Technology gives us so much, and yet: Do we risk losing our humanity as we build a data-driven, algorithm-worshiping society?
As we quantify, automate and strive to predict, well, everything, are we losing something in the process?
We’re losing our romance, says Tim Leberecht, future thinker and author of The Business Romantic, an impassioned, intelligent and enchanting argument for reconsidering how we approach our working lives. Tim advocates, among other things: bringing all of ourselves to work—struggles, eccentricities and all; turning jobs into adventures and explorations; embracing feelings of uncertainty and even dissatisfaction (longing is good!), and building connections that create more fulfilling experiences.
That’s a lot to take in. Luckily, we were able to ask Tim more about what it means to bring Romance into our technology jobs and our organizations. As many of you transition out of summer mode and gear back up for an industrious fall, consider a new way of going to, and being at work.
LiquidPlanner: Why do businesses need the mindset of the business romantic?
Tim: Romantics usually dream big dreams and get things done. They form strong bonds and show real commitment. They build a more collaborative, humane culture that will ultimately be attractive to customers. By humane I don’t mean nice or friendly, I mean intense and all-in, a culture where everyone is vulnerable and has skin in the game. A culture where everyone is constantly striving for significance, and even permanently unfulfilled but motivated by the possibility of greater meaning.
How do we make all of our code, data and burndown reports work with our inner business romantic?
There are so many creative ways to use data and technology in a romantic way. It would be foolish to be against data or technology. I’m not a Luddite. As Frederic Laloux writes in Reinventing Organizations, the most important innovation in this century won’t be a technological one, but a social one: What are the design principles that cherish the best of our humanity and enable us to live, work, and play together in peace and prosperity? As part of that quest, data is everything, and everything is data. The question is how we want to use it: to demystify or to mystify? To narrow the playing-field or to broaden it? To equalize difference or to celebrate it? To optimize the existing space or to create a third place?
Already, there is some tech that romanticizes. The app Somebody, for example, lets you verbally deliver text messages through strangers. 20 Day Stranger, developed by MIT, allows two people to share their experience of the world—anonymously—over the course of 20 days. And there is even a School of Poetic Computation in New York.
All these apps and services open up spaces for imagination rather than trying to minimize our personalities to patterns and our actions to neurons. One could argue by the way, that virtual and augmented reality are indeed the new technologies of a new romantic era; like the traditional romantics, they make the familiar strange again, allow us to try on another identity, and provide us with access to parallel, unknown worlds.
Uncertainty is part of life and business and yet, a lot of people hate it. How do technology professionals make friends with uncertainty even if their jobs demand exactitude?
Having grown up in engineering-minded Stuttgart, Germany, the home of automotive companies like Daimler and Porsche, uncertainty is not exactly in my DNA.
What helped me navigate this environment was to consider certainty an illusion. Markets move fast, and organizations are more complex or at least expose their complexities more than ever before. Institutional truth is losing its authority, and at the end of the day, the only remaining (and questionable) certainty you have is yourself. So one option you have is to impress yourself with your convictions, your values and principles, and your rituals and habits, and make a mark in the maelstrom of uncertainty that you face every day as a professional. Tame uncertainty by naming it, and frame it into your own professional story.
Uncertainty, combined with an ability to reduce it a bit every day, is a powerful motivator. It’s the essence of entrepreneurship, and we need more of it in our organizations. Would you get up and go to work every morning if you knew exactly what was going to happen? I wouldn’t. Without uncertainty, without risk, life is not worth living. It’s good to remind yourself of that whenever you find yourself being anxious in a zone of uncertainty.
From an operational viewpoint, it might help managers to appreciate uncertainty as the source of all innovation. Some processes must be standardized, but even in the most process-driven firms, creating “white spaces” for open-ended exploration with uncertain outcomes is crucial for provoking new ideas and thinking.
What are the most radical changes coming to the business world in the next 10 years?
As with all radical changes, I’m both excited and worried about their potential. The single most impactful trend will be dehumanization. I know, this sounds rather apocalyptic, but hear me out.
On the one hand, artificial and super-intelligence will become mainstream and radically change the very fabric of our societies and identities. This will enable us to implement automation, machine learning, and predictive computing at scale. Artificial intelligence will no longer be called artificial, and it will be seamlessly embedded into our daily routines and interactions. In 10 years, it’s highly unlikely that I will still formulate and manually type responses to questions like this.
Furthermore, maybe in, say, 20 years, most of us will be unemployed in the traditional sense and work only either as artists or as “human ingredients” in algorithmic businesses that need a human touch for purposes of differentiation. (I highly recommend this recent piece by John Havens on the need for a new definition and social recognition of “unemployment”.) Overall, the enhanced, hybrid trans-human will become a reality. Being “purely” human will either be the ultimate luxury, the new “authentic way of being” for the one percent, or the stigma of an underprivileged and underserved minority.
The other vector of dehumanization I see is, unfortunately, a further radicalization of our societies, fueled by growing social divides, climate change and natural resource scarcity, unemployment, nationalism, and religious extremism. The current potential for catastrophic conflict is alarming, but I like to believe that we can still reverse course, intervene and create better models of governance and collaboration. Against this backdrop, the most important opportunity and responsibility for companies—which are arguably the most influential organizations of our time—will be to help design a more humane society. And I mean the “humane” quite literally. Business must understand and protect what makes us inherently human and create space for human consciousness, emotion, and empathy—at the workplace and in the marketplace.
Which historical people would you most like to start a business with?
My dream team: Walter Benjamin, Pele, Coco Chanel, and Peter Drucker.
What is the best career advice you’ve ever received?
Don’t spend too much time thinking about the advice of others. They’re mostly projecting their own fears and hopes onto you.