In a well filled Vereeniging in Nijmegen, Kishore Mahbubani gave a good speech on his perspective on the rise of Asia and the response the West in his eyes should formulate to that. It turned out I had picked up quite a bit already from fragments on tv, and flicking through his book last weekend, as several sections of his talk were verbatim renderings of earlier things I saw. It is, I know, unavoidable when you are asked to share the same story on several occasions and in several locations. Internet and the casual transparancy that comes with camera and blog equipped audiences do that. It just became a lot more apparant because they also showed excerpts of the excellent VPRO documentary before Mahbubani went on stage. It was good to be there though.

The basic argument is that the rise of Asia is unstoppable, already on demographics alone, but that it does not constitute a threat as Asia is emulating several worthwile aspects of the Western world. Those seven (of course seven…) are:

Free market economy
Science and technology
Culture of peace (with the EU as an example, but leaving out the debacle of the Balkan wars I’d say)
Rule of law
Education (the start of it all of course)

In short Mahbubani says Asia is succesful because they are adopting the things that are important to the West as well. The rise of Asia is now approaching the Islamic world from the east, which he said was surprising as he sees the modernization of the orient and Northern Africa as a more logical European task and influence.
The response he would like to see Europe make consists of four parts:
1) share power in bodies like the UN, IMF, Worldbank etc.
2) create a lasting strategic alliance with Asia (between EU and ASEAN primarily) and stick to it (unlike the last Asian economic crisis when Europe ‘walked away’)
3) create a long term vision towards the Islamic World (which he said should be a no-brainer given the mutual influence we had on each other over the centuries, with the Islamic world conserving Greek and Roman culture and knowledge through the European dark ages)
4) work towards a solution of the Palestine-Isreali conflict (now that both the Arab world and the Israelian PM seem to have grown tired of it all)

This posting is part of a series of postings on how our understanding and interpretation of cultural categories is shifting due to our use of the two infrastructures internet and mobile communication.
This posting is about Workplace

Candle factory, 1919 (from Dutch National Archive)

Workplace Is All About Access
In order to be able to complete your tasks effectively and efficiently you need to be in a place that provides easy access to everything you need for those tasks. That means access to the raw materials, the means of production, the finances, the knowledge, the information, the colleagues, the clients, and any other relevant stakeholder or object to your business. In the pre-industrial era this meant that your place of work and your place to live would often be the same, that other people plying the same trade would be located in each others vicinity, as would others in your ‘chain’ of production. And it would mean that as an artisan you would be located in a city, as population centers have creating access to virtually anything as a primary role.
In the industrial era, with its large immobile means of production, people needed to live right next to the factories. Only there could they perform their tasks. Urbanisation, and ‘workers neighbourhoods’ right next to factories inclined steeply in step with each smoke stack that was build.

Factory metaphor projected on the office: document conveyor belts

When our economy shifted to services more, and office ‘white collar’ jobs became more widespread, our behaviour didn’t change much. We built our offices just as we built our factories. Large buildings with machines replaced by large amounts of paperwork. Work processes were similarly arranged as in the factory, with typewriting rooms and long hallways of offices. And when computers (late 80’s) internet (late 90’s) and cell phones (mid 90’s) became commonplace in the workplace at first we carried on as before. But slowly more and more people are realizing that the fundamental rationale behind our work place organisation, access to all we need for our tasks, is being eroded.

Access in a Networked World
Internet and mobile communications are infrastructures with qualities that increase the accessibility of people and any digitally available artefact.
First anyone connected to these infrastructures has access to any digital artefact (albeit documents, pictures, video, music, data sets, maps, voice packets) that is shared anywhere else on that infrastructure. Anything that is shared is shared as a perfect copy, undistinguishable from its original. This removes any scarcity of important pieces of information, as Wikipedia has written as its mission on its banner. As librarians, music companies, teachers, book publishers, and archivists, have found out, it also removes the need for many middle men that see themselves as gate keepers around that scarcity, forcing them to reinvent themselves whether they like it or not. In short I don’t need to be in the same place as the dossiers, documents or other digital artefacts are stored that I need to do my work.

