MIT expert on work says any boss who thinks employees will return to offices is dreaming

Business

“The most senior people seem to be the last to catch on to this.”

Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

By Steven Zeitchik, Washington Post

Thomas Malone knows a thing or two about the future of work — he literally wrote the book on it. That was back in 2004, of course, when “corona” was just a questionable beer. But the tome — “The Future of Work: How the New Order of Business Will Shape Your Organization, Your Management Style and Your Life” — was plenty prescient, describing a new, decentralized work world enabled by sharper digital communication.

The most recent book from the MIT professor is “Superminds,” and it’s about the ways in which many human minds, with a boost from digital tools, can come together — in business, government or anywhere else.

Malone, a former research scientist at the Palo Alto Research Center who has long predicted business’s digital transformation, is now the founding director at MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence, which focuses on human-digital collaborations such as superminds. We here at Innovations decided to pick his brain. The conversation was edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: Let’s start with work. We don’t seem to know what our offices will look like in a year or a month. What do you know?

A: I have lots to say about the topic but it comes down this: We learned over the course of a few weeks in March and April last year that we really could do online a lot of that which we used to think we had to come to the office or go to a customer to do. There are many jobs where physical presence is required, of course. But where it isn’t, I can’t see any reason we’ll be returning to a traditional office.

Q: It feels like a lot of the executives want to, even if many of the staffers don’t.

A: The most senior people seem to be the last to catch on to this. I wonder if part of it is that the people who rise to the top of organizations are just really good at interacting face-to-face, so they overvalue it. But this is where the supermind comes in — all the staffers who know they can do the work remotely, with the help of computers, are a very strong force.

Q: Won’t the executives win though? I mean, they’re in charge.

A. My prediction? Absolutely not. If companies make employees who can do their jobs at home go into the office, it will be harder for them to hire, and other companies will benefit. I was talking to a very senior executive at a major bank, and we were discussing that Jamie Dimon quote that everyone has to absolutely come back. And the executive said, very carefully, “That’s fine for Jamie Dimon.” And I said, “What I think you’re saying is that it’s good for your recruiting.” And he said, “That’s very intuitive of you.”

Q: Dare I raise the water-cooler argument — the idea that even independent workers need the serendipity of an office?

A: I actually completely agree that we need those kinds of interactions. What I do not agree with is that you need to be in-person to have them. The right kind of technology can enable them.

Q: You seem to have something in mind . . .

A: A few colleagues and I recently created something for this, a prototype. We called it “Minglr,” and we’ve used it in a couple of conferences. It’s a way to have that informal mingling you’d normally have after a meeting. You see a list of people on one side of the screen and you click on those you might like to talk to, and then if they click on you you’re placed in a private videoconference.

Q: It also sounds like a good way to avoid certain co-workers.

A: [Laughs] Yes, if you’d like to do that. But when we’ve tried it, people really did use it to have all these ad hoc conversations everyone talks about.

Q: It also feels like the Zoom interface is also the beginning — by the next pandemic, we’ll have a measure of 3-D virtuality instead of just flat boxes.

A: I’m actually surprised we haven’t seen more of that already. But I don’t think it’s far away.

Q: Okay, so that’s the office. What about government? All this connectivity we love in our professional lives seems to have divided us in our civic lives — it’s given us disinformation, demagoguery, every D word that isn’t democracy.

A: This is where I think some new superminds can help. If you think about it, what the Founders did was basically invent a new supermind — the idea of a government, representative democracy, that had never been used on a large scale before. And it worked well for a long time. Its effectiveness is increasingly in question, though, and that’s because of both the problems and possibilities of information technology. So we need to focus on the possibilities. We need to invent some new superminds to manage the risks and potential ahead of us.

Q: A lot of elected officials are all ears.

A: Well, one idea is liquid democracy. That’s the notion of instead of one extreme of everyone voting on everything, which is unwieldy, or just choosing representatives to vote for you, which is what we have now and makes people feel powerless, we have the space between, where anyone who wants to can vote directly on an issue but anyone who doesn’t can delegate their vote to someone else.

Q: Representative democracy, except the representatives aren’t 435 strangers who raised a lot of money, but people you trust more directly.

A: Exactly. And you could delegate to different people on different kinds of issues — one proxy for military issues, another for climate. And they can delegate their proxy. It gives people more of a say than just choosing a politician. I’m not entirely convinced it’s the right idea. But computers make it possible in a way it never was before. We need to start thinking about possibilities like this.

Q: Would people embrace something that onerous, do you think?

A: A lot of it is incentivizing people to do it, even if it’s hard. Then, even if they complain, they’ll still do it.

Q: Kind of like Facebook syndrome, where you hear people lamenting the invasiveness or worrying about privacy — while using Facebook.

A: That’s part of the idea I wanted to get across in the book. The system of us communicating collectively — combined with Facebook’s artificial intelligence and algorithms — is a very powerful supermind that can’t really be denied.

Q: You have a bit of a reputation as an optimist. Do you ultimately have hope these technologies will be good for us? I don’t just mean what’s in the news now about Facebook, but technology’s more fundamental effect: the way we’ve outsourced tasks like maps or math or the constant distractions. What does that hold for us?

A: I am optimistic. Not blindly so. But optimistic. We’re losing some cognitive abilities. But that’s always been the case. Our ancestors could find their way in the wilderness and chop wood and hunt wild animals. Most of us moderns couldn’t begin to do that. Someday it may well be that people can’t do arithmetic. I’m not too worried because they’ll be developing the skills to do new things instead.

Q: This is of a piece with your general thinking about humans and computers, not as an either/or but a collaboration.

A: The saying in AI now is “humans in the loop” — make sure not to leave the humans behind. But that may be the wrong way of looking at it. We’re going to lead. They’re here to make our lives better. That’s why I say not “humans in the loop” but “computers in the group.” We’re bringing them in.

Q: So you don’t believe automation will be the end of many jobs. Like, we might even still need humans to teach classes or, you know, ask a lot of questions?

A: We just might.

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