Reading notes (2020, week 49) — On why technosolutionism isn’t the fix, being human with technology, and the problem with (personal) productivity

Mark Storm
29 min readDec 3, 2020
Architecture studios B+H Architects, 3XN and Zhubo Design have revealed the design for a natural history museum that will be built in Shenzhen, China. The three studios’ competition-winning project, which is entitled Delta, was designed to have a curved, flowing shape that resembles the flowing form of a river. (Illustration courtesy of 3XN)

Reading notes is a weekly curation of my tweets. It is, as Michel de Montaigne so beautifully wrote, “a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”

In this week’s edition: We have become more trusting of immediate technosolutionist thinking to solve complex, evolving problems; how ‘doing technology well’ contributes to our hopes for leading an ethically good life; when personal productivity meets digital surveillance, it does real harm to workers; will we miss shared working spaces more than we think?; some excellent questions about whole-systems thinking; the pressing need for everyone to quiet their egos; two Augustan wings; the Japanese concept of ‘kakun’; and, finally, Madeleine Albright’s view on what divides us today.

Technosolutionism isn’t the fix

When the coronavirus began, the ability to communicate and work from home via videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Skype was hailed as a technological blessing, Christine Rosen writes in Technosolutionism Isn’t the Fix.

“But as the weeks of lockdown wore on, and virtual gatherings shifted from novelty to obligation, many […] began to confess to feelings of dread each time a new Zoom meeting appeared on their calendars. […] By the end of April, New York Times reporter Kate Murphy was explaining to readers ‘why Zoom is terrible.’ The disappointments she outlined were not technical — the platform had resolved its privacy and software glitches — but experiential. Murphy noted the unease she felt about her connections to others, even after hours spent talking to people through a screen, because she could not always interpret the subtleties of facial expressions and body language. ‘These disruptions, some below our conscious awareness, confound perception and scramble subtle social cues. Our brains strain to fill in the gaps and make sense of the disorder, which makes us feel vaguely disturbed, uneasy and tired without quite knowing why,’ she wrote.

In addition, as family birthdays, weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other life celebrations all played out across the same platform, the details of each began to blur for many people. Psychologists Gabriel Radvansky and Jeffrey Zacks have described the crucial role of ‘event boundaries’ in memory formation and cognition: ‘Events are at the center of human experience, and event cognition is the study of how people perceive, conceive, talk about, and remember them,’ Radvansky and Zacks write. But those events require clear demarcations to help us distinguish one from the other and form permanent memories of our experiences. During lockdown, our endless stream of Zoom business meetings and social meet-ups has had the effect of effacing those boundaries, flattening experience, and in the process altering the memories we will carry with us about this time of crisis — a small but not insignificant change.”

“Attempting to translate your old social habits to Zoom or FaceTime is like going vegetarian and proceeding to glumly eat a diet of just tofurkey,” Ashley Fetters writes in We Need to Stop Trying to Replicate the Life We Had. “But in this moment, it’s worth remembering that the options we have can be nourishing, too — and even satisfying, if we get creative enough. I suspect we’ll figure that out when we stop trying to pretend the tofurkey tastes just as good.” (Illustration by Israel G. Vargas for The Atlantic)

“It was the very swiftness and uncritical enthusiasm with which Americans [but certainy not only Americans] embraced an ‘easy’ technological solution to a complicated problem that suggests that we are becoming increasingly comfortable with technosolutionism, and not just during times of crisis. Such acquiescence seems understandable at such times, when uncertainty prevails, but as we continue to struggle to find our bearings, it is worth considering the significant choices we have already made with regard to technological problem-solving, and begin to contend with the consequences.

Technosolutionism is a way of understanding the world that assigns priority to engineered solutions to human problems. Its first principle is the notion that an app, a machine, a software program, or an algorithm offers the best solution to any complicated problem. Notably, the technosolutionist’s appeal to technical authority, even for the creation of public policy or public health measures, is often presented as apolitical, even if its consequences are often not. Technosolutionism speaks in the language of the future but acts in the short-term present. In the rush to embrace immediate technological fixes, [it often ignores] likely long-term effects and unintended consequences,” Rosen writes.

According to Rosen, we are, under the pressure of the pandemic, more or less resigning ourselves to a growing dependence on technosolutionism in two areas that shape our everyday lives: public health and education, both of which she explores further in her article for The Hedgehog Review. Two quotes…

On public health: “… once a crisis emerged, […] concerns were swiftly set aside or ignored in the name of promoting technosolutionist public health measures that promised greater safety and reduced risk with little evidence of their practical effectiveness and almost no debate about their dangers. Simple measures that had proven effective during previous public health crises — wearing a mask, washing your hands, keeping your distance — although repeatedly advocated by officials, were seen as merely perfunctory, and certainly not the most effective preventive measures.”

