Are you ready for the big reboot?

When you instruct a computer to Halt and Catch Fire, you lock it into an accelerated state where it needs to be rebooted to be useful again. Our societies are heading for a reboot – are you ready to make the changes you need?

I got some pushback on my last piece on the big pause. This does not, people suggested, feel like a pause. In any way. At all. Oh, God, I’m so busy. This is not a break. This is overwhelming. They are right. We have halted. And we have caught fire. And now we need a reboot.

As Martin said, the topic for this year’s conference was set long before this moment we find ourselves in, but it has proved prescient. The phrase “Halt and Catch Fire” refers to a machine code instruction – HCF – that would cause a chip to lock up executing looping instructions requiring a reboot of the computer.

And so, perhaps “the big halt” would have been a better phrase to have used than “pause”. Pause implies a period of quiet and reflection – and for some people it has certainly proved so. But for many of us, it’s only been a halt in our usual way of doing things. It’s not been a halt in the busyness of our lives.

A halt is an end in progress

But there’s a big, fundamental difference between “halt” and “pause”. Pause implies something is stopped temporarily, and will resume. You pause a show on Disney+ while you go to fetch another whisky. You halt your subscription to Apple TV+ because the shows weren’t interesting to you, but you’ll keep an eye out for something that might. Halt implies a more long-lasting pause, but with an element of reflection. This could be something that is concluded – or it could be something that we restart in a different way.

It’s a matter of debate right now if we’re in a halt or a pause. But I’d suggest that the weight of evidence is towards the former. This period of our lives, of the planet’s story, will pass. But what emerges will not be the same planet that went into this crisis. We’re being forced away from the way we were living before, and into a different, geographically-focused life, with less travel and less face time (even as there’s more FaceTime…).

This is more transformative than people realise.

Why? Because we’ve not just halted – we’ve caught fire. We’re pummelling the internet like never before. It’s become the source of our entertainment, our education, our socialising and our work. For those of us who work principally in some form of knowledge work, a variation of business as usual has continued. But the big illusions of the past have been burst. We can do this work from home – and sometimes more effectively than from the office.

The self-employed among us know that “going to work” has always been an illusion, born as much from a desire for social interaction, and routine, than an actual need to be there. This isn’t agriculture or manufacture, where physical presence is required. We go to offices, because people have always gone to offices. It’s as much a habit as anything else – but we’re very good at convincing ourselves that habits are necessities. Right now, we are discovering what is really necessary.

The potential that has lain long unleashed

As long ago as the late 2000s I was able to work more effectively from home when an unusually bad wave of snow hit the South East of England. I could see from Twitter that a colleague, who lived much, much closer to the office than I did had been able to successfully walk in, but that the roads around the office were impassible with snow.

I elected not to get into the car – and was able to work productively from home, using a mix of email, Twitter, internal blogs and more to keep talking to the editorial teams. Print magazines, which had always proofed pages on paper, suddenly found that they could do them digitally. When the snow melted, those discoveries didn’t melt with them. Staff no longer had to be in the office on press day. They just had to be available online.

It has long been a source of frustration to digital futurists that the potential of digital technology to transform has been under-exploited. We carry a more powerful tool in our pockets than most people had on their desks in the late 90s – and yet, we still commute to sit in front of desks in much the way we did in the pre-digital 80s.

12 years ago, we were talking about the potential of social media to change the way corporates communicated internally and externally – and somehow social media got distilled down to just another channel to market through conventionally.

Meet space not meatspace

And yet, in less than a month, many companies are operating entirely virtually. Their staff haven’t met in meatspace for weeks, and yet are still talking and co-operating daily.

This is strangely familiar to me. I only see my colleagues on the NEXT team physically for three days a year, in September, in Hamburg. For a couple of years last decade it sometimes crept up to five days in two blocks, in Berlin, when we had a subsidiary service design conference as well as the main one. But I speak most days with them via Slack, and we talk “face to face” every three weeks or so.

That working relationship is everyone's working relationships right now. And it works. And it can work for the long term.

Reboot – or hard reset?

The big reboot is coming. And you have a choice. You can try to pretend that the last few weeks and months haven’t happened, and that it’s straight back to business as usual. Some people will try that. But some people will like aspects of the new status quo. Some people will see the appeal of new ways of working.

Could talent acquisition get easier if they don’t always need to physically relocated to offices? Can training be more usefully delivered in small chunks, remotely, than in one day courses? Could a trip to the office for a meeting or workshop be something to look forward to, rather than part of the routine? Could offices themselves be reconfigured, if lots of people sitting at desks all day is no longer their primary purpose? Is the need for office space about to dramatically decrease?

Companies like The Ghost Foundation and Automattic are already largely virtual with virtually no need for conventional office space. And, of course, that allows them to operate with a different balance of margins and with different recruitment opportunities than more traditional businesses. Where they have led, we are all being herded.

Taking control of the reboot

We often cannot control what happens to us in life, but we can control how we react to it. Do we begrudgingly accept it as a temporary change, or do we embrace it and see where it leads us to?

Well, the conference’s name is “NEXT”, not “back to the past”, so I bet you can guess where we sit…

And, if you can step back from the worrying personal circumstances, the possibilities are extraordinary.

Once you start questioning the assumption of something as basic, as familiar, as commuting to work, you light a spark which can send a wildfire burning through the whole economy.

How does it change the need for residential space if people are spending more time at home? What does that do to the need for mobility services? Are autonomous vehicles suddenly more desirable if people are commuting less, and having things delivered more? Is micro mobility more relevant for the days when you do go to the office? Are centralised retail districts a thing of the past – a danger we walked into unthinkingly, and which we need to replace with localised, walkable businesses?

Is stadium rock an unnecessary risk, better replaced with small venues, and smaller shows?

The potential to transform every aspect of our economy is there – and digital will be built into the heart of it, rather than pasted uncomfortably on top of an existing economic ecosystem.

We didn’t start the fire

And that’s the issue, isn’t it? We haven’t really embraced the transformative potential of digital yet. We’re still in the early days of the Gutenberg Press, churning out exactly the sort of religious texts that the old monastic scriptoriums used to, only faster, and cheaper.

So far, we’ve tried to apply digital to make the ways we already worked better. Now, we’re experiencing whole different ways of working, facilitated by digital. And if you change how people work, you transform how they live. That could, in turn, transform how we spend our money, what we buy, how we choose to educate our children.

The genie is out of the bottle. Excuses about the reasons we can’t do things remotely, or digitally, are shrivelling in the harsh sunlight of an imposed reality. Pandora’s digital box has been opened. Every transformational metaphor and cliché you can think of is jostling for place on a new starting line.

Some will not want to run this race. They will try to forget, to hide, to retreat to a comforting past. But there is no going back. We can only go forward. And those who choose to push forwards, who learn the lessons, and unleash the lifestyle and productivity gains stand to benefit.

It’s always been burning, since the world was turning

The dirty secret of the global lockdown, is that many of us are sort of enjoying it. We’re enjoying the ability to work, without commuting. We’re enjoying the time with our families that we’re normally denied. We're not going to give it up easily. And even those for whom it has been a dark, difficult time, may well come out of it with a focused drive to change their living conditions, their job, their relationships, having been unable to hide from the unpleasant reality.

Halt. Catch fire. Reboot. Build something new.

What’s next?


Photo by Vadim Sadovski on Unsplash