Survival Skills for Tough Times
President, NetForm International
“The present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space. We are in the epoch of simultaneity: We are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed. We are at a moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing though time than that of a network that connects points and intersections with its own skein.”
— Michel Foucault, Diacritics, Spring 1986
Surviving the savannahs of the new economy may be just as treacherous as leaping from tree to tree in the jungles of old-economy corporate takeovers. But our ancestors evolved on the savannahs, so perhaps we can learn a few lessons from their experience. First lesson: Look up. Second lesson: Look past. Third lesson: It’s the technology, stupid! With the new tools of a changed economy — laptops, cell phones, pagers — the real workplace is often usurped by virtual work space on the Internet.
Fifteen years ago, Michel Foucault saw the change coming. His philosophical oeuvre traces that transformation from the concept of simple location of the body in 17th-century physics, to a fixed location of a disciplined individual in the 18th century, and finally to the regulated workplace of the 19th century. As befitting any good archaeologist, Foucault field-tested his theory and pieced together a site analysis that included an architectural examination of prisons, factories, asylums, hospitals, and schools.
Each of the institutions he investigated was designed so that its inhabitants were placed in a line of cells or cubicles, side by side, forming a sort of corporate suburb. As a result, each individual became fixed in his place. We can observe this phenomenon today by walking into any corporation or university. Hidden away behind partitioned offices are the modern workforce’s rank and file, who are disciplined by 20th-century corporate architecture to become docile drones, disciplined to serve.
Unwittingly, we have caged and enraged ourselves. The Dilbertian cubicles in which we make our nests are the result of reducing space to its barest economic essentials, just as the production factory eliminated extraneous human movement to ensure robotic efficiency and accuracy. The errors are obvious in hindsight: Managers soon discovered that manufacturing processes benefit more from smarter machines than from another pair of hands. And we found that the deprivation of space sinks a human to a nasty and bureaucratic existence.
Is it any wonder that the vast savannahs of the new economy gave us a sense of newfound freedom? Instead of becoming a vanishing point in a warehouse of cubicles, we’ve become treasure troves of human capital in a new economy. Pundits theorized that the speed of Internet response time compensated for the vast distances between people. We achieved intimacy through immediacy. But that theory was undermined when research indicated that even those who sat in physical proximity continued to communicate through email. The virtual was becoming the preferred mode. Have we substantively moved away from our obsession with real estate to recapture a sense of communal, albeit electronic, flow — something we lost in the fight to claim the corner office?
I suggest that the new economy has not replaced our primordial need to be between. Rather, the information superhighway cut a swath through our parochial perceptions and permitted a new view from afar. It punctuated the evolutionary path we have traveled and let us see how we fit in space and time. Indeed, we have met a need over the Internet precisely because of the way we live in gated corporate suburbs. But as bland as that environment is, we are not likely to abandon physical propinquity nor our old institutions, because they still meet that primordial need for physical intimacy — that fluid sense of community and belonging that is inexorably linked to the raw territorialism of our hominoid forbearers. Virtuality simply added another dimension to the space-time continuum. It cast a spotlight on the sterile corporate office where a troglodyte bureaucrat trumps an unconventional brain any day of the week.
If this is so, then virtual work becomes very important.
Karen Stephenson is a professor of managment and the president of NetForm, a firm that provides business solutions for locating and leveraging organizations’ most costly asset: human knowledge capital. Internationally recognized in network theory and practice and the recipient of many awards in innovation, Stephenson has coproduced five videos on the subject, has published widely, and has been featured in newspapers and magazines. Her past appointments include 10 years at the UCLA Graduate School of Management, visiting scholar at the MIT Sloan School of Management and visiting professor at the Imperial College at the University of London.
Patience. Patience. Patience. And she wants it now!
- Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison
By Michel Foucault
- The Savage Mind
By Claude Levi-Strauss
- The Prince
By Niccolo Machiavelli
- The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies
By Marcel Mauss
- The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties Toward Mankind
By Simone Weil