Working in an Always-On World

What will work be like ten years from now?

3 min read

The atmosphere at this year’s Fortune Brainstorm Tech meeting, held in Pasadena in July, was unsettled. Unlike previous Brainstorm Tech meetings, which more often than not have been feel-good events, this gathering saw a steady stream of magnates from publishing, advertising, marketing, and technology approach the stage to analyze the storms besetting their industries and predict what the next silver linings will be.

Entertainment and publishing giants like Walt Disney Co., Sony, and News Corp. are struggling to figure out how to make money in a world where people are served up an endless buffet of free news, information, and entertainment, anywhere, all the time. Public relations and marketing firms are scrambling to respond to the Twitter/Facebook effect, which lets companies talk directly to consumers and vice versa, 24 hours a day, without having to go through flacks and marketers.

Telecommunications and computer companies as always are striving to deliver the most flops or baud in the smallest, cheapest, cleverest appliances. But now they’re doing it in an environment in which anything less than a killer app has a shelf life of less than a year. Ouch.

Even politicians are chastened. Speaking at the meeting, former U.S. presidential candidate Howard Dean said that while President Obama’s use of new Web tools put him in the White House, these same tools have the potential to “put politicians out of business.” Citizens, Dean went on to say, may not need politicians to get things done anymore. They can organize for themselves, whenever and wherever they want to.

Into this subdued setting came Ray Kurzweil, inventor, entrepreneur, and technological optimist, to deliver a bracing rendition of his well-known thesis about the exponential advance of semiconductor technologies and their impact on technological innovation. What used to fit in a building, Kurzweil is fond of saying, now fits in your pocket, and what fits in your pocket today will fit inside a blood cell in 25 years. Such advances will continue to fuel a wealth of smart, intercommunicating devices that will allow us to improve our health and our world. They will ultimately lead in the next 20 years to what Kurzweil and his cohorts call the singularity, the moment when machines will achieve consciousness and humans will begin to lead indefinitely long lives.

But what does a daily life look like for the rest of us? What will work be like in 10 or 20 years?

Some say it will be a lot like it is today, only more so. Organizational theorists like Thomas W. Malone, of MIT’s Sloan School of Management and author of The Future of Work, believes that any job that involves parsing or creating knowledge will be carried out by “e-lancers” who will rarely go to an office. No more sweating in traffic jams, but the already-shrinking divide between work and personal life will continue to disappear.

Others think offices will remain important, but that embedded sensors and intelligent agents, combined with high-powered search technologies, will make some kinds of knowledge work obsolete. Machines will research, collect, sort, update, and weight information. People will decide what to do with it next.

Kurzweil (and no, he’s not a game developer) has said that video games “are the harbingers of everything” and thinks that in the next decade or so “full-immersion” virtual reality games will be widely used for business and pleasure. And if computer networks get powerful enough, meetings really could go virtual. “Attendees” would simply project their charts, data—and themselves—as if they were all there for real. What a nice change from the huddle-around-the-speakerphone weekly staff meeting!

This all made me think of a prescient article IEEE Spectrum published nearly a decade ago by Professor Philip Agre of the University of California, Los Angeles, called “Welcome to the Always-On World.” It described how new communications technologies would push human relationships to evolve in potentially unnerving ways: “The always-on world…is a world of freedom, but it is also a world of anonymous global forces that ceaselessly rearrange all relationships to their liking. We don’t understand this world very well, but we will soon have plenty of opportunity to study it firsthand.”

Well, our always-on world is now here, and it’s clear that it deserves plenty of scrutiny. While the benefits of our wired-up transnational society are many, the “existential downside,” as Kurzweil calls it, merits our concern.

This article is for IEEE members only. Join IEEE to access our full archive.

Join the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and applied sciences and get access to all of Spectrum’s articles, podcasts, and special reports. Learn more →

If you're already an IEEE member, please sign in to continue reading.

Membership includes:

  • Get unlimited access to IEEE Spectrum content
  • Follow your favorite topics to create a personalized feed of IEEE Spectrum content
  • Save Spectrum articles to read later
  • Network with other technology professionals
  • Establish a professional profile
  • Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
  • Discover IEEE events and activities
  • Join and participate in discussions