Ethnography Report 2 | The Future of Work

Since my last report on February 27th, 2021, I dove in to threads and the SSNA to unpack the subject of the future of work in more detail. I also met with one of our community managers, @MariaEuler to discuss her experience of coordinating the NGI platform for the last 18+ months and what she has been observing in the process. Maria and I talked about a whole range of issues from remote work and co-working, freelance work and the gig economy, start-up culture, the promise of open source models, the precarity of academia (which hit a little too close to home for me!), project funding, advertising and content moderation, work in the time of Covid-19, the future of work and AI, as well as the ways in which ‘classic’ labour models are shifting in the digital age. We talked about the values we place on different forms of labour and how new emerging business models are striving to re-frame our priorities, particularly when it comes to empowering local communities and female entrepreneurs and facilitating childcare. During our virtual meeting, we addressed a broad range of pressing topics, each of which should ideally receive its own report. However, I will devote today’s ethnography report to a select few of the topics we covered and leave the rest for future reports (indeed, there is quite a lot to say about the future of work, and will therefore need some spacing out). Thankfully, many of the topics Maria and I addressed overlap a great deal, particularly when it comes to the ways in which community members situate their expectations for more equitable, safe and flexible working conditions – aided in large part through digital technology.

Let us begin by briefly considering the kind of work we do on this platform, and what his kind of work allows us to observe. When I spoke with Maria she described how her vantage point as a community manager allowed her to at once facilitate interaction, mediate discussions and help build spaces for members to network and collaborate. This embeddedness over the course of the project also means that community managers and the @nextgenethno team have a longitudinal view of community interaction over time: we were able to trace how projects are started and developed and how new collaborations are formed. We get to hear about the challenges our community members faced applying for funding, informing policy, developing new digital tools and building sustainable alternatives to our current models. In this way, we are observing how a range of experts are building the future of the internet in real time. As I mentioned in my last report, the NGI platform is composed of international experts including financial analysts, academic researchers, authors, open source software developers, founders of co-working associations, virtual meeting room developers, environmental tech practitioners and entrepreneurs. Most of our community members are themselves working outside of ‘standard’ employment models: many of whom are self-employed, freelanced or otherwise engaged in remote or independent work. Expertise thus derives from the lived experience of working within these sectors. I flag this here, because this is the vantage point from which I write today’s report. To make clear that when I talk about the future of work, I am describing the very specific kinds of labour our community members discuss and themselves engage in.

At the crux of all conversations on platform lay the core questions: as we look toward the future of work, what are our values? How do we ensure that our values are represented going forward? What do we need digital technologies to allow us to do as we attempt to redefine our working conditions? How can tech intervene to shape the future of work?

These key questions evoke a sense of future orientation in which, sitting before the tools we have available to us in the present, we consider how they may be employed (or discarded) in order to actualise their potentiality. In my last report I discussed how notions of the future often carry with them elements of possible utopian and dystopian outcomes. Though I do not adopt a strict utopia-dystopia binary here, it does prove helpful to draw on these concepts in order to frame the ways in which the NGI community positions itself in relationship to the future. In my observation, it is precisely because so many of our members are themselves engaged in tech that we find a quite a lot of optimism around the impact of digital technologies on the ways we live and work.

As I have found, a great deal of hope is invested in the role of digital technologies within the future of work. Hope, as anthropologists Rebecca Bryant and Daniel M. Knight (2019) note, describes a kind of futural momentum, “a way of pressing into the future that attempts to pull certain potentialities into actuality” (2019:134). Hope thus allows us to envision things that do not presently exist, but that potentially could: the otherwise-than-actual. And this potentiality, in turn, spurns new forms of hope. As the philosopher Ernst Bloch (1986) famously described, such hope-filled orientations toward the future (toward utopian futures) present a view towards the not-yet possibilities that we have yet to unlock. In this sense, the question is, how do our experiences of work in the present shape our orientations towards work in the future? And, what kind of hope do we invest in emerging forms of work, collaboration and community formation going forward?