On education: “When students fall behind, it’s rarely the technology that’s blamed. It’s the lack of availability of the technology, or the lack of proper parental investment, that is said to be at fault. Such outcomes are particularly stark in the case of education, which technosolutionists rarely approach holistically — for example, ignoring the reality that many lower-income students rely on their brick-and-mortar schools not only for education but for crucial social support and nutrition.”

“Scholars such as Shoshana Zuboff have pointed out how everyday surveillance of the sort we have become accustomed to through our use of smartphones and the Internet can present dangers to individuals and to a free society in the long term. ‘The digital realm is overtaking and redefining everything familiar even before we have had a chance to ponder and decide,’ Zuboff has written. ‘We celebrate the networked world for the many ways in which it enriches our capabilities and prospects, but it has birthed whole new territories of anxiety, danger, and violence as the sense of a predictable future slips away,’” Christine Rosen writes in Technosolutionism Isn’t the Fix. (Illustration from Shoshana Zuboff on the Undetectable, Indecipherable World of Surveillance Capitalism, by Catherine Tsalikis; courtesy of the Centre for International Governance Innovation, Canada)

“As the pandemic experience has revealed, we have come to rely on our devices (and implicitly, to trust them and the companies that make them and track our use of them) far more than many of us might previously have realized. We have also become more trusting of immediate technosolutionist thinking to solve complex, evolving problems.

That trust is often misplaced. The early evidence from our experiments with automated contact tracing and online learning offer an object lesson — and perhaps a cautionary tale — about embracing technosolutionism. Critics of technosolutionism do not argue for a world without technology; on the contrary, they recognize that technical solutions to human problems have often alleviated suffering and encouraged human flourishing. But when such solutions are offered as wholesale replacements for human problem-solving, and dispatch with deliberative, democratic processes meant to ensure that they are implemented in a way that respects a nation’s values and protects citizens’ privacy, their efficacy becomes questionable,” Rosen notes.

“Yet there is reason for optimism about balancing the technological and the human. With our irrational impulses and self-delusions, we humans are the weak link in technosolutionist dreams of a more seamless society. But our weaknesses — including our unquantifiable unease about certain technologies and our persistent concerns about privacy — can also act as a firewall against the most aggressive forms of technosolutionism.

This is why we sometimes find ourselves questioning our marvelous tools without really knowing what is causing our unease. As Kate Murphy discovered […], there are answers to these questions: Researchers have found that video chats ‘inhibit trust because we can’t look one another in the eye. Depending on the camera angle, people may appear to be looking up or down or to the side. Viewers may then perceive them as uninterested, shifty, haughty, servile or guilty.’

Such disruptions in normal communication are tolerable if they are temporary, but Facebook and many other companies have already announced plans to keep their workforce remote until 2021, and others have plans to downsize physical office space in favor of distance work, lauding the public health benefits and flexibility for workers without fully exploring the downsides of eliminating in-person interactions with one’s colleagues.

Such large-scale social change should prompt us to ask larger questions: What kind of world do we want to live in when we emerge from these chaotic times? How much of that world will have been actively built with our input, and how much of it will have been constructed for us by engineers in ways that only in hindsight we will understand to have been foundational? What patterns of behavior and habits of mind do these solutions privilege over other ways of doing things? What are the likely unintended consequences?

The appeal of technosolutionism is understandable, particularly in a time of increased political polarization, social unrest, and, now, a public health crisis. Technosolutionism alleviates widespread anxiety by promising certainty when uncertainty prevails. It offers efficient responses to complex problems while eliding thorny questions of ethics, politics, or justice. It gives us the how without forcing us to ask the why.

A culture that embraces surveillance and technosolutionism is one that has abandoned trust. If we value a humanistic approach to solving problems, one that nurtures trust not only in our institutions and communities but also in each other, an approach that draws on the strength of that trust to rebuild, then asking those ‘whys’ is the first and most important step.”

Being human with technology

More on technology and videoconferencing from Robert O’Toole.

“Technology exists to expand and sustain our capabilities,” he writes in Zoom and gloom. “Therefore, doing technology well contributes to our hopes for leading an ethically good life: developing the right capabilities in the right ways — and using them for good ends.” According to O’Toole, this is one of the most pressing issues we have to deal with, as technology becomes ever more entangled into our lives. “But to do so successfully, we need to think more deeply and creatively, using techniques from the interdisciplinary field we call design research — applying a blend of psychology, philosophy, anthropology, engineering and aesthetics,” he writes.

