“Every few hundred years throughout Western history, a sharp transformation has occurred”, Peter Drucker wrote (http://blogs.hbr.org/2014/10/what-peter-drucker-knew-about-2020/) in 1992. Today’s great transformation is being driven by digital technology. We are on the verge of a new epoch of smart computers that MIT’s Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolffsen describe as the “Second Machine Age”. Drucker himself imagined this revolution as “the shift to a knowledge society.” But it’s actually an information technology revolution – the artificially intelligent new world of the Internet of Things, self-driving cars and IBM’s Watson.
So how does this digital revolution change our lives? What does it mean for us as managers, workers and, above all, as human beings?
Many believe that today’s great digital transformation offers the opportunity for a rebirth of economic creativity. Indeed, David K. Hurst calls for a “Renaissance” (http://blogs.hbr.org/2014/05/is-management-due-for-a-renaissance/) of management techniques – a shift away from what he describes as the “scientific practices” that took hold in the late 19th and 20th centuries toward more “creativity”, “innovation” and what it means “to be human”. Johan Roos, The Dean of Jönköping International Business School (JIBS) concurs with Hurst, also calling for a “Renaissance” (http://blogs.hbr.org/2014/07/the-renaissance-we-need-in-business-education/) in business education, to what he calls a “humanity minded” education.
Some management theorists appear seduced by contemporary technology’s potential to empower our humanity. Drucker Institute Executive Director Rick Wartzman stresses (http://blogs.hbr.org/2014/10/what-peter-drucker-knew-about-2020/) that today’s knowledge economy requires a “change in the human condition.” Richard Straub and Julia Kirby call (http://blogs.hbr.org/2014/05/better-management-could-spur-a-new-era-of-economic-growth/) for a “human centered view of productivity” which will produce “extremely high returns”. While Didier Bonnet and George Westerman call for the birth of what they call “digital masters” (http://blogs.hbr.org/2014/09/we-need-better-managers-not-more-technocrats/) who “take charge” of the human energy in the workplace.
But here’s the problem with all this faith in a renaissance of the human in our knowledge society. As the economist Tyler Cowen argues, the increasingly central economic relationships of the Second Machine Age will be between artificially intelligent machines and their human programmers. Whereas the key economic relationship in the 19th and 20th century mass workplace was between managers and workers, that will be replaced in the 21st century by the relationship between digital masters and machines like IBM’s Watson.
Digital technology, Deloitte’s John Hagel III tells us (http://blogs.hbr.org/2014/10/turn-the-pressures-of-technology-into-potential/) , “is full of paradox”. And the central paradox of our second machine age is that managers must rediscover their “humanity” in order to manage intelligent machines. Management’s definition of what it means to be human must, therefore, like everything else in our digital age, be radically transformed.
The idea of humanity is about to be radically disrupted. We are what computers aren’t and perhaps can never be. Rather than a rebirth, it’s actually a reinvention of what it means to be human.
Tomorrow’s brave new world will be whose “humanity” will be employed to manage increasingly intelligent machines – artificially intelligent devices that Nick Bostrom (http://www.nickbostrom.com/), the director of Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, fears will eventually become our master. It’s a tragic paradox. As McAfee and Brynjollfson acknowledge, the great scourge of our digital age is the unemployment of the old middle class – doctors, lawyers, engineers and – whose labor is being disintermediated by intelligent machines. Average is over, Tyler Cowen reminds us, in an economy where digital masters will manage computing devices and the rest of us will be servants to this tiny new elite. It’s an age in which humanness might survive – but will be focused on managing artificially intelligent machines rather than other human beings.
Richard Straub and Julia Kirkby, in wanting to place “human work in opposition to machines” (http://blogs.hbr.org/2014/05/better-management-could-spur-a-new-era-of-economic-growth/), believe that we can still carve out an autonomous space for ourselves in the digital age. Such optimism, I’m afraid, while noble, is a 19th century reading of our 21st century predicament.
In a HBR piece about inventing the future (http://blogs.hbr.org/2014/10/how-to-invent-the-future/), marketing guru Nilofer Merchant tells the parable of mechanical monkeys who’ve forgotten how to think for themselves. But the future is much less anthropocentric than Merchant imagines. This paradox is of a new class of managers whose only attribute – that of “humanness” – will increasingly be in the service of intelligent machines. In the future, I fear, we are all monkeys employed by algorithms – even, or especially, the most innovative and creative amongst us.
We live in what the management consultant Dan Pontefract calls (http://blogs.hbr.org/2014/10/leadership-in-liminal-times/) “liminal times” – periods, he says, which are “disconcertingly chaotic”. We are now stuck in the murky chaos, that no-man’s land (to excuse the bad pun), between the human and the robotic age. But when the smoke clears on this great transformation, I fear that we will discover anything but a renaissance in humanity.