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The BBC’s Born Digital on The Future of Work

Future of Work

The BBC’s Born Digital on The Future of Work

Last week I attended the UK premiere of Born Digital, a new collection of short films commission by BBC Arts and the British...

8 Minutes Read

Last week I attended the UK premiere of Born Digital, a new collection of short films commission by BBC Arts and the British Film Institute (BFI) to mark the 30-year anniversary of the world wide web.

All 11 short films were created by digital natives and gave the younger generation of filmmakers a fantastic opportunity to showcase how critically engaged their peers are with the inescapable impact of digital technologies in every aspect of our professional and personal lives.

Some themes were unsurprisingly pervasive – online dating, online bullying and identity – but I was most pleased to see our favourite topic get its fair share of air time: The Future of Work. Here are my highlights.

Skin: The Dystopian Future of Talent Intelligence

Skin is a drama that explores the relationship between employee and employer. It predicts a creepy future state in which the employer knows more about the worker than they do, thanks to unbarred access to personal data. An especially pertinent topic, considering the rise in organisations’ adoption of People Analytics, which we discuss at length in our study on Talent Intelligence.

The film opens with the protagonist, Nathan, communicating with his employer’s Chief Happiness Officer (CHO). Far from happy, it’s a harrowing film about a grieving employee and his employer’s (morally questionable) attempt to get him back on his feet.

The CHO is a Siri-esque AI tool that monitors Nathan through an excess of sensors, both external and (literally) internal. Biological chips monitor physical health whilst Nathan’s employer-sponsored flat is rigged with motion/ voice sensors that have been recording him and his partner for months.

The film depicts a terrifying balance of power, with the CHO becoming a sort of puppet-master, despite not having any physical presence. The conversation with the CHO drives Nathan to disarray (at one point making himself sick in an attempt to dislodge the biological sensor) but also causes the only fleeting smile we see from him in the 12-minute tear-jerker.

The community of People Analytics experts that I’ve engaged with over the course of my Talent Intelligence study have a genuine determination to use people data for good. Revamped employee experience, tailored career paths that match personal motivations, nudging to encourage healthier work habits – I’m excited by a field that has the potential to redefine how workers need to work.

But there are serious questions around privacy and the Big Brother Burden that Skin highlights:

  1. Who owns the data?
  2. Is it right to collect data on employees when they’re not working? How do we know when someone isn’t working? The 9-5 is breaking down, shadow IT is here to stay and location means nothing. How do we know when to switch the monitoring ‘off’?
  3. How do we start to define (and regulate) which biological measures are appropriate for an employer to track? Heart rate, maybe, but alcohol/ cigarette intake – maybe not.

Roger: Three Reasons why the Gig Economy Sucks

Roger is a film about the dark side of the gig economy. We meet Lena, a cleaner who carries out the brunt work for Rhys, a highly disconnected homeowner with a lot of menial tasks to be done. Rhys makes his requests solely through Roger – the TaskRabbit-esque app.

In one quick exchange, using light, convivial language – he incurs an unjustifiable fine on Lena. It seems to me that the only thing she damaged was his ego (correcting his sheet music because Lena is, in fact, a famous concert violinist).

Roger presents three clear reasons why the gig economy sucks:

  1. We no longer have to interact with the humans carrying out the work. We just click and go. We forget that most of the time there’s still a human doing the brunt work behind the slick interface. This encourages harmful social stratification.
  2. Our pervasive online-review culture, a cornerstone of the gig economy, enables users to impact the lives of others in one click. A single 1-star review by a Grumpelstiltskin on a bad day will impact the workers’ ability to get their next paycheque or their next gig. One tap for one livelihood.
  3. By remaining disengaged with the people behind the product, we are ignoring the rich lives that people lead and from whom we could learn a lot. Connectivity is disconnecting us.

There’s a difference between being connected and a connection. (How many of your 500+ LinkedIn contacts would you talk to on the street? How many would you even recognise?) It’s our duty, as human beings, to maintain some semblance of human connection in a digital world where screens are the new walls.

Some thoughts for organisations to consider…

  1. How can we encourage more face-to-face/ phone contact instead of lazy emailing?
  2. How will future user interfaces (voice, AR, neurological) continue to impact our ability to focus on human-to-human interaction? (Read my super-positive blog post on this topic here: The Tech Disconnect: What’s the Point in Trying)
  3. How will Man-Machine Team Managers address this issue as machines work side-by-side with humans?

Is film a good medium to understand the Future of Work?

There is something fascinating about viewing films on a big screen that attempt to capture a digital world which we engage with through a small screen. (Most of the time – sorry Alexa)

The discussion on the relationship between film and digital technologies in the premiere’s Q&A was fascinating. Far be it from me to claim to be a film whizz, so here are some interesting observations from that conversation and how they impact the Future of Work:

Observation Impact on the Future of Work
There is a new visual language of digital media. We have certain expectations for what we see on a screen and certain styles are becoming obsolete faster than ever. Brand (both customer-facing and employee-facing) has to work hard to keep up.
In 450 applications for the Born Digital grant, the majority were negatively skewed. The media, educators and public officials must work hard to balance the opportunities and risks relating to technology and the future of work. We need more positive, realistic antidotes to the ‘machines are taking over’ narrative.
Posting content online (be it video or otherwise) is about identity – it is about being allowed to be who you are and who you want to be in an incredibly visible way. The Born Digital series preserves a sense of positivity and humanity by showcasing the resilience of people. (See toni_with_an_i if ever you’re feeling disillusioned) Organisations have to work with new interpretations of identity and what it means to be human, to tap into the full future talent network.

I implore you to go and check out these amazing short films on BBC iPlayer.

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