“The impact of bad design is massive — multiplied across the billions of people striving to flourish online, not only when we need the technology as a stop-gap measure to alleviate disruptions to everyday life, but also when we want to use it for more socially progressive purposes. Videoconferencing, and the telepresence experience it can enable, promises to facilitate the formation of communities and partnerships that escape the boundaries of time and distance. It can even help us overcome social and economic barriers. School teachers, for example, can struggle to achieve meaningful dialogue with busy working parents. Governments are breezily assuming this is made easy with technology. Teachers are discovering the truth. But it could be better.

In many ways, the impact of the technology could be revolutionary. It could help us create and sustain capabilities of the kind identified by [philosopher Martha Nussbaum]. The more seemingly foundational capabilities, including ‘life’ and ‘bodily health’ are clear, for example, in enabling remote access to medical services. But videoconferencing could also expand the development of ‘senses, imagination and thought,’ ‘practical reason’ and ‘play’ through widening access to cultural and educational opportunities.” But in reality, sitting in a videoconference is often just painful.

“Is this as alien as living on the Moon, perhaps beyond the limits of human adaptability? Compared with this, life on the lunar surface would be bliss — calm and unpressured. Teaching through the medium of a small glowing rectangle has neither of those characteristics. Life is being squeezed through the low-bandwidth channel of webcam frames, text-chat streams, emojis and scheduled meeting time-slots. The simplifying effect of that compression acts only to increase anxiety, to make us all feel under pressure. This is not calm,” Robert O’Toole writes in Zoom and gloom. (Photograph: The French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace, together with members of his staff, during a six-hour video conference with EU leaders on March 26, 2020)

“The tech industry’s answer is to add more features. But that’s not sufficient, and most often makes things worse. To start with, we need theories about being human and, more precisely, being human with technology — theories that can guide us in designing better technologies and their use. This is nothing new. The philosopher Martin Heidegger redefined being human as ‘being there,’ amid the cultural, material and technical complex through which we make ourselves and are made by the world. He turned philosophy’s attention towards mundane tools, materials and practices: hammers, nails, wood. Basic tech. This is the ‘equipmental totality’ through which our projects are materialised, and which brings meaning to our lives,” O’Toole notes.

Heidegger is criticised not only because his ‘instrumentality’ can easily slide into viewing every aspect of the world, including people and animals, as mere equipment, but also because he presents a too-perfect picture of reality. In Entangled, the archaeologist Ian Hodder “counters Heidegger with the idea of being human as being ‘entangled’ with many diverse things, each of which has a life of its own. The anthropologist Tim Ingold has argued that we can understand humans only through the complexity of their entanglements. Being human is a mass of entanglements. Thinking, as the philosopher Andy Clark has argued in Being There, doesn’t take place in a perfect computer-like black-box processor within the brain, but rather happens through objects in the world. Cognition, especially creativity, is extended across and dependent upon a web of material things. This world of things doesn’t so much fit together into a totality. It temporarily aligns on journeys through time and space, snagging and slipping here and there. It’s not a perfect vehicle, but it works for us. And we can enjoy it.

We can even get pleasure and meaning from being entangled in things that don’t quite do what we expect, but that we can make sense of. Such things surprise and delight us in unpredictable ways. But we can still get a sense of direction, achievement and progress, even when things break down. Our entanglement with things holds us within a rich and flexible fabric, rewoven as we go. Out of this embeddedness, we gain an ability to cope, to adapt, to keep things flowing and create, because it feels real and worthwhile. The feeling of being entangled in real things gives us our sense of relationality, tension and agency — key human experiences. Videoconferencing needs to enable those experiences, not block them. How can we fit technologies to this messy, complex, entangled humanity? Designing for entanglements is the answer. We need to understand entanglement and technology.”

O’Toole goes on to explore how the experience of videoconferencing points towards the limits of human adaptability as well as to a liberating human capability that we must collectively cultivate and sustain — “as an innovative extension to the ethical framework Martha Nussbaum described in Creating Capabilities. As the designer Jon Kolko says in Well-Designed, we should adopt an ‘optimistic stance’ and ‘seek to explore the situation space, to see multiple potentials for improvement, and to always consider what might be’ through systematic empathy and ‘integrative thinking.’”

