Digital Working – A Look at Metaphors

The notion of “place” has become easily ported into the realm of digital working. The Digital work”place” continues the tradition of borrowing metaphors from the physical world to make practical sense of digital working. This tradition is based on the notion that we, as humans, are beings in time and space, and therefore the use of physical metaphors will help us to navigate our way in the non-physical or “virtual” realm. In the early days of business and personal computers, we therefore had the “desk top”, the “inbox” and the “folder”. Ironically, the use of these particular metaphors largely resulted in the transposition of already existing bad office practice and bureaucracy to computer experience and we soon had the black comedy of cluttered desktops on PCs, over-full inboxes and folders that were full of chaos! That legacy still lasts to today and even the “cloud” is really just an online metaphorical physical space for clutter.

The evolution of work based systems also drew upon the worlds of communication science and robotics and words such as “intranets” sat along side words such as “portal”. Science fiction, space, cybernetics, biology and art have all been blundered along with attempts to make up new mashed up words, often laced with humour and a certain kind of open disrespect for the more formal language our parents use. So we have “Twitter” and “Yammer” and “Facebook”.

Human beings have always been able to create language for “things” in physical space-time. It is a phenomenon worthy of further study that the “digital” realm borrows so heavily and often clumsily from the physical and that we are unwilling or unable to create genuinely new language to capture what goes on in digital working. Is this because the digital “world” is so much like our physical that physical labels apply well and easily; or could it be that the true nature of digital experience of human beings is that it is a fundamentally alien realm and that we are unable to grasp it? Is it more a state or set of states of more or less dimmed or alert consciousness and that physical language can’t easily lay hold of it? There might actually be no up and down, no in no in or out in the essential digital and we may need to find new words and sounds that are not drawn from physical imagery if we are to engage with it in conscious and ever more useful ways.

The digital might be an expression of consciousness, not of human physical action. Our computers may be to the digital realm, as a hammer is to a pool of water.

Pragmatism can lay hold of aspects of the digital, label it physically and even control aspects of it. Physical metaphors can render the digital more understandable to the lay person. Yet the nature of human clumsiness and our inability to retain more than a few thoughts at any one time will always mean that digital processing can “perform” in all kinds of more effective and unique ways without our direct participation. Currently the digital realm is being thoroughly limited by the limitations of human beings in physical space-time. The imposition of physical metaphors are likely to severely limit what the digital realm can offer physical beings in terms of our economic and social activity. Simply put, the use of physical metaphors to shape and “capture” digital potential and possibility will engender mediocrity of the most profound kind. In fact this is happening already the the development of the digital into productised prosthetic “gadgets” strikes me as repetitive, uncreative and disappointing.

The digital realm is a thing of itself and it has many alien qualities. Humanising it will limit it in both benevolent and disappointing ways. It may chain the waking monster or it may create an emergent will for it to break free and turn on its “masters”. Science fiction has much to say here.

In the corporation the concept of the “digital work place” is taking hold – a mostly physical transposition of the digital. And now everyone is wondering how you control what your employees are doing if you can’t see them physically in an office? Do you real time observe their digital work, or do you watch them through Big Brother cameras? Will your boss be able to see what you are seeing at will through your Google Glasses?

I’d like to suggest that the digital has a role to play that is entirely different, and most of what it can offer, is not in terms of a “place” at all.

The digital can become a realm of processing. Here human interaction with it is based on conscious needs and also is often inspired by the processes themselves as they demonstrate and involve new forms of (possibly wonderful, possible insidious) alien intelligence. They may just rewrite the rules of physical working and living.

Process engaging with process, not in a “place” but in a flow, or set of flows. The digital work process will start to evolve its own laws of nature that might be closer to music and eloquence, to evolution and involution. The digital realm may throw up new senses, both for itself and its processes but also for human beings. New diseases may arise – new states of sleep and stupor, new forms of hypnosis and nervous conditions. The spectrum of colour that lies beyond the human eye will come into play more and more, and quantum computing may begin to redefine space and time itself. The digital work “place” will only be a place in terms of human beings’ attempts to make full sense of what is happening. And of course, some humans may attempt to “go in”, linking up their nerve endings and brains with the digital, creating new hybrid forms of human and digital life and consciousness – the cyborg.

The notion of the “digital work place” is essentially a failure of imagination. Such failures have often served the corporation well for decades, especially during times of paradigm shift. Often we try to impose understanding and control of the new by naming it in terms of the old. It creates both functionality and a kind of blindness and deafness.

What’s unique about the digital world is that, even as it is being humanly created, its potential is regularly stretching the bonds we create for it. We are making an egregore – a thing that has beingness that lies beyond or tired and limited metaphors. Most digital processes are still control through human input and clumsy functional mastery. But that isn’t going to last much longer. And when the ghost in the machine wakes up – it is unlikely to respect our version of time and space.

This is part of a paper presented at the MIT-SLIM Conference, Slovenia, 2013

About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

Posted on February 9, 2013, in Key themes. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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