cooperation makes us human

Automation of procedural  work is accelerating. What was considered knowledge work yesterday will be routine tomorrow, and workers will be replaced by software and machines. At the same time, access to real-time data is making individuals more powerful, and managers obsolete.

“Startups are nimbler than they have ever been, thanks to a fundamentally different management structure, one that pushes decision-making out to the periphery of the organization, to the people actually tasked with carrying out the daily business of the company. And what makes this relatively flat hierarchy possible is that front-line workers have essentially unlimited access to data that used to be difficult to obtain, or required more senior managers to interpret.” – WSJ 19 April 2015

Fewer people are needed to do “the daily business of the company”. Machines and software help us get things done more efficiently. They can help us see patterns. Many current jobs will be done better by machines sometime in the near future. We should not try to work more like machines in order to compete with them. We should focus on being more human.

Artificial intelligence is not artificial creativity. Only people can be inspired. Often this inspiration comes through serendipity: happening upon and seeing new connections. As Steven B. Johnson wrote, “Chance favors the connected mind”. Our social connections make us human. Interconnected people have the ability to adapt to a world dominated by machines and algorithms.

In a world where our social networks provide the safety net once afforded by institutions and organizations, a different form of work behaviour is needed. Companies and managers may promote the need for better collaboration, but it only profits their small worlds. Collaboration is working together for a common purpose. That purpose is usually provided by someone with positional authority. It is not often the common purpose of those assembled for the task.

On the other hand, cooperation is sharing freely with no expectation of direct reciprocity. We cooperate because it makes us feel better and humans are hard-wired through our evolution to cooperate. Cooperation is a necessary behaviour to be open to serendipity. It also encourages experimentation through new connections. Cooperative behaviour contributes to society, not the narrow objectives of the organization. As companies come and go, at an ever faster rate, the social relationships between people remain. When one person loses a job, it is the social network that will find other work. Contributing to the social network is good in the long run. It also requires a long term view, not a focus on quarterly results.

Cooperation makes us human. We can never be better computers. People can not become more efficient than machines. All we can do is be more empathetic, more passionate, more creative. Our social connections reflect and reinforce our humanity. Cooperation is social. Collaboration is a temporary agreement to get something done. Amongst trusted people, collaboration is the easy part. Machines cannot cooperate.

As the nature of work keeps changing, fueled by the nano-cogno-techno-bio revolutions, trying to be more productive is a fool’s errand. We need to be more social. As we look for our next way to earn a living, our résumés may be machine-readable, but our social networks will reflect our real value. In the near future, our relationships will be predominantly informal & networked, doing work that derives from opportunity-driven & cooperative connections. The rest will be done by the machines.

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