Calm matters in technology — “In an interview in 2014, [John Seely Brown] described how he and [Mark Weiser] were inspired to develop the idea of calm technology by reflecting on riding their motorcycles (modern BMW models with electronic rider aids). Since then, motorcycles have incorporated ever more sophisticated technologies for perfect engine management, braking, suspension, lighting, rider comfort and navigation. Almost every aspect of the experience is touched by hi-tech wizardry. But it’s not obtrusive. It can’t ever be obtrusive. Not only would obtrusive tech interrupt the experience of riding — the ‘flow state’ as the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it — but information overload and unexpected bike behaviours can kill,” Robert O’Toole writes in Zoom and gloom. (Photograph: John Seely Brown, 2014, by Talia Herman)

The virtual world is new and different, and not supportive of the kinds of correspondence that we are used to, O’Toole writes. With this, he refers to Tim Ingold, who “describes the experience of being in academia — as researchers, teachers and students — as moving together intimately through a complex environment in which we continually draw attention to things for each other, so as to gradually enrich our shared understanding and capabilities. Ingold calls this being in correspondence, as opposed to a linear transmission of information. Such relationships are established and smoothly maintained in the manner of people walking together, entering into spaces, marking transitions of focus, running through patterns of activity, noticing, gesturing towards and away from, in a way that gracefully manages the complexity of people and their differences. This comes so naturally to us in our everyday lives that we often don’t notice it happening, and can find it hard to describe — all of the tacit details without which academic life, and learning, would be impossible.” But in the virtual world, this isn’t the case. We can use emojis and mechanisms such as the raise hand button, but this just isn’t fluid enough to achieve meaningful entanglement across the void, says O’Toole.

Ideally, he wants people to interact with each other. In a real physical space, they would be turning towards each other, making eye contact, interacting with varying degrees of subtlety. In videoconference tech, this just isn’t possible. But what if we don’t start with the crowd, that big wall of faces, he wonders?

“Think about walking into a lecture theatre. Often, we bridge the transition into the space by chatting with one or a small group of people. Lecture theatres can seem inhuman, and perhaps that’s how we humanise them. I’ve noticed that people who enter the virtual room early and engage in this chat are more engaged and happier once the main session starts. They humanise it.” So perhaps we can piggyback on that experience by allowing participants to converse in small groups or even pairs, before moving into the bigger one, and see how the bonds made in the personal exchange aid interaction in the full conference room.

Despite O’Toole’s feeling that we have all lost a bit of our humanity, he still believes not all is lost. Through incremental improvements based on insights drawn from experience, we can “keep designing to humanise tech, and using tech to learn about being better humans.”

The problem with (personal) productivity

From the Getting Things Done movement to Microsoft’s Productivity Score [Microsoft apologises for feature criticised as workplace surveillance], when personal productivity meets digital surveillance, it does real harm to workers. Tim Leberecht wonders whether it is time to move beyond it?

In The Problem With (Personal) Productivity, Leberecht refers to a recent article in The New Yorker by Cal Newport, The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done, in which Newport argues that the focus on personal productivity allows organisations to delegate the responsibility and pressure of productivity down to the individual under the guise of autonomy. “The modern office worker,” he writes, “is inundated with quantified quarterly goals and motivating mission statements, but receives almost no guidance on how to actually organize and manage these efforts.”

According to Newport, “The knowledge sector’s insistence that productivity is a personal issue seems to have created a so-called ‘tragedy of the commons’ scenario, in which individuals making reasonable decisions for themselves insure a negative group outcome. An office worker’s life is dramatically easier, in the moment, if she can send messages that demand immediate responses from her colleagues, or disseminate requests and tasks to others in an ad-hoc manner. But the cumulative effect of such constant, unstructured communication is cognitively harmful: on the receiving end, the deluge of information and demands makes work unmanageable. There’s little that any one individual can do to fix the problem. A worker might send fewer e-mail requests to others, and become more structured about her work, but she’ll still receive requests from everyone else; meanwhile, if she decides to decrease the amount of time that she spends engaging with this harried digital din, she slows down other people’s work, creating frustration.

In this context, the shortcomings of personal-productivity systems like G.T.D. become clear. They don’t directly address the fundamental problem: the insidiously haphazard way that work unfolds at the organizational level. They only help individuals cope with its effects,” Newport writes, who ends The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done by saying:

“Whether or not coronavirus-driven disruption provides the final push we need to move away from our flawed commitment to personal productivity, we can be certain that this transition will eventually happen. Even if we convince ourselves that the psychological toll of overload culture is acceptable collateral damage for a fast-paced modern world, there’s too much latent economic value at stake to keep ignoring the haphazard nature of how we currently work. It’s ironic that [Peter Drucker], the very person who extolled the potential of knowledge-worker productivity, helped plant the ideas that have since held it back. To move forward, we must step away from Drucker’s commitment to total autonomy — allowing for freedom in how we execute tasks without also allowing for chaos in how these tasks are assigned. We must, in other words, acknowledge the futility of trying to tame our frenzied work lives all on our own, and instead ask, collectively, whether there’s a better way to get things done.”