Second internet and mobile communications do not require a geographically fixed end point. Unlike with landline phone, railways, postal mail and other infrastructure, on the internet and mobile communication networks you are the end point. We are our own address. I don’t need to know where you are to reach you. You don’t need to be in a defined spot for me to have access to you. You don’t need to be in the next cubicle down for me to have acces to you. I don’t need to know where you are at all for you to be my colleague.

A suitable workplace

So if work place is about access, and as a white collar worker I can access any relevant document or any other person from anywhere, or as an artisan I can have access to customers from anywhere, then my work place can be basically any place. With ubiquitous access any place is as suited as any to stay in touch, sync and flow with my environment. With Wifi and coffee you’re all set. And it is showing in how we are organizing our work, impacting us well beyond the technology alone. Some examples:

Units of Business, Wirearchy
When access to the things you need to be effective at your work is ubiquitous, it becomes a lot easier to self-organize or to form ad-hoc groups around more complicated or complex tasks. It cuts down on the need of large overhead and hierarchical structures. I am a one man business, and work in different project teams for different clients. Those project teams have other members that are one man business as well.
None of us have managerial overhead, except for what is needed for the tasks at hand.
In fact the number of one man businesses is rising steadily. In the Netherlands they currently account for 50% of all businesses registered, and the expectation is that it will be 60% in 2 years time. The rapid growth in the number of these businesses started in 2000, right when both mobile communications (65% of all those above 17yrs old that year) and internet (75% of all businesses that year, 50% of all households) reached high penetration in the Netherlands. That year was the tipping point for access it seems. These independent people collaborate heavily: 60% of them regularly work with other independents, and another 25% want to do so.

In these collaborative settings hierarchy is replaced by networked structures such as wirearchies. We take on roles and tasks. I may be the project ‘leader’ in one project, and the ‘subordinate’ in another, but it’s always a role not a function, nor something permanently ‘attached’ to me. Because none of us is gatekeeper to the means of production or the needed resources, none of us can claim to be the ‘owner’ of the work, employing the others. In these teams there is mutual interdependence because only as a group could we have taken on the project. It shows in the places we choose as work settings; it is negotiated usually each time to fit what suits all participants best in relation to other obligations that impact their flexibility and mobility that day.

Work-Life Balance
Work-Life balance, in itself a recent term, used to be defined extremely simple. When you were at work, you were working. When you were not at work, you were doing the other things that made up your life.

A conference for my wife’s birthday. Work-Life balance?

Having a fixed location for your work, and other fixed locations for your other activities, there are very clear boundaries between them by the act of moving from one location to another. But with internet and mobile communications that boundary is blurring and disappearing. Reading work e-mail at home, booking your summer holiday over the office internet connection, different activities are now seeping and creeping into others.
Being used to link contexts to locations (because location meant access) since basically forever, we are learning to adapt to find a new way of balancing all our activities now that location as a determining factor is disappearing (because access is ubiquitous).

When you have access to almost everything from almost any place, your own priorities and the needs of those important to you are the only guidelines to strike a balance between your activities. I could read business e-mail during dinner with my wife, as could she. I could do some shopping in a meeting with a client, as could she. We couldn’t before, now we can, so we need to learn to decide to do something or not more often than we were used to. Those decisions are informed by the truely scarce things, such as face to face time with somebody, which requires you to really be in the here and now, or the things that still are actually bound to a certain location.

Internet and mobile communications create access where there was none, making forms of organisation possible that weren’t before, and decoupling the context you need for a task from fixed geographic locations. Because of it we are reshaping our work place, and our work place is shifting.

This is an article in a series of postings that explore how two new infrastructures (mobile communications and internet), and the affordances they bring, shift our perception of different cultural categories and concepts. Today: Shifts in empathy.

Empathy in a carton by Geoff Jones

The people closest to you
People are social animals. We love being connected to others. And through the ages we felt most connected to those directly around us. We feel closest to our family and to the community we are rooted in. A very tribal thing really, and deeply human. When our world became larger, we stayed close to our ‘tribe’, and if we happened to move to another location we would build our new connections right there. Because there was usually no way to maintain connection to your ‘old’ tribe.

