Cursive, and the future of the workplace
Everything You Ever Might Have Wanted 25 January 01
It remains to be seen whether the recent stock-market thrashing will turn out to have been coherent enough, either as a bounded event or as a clear turning point, for meaning to be attributed to it. My personal theory is that the market has finally been conclusively exposed as a collective hallucination, its movements not only not governed by mathematical models, but not governed, in any useful sense, by rational behavior or underlying value at all. It is the structural embodiment of hysteria, and I'm guessing that from here out its volatility will be contained on an hour-by-hour basis only by circuit breakers, and on any longer basis only by the resilient solidity of total worthlessness. In 2001, people still look at me like I'm brain-damaged when I suggest that fractional ownership, share dilution and short-turnaround selling all ought to be made illegal, effectively destroying the stock market in anything like its current form. Let a few more formerly-august institutions discover exactly how the supply-and-demand equations slip into free fall at their limits, though, and I bet these ideas will become successively heretical, controversial, radical, drastic, severe, plausible and finally common sense. We have spent an enormous, and morally hateful, amount of effort improving our stock- and information-trading technology and processes, and just as with the computers we've taught to play chess, we have only succeeded in proving that our ignorance and limited capacities are all that ever made the underlying problem seem interesting. We have allowed a complicated form of gambling (and not even a very good one in gambling terms) to become the centerpiece of our economic system, and we will either disassemble it ourselves, or it will disintegrate on its own schedule. That's my theory, anyway, either auspicious or grim depending on whether you think that all the clever people who have devoted their lives to a meaningless game of greed can be salvaged for useful work, or we'll just have to count on them having sufficient respect for historical precedent to throw themselves out of upper-story windows when the time comes.
If nothing else, though, the collapse of the technology-stock dementia has shocked the technology company I work for, which thankfully is not publicly traded yet, into a welcome renewed awareness of some old principles. Thus planning discussions now revolve around the comfortingly non-post-modern concept that it would nice to eventually make more money than we spend, and for the moment we are concerned not only with our market standing, and our predictions for the future, but with our role in defining the future, because suddenly it seems like our future is not going to be defined for us. Our product is software for online workplaces, so I have spent a couple days, last week and this, at two different brainstorming sessions about The Future of the Workplace. One was part of an MIT-led research consortium of which my company is a minor sponsor, the other a quasi-conference with the overwrought title "Envisioning the eWorkplace" that we co-hosted with the equally overwrought Center for Business Innovation. I was surprised, and ultimately disappointed, by both events. At the MIT one, the two of us that went were basically the only new-technologists, and I think the only people who worked for a small (i.e. employees in hundreds, not tens of thousands) company. The rest of the participants were mostly corporate real-estate managers and space-planners, and while they all seemed to have a genuine enthusiasm for understanding how their workplaces could be improved, and a sobering awareness that the physical characteristics of a workplace deeply affect the nature of the work conducted within it, they all also seemed to me to be operating carefully, and subconsciously, within the social system in which projects may be cross-functional, teams may be cross-organizational, and people may work from home every once in a while, but there is still, at the core of work, an employer, who fills an office building with structure and furniture, to which employees dutifully report in order to do jobs that may have new facets, but retain the same anonymously productive purposes jobs have all had since Henry Ford succeeded in building machine contexts in which people, too, can (and must) be treated as machines.