“To really improve productivity — and to be honest about what it means — you first have to gain a level of organizational self-awareness to understand what work actually drives value at your company, and then direct employees towards these tasks. This is pretty straightforward for manual work (e.g. assembly lines), but extremely complex when it comes to knowledge work,” Ryan Fuller, the co-founder and former CEO of VoloMetrix, a leading people analytics company acquired by Microsoft in 2015, writes in The Paradox of Productivity. (Illustration by Timo Lenzen for The New Yorker)

“Digital technology, with its behavioral-change apps and myriad collaboration suites,” Leberecht notes, “has turned task-based personal productivity at the workplace into 24/7 self-optimization. Today’s knowledge workers do not suffer from total freedom, they suffer from a total lack of freedom. The tools of productivity have colonialized our most personal sphere: our selves.”

To produce increasingly means to collaborate. “There is nothing wrong with the idea of collaboration in and of itself. It’s an evolutionary distinction that sets humans (mostly) apart, and has brought us, just to give one recent example, breakthroughs in developing vaccines. The problem is that working together on so-called digital collaboration platforms is often merely symbolic, and that platforms like Slack or Guild, or any of the other collaboration tools that promise to democratize work and to make us more productive, often redirect our time to managing our workplace brand and persona, giving us merely the illusion of shared creativity and productivity.”

“[Slack] saps productivity. Intraoffice communication platforms like Slack were supposed to limit the time office workers spent yakking at one another by making the yakking maximally efficient. A 2012 McKinsey study said the adoption of these brave new task-management apps would increase productivity by 20 to 25 percent. Fat chance. If you widen a road to reduce traffic congestion, what generally happens instead is that you get the same level of congestion, only with more vehicles. Similarly, if an office opts for Slack because everybody’s email inbox is overflowing with crap, it’s magical thinking to believe that their Slack channels won’t soon be overflowing with crap, too.” — Timothy Noah in Down With Slack

According to Leberecht, we can explore several alternative paradigms: “from ‘regenerativity’ — the degree of external cost produced by one’s work and the amount of circular resources one creates for others and oneself, rather than mere task-related output — to the idea of a ‘naturalized workplace’ that views work as an emergent and fluid organic feature rather than something than can and must be predicted and managed in measurable units.

Perhaps we need a different language altogether: love and beauty instead of productivity and efficiency. ‘Work is love made visible,’ as the poet Khalil Gibran wrote, not love made measurable. Work is beautiful when it brings us closer together instead of just forcing us to collaborate. It is beautiful when it matches the true demands of the world with our own personal potential.

In this sense, beauty is not just an aesthetic but an ethical quality. We must produce more of it.”

And also this…

Despite their defining impact on the lives of generations, the office’s history is surprisingly under-documented, Hephzibah Anderson notes in The end of the office.

“Among the earliest examples is the building that today houses the Uffizi (it translates as ‘offices’) gallery in Florence, whose construction began in 1560. It was commissioned by Cosimo de Medici as the administrative and legal headquarters of the city, but the ruler understood, too, that it would help to instil a sense of common purpose while doubling as an emblem of his power. A perennial feature of the most ambitious offices — right up to those tall glass and steel towers bearing the names of big banks — is that they are built with a statement the boss wishes to make in mind. The convenience of the worker bees is only a secondary consideration.

But the modern office’s origins are altogether less grand than the Uffizi, and can be traced back to counting houses like the room in which Bob Cratchit clerks for Ebenezer Scrooge. ‘A dismal little cell’ Dickens calls it, ‘a sort of tank.’ These prototype offices weren’t always so grim: they were small, intimate spaces, in which employees and employers sat in close proximity — a distant cry from the human filing cabinets they would later become, with their hierarchical organisational systems.

Change arrived on the heels of the emerging industrial giants, which created added layers of administration; soon, burgeoning paperwork was demanding its own space. Increasingly, white-collar workers (shirts were costly so clerks would freshen up old ones with new detachable collars) were separated from their shop floor colleagues, using different entrances, and then different buildings. Early office workers may have been higher up the class ladder, but in his sharp survey, Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, Nikil Saval notes how they became figures of suspicion, especially in America, where they were perceived as unmanly. Not only did clerks dress the part of dandies, and with slender figures and pallid complexions to boot, they failed to produce anything. Instead, they reproduced, endlessly copying records and adding up figures that generated only more records and figures.

The existential disquiet that this stirred has haunted office life ever since, and it’s hard to think of a more striking visual depiction than the opening sequence of Billy Wilder’s 1960 film The Apartment. The office layout at the acutely named ‘Consolidated Life of New York’ is a distillation of the management theories of Frederick Taylor, an engineer whose mania for order and efficiency resulted in evenly spaced rows of workers who filled a single room — essentially open plan, white-collar sweatshops with noise to match once the telephones started ringing and the typewriters clattering. In order to make the vast plain of employees and their ant-like industry seem truly infinite, Wilder sat full-sized desks and actors at the front of the set, followed by suited children at smaller desks, then still tinier desks with little cut-out figures.”