One key theme that has emerged around these questions is the notion of co-working. In many ways, this theme encapsulates a core desire to fundamentally unpack and re-imagine what it means to work together. From designing new digital platforms for individuals to work together remotely, to facilitate meetings and the sharing of knowledge and resources, to envisioning new ways of working and collaborating, and empowering new generations of entrepreneurs.

Let’s return to the four categories I introduced at the beginning of the last report: our on-platform discussions tease apart the various dimensions behind the notion of work. The SSNA offers a visual map of the ways in which work is understood, and which I defined across four categories 1) work as space (physical and social) , 2) work as movement (including mobility, access and agency) , 3) work as time (including notions of acceleration, slowness and constraint) work as process (legal, political, economic). While the categories I outline here do describe distinct domains, importantly, they are not static nor neatly separated. Instead, as I will show, they interact with each other dynamically.

Let’s use co-working as case study here.

Co-Working: A Blueprint for Future Work?

On platform we heard from several members who have themselves founded their own co-working and co-living spaces. Many detailed how these spaces quickly transformed from shared office environments and short-term living facilities into central sites of community formation, collaboration, socioeconomic growth and mobility, as well as networks of solidarity. In this way, the notion of co-working pushes the boundaries of the physical and social spaces in which we traditionally live and work.

If we think about co-working as situated in a physical space then we see that it is doing three things: On the one hand, co-working seeks to provide alternatives to the conventional office setting in which work is conducted. On the other hand, it offers a space for freelancers, ‘digital nomads’, entrepreneurs and a range of others engaged in the so-called gig economy – forms of work that typically do not begin in a traditional office environment. Finally, co-working facilities often provide physical spaces in areas where freelance, remote and independent work traditionally does not take place. In many ways co-working-as-a-concept is shifting how we think about where we work.

Our members have framed co-working spaces as providing freelancers and the self-employed agency and ownership over the places they work in and the means through which work is conducted. This can mean providing more flexible and equal access to a safe work space. Using Apps and other digital access tools, co-working spaces can offer room for a range of work styles and habits. Their often very mixed/open design including open-plan office spaces, communal areas, meeting rooms and individual offices accommodate all kinds of needs while allowing members to flexibly shift from individual to group work.

During the pandemic, global lockdowns and constraints on movement have brought the spaces we work in to the center of community discussions. With many moving their work from shared offices, schools and universities to at-home remote work (which I will return to later), community members find themselves confronted with the physical and social ramifications of everyday labour.

While in the past, even those of us engaged in freelance, entrepreneurial and remote work were often able to spatially separate the private, professional and social dimensions of our lives, many have discussed the ways in which their work and private lives have become compressed into one place. Or rather, we are now experiencing a new merging of public and private life. On the one hand, this means physically reorganising and repurposing the the spaces we live and work in and finding new ways to negotiate our professional schedules with child care, social interaction and personal wellbeing. On the other hand, as discussions around co-working have highlighted, this also means re-evaluating what we need the spaces we work in to do for us .

Before the pandemic, many of our members described how co-working, and indeed, co-living facilities provide physical spaces to those who would otherwise work from home, to those who work in disparate and mobile environments. In this way, co-working not only offers physical grounding, but it also provides spaces for collaboration, networking, sharing resources and producing new forms of knowledge and modes of empowerment. Some recent scholarship has suggested that the rise of co-working movements is as a response to precarity: “the social, financial and existential insecurities exacerbated by unstable employment in contemporary capitalism” (de Peuter, Cohen and Saraco 2017: 688). It can offer greater flexibility to those working in freelance sectors and, as some scholars argue, enable collective action (de Peuter, Cohen and Saraco 2017).

This view certainly seems to overlap with those of NGI members. To many, co-working offers a great sense of optimism around the future of work, as – to them – co-working is not a singular nor isolated project, but one that has broader, long-term impacts on local and global communities. Many also believe that the ideas behind co-working will shape how we work in other sectors, such as care work, nursing and trade professions.

