Why the Future Isn’t as Scary as You May Think

July 2, 2013 Darcy Jacobsen

In 2000, Sun Microsystems Chief Scientist Bill Joy wrote a now iconic article in Wired Magazine called “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.” Joy famously argued that emerging technologies like genetic engineering, nanotech and robotics (GNR) will make humans obsolete. Digitally created GNR technologies, said Joy, are self-replicating, and therefore unlimited in their scope and impact.

Joy suggested that if these technologies became out of control, they would threaten the very existence of the human race. Humans, he said, should limit or even outright abandon GNR technologies in order to prevent the possibility of a terrorist catastrophe, robot invasion or a grey goo scenario.

It is terrifying and fascinating stuff.

“The only realistic alternative I see is relinquishment: to limit development of the technologies that are too dangerous, by limiting our pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge.”

That’s what Joy said about GNR in 2000.

In a lot of ways, this is how some companies look at the growing importance of using technology and people networks at work. Companies who cling to the past seek to stifle the internal networks that arise or are slow to see their potential.

But the importance of empowering communication and relationship building not just from leadership to employees, but from employees to employees and from employees to leaders cannot be overstated. (When I say people networks, I really mean social networks, but I don’t want them to be confused with social media networks like Facebook.) Using technology to connect people is creating a pool of data and a network of connections that is able to supercharge today’s businesses.

“Everyone to everyone” networking,  communication and recognition is a critical tool in the arsenal of the most agile and forward thinking companies. It is a key element in some of the best and most attractive corporate cultures. This is because it creates open lines of communication and data that lie in the hands of employees themselves, and that enable companies to move quickly and creatively to find solutions that are more evident to the crowd than to any one person in it.

But let’s face it, to some companies, this is almost as scary as a robot uprising.

When it first emerged, many leaders saw people/social networking, crowdsourcing and the wisdom of crowds as something to be cautious of—much like Bill Joy saw GNR technology in 2000. Putting so much power into your employees’ hands necessitates a certain letting go and trust that the system will work without 100% top down control.

Crowdsourcing itself represents a profound shift from a unilateral past into the multilateral future. A shift from top down communication and data sharing to networked communication and data sharing.

Consider this chart from Eric Mosley’s new book The Crowdsourced Performance Review, which shows four different models for how we can communicate in the workplace. The bottom two squares are probably the oldest styles. “One to one” and “one to many” communication are as old as work itself. The “many to one” model probably really came into its own in companies in the late twentieth century, and represents the height of many companies today, who conduct engagement and satisfaction surveys regularly.

Eric gives examples of how each communication styles might look:

Image of four different models for how we can communicate in the workplace

The “many to many” network has been a tough leap for many companies. Leaders who maintain a twentieth century style see in it a loss of control that can be unsettling, as you free employees to tap into their intrinsic motivation and their own empowerment. They contribute their own energy and data back  into the aggregate—motivating and driving one another in a self-replicating way that brings to mind Bill Joy’s concerns about GNR.

Here’s how that plays out, according to Eric’s book, in performance management, where the older modes of communication have become stagnant and ossified, and the many-to-many model is the best hope for obtaining real-time, relevant data to drive results:

Image of four different models for how we can communicate in the workplace part 2

We’ve evolved from the year 2000, and we’ve begun to realize that these changes bring with them far more benefits than concerns. Today, we have a growing understanding of the importance of self-empowering people networks, and an appreciation for how critical it is to tap into the observations and discretionary effort of our employees.

It is that effort that moves our businesses forward in ways that are exponentially more efficient and creative than anything we could do the old way.

It’s easy to get caught up in the fear of new and powerful tools, but consider that by 2006, even Bill Joy had evolved some of his views— today he is a venture capitalist, investing in GNR technology companies. He has suggested that using the free market (a form of crowdsourcing) and encouraging personal accountability are two ways to control the dangers of new technology.  “We can’t pick the future,” said Joy, “But we can steer it.”

So take heart. The future isn’t as scary as you might think. In fact, it is filled with possibilities. And if you want to read more about the power of people networks and crowdsourcing, I recommend picking up a copy Eric’s book.  (He talks about the power of networking in Chapter Two.)

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy these companion posts:

Future of Work