“We can actually build buildings that respond to people rather than the other way around. Let the experiments proliferate, and let the people who are working in the spaces feel ownership over them, because without that collective and rapid experimentation — more design thinking and less design — we are not going to get better workspaces,” says Ethan Bernstein in an article in The Harvard Gazette. (Photograph: Billy Wilder and Jack Lemon on the set of The Apartment, 1960, unknown photographer)

“But look at The Apartment, and you’ll find a film that also captures some of the aspiration associated with office life. Before disenchantment sets in, Jack Lemmon’s character is sunnily hopeful of promotion, offering a reminder of how, especially in societies still throwing off the presumption that work would be in factories or on the land, the office was a focal point for dreams of respectable prosperity and upward mobility. For a while, it was an equaliser — at least superficially. It allowed everyone to become middle class; it allowed women to enter the peacetime workforce, enabling them to forge an identity outside the home.

Since Wilder made his film, employee churn has sped up. Few folk stick with an employer long enough to become a company man (or woman), and promotion is as often as not achieved via a strategic hop to another company. This heightened agility is just one of the ways in which culture — societal and corporate both — has made the rigidity of the office feel increasingly outdated. The holistic vision pushed by today’s wellness industry, added to millennials’ hunger for varied experiences over promotions and material acquisitions, were undermining the traditional regimens before technology rendered working remotely so practical. Now the pandemic has moved it from borderline acceptable, to mandatory.

What employers expect in turn has also changed, in ways that the spaces in which we labour are often no better equipped to accommodate. As AI makes deep incursions into routine and even cerebral office work, there’s an increased emphasis on creativity and spark, human qualities that our robot competitors find hard to mimic. But even we humans find it hard to scheme for inspiration and imaginative collaboration, and to the extent that companies have tried, it’s left offices filled with distractions like ping-pong tables and gourmet snacking stations. A 2019 Harvard Business Review article [The Truth About Open Offices, by Ethan Bernstein and Ben Waber; research article] cited findings that when firms transition from cubicles to open offices, face-to-face -interactions actually drop by roughly 70 per cent. Long expert at avoiding eye contact on crowded commuter carriages, it turns out office workers are skilled at disappearing in an engineered crowd and erecting their own fourth walls,” Anderson writes.

In their Harvard Business Review article, Bernstein and Waber explain this 70 per cent drop as follows:

“Why did that happen? The work of the 18th-century French philosopher Denis Diderot suggests an answer. He wrote that performers should ‘imagine a huge wall across the front of the stage, separating you from the audience, and behave exactly as if the curtain had never risen.’ He called this the ‘fourth wall.’ It prevents actors from being distracted by the audience and allows them to divorce themselves from what they cannot control (the audience) and focus only on what they can (the scene), much as a basketball player shoots the ball without really seeing the cheering (or booing) fans behind the hoop. It creates the intimacy of what some call public solitude. The larger the audience, the more important the fourth wall.

People in open offices create a fourth wall, and their colleagues come to respect it. If someone is working intently, people don’t interrupt her. If someone starts a conversation and a colleague shoots him a look of annoyance, he won’t do it again. Especially in open spaces, fourth-wall norms spread quickly.”

“And while the office drove the arrival of the photocopier and the water cooler, objects around which we might gather, more recent inventions have been geared to untethering ourselves,” Anderson continues. “Wireless connectivity has meant that we could work just as well in a café or on a park bench. This, too, has changed how we feel about centralised workspaces, because the liberty bestowed by our smartphones and tablets is decidedly double-edged: we can physically leave our desks more readily than before but mentally, those same supposedly freeing devices — often paid for by our employers — keep us forever on duty. (Tellingly, if we trace the etymological root for the word ‘office’ right back, beyond the Uffizi, we arrive at the Latin officium, whose meanings include duty.) You might have thought this blurring of the boundaries between our work and our personal lives could have engendered a nostalgia for the office of old. But in truth, the always on-duty ethos probably means we resent the commute, the micro-aggressions and the confinement all the more.

If ubiquitous [working from home, or ‘WFH,’] is indeed the future, it will have all manner of consequences that we have barely begun to think through. It clearly suits some workers better than others, benefiting those with established careers, networks and personal lives while penalising the ones who are just starting out and might have hoped to develop these things at the office. Then there are the mental health implications and the enhanced burden of multitasking. While some women, for instance, find that being already at home eases the transition into the notorious ‘second shift’ of housework and childcare, others struggle to fence off dedicated worktime. Perhaps the biggest question mark hovers over our cities, and what might become of their centres and financial districts; the countryside would be impacted, too, if no longer needing to be within commuting distance, employees head for the hills. Could that result in a more even spread of talent and wealth, or will people working in divergent domestic circumstances only further stratify our divided society?