Some argued that creating physical co-working spaces for freelancers was all-the-more important for local communities as these spaces spurned other forms of socioeconomic growth and resilience. Co-working spaces are thus seen as conducive to other forms of labour such as local businesses, including retail and the service/gastronomy industry which emerges around the physical co-working space. It can make economies more sustainable by providing revenue that can counterbalance the tourism industry, while relying more on local actors. It can also put pressure on local governments to improve their internet infrastructures, which is broadly beneficial to other kinds of work that take place in local communities. Finally, co-working can act as a support network for entrepreneurs (particularly female entrepreneurs), small business owners and start-ups, allowing them to build income security, and help distribute resources and opportunities in a more equitable way.

Crucially, as many of our members have pointed out, co-working is not just about space. In fact, several have argued that framing co-working in this way would limit the very idea behind it. As @JvdLinden points out, “what I see around me is that the notion of coworking as rental of event space or as rental arbitrage is not sustainable”(2020). Instead, @JvdLinden contends that co-working should be understood as the “infrastructure of future work” (2020), as setting the basic organisational structure of how freelancers work going forward.

While there is certainly cause for optimism here, it would be helpful to understand more about how co-working (as theory and practice) offers stability and social protection to workers who do not have the kind of security (stable income, insurance, pensions) provided to many in traditional employer-employee relationships. It is also important to flag that the growing development of co-working spaces – particularly in Europe – is also a major contributor to gentrification, which can further marginalise, rather than empower local communities.

In that sense, what are the responsibilities of co-working space owners/managers to, e.g. ensure safety and privacy to those using their spaces? What role do they play in larger-scale infrastructural, sociodemographic and economic changes outside of the co-working space? What do these visions of future flexible work mean for other sectors such as temporary, migrant and low-wage work?

What are the challenges and responsibilities of institutions, companies and organisations to facilitate new forms of co-working and and co-living that are more sustainable and equitable? What is the responsibility of governments – rather than third party actors – to safeguard freelance and gig-economy sectors from forms of exploitation and precarity?

Remote Work: Balancing Flexibility with Human Interaction

The onset of the pandemic has led many to re-evaluate their business models, with some shifting their attention to creating online co-working platforms and investing in digital tools that would make access to resources, work spaces and modes of collaboration easier and more flexible – no matter the physical location. The topic of remote work – which we have coded as ‘working remotely’ – dovetails into discussions around co-working, describing a number of working conditions/modes of working which have gained renewed emphasis during the pandemic. Since last spring, those of us who can work remotely have largely moved our offices into our homes (or similar safe working spaces). This means that we may no longer be commuting back and forth to work or university, we may no longer be traveling to different countries for work, and therefore much of our physical mobility is limited to a smaller radius of action than we have been previously accustomed to. Some businesses are seeing benefits to this: allowing people to work from home can shift agency and control to individual employees by enabling them to more flexibly plan their work day and manage their availability – this is particularly important for those with young children. And, as we have learned during the pandemic, it pushes us to re-evaluate what we go into work for: what can be handled online and what needs in-person attention?

Many businesses are now considering opting out of traditional office lease models in favour of more purpose-oriented, short-term venue rentals. This means the future of many working conditions may involve a mixture of remote, digitally-mediated work and in-person meetings that can be arranged through flexible space solutions. This balance between increased individualised, remote work and personal interaction seems to be key: a transition to remote-work-only is not a viable nor sustainable solution if we want to continue to ensure collaboration – which so much of freelance work relies on (not to mention the mental health ramifications of feeling disconnected from coworkers and colleagues). “Remote Work with human interaction is the way of the future”, says @jamieorr, and continues: “this pandemic has really accelerated the timeline on remote work , as many, many companies have had to quickly adopt work-from-home policies and stick with them for a pretty significant part of their workforce. The thing that I worry about the most is with all of the technological advances, is that if you lose the human interaction that we’re so used to both personally and professionally then the remote work experiment will fail”.

