into our kids’ lives? Or are they ruining a generation? Poaching them in ugliness and the very worst aspects of mankind?

Do you see Amazon as David? Or Goliath? Is AWS democratizing access to talent (who needs to hire a data scientist at $1m per year when you can get a machine learning API for 0.35 cents a CPU cycle) or cutting the legs out from all of the kids rushing to Stanford to get qualified (at huge cost) to take those $1m a year jobs?

Is Uber cool? Or a new overlord in waiting?

Is the rise of design thinking long overdue? Or a new hurdle that you’ll never be able to overcome?

Is making America great again great? Or terrible?

Are the rise of microservices a huge new latent market to exploit? Or another nail in the coffin?

Will the Internet of Things open up unthought-of ways of creating value and generating wealth? Or take us another step closer to 1984?

Will you be happier, more fulfilled, more energized, and better paid in the next few years? Or more anxious; more defensive? Hanging on for dear life to make it the finish line?

On my travels over the last 18 months or so the majority of people I’ve talked, worked, and interacted with see a very dark future ahead.

As they look at the ink-blot of the future they see loss, decline, hard yards. They see terrorism, disintegration, fanaticism. They see a world changing faster than ever with leaders ill equipped to grapple with root causes and generate meaningful solutions.

They see the next waves of technology as disturbing and unsettling. Increasingly a curse not a blessing. They see the ever increasing pressures of capitalism as a tightening noose. They see the future of work as work.

If JFK’s New Frontier was the height of western optimism we may be approaching a new low in western pessimism.

Most business leaders see digital disruption as a threat.

Most political leaders see globalization as a threat.

Most cultural leaders see nothing beyond the short term needs of the lowest common denominator.

As Professor Nicholas Drain Lowe of Brentford University puts it, “Where are the strong, and who are the trusted, and where is the harmony?”

In a Rorschach Test there are no right answers. The test simply tries to tease out how you see and think about the world. (For more background on Hermann Rorschach and his work, see this new book http://nyti.ms/2nnlyYC ).

In the Future of Work Rorschach Test there are no right answers. And of course the real answer to most of the question posed above is “both”.

But what my travels tell me is that – at the point when we are building the future that writers, and academics, and scientists, and movie makers have been dreaming of – fewer and fewer people have the courage, the optimism, and strength to still believe in the future and make it come true.

The future that we have sketched out in What to Do When Machines Do Everything is a future in which healthcare is better, education is better, government services are better, and wealth is more evenly distributed. We believe that in another generation we will look back at 2017 and laugh (or cry) at how bad many things were and how much we put up with. The “great digital build out” that is accelerating – powered by AI and next generation smart “things” – is going to see us build a future that is, by any objective standard, better than the world of today. In doing this, the work that we do – and yes, there will still be plenty of work for us to do – will be better, more enjoyable, and more lucrative than work has ever been.

It’s been said that science fiction doesn’t tell you much about the future but that it tells you an awful lot about the present. Perhaps what’s most unevenly distributed right now is optimism about the future.

In a world of 24/7, 365 infotainment , we are all swirling in an ocean of bad news, buffeted about by the needs of the industrial media complex. If it bleeds, it leads. Fiat by Twitter and On Demand Outrage are the (dis)order of the day.

Maybe it’s not a surprise then that future’s never seemed bleaker. For many the future will have to wait. Today is enough to deal with.

When you look at the future of work what do you see? Take ten minutes and jot down your thoughts. If you have a moment, share them with me/us. As I said, there are no right answers. Except that there are. Here’s a hint – it’s hard to build a future that works when you’re a pessimist.

Your Future of Work Rorschach test starts now ...