[…] One thing does seem certain however: WFH is a genie that’s going to be hard to put back in the bottle. This presents a unique opportunity to rethink — and the rethinking is long overdue — what we truly got out of our offices. Companies like Dropbox, whose hybrid vision rescues some of what was valuable about offices without reimposing them as a daily sentence, appear to be onto something. Pre-pandemic there was a boom in shared workspaces, which provide creatives and other freelancers with a perch to borrow when having one is truly worthwhile. The draw of such spaces highlights what we value about them: aesthetics, comfort and community. As many a worker will have discovered this year, an incentive to occasionally get dressed in the morning — and I don’t mean pulling on a jumper over your pyjama top — doesn’t go amiss either.”

“Whole-systems thinking has to be a transdisciplinary activity that maps and integrates relationships, flows and perspectives into a dynamic understanding of the structures and processes that drive how the system behaves. Experts and specialists are important contributors to most sustainability projects, but we also need integrators and generalists who can help to put the contribution of each discipline into systemic relationships and help to contextualize the contributions made by the specialists. Too often we employ limited progress indicators or inadequate measures of success based on the dominance of a particular discipline or perspective.

[Whole-systems thinking] invites us to see complex issues from multiple perspectives, to suspend our judgement by questioning our own assumptions, and to honour insights from different disciplines and different ways of knowing. Thinking in this way helps us to pay attention to the fertile ground of synergistic, whole-systems solutions. It can help us to more clearly see the opportunities in the multiple converging crises around us,” Daniel Christian Wahl writes in Six Questions About Whole Systems Thinking, in which he shares some excellent questions to contemplate when dealing with systems:

What is the system in question and how are we defining what belongs to the system and what does not?

What is the wider context that the system in question operates in?

What are the key agents whose interactions and relationships define the system structure and drive the system’s behaviour?

How is our perspective of the system in question shaped by our worldview and value system?

What are the key ‘emergent properties’ of the system that could not have been predicted by simply looking at the individual ‘parts’ of the system?

How does our participation in the system and our way of describing it affect what we are observing?

According to cognitive psychologist and author of, most recently, Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization, Scott Barry Kaufman, the more the ego, which he defines as “that aspect of the self that has the incessant need to see itself in a positive light,” is quieted, the higher the likelihood of actually reaching one’s goals.

“I think we tend to grossly underestimate the extent to which the drive for self-enhancement actually gets in the way of reaching one’s goals — even if one’s goals are primarily agentic,” he writes in The Pressing Need for Everyone to Quiet Their Egos.

“To be clear, a quiet ego is not the same thing as a silent ego. Squashing the ego so much that it loses its identity entirely does not do yourself or the world any favors. Instead, the quiet ego perspective emphasizes balance and integration. As [Heidi Wayment and Jack J. Bauer] put it [in Transcending Self-Interest], ‘The volume of the ego is turned down so that it might listen to others as well as the self in an effort to approach life more humanely and compassionately.’ The quiet ego approach focuses on balancing the interests of the self and others, and cultivating growth of the self and others over time based on self-awareness, interdependent identity, and compassionate experience.

The goal of the quiet ego approach is to arrive at a less defensive, and more integrative stance toward the self and others, not lose your sense of self or deny your need for the esteem from others. You can very much cultivate an authentic identity that incorporates others without losing the self, or feeling the need for narcissistic displays of winning. A quiet ego is an indication of a healthy self-esteem, one that acknowledges one’s own limitations, doesn’t need to constantly resort to defensiveness whenever the ego is threatened, and yet has a firm sense of self-worth and competence.

According to [Wayment and Bauer], the quiet ego consists of four deeply interconnected facets that can be cultivated: detached awareness, inclusive identity, perspective-taking, and growth-mindedness. These four qualities of the quiet ego contribute to having a general stance of balance and growth toward the self and others:

  • Detached Awareness. Those with a quiet ego have an engaged, nondefensive form of attention to the present moment. They are aware of both the positive and negatives of a situation, and their attention is detached from more ego-driven evaluations of the present moment. Rather, they attempt to see reality as clearly as possible. This requires openness and acceptance to whatever one might discover about the self or others in the present moment, and letting the moment unfold as naturally as possibly. It also involves the ability to revisit thoughts and feelings that have already occurred, examine them more objectively than perhaps one was able to in the moment, and make the appropriate adjustments that will lead to further growth.
  • Inclusive Identity. People whose egos are turned down in volume have a balanced or more integrative interpretation of the self and others. They understand other perspectives in a way that allows them to identify with the experience of others, break down barriers, and come to a deeper understanding of common humanity. An ability to be mindful, and the detached awareness that comes with it, can help facilitate an inclusive identity, especially under moments of conflict, such as having one’s identity or core values challenged. If your identity is inclusive, you’re likely to be cooperative and compassionate toward others rather than only working to help yourself.
  • Perspective-Taking. By reflecting on other viewpoints, the quiet ego brings attention outside the self, increasing empathy and compassion. Perspective taking and inclusive identity are intimately intertwined, as either one can trigger the other. For instance, the realization of one’s interdependence with others can lead to a greater understanding of the perspective of others.
  • Growth-Mindedness. A concern for prosocial development and change for self and others over time causes those with a quiet ego to question the long-term impact of their actions in the moment, and to view the present moment as part of an ongoing life journey instead of a threat to one’s self and existence. Growth-mindedness and perspective taking complement each other nicely, as a growth stance toward the moment clears a space for understanding multiple perspectives. Growth-mindedness is also complementary to detached awareness, as both are focused on dynamic processes rather than evaluation of the final product.