How tight these connections can be (but also how suffocating at times) is demonstrated by stories not far back into history. In the early 1980’s I met an old woman in a small rural village at the Dutch coast. She had been living there for over 60 years. She originally came from a likewise small village about 15km to the west, called Dirksland. In the village she spent most of her life she was still known as ‘her from Dirksland’ after 60 years. So closely knit was local community that she could be seen as an outsider after more than half a century.

My paternal grandparents (both long gone alas) were part of a farming community until the mid ’60s, having lived there for about 40 years. This region until WWII was a largely moneyless society, where services and products were traded within a community geared to mutual help, trust and survival, called ‘noaberschap’ which simplest translation is ‘good neighborship’ but it runs deep with lots of meaning and tradition (at my grandmothers funeral when I thanked both ‘noabers’ and ‘neighbors’ seperately for their support of her, the audience murmured in approval of making that distinction as a ‘city boy’). When, after retiring from their farm, my grandparents moved to a village 8km away they explicitly kept their bonds to their old ‘noaberschap’, and also entered into the ‘noaberschap’ in their new village. It was highly spoken of that they were keeping up their obligations to two of these closely knit communities.  Because it is hard work, and it costs a lot of energy to be emotionally in sync with more than those directly around you. Your circle of empathy encompasses your close connections, your community. Within that circle you are accepted as a human being, and you accept others as human beings. Outside of your circle of empathy live ‘hoi barbaroi’, the strangers, the dehumanized ones.

However we have seen large changes in the radius of our circle of empathy in our recent history (19th and 20th century).

Students at Rottterdam University in conversation

Empathy and the nation state
In the 19th century the nation state as we know it came of age. Industrialization saw a massive rise in urbanisation, uprooting millions from their once tight rural communities. City neighbourhoods replaced them in part, but there they lived with people from all over the nation. They got to know people from every region of the country as human beings. Railroads, and daily newspapers shortened the distances within a nation. Making it possible to personally feel as part of a nation, to widen your circle of empathy to include all those within its borders.

Empathy and the internationalized world
The 20th century brought the entire world into all our scope of thinking. Airlines and the mass media shortened global distances and the time it took for global news to reach us. Cars and highways, and mass tourism let millions experience other countries first hand. But in most of our interaction with the wider world the nation state was our shorthand label for dealing with that world. We went to Germany or Austria for our summer holidays. Others to Spain, Italy, and France. To see another country, another nation. And when we were in those other countries we were Dutch, British, German, we were seen as representatives of our nation. When disaster struck somewhere around the world we extended our sympathy to nations, and responded with the nation state as middle man. Help Iran after the earth quake, Bangladesh after the flood, Egypt after the drought, Rwanda after the genocide. We built international structures by nations entering into agreements, like the UN and the EC. International and ‘mass’ are the key words of that era. We experienced the world through the middle man of nationhood. We recognized the world was inhabited by people, but our circle of empathy did not include those people.

New Infrastructure, You Are its Endpoint
Mobile communications and the internet are unlike other infrastructures that came before. They do not have a geographic location as endpoint. Railway stations, airports, harbours, mailboxes, old fashioned telephones, they all have a fixed location. When I need to reach you by train, plane, ship, mail, or landline phone, I need to know where you are. So I can put an address on my letter, dial the correct area code and phone number, or take a train to the station closest to you. Not so with internet and mobile communications. There you are the endpoint, your own address. I do not need to know where you are. When end points are geographical we think geographic. “I am flying to Portugal, to meet Pedro at SHiFT08”. When end points are people, I think people. “I am calling Pedro, to ask about SHiFT09”. But he may be anywhere when he picks up the phone or reads my e-mail message. That is why most mobile conversations still start with the question “Where are you?” Because we are still getting accustomed to this new reality that we simply don’t know where the other is, and haven’t realized yet that most of the time it is really irrelevant.

