In 1909, E M Forster – not exactly known for a body of work including dystopian fiction – published a novella called The Machine Stops. You can read it here but the story describes a future in which people live below ground, in isolation but with all their needs met by an omnipresent Machine (you can see where this is going).
People are allowed to travel, but tend not to and instead communicate and share ideas entirely through technology. Some are not satisfied with this life, including the protagonist Kuno who on a call to his mother says “I want to see you not through the Machine. I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.”
As so often in this kind of fiction, Kuno rebels against the strictures of society, visiting the surface without permission to find people living without the Machine. Soon, those in isolation are forbidden from travelling to the surface completely and the Machine becomes the quasi-religious focus of life for those below ground.
Over time the Machine starts to develop defects and eventually fails completely, taking civilisation with it, leaving the main characters to conclude that people should never have left behind their connections with each other and the natural world.
There are obvious parallels between this and our current circumstances, but there are always problems with this kind of narrative, not least its underlying conservatism and yearning for a possibly mythical past.
However, it’s also possible to discern the religion of tech – what Forster calls Technopoly in the story – in some of the reactions to life and work under lockdown. I’m not going to dwell on these except to say that the problems with some of the claims being made for a world of isolated individuals connected almost entirely by tech are the same now as they were in Forster’s imagination over a hundred years ago.
These are often driven by vested interests such as this piece in The Guardian and draw entirely the wrong conclusion about where we go from here. You have to hope that organisations don’t act on this kind of stuff, just as they shouldn’t assume we’ll just go back to work as before.
Having it both ways
Fortunately, some powerful and already understood narratives are gaining widespread acceptance as we emerge from lockdown. These acknowledge the benefits of isolation while also highlighting the advantages of travelling to the surface, even though what we find there should be different.
The office of the future is not a single location; it is a network of spaces and services
Jennifer Senior highlights the benefits of travelling to the surface in this New York Times piece, while also acknowledging the dangers of placing too much emphasis on work as a source of meaning.
Working from home doesn’t necessarily shield us from the more troubling aspects of office life, as Anna Shields points out in this piece about how conflicts with colleagues aren’t necessarily sorted just because we don’t bump into them in the kitchen at work.
Many of the best informed commentators are refreshing their existing ideas about how we blend the different times and places we work into something that takes advantages of their different pros and cons. Lisa Picard makes the point clear in this piece, arguing that we don’t need to choose between the Machine and the surface. We can have both.
I’m not even sure why this needs emphasising, but it does in the face of a tsunami of nonsense about the death of the office. We have more than two options.
The most likely outcome of this new era will not be no offices, but better offices. These will be integrated into a new system of work which takes place in different times and places depending on people’s needs and those of the organisation. As Dror Poleg writes in his book Rethinking Real Estate, published pre-pandemic but more relevant than ever, “The office of the future is not a single location; it is a network of spaces and services”.
As the machine stops and we visit the surface again, this is the most important lesson we can take from our lives underground.
This piece was originally published in June 2020.