These qualities should not be viewed in isolation from each other, but as part of a whole system of ego functioning.”

Do read Kaufman’s entire article from his insightful Beautiful Minds series in Scientific American. And while you’re at it…

These large wings in Greek white marble, exhibited in the Palatine Museum, were found in Rome in 2008. They have probably belonged to a statue of the Roman goddess of victory and date from the Augustan age (approx. 43 BC to 18 AD).

The sculptural rendering of the plumage is extraordinary, with the feathers spread out in a fan, represented with extreme realism in the different orders of sizes and positions.


“Naomi Hasegawa’s family sells toasted mochi out of a small, cedar-timbered shop next to a rambling old shrine in Kyoto. The family started the business to provide refreshments to weary travelers coming from across Japan to pray for pandemic relief — in the year 1000,” Ben Dooley and Hisako Ueno write in This Japanese Shop Is 1,020 Years Old. It Knows a Bit About Surviving Crises.

“Like many businesses in Japan, her family’s shop, Ichiwa, takes the long view — albeit longer than most. By putting tradition and stability over profit and growth, Ichiwa has weathered wars, plagues, natural disasters, and the rise and fall of empires. Through it all, its rice flour cakes have remained the same.”

Naomi Hasegawa is the operator of Ichiwa. (Photography by Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times)

“To survive for a millennium, Ms. Hasegawa said, a business cannot just chase profits. It has to have a higher purpose. In the case of Ichiwa, that was a religious calling: serving the shrine’s pilgrims.

Those kinds of core values, known as ‘kakun,’ or family precepts, have guided many companies’ business decisions through the generations. They look after their employees, support the community and strive to make a product that inspires pride.

For Ichiwa, that means doing one thing and doing it well — a very Japanese approach to business.

The company has declined many opportunities to expand, including, most recently, a request from Uber Eats to start online delivery. Mochi remains the only item on the menu, and if you want something to drink, you are politely offered the choice of roasted green tea.”

Ichiwa began as a way of serving pilgrims to a nearby shrine.
The honor system sustained Ichiwa for hundreds of years until prices were introduced after World War II.
“Ichiwa has made a few concessions to modernity. The local health department has forbidden the use of well water. A mochi machine hidden in the kitchen mechanically pounds the rice, saving a few hours of work each morning.” — The mochi are made by hand and rolled in soybean powder (bottom left) and then grilled and coated in a sweet sauce made from white miso paste (bottom right).

“Ms. Hasegawa, 60, admits she sometimes feels the pressure of the shop’s history. Even though the business doesn’t provide much of a living, everyone in the family from a young age ‘was warned that as long as one of us was still alive, we needed to carry on,’ she said.

One reason ‘we keep going,’ she added, is ‘because we all hate the idea of being the one to let it go.’”

Workers cleaning Ichiwa at the end of a day.
“The rice’s caramelized skin is brushed with sweet miso paste and served to the shrine’s visitors hot, before the delicate treat cools and turns tough and chewy.” — The east gate of Imamiya Shrine, just steps away from Ichiwa.
Former United States Ambassador to the United Nations (1993–1997) and Secretary of State (1997–2001), Madeleine Albright. (Photograph by Nathaniel Minor/CPR News)

“[We] are not going to have the kind of cooperation we need if everyone insists on their own narrow version of reality. To me, this is the great divide in the world today — not between liberal and conservative, rich and poor, or between any one race or creed and all the others — it is between people who have the courage to listen and those who are convinced that they already know it all.” — Madeleine Albright, from her 2016 Commencement Speech at Scripps College

‡ From The courage to listen: because it might take us to conclusions different from the ones we have already made, by Leandro Herrero.

Reading notes will be back next week, if fortune allows, of course. In the meantime, if you want to know more about my work with senior executives and leadership teams, please visit You can also browse through my writings and follow me on Twitter.



Mark Storm

Helping people in leadership positions flourish — with wisdom and clarity of thought