The other event, the one with the goofy names, was attended by an entirely different audience. The press material and the conference badges referred to them ingratiatingly as "Thought Leaders", which I uncharitably translated, beforehand, as "Blowhards", but revised to "Observers" once I realized they had actually come to talk, not pontificate. These people, many of whom admittedly have vested personal interests in incentives for change by virtue of having written books about what the changes will or should be, were excitingly willing to step back from the current set of tactical, near-term workplace questions (which have a depressing tendency to devolve into a big-/little-endian debate about whether you should have to stand up or not to be able to see into your neighbor's cubicle), and ask humane questions about the composition of work, the personal goals of workers, and the ways in which we might hope, not just expect, that over the course of the next decade the process of working will merge with the process of living. "Life must infiltrate work, not vice versa", I wrote in my notes early in the day, and I was pleased to hear that theme recapitulated several times during the rest of it. Our current office environments do every involved constituency a horrible disservice by trying to separate workers from their selves, turning human beings with cultivated instincts and expressive capacities for interrelation into stiff corporate professionals who make exactly the banally evil decisions that produce the garish, dehumanizing world around us. A saner approach would treat our personal lives and convictions as our most valuable contributions to our work, not as something we're liable to waste all our time secretly fiddling with unless we think we're being spied upon. By the end of the day we had convinced ourselves that the next ten years will bring an inexorable shift of the focus of the workplace from the corporation and its hierarchies to the workers themselves, their teams, their projects, and their needs. New technology will have roles to play in this shift, but the key issues are social and personal, and the biggest challenge for the makers of virtual team workplaces, like my company, is figuring out how to integrate them more smoothly and usefully into teams' physical workplaces, so that technology is invisible and enabling, not disruptive and irritating. If anybody were to champion the abysmal idea that we'll all end up in nutrient vats, communicating via broadband VR, surely it ought to be somebody young enough to have grown up with ubiquitous connectivity (which at thirty-three I'm not, but I think I was the youngest person there), whose professional life has been spent designing software for online collaboration and community, so if even I believe eRoom is only a small part of the solution, we're probably right.
The final activity of the day, however, was the compiling of a long list of the changes that have to start happening to bring about the intriguing future we had collaboratively hallucinated, and although there was a decent mix of the conceptual ("The globalization of humanity") and the practical ("Benefits like 401ks and medical insurance should be tied to the person, not the employer"), I have to go back to my day job tomorrow morning, so I was trying to think of a few more mantras I could start reciting both immediately and pertinently. "Technology must fail gracefully" was the first one, the most succinct summary I've come up with for the idea that software must be designed in humble cognizance of our (or my, anyway) ignorances of what people really want from us, what they need from us, how our tools will be bent and battered in their hands, and how the structures we give them will almost always be contorted to suit their organizations and purposes, however much we wish it were the other way around. My friend David contributed "We need organizational structures that encourage you to assume people you don't know are competent, not idiots", which may be a perception problem endemic to software engineers, but I suspect not. And then I thought of, and said aloud before I'd thought through the implications, "No more Muzak". This one fell with a muffled thud, followed by a brief puzzled silence, and then the stream of suggestions swung back onto the familiar ground of "celebrating diversity" and "forming communities of practice". And as I mumbled "Well, it's symptomatic, isn't it?" to myself, and starting thinking about why it wouldn't be as obvious to everyone else as to me that Muzak is the nadir of anti-human corporatism, I realized something sickening. We had been through an intense, marathon day high-mindedly fixated on the idea that the worst deficiency of today's workplaces is their obstinate spiritual poverty (well, that and the lack of fast, reliable network connections and whiteboards with Save and Erase buttons), and yet music had been mentioned exactly twice, once by my non sequitur about Muzak and once in the customary form of a middle-aged adult's incredulity that their children can listen to music while doing homework. And Art, capitalized, didn't come up once. We had talked about bringing emotion to bear on work, and the ways in which deliberately adjusting the gender-balance of senior management could alter the underlying dynamics and expectations of interaction, and somebody had even written down the promising slogan "Make love not work", but as the event broke up, and four dozen elite Thought Leaders were herded towards the bus for dinner, it hit me that nobody, including me (although David and I were there as discussion facilitators, not "leaders", so arguably I should have just shut up anyway), had said what in any other context I would have immediately told you was the most important charge to place upon anybody with the potential for influencing the future of work: the goal of work is to eliminate itself. Social progress is the replacement of Labor with Art; the goal of technology is to reduce the human cost of human well-being; relationships aspire to romance. And once I noticed the absence of music, art and romance from the discussion, I began wondering whether I could trust any of it. Could these people and I possibly mean the same thing by institutional dehumanization if Muzak weren't as self-evidently the paradigmatic example of it to them as it is to me? Could our discussions about open space for group collaboration, closed space for individual focus and transition spaces designed to foster serendipity have been at anything but cross-purposes if their mental walk-through of this arrangement didn't assume that "individual focus" is a euphemism for "playing my own records", and by "serendipity" we don't mean the way people stop outside my office door, instead of walking past, because of the arresting Scylla-and-Charybdis stereo effect of my records battling the ones playing in the office across from mine? If we seem to agree on strategies, but don't actually share values, what hope is there that our efforts to move forward won't be a confused, disappointing mess?