For many community members, the shift to online remote work has lead to acute experiences of social isolation as the familiar aspects of interpersonal contact take on new and, at times, uncomfortable forms. The challenge here is to foster human interaction while creating new ways to support people working from home. This also means revisiting what it means to work together, to collaborate and share resources. However, as Jamie’s point makes clear, developments around these working conditions have the potential of suddenly accelerating and taking us to new forms of work that we may not have anticipated. Moments of acceleration remind us that the models we operate with are transient: that they can evolve, but also quickly burn out. Time or timing in this sense means to seize the futural momentum in order to actualise the potentiality behind remote work. Remote work, as Jamie reminds us, is at its best a form of digitally-mediated human interaction, whereby advances in digital technology allow us to work flexibly while still staying connected to our colleagues, contacts and socio-professional worlds that make work meaningful, tangible, possible. It seems that many of the founders of co-working spaces we talked to on NGI are thinking about how their locations can accommodate for these kinds of shifts as we look toward a future of remote working.

Utopian and Dystopian Futures

When we talk about the future of work in a digital age, we might think of it in utopian and dystopian terms. Circling back to the idea of co-working, this kind of movement might operate as a utopian vision of the kind of working conditions many community members aspire to: more flexibility, more ownership, greater and more equitable access, increased collaboration and networks of collective action.

On the other hand some community members have discussed how things could go horribly wrong: there is a growing divide between those who are tech literate and those who are not, and those who do and do not have access to digital tools. There is also concern that a failure to properly regulate digital technologies and the industries that develop them will lead to further exploitative business practices and embolden Big Tech. Visions of dystopian futures often manifest as a fear over fully autonomous artificial technologies intervening with and obstructing our current working conditions in a way that fundamentally destabilises our access to work. Will machines replace us in many industries?

While fully autonomous forms of artificial intelligence are still largely a thing of the future, there are some forms of labour within tech that should make us very concerned about the present. This is not so much because machines are doing our jobs, but because we are often doing the work that is purportedly done by machines. In what is referred to as “ghost work”, scholars have described forms of labour in which humans work in very close proximity to machines and ML/AI systems in really complex and problematic ways (Gray and Suri 2019).

This brings me to an area of work which some members have flagged, but does warrant further examination: content moderation. Members have talked about content moderation as one of the most precarious forms of tech labour. This is largely because content moderation is a notoriously underpaid and under-regulated sector. In many ways its a great gig for students, young professionals, and stay-at-home parents etc, but there is a dark side to this form of labour in which humans are tasked to manage on-demand work that helps companies develop AI and algorithmic models. Gray and Suri define this kind of ghost work as “labor conditions that fail to see or intentionally devalue people’s collective contributions to our economy and society” (2019), meaning humans often quietly and invisibly shoulder a disproportionate amount of the costs in the digital economy.

I flag this topic here because it demonstrates the complex and precarious ways in which human labour intersects with the development of digital technologies in often dangerous and exploitative ways. As we strive towards the future of the internet and all it encompasses, it is important that we address and challenge the ways in which current forms of labour are valued and safeguarded. This takes us back to the responsibilities of employers, companies and institutions more broadly. Work as process necessarily involves a consideration of top-level decision-making processes and the ways in which labour is regulated and governed. Underlying many of on-platform conversations is the question of how work is currently regulated and how these models should change in the future. The tension within this debate lies in building alternative labour models, while negotiating the often exploitative business practices, financial incentives and power imbalances which saturate many of our existing labour sectors.

As I look toward writing my next report, questions of regulation, safety and security become urgent points of inquiry: how might this current rush to build and deploy new digital technologies exacerbate existing inequities, how are they are exploited by powerful actors, and how can we as experts intervene?

7 Likes

There was definitely a hopefulness in the early part of the year. I wonder how the same folks would assess it now…how has remote working done in generating and executing ideas and projects entirely within the new remote paradigm? And of course nobody knows what we all “return” to.

One worry about fallout from the disruption of fewer returning to regular office work is the support network of service jobs for which there becomes less demand. What do those people do, since they aren’t necessarily going to become knowledge workers.

2 Likes