The Great Recalibration

My interview with digital anthropologist Rahaf Harfoush.

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Rahaf Harfoush is a strategist, a digital anthropologist, and a New York Times best-selling author who focuses on the intersections between emerging technology, innovation, and digital culture. She has a truly impressive professional track record, including collaborations with The Oxford Internet Institute, the World Economic Forum and Barack Obama.

As her 2019 bestseller “Hustle & Float: Reclaim Your Creativity and Thrive in a World Obsessed with Work” is one of my top favorite books on the topic of workplace dynamics,  I was really thrilled that she agreed to talk to me about all the systemic shifts that are currently happening in that domain: from work culture to learning, identity, capitalism and climate change.

An urgent mindset shift

Since Rahaf wrote such an inspiring book about work culture, one of the first things I wanted to know was her thoughts about the phenomena of quiet quitting and the Great Resignation as well as the Laying Flat and Let it Rot movements in China. She saw these trends as an early adoption of a mindset shift that urgently needed to happen: “I was infuriated by the way leaders were describing these phenomena, almost with a sense of contempt for the younger generation”, she said. “They were completely missing the nuances of a system of hustle culture and performance that is making people emotionally, physically and psychologically ill. It’s not that these youngsters don’t want to work, or are lazy. It’s a sign of something bigger, something profound that I like to call ‘The Great Recalibration’. It’s the sum of 50 to 60 years of work propaganda that was eroding the quality of life of an entire generation. Worse, we’ve been creating organizational conditions that were robbing them of the ability to be creative, innovative, strategic and resilient.”

Rahaf sees these evolutions as a societal shift, where for the first time people started to take mental health and burnout or concepts like ‘the four day workweek’ seriously. “Our generation and those before us, have been promised that if we work really hard, we will receive all these benefits. But those promises have clearly not all been delivered. And so we get more and more people talking about their inhumane experiences at work on TikTok. Like productivity metrics that measure your eyes and snap random pictures of your desktops. The epitome of this was probably that hospital chaplain who was being measured in terms of how many dying patients he was able to assist. But the pandemic forced us to “float”, as a society, to tone down the pace and the intensity of our activities, whether we wanted to or not. And it stuck, because the old system wasn’t working. Nobody that I've spoken to has gone back to their pre-pandemic work for a reason. There’s also an entirely new generation Z that will demand more from work and their employers. They want equality, transparency, data accountability, sustainability and environmental change. This is a big cultural shift that is long overdue.”

Redesigning culture

At the same time, there is also a lot of resistance to changing the status quo and a lack of desire to update our current skill sets. So that cultural change needs to be managed and guided. And the crucial question here is “who is responsible?”. Many companies seem to believe that it’s the HR department's role. But HR departments are transactional organizations: they are onboarding people, meeting payroll and taking care of the administrative stuff. Most of them don't know how to start cultural change.

Rahaf, too, doesn’t believe that it’s HR’s job to drive cultural change. “HR executes on the brand, but they cannot lead it. They aren’t in the culture generating center of a company. Maybe we need to have Chief Cultural Officers or Chief Digital Culture Officers. But culture also needs to be driven by leadership and I would even argue by the CEO. Culture can only be (re)designed and (re)engineered with a lot of intentionality. That needs to be someone's job. It should not be a side project from HR.”

A loss of learning

Rahaf and I also talked about all the craziness and exponential evolutions in generative AI and its impact on the future of work. More than in the complete disruption of white collar work - which she agrees will happen - Rahaf is interested in the big philosophical questions we must ask ourselves about these models.

“I was playing around with a service called NovelAI which is based on an LLM that is trained on literature”, she explained. “But on which literature, from which segment, from which geography or from which time period? My worry is that we're actually using cutting edge technologies that are secretly embedded with really outdated and biased ideas.  Someone asked ChatGPT to write a performance review for a bubbly receptionist and it immediately assumed that the candidate was female and young. So it’s important to ask ourselves if ChatGPT is helping us write the next great novel or is it undoing progress?”

She’s also worried about the potential loss of learning that generative AI might entail, both on an individual and a community level. “If you learn to make art, you start with shading, perspective and learn to understand how those little pieces work together. It works the same way for knowledge where we’re now removing all those learning steps like reading, making connections between ideas, analyzing commonalities and critical thinking. We're just letting the black box spit things out.”

“And because generative technologies just work in one direction, we're also robbing each other of the chance to learn as a community. If you post a question on GitHub or Quora, you see that many others asked that question and even more tried to solve that problem. The community is collectively pooling this knowledge. Now if I ask ChatGPT the question, I just get the answer. There's no sharing of that knowledge. In fact, these databases are often owned by closed, for profit companies. So we're also risking robbing the commons of the generosity on which the original web was built, as a tool to share information and democratize access to it. In fact, we're almost swinging the other way because if you want that knowledge, you've often got to pay for.”

I work therefore I am

But it’s not just learning and ethics and job loss, generative AI will also have an impact on our identity as workers, according to Rahaf. “The Brookings Institute published a really interesting report about plants shutting down in these manufacturing cities in the US. Most of the people who used to work full time at the plant were able to find other employment, in the gig economy or sometimes part time. Economically, they often kept the same level of income but, psychologically, the act of not being a full time worker was devastating to the community. There was a rise of domestic violence, of drug dependency etc.

Now picture the level of ego that we knowledge workers attach to our jobs. And imagine what is going to happen when somebody who has spent their entire life being validated by their knowledge work suddenly finds themselves replaced by technology. And we see early signs of this identity crisis happening everywhere. Just think about the writers and actors strike in Los Angeles. “What does a post work world look like?” is probably one of the most interesting questions of our time .”

A crisis of imagination

Rahaf also talked about how many of our current systems are under pressure. “I've always looked at capitalism as a game we invented”, she explained. “And for a certain group of people, the rules of that game worked for a really long time. But we are hitting its limits and that of many others with it. Just think of the climate catastrophe. Or how people are burning out, feeling depressed and anxious about that. We must change the rules of this game."

"And anybody who says we can't is suffering from an incredible crisis of imagination", she added. "We can do this. We invented the economy. We invented money, capitalism and business. We can play it in a different way. That’s why I liked John Elkington’s book Green Swans so much. He was one of the founders of Nokia and now he's talking about the shift towards regenerative capitalism. I love his framing, asking “what if every business wasn't obligated to just protect the planet but to improve it?” and “are you actually improving the communities, the natural resources and the societies that you're living in?”. How would we then measure innovation and unicorns and start-ups, right?”.

Though I haven’t read Rahaf’s book suggestion yet, it does give me similar vibes to Net Positive by Paul Polman and Andrew Winston. They claim that it will not suffice to be carbon neutral by 2050. We have to become net positive. They use this wonderful but pretty dark metaphor to explain what they mean: if you're a serial killer and you on average kill 12 people a year, it’s absurd to promise that you will ‘only' kill 8 people instead. You're still killing people. A reduction is clearly not enough here.

We live in times that are just as challenging as they are exciting. As an optimist, I do believe that we will be able to find our way out of the current (multiple) crises. But we also have no time to waste, and we need everyone on board, not just the companies.

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