So they went to dinner, and I walked home to write music reviews, and I tried to imagine what I could have done, not that this was at all why I was there, to turn the discussion we had into the one I belatedly decided we needed to have had. The conference was, and this I should definitely have predicted, a microcosm of the problem itself. We conducted it in a flexible workspace, and we all brought our real lives with us, not just our professional roles, or tried to, but we collaborated too smoothly. Our discussions were deferential and dignified, and not without an awareness of personal investment, but though we talked about emotions, we didn't use many. There was commitment more than passion, interest more than joy, skepticism more than anger. We played, a little, but we didn't fight much. We came to a consensus that I fear, for no other reason than that we were able to reach it so easily, will prove to be myopic and unusable. We badly needed antagonism. "Is anybody here a truck driver?", one person asked, rhetorically, but I suspect he was imagining a FedEx executive politely adjusting our knowledge-worker-centric demographic scenarios. But the current state of work is disastrous. We don't need adjustment, we need social upheaval. What this discussion needed wasn't a broader spectrum of experiences, it was howls of righteous fury. What I should have done, especially given the audience profile (not egregiously unrepresentative in gender, but almost entirely, except for us facilitators, adult-to-middle-age white people), was play this Cursive album.
I know, because it came up in conversation, that many of the attendees have children, so I'm sure they've heard the noisy music that kids listen to. The point of playing Cursive, and not Kid Rock, is that thoughtful noise isn't about pissing off parents (which every generation develops shallowly purposeful music for, routinely), it's about isolating your ideology, and thus your enemies. Domestica isn't about workplace agility, it's about relationship collapse, but in both cases the will to resist is the soul of human vitality and the source of all hope. The album is an attempt to catalogue the intolerable. "I've said some things I wish you'd never heard," "The Casualty" explains, "Like 'There's still a hole where the phone was thrown.' /It's growing as we speak / And it's sucking us both in." We must design workplaces that do not shape our dissatisfactions into gestures we cannot undo. "Sweetie, don't cry..." begins "The Martyr", but in place of lullaby reassurance comes the accusatory "Your tears are only alibis / To prove you still feel". We ask for more emotion in work, as if what we have now is perfect dispassionate impartiality, but we are manipulative and disingenuous in our calm business voices already, and acknowledging our motivations isn't going to purify them. "Between the bedsprings and the mattress / I keep my secrets", confesses "Making Friends and Acquaintances". But then we build offices with no interstices for secrets, and wonder why we don't work as if we have something to lose. "Sleep, my Sweetie, let the days expire, / They've outnumbered you", sighs "A Red So Deep". Yet we build organizations that pretend weariness doesn't exist, and so burn out the people with the hardest jobs, who are exactly the ones we should be most concerned to sustain. "The Lament of Pretty Baby" starts "I am strong and you are weak", but then hastily substitutes "Wait, you are strong and I am weak", which isn't right either. We are both strong and weak in signature arrays, and if romance is the process of matching weaknesses and strengths, so too might be collaboration. "What did that prick whisper to you", asks "The Game of Who Needs Who the Worst", "To make you so goddamn defiant, / So fucking triumphant?" The professional is never defiant or triumphant, because triumph reminds us too vividly that we are often competing when we should be cooperating. "I threw out the phone to try to get through to you", screams "The Radiator Hums", as trenchant an observation about mediation technology as anything we wrote on a CBI whiteboard. And in "The Night I Lost the Will to Fight", we scream, and nothing happens, and it kills us. If we're really going to let emotion into the workplace, we better be ready for it. The worst possible thing you can do is invite people to