There is No Digital Workplace
The precise meaning of words and phrases can be vital. “I love you, but I’m not in love with you.”
In recent years a term in the field of work has become more prevalent. It is this: the digital workplace. I believe words are very important, especially when trying to manage and make sense of the world of work.
There we go… “world of work”. Now phrases can be used in a more lyrical way, to characterise rather than capture, and that can be useful. We look at work as an enclosed “ball” of ideas, people, approaches, resources, problems and challenges, and we characterise that as a “world” of work.
So, perhaps it is useful to characterise all things digital in relation to work as the digital “workplace”.
Or perhaps not.
Immersing in the Digital
The field of personal computing was originally imagined as a place, an alternative one at that. In this new place, we would be able to bring the imagined into reality, by making it virtual, and then by finessing the virtual rendition to such an extent that our senses would be fooled and we’d “enter” a new world. The world as an imagined and then grown-used-to realised game was already pre-figured in role play games and even in entertainment-based genres such as film and theatre. When art becomes immersive we can lose ourselves in the content and “go in”.
The internet, even as it was seen as an efficient and effective way of connecting people, content and function, was also visioned as a new frontier. Role play, first and third person, games were pioneered to take us somewhere else. And there we have a “where” else that hints at a place.
Choose your own adventure books, which were interactive stories that allowed the “fourth wall” between writer and actors, and reader and audience, to come crashing down, were the forerunners of online gaming. Online games presented new worlds, some renditions of our earth, many more in imagined places of fantasy. Virtual reality became an impulse to first render faithfully, and then enhance and transform the human form, into a digital play space.
The Imagined World of Work
Even the world of work began on the faithfully rendered ground of the “desktop” and the “folder” (which, ironically, transferred vast swathes of disorganised physical clutter and bureaucracy into the digital world. Suddenly we all had email overload to rival our overloaded physical desks). This also morphed into the “cloud” and the “Twittersphere”. Virtual worlds such as Second Life offered digital renditions of the physical in which we could fly, teleport, create instantaneously like little gods, as well as engage in the more usual activities of sex, gambling and buying and selling. What we were offered here was a metaphorically derived artefact, realised on-screen (and soon to be projected into hologram and even enhanced dream state) – a new place. Place became the dominant metaphor for the physical. We would “go” online. We would “enter” a chat room. We would even be “kicked out” of a community.
The digital “place” was an overlapping alternative, sometimes complementary offering, to the place oh physical reality. Of course, even as we flew freely across oceans in Second Life, our backs were bending and necks cricking in real chairs poorly designed for the purpose.
Organisations starting to exploit the digital largely did this through the development of communications systems such as email, developing intranets, and also internet/external web presence. Intranets were easy to label as places as they were often set against doing “physical work.” You “logged in” to your intranet, or even went through a “portal”. All of this suggests a place.
Breakdown of the Metaphor of Place
The metaphor of place began to break down fairly early in the development of digital processes at work, even if the label “place” stuck. The vast majority of our work that employed digital processes still related to our physical work. And, of course, we were still entirely located in the physical world, whilst working “digitally”. Attempts were made to help people to “zone out”of the physical in order to more fully immerse in the “digital”. Headphones began that process, even before the digital came into being. We would put on our headphones, close our eyes, and tune into the analogue sound of a symphony or a rock album, even an audio book. Even before that, locking ourselves away in a room to write or to immerse ourselves in some reading, was a way of switching from the physical to some other form of deeper attention. Even so, our physical bodies were still physically located even if we “switched off” some of our senses in order to magnify others in their attention on less physical content and processes. We even attempted to block out the distraction of physical noise, light, and even other physical beings.
So, the stage had been set. At work, there were places where we could go to work, away from the distractions of others. Interestingly, this never really took off. Most offices became, quite the opposite – open plan, even as half-hearted attempts were made to “pod” people off from each other with flimsy walls. Of course, most senior managers kept their private offices even if they were given rooms with transparent glass walls and soundproofing, so only staff who could lip read could get an idea of the business strategy that was being cooked up from higher up.
So, there we were: still (annoyingly) bound by our physical bodies, aware and engaged with another “place”, loaded with metaphors that suggested another place, partly like our physical world, partly different: files, folders, desktops, communities, message boards, discussion groups, virtual conference “rooms”, smileys, and pokes, but also networks, clouds, tweets and the “deeper web”.
The sheer amount of hours we started to spend “online”, the quantity of content, and the increasing level of risk involved with transacting business using digital processes – it isn’t surprising that this collection of “tools”, “platforms” and “systems” became labelled as a workplace in its own right. People’s hours were being measured in terms of significant digital activity, people’s job descriptions were becoming phrased and rephrased in terms of digital “roles”, and new jobs titles were emerging to cope with the rise of the digital in the physical world of work. Intranet manager, communications manager (which became shortened to “comms” to make it sound a bit more techie) and, as platforms became more specific and crucial, branded and tied into upgrades, we had the rise of social media manager and even “Sharepoint Team” Manager.
With so much risk associated with digital activity, with performance and measurement focusing on its effectiveness, with business processes relying more and more on digital processes, the label “digital work place” was inevitable.
