First Principles | Future tense for ‘The Office’
Bob Johansen, a professional futurist, says that as a “technology”, current offices are on the verge of obsolesce.
Ten years from now, offices will not exist in their current avatar. Instead, there will be ‘officeverses’. Imagine these as virtual universes that people visit to get work done so they can interact with each other using their virtual reality devices. Here, they can create avatars of themselves and engage in all kinds of activities that ‘feel real’. This, Bob Johansen says, is inevitable, because, as a “technology”, current offices are on the verge of obsolesce. People will “soon forget what it is to work like we do right now”.
Johansen is a professional futurist — the kind of person who looks at what may happen by picking up signals from the past and the present to understand how the world unfolds. The future of work and offices is the theme of his most recent book, Office Shock published last month. “The traditional office is a social and physical technology that no longer works for many people. We cannot go back to the office the way it was, and the path forward is not at all clear,” is an argument he makes over a video call from the study of his home in California.
Affiliated to the Institute for the Future (IFTF), there is much else he predicts. We will all be cyborgs soon — part human, part machine. If that sounds out of whack, he argues we consider, Artificial Intelligence (AI). But he has a quibble: Those who came up with the term ‘Artificial Intelligence’ in the late 1950s did a terrible job of framing the term. If only they had called it ‘Augmented Intelligence’, he laments, most people would have embraced the idea by now. By way of example, he says, how as a professional writer, he had read the writing on the wall and had incorporated GPT-3 into his work before it went mainstream. It’s only now that people are beginning to understand the import of it all.
Johansen is the kind of person who thinks about how technology can augment other aspects of his life as well. That is why he suggests we consider the sensors in the devices all of us carry to see how it will impact our future. These sensors are there in the smartphones and the smart-watches strapped to our bodies. It won’t be too long before the sensors in these devices get implanted under our skin and it will be considered totally routine. While most people may think of it as an invasion of privacy, in the longer run, “we will give up a part of our privacy for the convenience it offers”, he argues. The outcomes could be access to better medical care, to begin with.
Johansen has been a futurist for 50 years now so the inevitable question comes up: How often has he got things wrong? “Almost 80% of our predictions have come true.” That’s pretty darned good. But the sceptic in me refuses to rest. Is it possible that Johansen is predicting the future of offices from the eyes of a Westerner? For people in lower-income and middle-income countries where living space is at a premium, offices are often seen as one of those places you go to for a certain liberation.
Turns out, it is something he has given thought to. “The pandemic was deeply inequitable. Some people had access to places such as home offices and spaces while others did not.” The young people who were a witness to this inequality and experienced it, are watching. It matters because “for the first time in human history, young people in the age group of 24 and under make up the largest portion of the global population.” They are angry and are becoming politically active, says Johansen.
While this may not be evident on the ground, Johansen makes the point that their voices can be heard on the web. It is where they now interact with each other and seek diversity. So, much like ‘officeverses’, other universes will emerge where people socialise with each other, form relationships, and even decide the future of governments. Meanwhile, he warns, there will be gut-wrenching change over the next decade. That is why he has a piece of advice based on his expertise: “Be clear about your intent, but be flexible about how you want to go about it.”