The digital renaissance of work: are we exiting the dark ages of the office?

April 9, 2014 by

Synopsis: We are at a moment in human history that is far more significant and transformative than most of us realize. Digital working is completely changing our relationships to our work, to employers and to each other.

In October this year a new book, “The Digital Renaissance of Work – Delivering digital workplaces fit for the future”, written by myself and DWG’s Director of Research, Elizabeth Marsh, will be published by Gower. In a series of blog posts in coming months Elizabeth and I will hopefully whet your appetite for the launch by covering a small selection of the ideas and insights we include in the book.

Most of us miss the history we are making

The saying goes that if you can remember the 1960s, you weren’t there. Aside from the obvious reference this makes to the mind-altering substances popular in the 60s, the more intriguing allusion here is to that fact that when remarkable times are happening, it is hard to get any true perspective on their significance.

Take, for example, the hippies living in the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood of San Francisco in 1968. Realize the significance of those flowers in their hair as they sang about “peace and love” on warm summer evenings in Golden Gate Park. Imagine this scene just a few weeks after civil rights leader Martin Luther King had been shot dead in Tennessee. What a radical disconnect!

History shows that when the wheels of social, economic and political change are spinning, we often only understand the true implications as we look back in the rear view mirror across time and distance. That perspective comes years – or more often decades – later.

It is the Renaissance all over again – but this time it is the “Digital Renaissance”

So what about 2014? Is it possible in our connected world to gain a sense of the significance (or otherwise) of our times or must we wait a few decades?

In my view, the picture is already coming into focus. Today we are amazed, inspired and sometimes shocked by the scale of scientific and technological innovations we hear about on a daily basis.

Radical technology we now take for granted:
  • All the music you have ever wanted right there in your hand.
  • The entirety of written human knowledge available via that same device.
  • Your key medical indicators visible thanks to the same tiny circuitry.
  • Explorations into deep space that chart the moment our universe appeared.
  • Photos we take of ourselves that generate millions for charity in days as seen by the ‘no-makeup selfies’ for Cancer Research recently.

The scale of innovation and exploration is staggering. We each know that we are challenged as never before environmentally, financially and socially, but we also experience how these struggles are shared across our planet.

We are fortunate to be alive during a remarkable era in human history: a period of perhaps several decades that will shape not only this century but many that follow. We are living through a “second” and this time a Digital Renaissance.

Gutenberg’s printing press, multiplied by digital, global, immediate

How can I be sure? Look at the parallels with the “first” Renaissance. Inspirational, innovative, affordable technology that transports words, images and ideas around the world at previously impossible speeds.

Yes that can be said of 2014 but these words refer equally well to the exhilarating period in the fifteenth century when Johannes Gutenberg first brought movable type printing to Europe, precipitating the thrilling arrival of the first printed (and, therefore, cheap) books.

Invigorated by the Gutenberg Press, an unprecedented 200-year period followed, which saw an outpouring of artistic, cultural, educational, political, scientific and social exuberance that later became known as “The Renaissance” or rebirth.

This first Renaissance required not only creative release but also the “infrastructure” of printing presses and a plentiful supply of paper to get underway. No press, no paper, no renaissance.

Today, for the medium of the printing press, read “Internet”; for cheap availability of paper, read “almost limitless data”.

In early 2014, there are 6 billion humans with a mobile phone (out of a global population of 7 billion). Each moment, all across the globe, these people draw on ever-increasing computing power and virtually infinite amounts of data.

The digital connections forged are transforming every aspect of how we live and work, reshaping our view of being human. Immediate access to one single connected web for ever-larger numbers of people is enabling a communication and connection revolution without precedent in human history.

The Digital Renaissance of Work

This Digital Renaissance is transforming all aspects of how we live – but our key area of focus at the Digital Workplace Group is on “work itself”.

The Digital Renaissance of Work we are experiencing is akin to that which took place in the (first) Renaissance, which created entirely new working patterns and groups, such as the “middle class”, plus new trades of commerce, finance, travel.

I will write in more detail about the effect of the Digital Renaissance on work in my next post. But for now consider how the scope of the changes to work itself can be seen in so many ways: from “work anywhere and everywhere” options, to how consumer technology is affecting the workplace, to the decline and refashioning of physical workplaces, the blurring of work/life and the related curse of work addiction, plus the replacing of people by digital services – to name a few.

So let’s take “digital” flowers from our hair (for that read “status updates on Facebook and Linkedin”) and sit back for a moment to notice this moment.

We are living through one of the most significant periods in human history; this is the Digital Renaissance! The Digital Renaissance of Work means that how, when and why we work is being transformed before our eyes. It means we are departing from the dark ages of modern work, into a more mature way of using technology to work together.

Coming next: The Digital Renaissance of Work – a new work ethic for modern livelihoods.

Categorised in: Digital workplace

Paul Miller

Paul Miller is Chief Creative Officer and Founder of the Digital Workplace Group (DWG), rated by the Financial Times in 2020, 2021 and 2022 as one of the UK’s leading management consultancies in digital transformation. He is a business and social entrepreneur. His latest book is ‘Nature of Work – The new Story of Work for a Living Age’ (co-authored with Shimrit Janes). His previous book, ‘The Digital Renaissance of Work: Delivering digital workplaces fit for the future’ (co-authored with Elizabeth Marsh), was shortlisted for the Management Book of the Year 2016 Award. Paul’s previous book, ‘The Digital Workplace: How technology is liberating work’, helped to popularize and explain the term “digital workplace”. Paul has given many inspirational talks on the digital future of work, for audiences at Microsoft, IKEA, Google, Accenture, Harvard Business Review, Cisco, European Commission, IMF, Adobe and Oxford University.

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