Faster Horses

I’ve read that in the future, we’ll be working as avatars in the metaverse. Or holograms, meeting virtually in space. Or some other whizzy new tech to make us feel like we’re ‘there’ when we’re not ‘there’.

Is this just ‘faster horses’ syndrome?

There’s a lot of focus on whizzier ways of doing what we do currently without questioning whether we should look at other ways of doing things instead.

There is a famous quote (somewhat dubiously) attributed to Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” The logic here is that customers can easily describe a problem they’re having — in this case, wanting to get somewhere faster — but not the best solution. It turned out the best solution was cheaper cars.

In this case, the problem is we want to work more effectively in this new distributed (or hybrid) way.

But we are describing it as better ways to interact in real-time when we’re not all in the same place.

So we’re framing the problem as “I want to be able to drop by someone’s desk for a quick informal chat when I can’t physically be there”. 

Or “I want to be able to have an in-person conversation just like I would if I was there when I am not there.”

Or “I want to be in meetings that feel more like they do in person”.

So we get lots of technology ideas that are about ‘better ways’ to do things synchronously.  That sounds a lot like ‘faster horses’ to me.

I think we want really want are different way of working that are suited to this distributed environment. We want a cheaper motor car, and that is asynchronous, self-organising, digital ways of working.

We want better ways of sharing and retrieving information, better ways of co-creating documents, better tools for writing and for creating content of all sorts. Better platforms for discovering people, ideas, tools, materials that we need to achieve our objectives. Better ways of co-ordinating and collaborating digitally. Better ways of managing the deluge of information so that we can sort the noise from the data. 

This is the technology we need. This is where we should be focusing out attention.

(There’s also whole other piece around the work environment – or culture, if you prefer – that I’m not addressing here).

There might be a role in the future of work for the metaverse (I’m yet to be convinced). I’m pretty sure there’ll be a place for holograms. But I don’t think we’ll be using them that much because we won’t be working synchronously, we won’t be communicating in real time that much. We’ll be working when and where we want to, on our phones and laptops or some future iteration of mobile device.

We’ve been set free. And we’re not giving that up no matter how fast the horses get.

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