As e-mail was taking over the modern office, researchers in the theory of distributed systems—the subfield in which, as a computer scientist, I specialize—were also studying the trade-offs between synchrony and asynchrony. As it happens, the conclusion they reached was exactly the opposite of the prevailing consensus. They became convinced that synchrony was superior and that spreading communication out over time hindered work rather than enabling it.
Many feel anxious about the impact of new technology on their jobs. This is not new. In fact, it dates back at least to the Luddites movement at the outset of the Industrial Revolution. And it resurfaced during the Great Depression and again in the 1960s, following a period of high productivity growth, and in the 1980s at the outset of the IT revolution. How can governments help?
The Vatican Secret Archives is one of the grandest historical collections in the world. It’s also one of the most useless. The grandeur is obvious. Located within the Vatican’s walls, next door to the Apostolic Library and just north of the Sistine Chapel, the VSA houses 53 linear miles of shelving dating back more than 12 centuries. It includes gems like the papal bull that excommunicated Martin Luther and the pleas for help that Mary Queen of Scots sent to Pope Sixtus V before her execution. In size and scope, the collection is almost peerless. That said, the VSA isn’t much use to modern scholars, because it’s so inaccessible.
LET’S START THIS story at the end: You can’t kill email. Attempting to do so is a decades-long tradition of the tech industry, a cliché right up there with “Uber, but for” and “the Netflix of X.” AOL Instant Messenger tried to kill email. So did MySpace. Then Facebook took up the mantle, followed by Slack and Symphony and WhatsApp and HipChat. Through it all, email persists—always dying, never dead.
Given a choice of being the disruptor or the disrupted, many would prefer to choose the former. But it’s not as easy as just flipping a switch and subsequently reaping the benefits of a forward-looking vision, new product categories, and forthcoming patents. Instead, an organisation has to proactively acquire this innovation and intellectual capital from somewhere.
If it’s personal productivity—how many sales you close or customer complaints you handle—then the research, on balance, suggests that it’s probably better to let people work where and when they want. For jobs that mainly require interactions with clients (consultant, insurance salesman) or don’t require much interaction at all (columnist), the office has little to offer besides interruption.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the world is connected as never before. Once upon a time, it was believed that there were six degrees of separation between each individual and any other person on the planet (including Kevin Bacon). For Facebook users today, the average degree of separation is 3.57. But perhaps that is not entirely a good thing.
In a culture where fast replies, constant stimulation and the omnipresence of social media rule the day, you might not expect that boredom is a booming business. Yet it is true: scholars from philosophy, psychology, art history, sociology and history—among others—have all tossed in their two cents on this suddenly fashionable subject, and not just by boring their own students.
Google’s secret effort to scan every book in the world, codenamed “Project Ocean,” began in earnest in 2002 when Larry Page and Marissa Mayer sat down in the office together with a 300-page book and a metronome. Page wanted to know how long it would take to scan more than a hundred-million books, so he started with one that was lying around. Using the metronome to keep a steady pace, he and Mayer paged through the book cover-to-cover. It took them 40 minutes.
Microsoft will build computers even more sleek and beautiful than Apple’s. Robots will 3-D-print cool shoes that are personalised just for you. Neural networks will take over medical diagnostics, and Snapchat will try to take over the entire world. The women and men in these pages are the technical, creative, idealistic visionaries who are bringing the future to your doorstep. You might not recognize their names—they’re too busy working to court the spotlight—but you’ll soon hear about them a lot. They represent the best of what’s next.