In Don Siegel’s 1956 film shocker Invasion of the Bodysnatchers a California doctor becomes convinced that his patients are being taken over by alien replicants. They look the same; they’re just strangely emotionally absent. As those around him morph into their affectless lookalikes, it’s the frantic doctor who seems insane. ‘Relax, don’t fight it,’ he’s advised – can’t he see that it’s easier, simpler – better – to live in a world without unruly emotions – all the messy downsides of humanity?
Invasion has been interpreted in different ways, which is the beauty of imaginative human creations. Viewed today, however, one reading suggests itself above any other: the threat to human-ness is not communist or right-wing infiltration (the film came out when the Cold War was in full swing), but technology – particularly digital technology, whose seductions make all too easy the draining away of humanity that the doctor observes in his patients.
To take just three examples:
- As the New York Times’ description of Amazon’s work practices made clear, new workplace technology makes possible an unprecedented degree of control over working (and sometimes private) life. But US costs of work-related stress put at 120,000 lives and $190bn extra medical costs annually argue that Amazon is not the only hard taskmaster. Firms offering apps for performance measurement, instant feedback and time tracking firms are the VC-backed start-ups du jour. In a society ‘where money trumps human well-being and where any price, maybe even lives, is paid for status and success’, in Jeff Pfeffer’s words, technology all too easily institutionalises dehumanisation and makes it normal.
- ‘A wealth of information creates poverty of attention,’ said Herbert Simon, long before today’s computer-fuelled data tsunami. To give of their best, humans need to focus, tackle one thing at a time, and reflect deeply. But space for ‘slow thinking’, in Daniel Kahneman’s term, has been systematically expunged from today’s high-pressure offices. As LBS’ Lynda Gratton points out: ‘We’ve designed work that takes away the only opportunity humans have to be different from machines. The very technology that makes creativity important is limiting it because of the way we’re choosing to make jobs work.’
- More and more of human lives are marketised and commodified on technology platforms. Homes and cars via Uber and Airbnb; personal and medical details, likes and preferences, are for sale via search and social media. The assault of advertising will become ‘more intense, focused, targeted, unyielding and galactically more boring’, predicts novelist Doug Coupland. In an image straight out of Invasion, he envisions a time when, just as most value of products is in their information content, humans too have become their data, the only difference being that instead of turning us into ‘pod’ clones, ‘your replicant meta-entity… will merely try to convince you to buy a piqué-knit polo shirt in tones flattering to your skin at Abercrombie & Fitch.’
In his 2009 book The Nature of Technology, complexity scientist Brian Arthur rejects notions of technology as a collection of eurekas and individual breakthroughs. He sees it as more like an ecology, evolving and adapting with the same ‘messy vitality’ as life itself. Technology, says Arthur, ‘builds itself organically from itself’ as initially separate branches and sub-branches feed on each other, combine and compete.
Yet the form a technology takes is unpredictable, being shaped by accident, history and human agency. One human agency is management, itself a technology in the broadest sense. In fact management is crucial, because its choices govern what technologies are invested in and the purposes they are used for – and thus who are winners and losers.
Few dispute that machine intelligence is the mother of all General Purpose Technologies, one that, as the Future of Life Institute puts it, gives ‘life the opportunity to flourish like never before… or self-destruct’. What no commentator has noticed, however, is another point of uniqueness. Digital is the first great wave of technological advance to be driven by a management ideology that incentivises managers to privilege investments that benefit one constituency only: shareholders, including those who make those decisions. In that ideology, it’s irrelevant who loses.
What a technology is used for is a choice. Combining the same digital with different management technology would yield different outcomes. It’s not hard to imagine peer-to-peer platforms devoted to medical or social ends, or an internet that by putting individuals in charge of their own data enables vendor relationship management rather than vice versa. As Tom Davenport argues, machine intelligence could – should – be used to augment humanity rather than replace it, with potential that neither could deliver on their own.
Is that likely under today’s incentives? Consider a quote from the founder of a food production start-up: ‘Our device isn’t meant to make employees more efficient. It’s meant to completely obviate them.’ Or this from another start-up entrepreneur: ‘It will not be possible [for top managers] to hide in the C-Suite for much longer. The same cost/benefit analyses performed by shareholders against [sic] line workers and office managers will soon be applied to executives and their generous salaries’.
At the insistence of the studio, Siegel left the ending of his film open – as ours is too, just. But unlike Invasion‘s spores from outer space, today’s agents of change – reductive industrial-age management and digital technology – and their dehumanising effects are real: ‘They’re already here! You’re next!’ We already know that in terms of sheer processing power the race against the machine is one that humans can’t win. So more than ever we – and managers in particular – need to understand what it means to be what Peter Drucker in Post-Capitalist Society calls the ‘educated person’ in the machine age: someone who lives in the digital present but inflects it by drawing on the accumulated great tradition of the past. That includes films like Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, which is thus a double tell-tale: so long as it still evokes a frisson, and we can recognise it as a warning – but only so long – we’ll know the fight to stay human is still there to be won. Or lost.
About the author:
Simon Caulkin is a writer and editor who was The Observer’s management columnist for 16 years and also edited the UK monthly Management Today, and has contributed to the Economist, the Financial Times, amongst others, and is a Fellow of the think-tank ResPublica.