Long before Harari, Castells was writing about the transformation in our societies and workplaces brought about by digital technology
Yuval Noah Harari is well worth a read, and the popularity of his books Sapiens, Homo Deus and 21 lessons for the 21st century comes as no surprise as he writes the history of humankind’s future with spectacular clarity and unique insight. Less popular among the man in the street but equally so among academics, writing well before Harari (starting in the 1970s), is the Spaniard Manuel Castells, who is also well worth a read, and is guaranteed to widen understanding of our modern technological societies.
Although Professor Castells started writing in the early 1970s, the sociologist started approaching the theme of the Internet Society from 2001 onwards, with The Internet Galaxy (La Galaxia Internet), before publishing other titles. What he predicts, before it actually happened, was that society would change from a vertical hierarchy achored in access to knowledge, to a horizontal one in which the wider access to data undermines the foundations of the hierarchical pyramid.
If we now go fast forward from the 1970s fifty years ahead to where we stand today, we can find many examples of how, with distance working trends, this hierarchy has collapsed.
Starting at the beginning, at school. In the past, the teacher not only, in many cases, sat on a physically elevated platform, where the table and chair were on a raised stage looking down over the class sitting in rows, but also, the sociology of the classroom was such that the pupils/students did not make a noise while the teacher was speaking. It was a one-way delivery of knowledge, in which one party knew all and the other knew nothing. And sat there taking notes in silence. With respect.
That, today, has gone. The teacher only has to open her/his mouth and someone shouts out “That is not really so” and whatever the teacher says can be checked, or added to or even predicted, by students, at the touch of a button. “You need to know your times tables, up to twelve!” “OK but here I have the times tables up to infinity. Look. 12,345 times 5,238 is xxxx. Three seconds. Done”. “That is not what this article says about Napoleon”. “The Romans pronounced the C as a K always, so it was “Kikero”, not “Sissero” ”. And all the time, I am told, there is constant chatter. About football.
So today’s teacher from post-primary school up until the end of University level education is no longer a provider of knowledge but rather, a facilitator. There are exceptions (languages, for example) but even here, the digital platform is changing the way language is taught and received.
For native speakers of English, getting a qualification in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) used to be, when I was a teenager fifty years ago, another viable certificate in the portfolio, enabling the holder to get a job in a language school and earn a reasonable living teaching structures and enabling students to practise them. In many cases, students wanted conversation classes and would pay someone to speak and listen to them. The market was controlled by Language Schools or Institutes, which employed the teachers and organised the courses in groups or private lessons.
Today, with digital platforms, that hierarchy has gone. Students can find a teacher in Brazil, or Bangladesh, via ZOOM or another platform. Teachers can find students from Peru to Japan, they just have to manage the time zones and the Institutes no longer have their catchment area restricted to the immediate zone nearby, as regards students and teachers. Those players who adapt, will survive. Those rooted in the past will disappear. And students themselves can jump past the first levels of a language by signing up to a digital application, so they do not even need a teacher for the first steps.
And so it goes on. Now to the workplace. These days some companies, including digital companies which make a living out of distance work, are adopting a back-to-the-workplace policy, meaning the digital nomad has to return to the physical workplace or else lose the position, a dramatic situation facing many Americans who moved abroad to benefit from decent salaries and lower costs of living during the onset of Covid.
But this is not the norm in a marketplace which seems to have settled for a hybrid 3/2 system, 2 days in and 3 out or 3 in the office and 2 at home, some of them restricting the choice of Fridays and/or Mondays with varying levels of control, including daily reports to be written on a digital platform after working hours. However, these symbolic control mechanisms are merely the quirks and death-throes of the control freak, terrified that the employee will be playing around at home if (s)he is not under the eye and the thumb of the “boss”, or (more for the fiscal authorities) terrified that the worker will be doing two jobs from home and declaring only one.
The marketplace in general is today hybrid. Full stop.
This week I heard about one incident in which a department director called a meeting, in person, at the company, for his management team, at 17h. The entire team (working remotely) refused to go, for different reasons ranging from “I have to pick the kids up from school” to “but what time will the meeting end? My job description says I finish work at 5 so how much extra are you paying me?” to a statement from one employee, “F*** off!”
To whatever extent, and at whatever level, the fact is that the hierarchy has started to colapse, starting at school and continuing into the workplace and the focus today is on networking, as Castells writes in his formidable collection of works. Knowledge is no longer passed down top-to-bottom but has levelled on a horizontal scale, where anyone with an internet connection has access to data.
This brings two things into play: how to manage this data at school and how to maintain the skill of reasoning from an early age and how to manage a workforce with one foot outside the company.
As said above, teachers are today facilitators because the knowledge they used to have a monopoly of, now subsists under the letters of the keyboard in front of the students. Today it makes little sense to stand at the whiteboard writing lists of dates. So instead of divulging the data, today’s teacher has to teach the students how to use it, or compare it, or reason with it. Reasoning is a skill like any other – use it or lose it and how dangerous would that be for the future of our species (which is already idiotic enough as it is)? However, are the education programs adapted for this new reality or are they basically the same as fifty years ago, ditto the accommodation of the schools and classrooms?
Finally, is today’s company a “boss” in the traditional sense or a team motivator? And what are the skillsets required for the new requirements? Do the HR Departments take this into account while hiring or are companies operating on a pre-Covid, pre-digital level?
As evolution has taught us, adaptability is the key to survival and if Homo stultus stultus (my label) already shows challenges in showing that he is sapiens sapiens, as he claims and even repeats the claim, as if one sapiens were not enough, maybe we should address these issues at root before it is too late.
Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey can be contacted at [email protected]
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