All good? Sure! Except for this:
It isn’t a place.
And words and phrases are important.
From Place to Realm
I recently saw a flowchart of the supply chain of a major retailer. Within ten years they envisage a routine supply chain for the main product lines that has almost no human involvement – from automated customer order, right through to drone doorstep delivery. “All of our business processes will be taking place in the digital workplace”. Even some coded scripts will be self-enhancing, self-replicating, and even self-improving, as the digital workplace becomes populated by programs that interact with each other in a language specifically written, not for human beings, but for digital beings. The semantic web emerges with a kind of portal that is no longer primarily a human input, but is an output, a Stargate-like door where answers to questions or satisfied customer orders are “delivered” into the physical world. Question or problem in (from a human sometimes), digital working, then cure for cancer out. The digital scripts take care of the thinking, the robots (of which 3D printers are the forerunner of the replicator) take care of the doing. What we take care of, as growing populations on a planet of limiting resources, remains to be clearly or fully seen.
There’s this place. It interacts with our physical world. It overlaps with it.It is improving it, revealing more of it to us that we can see with our normal physical senses. We wear its “glasses” and it enhances what we see in the physical. We go into it with our minds, using augmented reality spectacles (a step away from brain implants) and we enter the fifteenth century where we can fight realistically as a warrior monk, killing with no consequences for our physical lives. At work, we meet virtually, with crystal clear, realistic telepresence and no need to meet in the same room as each other physically (unless we need what Timothy Leary called a “sacred” meeting, that mysteriously elusive yet precious quality of human togetherness that seems to be eluding digital replication).
It’s a digital workplace. We need to manage it. It exists now as a parallel and also a simultaneous place to our physical world. The phone in my pocket means I am always “in there”, always “on” as it alerts me in the middle of a physical meeting with my friend or colleague. When I am working, I am in three places at once – the physical workplace, the digital workplace and both at the same time – the digital and physical workplace.
And how convenient to call it a place. Because then there are all kinds of services we can offer into it. It becomes an entirely new market for management consultant, many of whom, in our post-meltdown world are fairly discredited for screwing up many physical workplaces over decades. We can now “help” businesses t develop their digital workplaces, just as we helped them design and developed physical ones.
Show me your physical work place right now. You can point to it. Mine is currently a cafe. It is also at home, and occasionally an office in town.
Show me your digital work place. Go on. I mean the actual “place”. Wherever you point, you’ll find it has a physical counterpart and counterpoint. Always. My smart phone. That’s my digital work place. Nope. It’s also your fingers and your brain, your energy level and even the level of light that is interfering with seeing it clearly. My “my page” on my intranet. Nope. You’ll find the calendar refers to the existence of other physical beings, other places, other bits of paper or rooms. Even when they, in the future, refer to other digital “beings”, those beings will be tapping into the physical infrastructure. Electricity becomes their new air to breathe.
The digital always refers to the physical, even if it is only the hardware underground storing it in a distant country. The physical can refer to the digital yet not always. The digital is in the physical workplace. Always.
And that is no bad thing.
The digital work “Place” isn’t a “place” at all. It is this: A realm.
Realm is an interesting word. It was originally used to define a “territory” that was ruled over by a monarch. It was developed to mean a state of existence that can include “place” (a land with borders) but can also included other things such as laws (even laws of nature), a field of thought and activity. We can even talk of “Logic” ruling in the “realm of thinking”. We can talk of the “realm of feeling”, or the “realm of creativity”. Realms hint more at ecosystems than specific places.
Exploring the Digital Realm
Some aspects of a realm aren’t about time or place at all. They can be conceptual – and that can very a very useful place to form fundamental thoughts about possibility in the physical realm. As Einstein said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge”. When we focus only on place, then we tend only to conceptualise “place”. When our digital notion of “place” is largely borrowed from physical metaphors, then we really have limited our imagination right from the outset.
A realm can be about freedom, about natural “laws”, about potential and possibility, about resources, about play and about rule making. It can be about distance, not only between places but also viewpoints. It can be about how things join up, not only physically, but also innovatively or conceptually. A realm can be all about relationships, about urges and about efficiency of processes. A realm can be musical, harmonious or discordant. A realm can be artistic and scientific. A realm can be timebased or timeless. A realm can include place, but be so much more than place.
Sometimes we can experience the digital as a “place”. We can imagine ourselves there and can experience immersion in it. But a bit like a god who can bend even the laws of gravity and make a person fly, we can fiddle with its fundamentals, yet we cannot change the fact that the digital is ultimately rooted in the physical. The physical is also a realm. The planet earth is a place. We can change a lot of things about the planet earth (constructively or destructively), we can change whether we are happy or unhappy, be more or les creative, but we can’t change the archetype of happiness itself, nor can be change the fundamental nature of creativity. We can play within the realm, in the place we find ourselves, but we cannot change all aspects of the realm itself. We can change in reality, fool ourselves in it, but any attempts to change reality itself will be virtual. And that is because reality is a realm and not a place.
The world of work is also a realm, that often manifests in place and time. There is no digital work place because the digital is an emerging realm” subject to binary laws, even when we are fusing the digital to the biological. As a realm it is wonderfully mysterious, aspects of it are already beyond the imagination and understanding of physical humans, bound as we to our own physical realm.
