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Hey! What Happened to the “Golden Age,” of the Future?

Posted by intellisg on July 16, 2007

goldenage.jpgSomewhere hidden deep inside, the dark recesses of the store room just beneath the stairways in a small briefcase – I’ve got a stack of old popular mechanics magazines, a gift subscription my parents bought for me around just around the time I turned 13. From time to time, I still leaf through them usually during lazy Sunday afternoons. It’s surprising what one finds when one rummages through the past. I once found a nine page death threat from a childhood sweetheart. Obviously it never got to me but that explains why I didn’t get the job in the firm where she now works as the human resource manager.

Popular Mechanics was a perfect magazine for a boy of a certain age and interest with it’s heady mix of pseudo-science (UFOs, Bermuda triangle, Yeti, Area 51 and Where is Atlantis galore), all written in way as to suggest the golden age of flying cars, wrist radios and Lunar vacations was just around the corner.

Fast forward to the present – what happened to those promises?

According to forecasts some years ago, one in three workers in every developed country is supposed to be working from home by now — easing traffic, cutting commuting time and freeing up valuable commercial real estate. Present day reality hardly stands up to those lofty predictions of the ‘good life,’ – that only seems to happen in some other country. In Singapore we don’t nearly have such a thing as a significant number of workers working from home to really call it even a lifestyle. For the vast majority of us, we are still stuck to the perfect ball and chain our hamster cages. Where did the future go?

Parents these are complaining about spending less quality time with their kids because the new competitive environment requires them to put in longer working hours. Others opt not to have kids. Wait a minute, wasn’t technology supposed to take care of that by freeing us to have more time? Well thanks to Blackberry and Wireless connectivity – your evil boss can now invade the privacy of your ‘quality time’ with impunity, anywhere, anytime so there goes quality time out of the window!

As for office space, its skyrocketing, expect smaller cubicles in the future.

Not quite the dreamville would-be futurists predicted – and you wonder how did those guys who got it so right with satellites and magnetic levitation trains get it so wrong with the future?

Sadly, very little has changed since the industrial revolution, work arrangement still favors the employer. Expect the words like “rightsizing” and “multi-tasking” to feature in the corporate vernacular as more companies reduce jobs and earnings expectations to reflect a “more-realistic” business climate. This means buzzwords like higher employee productivity and efficiency will increasingly feature and thanks to technology, “employee surveillance,” gone are the days when one could just slip out of the radar for the solitary smoke in the stairways, nope these days judging by the way technology has made inroads into the science of productivity, we are just a few more years from an Orwellian world, where controllers and supervisors would be able to monitor and control of every moment in the name of economic progress.

At first glance, a push for greater productivity hardly seems unreasonable. Isn’t that what all businesses are supposed to do? Lets look closer at how these “productivity drives” are brought to us. This may sound like sci-fi, but it is already a reality for ten and thousands of workers in the service industry – where as soon as they punch in, they have to log on too wearable computers that monitor their whereabouts, or earpieces that issue instructions verbally. Everything they do – from urinating to lunch breaks is controlled, monitored and analyzed.

I presented to this question to Dr Chandra (our resident AI/ psychological expert): Dr Chandra, how did the future end up this way? I thought technology was supposed to free us from the drudgery of toil and sweat? What happened?

Dr Chandra:

“Well it’s quite straightforward actually. There’s a word for it, its called ‘function creep.’ That could explain why the future isn’t turning out the way it’s supposed too.

‘Function creep’ occurs, when you figure out something that was originally designed works really well for another application – let me give you an example, in the early days of robotic, they were predominantly used in nuclear reactors and chemical industries for the obvious reason, they don’t die like us when exposed to hazardous material.

But something strange happened, researchers realized those babies can go on stacking all day and night without getting tired, so what did we do? There you have it – function creep – they started pilling up more servos and hydraulics to beef up their hauling capabilities, till at the end of the day robotics migrated to the production and manufacturing sphere away from its original scope. Today if you talk about market share of physical robot – manufacturing accounts for nearly 90% of the market, while nuclear and chemical only makes up less than 0.5% -Now I want to emphasize that’s ok, there’s nothing wrong with function creep, it’s simply a logical extension, anymore than using Velcro that was originally developed to stop stuff from floating around a capsule in zero gravity to strapping your trainers.

Unfortunately, when technology like wearable computers with audio / visual interfaces finds its way into the modern work place “function creep” becomes a hundred million times more complicated and the line between good and bad gets blurred.

Usually, it starts off quite innocently like recreational drinking and smoking, during the early stages, companies always justify these technologies as a way of increasing efficiency, productivity and accountability, who can blame them? That’s what they are all supposed to do. Right?

The ‘creep’ in the ‘function’ usually occurs, when someone is management says “hey, now we can do this!” – “I can see Bob is doing nothing, he is free to help” – “Mary is in that sector, let me just ask her whether she can help Jane?” Looking at this sort of scenario’s, no one would thinks that anything is out of order and there’s the danger because very slowly there a migration is taking place one where passive monitoring shifts imperceptibly towards panoptical surveillance – eventually what usually happens is the tool is abused, where we will even find employees being told “go there, turn right, pick this up, put this down, reverse etc” – that’s a real problem.

Now I want to be clear, I am not against monitoring per se, but there is a gigantic difference between micro managing performance and empowering people to do a good job and based on current psychological studies – the general trend suggest where the level of monitoring is highest, the level of stress increases correspondingly, that’s why call centers and fast food joints have the highest staff turn overs – they’re pressure cookers- and this just creates a lousy work environment – what I think most managers fail to understand is work isn’t so much work as it is an avenue of social intercourse for most people – psychologist stretching all the way to Fredrick Taylor have registered this ‘social’ component and these things are hard to quantify in real terms – friends we make at work – a chat with a colleague – an act of kindness by a work colleague – the sense of belonging – group identity – are all too important to be simply discounted.

If we are not mindful of how technology and humanity gels together, all we would be really doing is exacerbating rather than improving and I for one cannot see how this in the long run, can produce one molecule of good for either the employees or employers. That I believe will be the challenge in the future for policy-makers, business leaders and academics, knowing when to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to where technology should or should not feature to keep us all human – the alternative of course, is, we all end up as robots (chuckles and laugh).”

Of course, all these musing could turn out to be nothing more than cynical takes about how woefully dismal the future has actually panned out. I am sure it isn’t really as grim as George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” vision or as optimistic as Thomas Moore’s utopia.

But one thing is for certain: The future isn’t what it’s often made out to be, not by a long stretch and it’s time for me to get on my prehistoric bicycle – some things fortunately still hold the promise of the golden age even if they happen to be rooted firmly in our past.

(This has been brought to you by Aurora your friendly brotherhood controller – Astro Boy & Scholar Boy / Dr Chandra – Hey! What Happened to the “Golden Age,” of the Future? 2007 / Executive Summary 990393 –  2007 of Extended Piece (EP 990393 – The Brotherhood Press 2007)

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2 Responses to “Hey! What Happened to the “Golden Age,” of the Future?”

  1. jessica wabbit said

    They’re so confident, they don’t even bother with spell check. I dont like the executuve summary very much, it like a mini skirt, it shows a little, but all the really important bits are covered up.

  2. […] by sitis on September 13th, 2007 This site was originally set up by me as a tribute to the Intelligent Singaporean. In remembrance of the Intelligent Singaporean that originated from Inspir3d. Some people called it […]

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