care, and to believe that their souls are instrumental, and then disappoint them in the old, predictable, soulless ways. And finally, I distrust the absence of music itself from our conversation most violently because it betrays a fundamental conceit. Reading the lyrics of Domestica is no substitute for listening. One of the reasons I insist that music is what humans are best at, and so why discussing our compacts and our compromises and our improvement without discussing music must be obtuse, if not impossible, is that we censor our words relentlessly. We know what we're saying, and so are rarely able, and even more rarely willing, to say what we really mean. But we make music without understanding it, at least not as explicitly, and so we end up saying, in the contours of our songs, everything our self-consciousness would otherwise suppress. What we don't sing, probably isn't true. Tim Kasher half-shouts these songs, a hoarse, yelping style descended from Fugazi and Braid, and it may or may not be a style you like, but it is one of the sounds of belief scraping against the edges of technique, and what we know how to do never encompasses everything we need to try. Kasher and Ted Stevens' guitars clash and spark, but densely and obliquely, a roar shaped for headphone catharsis, not strutting arena crowd-approval. The hesitant falsetto in "Making Friends and Acquaintances" inherits a legacy of menacing vulnerability from Robert Smith through Luke Sutherland. The sparse way "The Lament of Pretty Baby" simmers and builds reminds me of Park Ave.'s "Lachrymose Obsequious Vehement Elated", but this one is vehement, elated, nihilistic, ominous and mindful. The clipped insinuations in "The Game of Who Needs Who the Most" briefly affect the seductive slur of ABC or Spandau Ballet, and parts of the guitar duet invoke, appropriately, whether intentionally or not, the tense "You can't stay here with every single hope you had shattered" crescendo from "In a Big Country". "The Radiator Hums", the album's least abstruse rock song, marries verses like a self-possessed American Music Club to choruses that could have served as emo's archetype if Fugazi had never made Repeater. And "The Night I Lost the Will to Fight", the restless, pointillist finale, extrapolates from the jarring post-punk angularity of the Gang of Four and Long Fin Killie, an important parallel to traditional confrontational punk that would rather let you figure out for yourself which of your assumptions it challenges, and how to rewrite them to account for your new doubts. There isn't a single policy assertion on this record, but it is a political tract all the same, an exegetical polemic on the broken dynamics of relationships, and so an implicit agenda for reaching each other. It's barely half an hour long, we could have cut breakfast shorter and started the conference with it, an intrusion of non-work into mock-work, and thus a reminder that work is not an end. We could have started the conference with anything, actually, anything other than watery grapefruit juice in well-proportioned carafes and the standard corporate-breakfast array of muffins people pull bits off of with their fingers because biting is less dignified. I don't know what an album would (or could) have done to the conversation, given an audience not predisposed to think of music as integral to both their work day and their lives. Would it have pushed us to confront what I would have felt were deeper issues, or would the group have just shrugged and returned, in the face of a blaring counter-example, to the idea that in the networked organization, management should be a facilitator? We talked about bringing our home lives with us to work, and I thought we were revealing something true. And then I walked home to my records, and put them on too loud, and in half an hour had more ideas I believe in than I'd heard all day. Maybe it's just me who's no good at this. If management, in the new world, is supposed to facilitate, and this conference was the beginning of the new world, then in this case I was the management, and obligingly, I quietly facilitated. Now I wish I'd screamed. And even more than that, I wish I knew, screaming along with Cursive, here where it touches nobody, a way to remind people who have given up on screaming how it feels.
LP / CD / MP3
LP / CD / MP3
LP / CD / MP3