Realms operate along different dimensions and have qualities that emerge and are revealed by inquiry (science is one form of inquiry, imagination is another). As a binary realm, what we know about quality in the physical realm, suggests that the digital may be limited to copying and rendering what already exists in place. Yet it might also result in new “alien” formations that create and suggest what we have not yet imagined. This is partly because ultimately complex binary thinking ranges far beyond the normal mode of human thinking in the physical realm.
If this is true then the digital realm will quickly transcend place as a metaphor and elaborate entirely new forms of the digital “realm”. Place will become (and I think has already become) a failure of imagination in the digital realm. Words such as “cloud” and “second life” are incredibly poor words to allow the digital to emerge and evolve. To evolve, the digital will have to be allowed to write its own language, create its own “Logos” with all the risks that might involve for us as time and space-limited beings in the physical realm.
So, there’s no place like…
There is no digital workplace at the moment, because all digital work is physical work. This might change, and in ways we may neither envisage nor want.
The term “digital workplace” is a childish, lazy term. It’s more there to serve the needs of outmoded managers and business consultants. The digital is a realm, that transcends the limitations of physical space. It has never existed in a “Place” even if it casts its shadow in the form of hardware and software. The digital realm is a place of possibility. Even as we think we are creating it, it is simply using us to manifest. I really don’t mean that to sound crackpot. I’m not talking alien beings. It’s just a place of potential that is largely unrevealed. Those parts of it that are revealing do not conform easily to the physical human form. We are (wonderfully) clumsy and we may have unique qualities (such as self-awareness) that may always elude digital beings and creations. Yet its processing power is far beyond what we can achieve hence the vision of come to biologically fuse with it and tap into that power. It’s “natural laws” will evolve in non-human and and-human ways. “Drones” are a bit bird-like, yet even the word and the design hints at something more eloquently alien.
I believe that it can be more helpful and actually potentially innovative to ditch the metaphor of the digital “workplace” and to turn fully and boldly towards the digital realm. This is a realm of the physical where digital processes can aid and influence, more or less helpfully. This is a realm of human to digital(and vice versa) engagement, input and dialogue. In the realm of digital working, some processes can enhance and others utterly redefine human working processes. Humanly imposed metaphors such as “desktop” can improve familiarity and usability of the digital in the human realm, but can also limit their potential development.
Early indications of the realm of digital working is that it can engender “process over-connection” (also known as lockdown and benevolent entanglement) that isolates even as it connects. Essentially, it is a realm with “sticky”, immersive qualities. Attempts are being made to regulate it where individuals seek to control their privacy and platform providers follow commercial models that require data openness. Attempts are made to police it as a “place” whilst content is created along lines of narrative flow, and the creation of viral behaviour and managed reaction. The realm plays with time, moving beyond a linear view of past running through present into future, replaced with retrospective and even selectively highlighted timelines. There also seems to be an emerging attempt to encourage the creation of a web in a conversation with itself, where smart computing becomes so clever that it functions and evolves partly better with ever longer gaps between human intervention (scripts that write and enhance themselves.Big Data makes use of super-human computing power to crack codes in nature that would certainly elude brain-bound calculation. The realm of digital working also doesn’t offer entirely clear innovation pathways – as what is possible emerges, the game itself often changes. It is only when we limit computing to a rendering of the human form in digital place, that we gain some kind of control over the digital realm. It’s a blend of certainty and shocking unknowns.
There will always be a place for the metaphor of place in the digital, and also for the fun and sheer creative buzz of digitally created gimmicks. The extent to which augmented reality will prove a white elephant remains to be seen. I believe well soon realise that the digital realm will be either and both our Frankenstein’s monster or a new step in our evolution. Seeing the digital primarily as a place is a blind alley, a failure of imagination. Trying to measure it is trying to measure the wrong thing. Many consultancies have jumped on the “digital workplace” bandwagon because it represents something “neater” to try to control and it offers the metaphorical familiarity of the physical world of work. Yet over the last three years, I have spoken to many intranet and communications managers as well as Chief Information Officers who intuitively agree that “digital workplace” doesn’t really capture what is going on in their businesses and industries. They are aware of the rise of Generation Z, of the notion of the semantic web, of fundamental shifts in the world of work (captured so eloquently by Sam Marshall in his “manifesto“). Many are intrigued by emerging notions such as”conscious business” and are seeking more subtle and grown up ways to engage with the digital realm. I believe their first step is to drop old habits of trying to measure their “digital workplaces” and to imagine work as a “place” where we have to manage devices, platforms and content at the lowest possible cost. New patterns of behaviour will be about engaging with and in the realm of digital working whilst equally working creatively and innovatively with the unplugged “acoustic” realm of physical working. The realm of digital working is far more than a place: it is process, possibility, performance, interaction, location, relationship, technology, purpose and mystery.
The realm of digital working is just that – a realm. There really is no digital workplace.
Paul Levy is a writer and researcher an author of the forthcoming book “The Digital Inferno” to be published by Clairview Books in 2014)