Lunch break conversations in Vancouver

Networked World of Globalized Individuals
Mobile communications and internet connect the world just as trains,planes, mail and landline phones did before. But they do so without geography, and the need for using the nation state as an intermediate or as a shorthand label is rapidly diminishing. Until two years ago name badges on international conferences would also contain your country of origin. None of the international conferences I attend(ed) in 2008 mention country anymore. Because it stopped being meaningful. (And I suspect it wasn’t a conscious decision to let country off the badges, but that it simply did not occur to anyone to put it on the badges). In a lineair world or situation you need hierarchy to organize things and having nations as the intermediate aggregate level to make sense of the world helps. In a complex world however the most abstract and the most practical level actually touch, and the individual and global level are connected directly. There having the default filter and aggregation on national level obscures your view of events. It keeps you from accessing the original source, the raw data, the original people involved. So while the nation state helped us to reach a global view, internet and mobile communications now allow us to see those nations as an artificial construct needed in a time when we did not have the technology to understand, and mentally could not understand a nation as made up of millions of individual people, each with their own character and qualities that got filtered out in the national aggregate. Now however we can. Our infrastructure now makes individual human beings not only visible but also accessible globally. The movement against globalization was largely a movement against nation states cutting trade deals without looking at individuals. Industry’s was a heartless globalization, it lacked empathy. No wonder lots of people saw it as dehumanizing. Our new infrastructures are working a new globalization however, a globalization of individuals. And it includes empathy as a prime ingredient.

Empathy in a Networked World
In a globally connected world, where those connections are between individuals and not nations, we can take in the news of the world from individual people. When there were forest fires in California, I did not hear about it first from mass media, I received a smoke filled picture in my e-mail from somebody I know, that he took from his balcony that morning. When bombs exploded in the London Underground, I called up a friend in the city to hear if he was ok. When trying to get a feeling of how the election of Barack Obama was received in the US (after urging all my American contacts and friends to go vote earlier), I did not check the headlines, I watched video of people celebrating on YouTube, read personal stories in blogs, read Twitter messages, and watched pictures in Flickr. Stuff people simply directly shared from their mobile phones. There is a big difference between a headline ‘US celebrates election results’ and seeing the personal photos of 2 dozen people celebrating on the side walks of LA, or a video of 40 or so college students singing the US national anthem in front of the White House and partying. I don’t know all these people but they share a slice of their life. Which makes them human beings to me, and makes their story useful to make sense of the world around me. This type of directly connecting does not just apply to news, it applies to all of our exchanges. The son of a colleague is a longtime player of World of Warcraft (WoW). One of the people in his Guild (the tribes you form in WoW) died (in reality). All he knew about this guy was from the exchanges in WoW, but the mourning was real. They held a service for him in WoW.

Does this mean that all 6.5 billion people in the world now make up my circle of empathy? No. But they potentially do. Because as soon as I have direct interaction with them they do. We are forming new villages, new communities just as tight and tangible as the ones my grandparents lived in, but they’re globalized villages, where the people that make up those villages are spread around the globe. It allows me to be firmly rooted both in local community as well as in a globalized community. Our new infrastructures make direct interaction with people anywhere possible, and make group forming very easy. Because of it our circle of empathy is shifting.

About two months ago I wrote here about how to celebrate diversity. I mused whether such a discussion might find a place at Reboot. Well it did and it does. Together with Lee Bryant and Martin Roell, the three of us will be hosting an open conversation session on diversity. We will try to keep things practical, and also very much welcome all contributions in terms of suggestions, questions and remarks in the wikipage of the Reboot site. Reboot takes place next Thursday and Friday in Copenhagen.
Basic premise behind the idea to have this session is that the cultural, lingual and historical diversity within Europe is a unique characteristic that can be leveraged as the driving force in working towards an innovative culture. It allows us to find a future oriented course that is not formulated defensively in relation to e.g. the USA and China. The latter is I think predominant in current discussions about innovation and a knowledge driven economy. We are in a position to employ our unique differences for creating value, because we have spend the last 50 years building enough common ground and trust to start from.
Head on over to the Reboot wiki if you like and add your thoughts.
Update: Nicole Simon recorded a Preboot podcast interview with me.