Mark Eltringham ponders whether we fit the work roles we occupy – or do they fit us?

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Drying up

Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact, it fits me staggeringly well, it may have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears, it catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.’

This was the typically stylish way in which Douglas Adams dispensed with the teleological argument that underpins a great deal of religious belief and sustains us in many other aspects of our lives. What it all boils down to is the idea that, because we so closely fit the world in which we live, it must have been designed just for us.

This argument dates back at least to the time of Aristotle and you can see why it is compelling. Indeed, if you’re working on the assumption that we animals don’t mutate over time in response to changes in our environment, you can’t really come to any other conclusion. The classical idea of fixed living forms as pieces of a divine cosmic order persisted until the Enlightenment and was then completely overturned when Charles Darwin demonstrated that animals don’t just change slightly – as a growing number of thinkers began to conclude in the 18th century – but turn into completely different animals given enough time.

“What it all boils down to is the idea that, because we so closely fit the world in which we live, it must have been designed just for us.”

This was simply somebody telling the puddle it was a puddle, but resistance to the idea persists. It is possible to be sniffy about this intransigence in the face of the evidence, but the truth is that we all fall back into teleological fallacies in our everyday lives. Perhaps the most common mistake we make is the idea that, because we have found a role for ourselves in a particular profession or part of the market, it’s because the role was designed for us, when the truth is that we have adapted ourselves to fit the niche.

As Douglas Adams suggests, this is something we need to be on the watch out for, not least because the holes we find ourselves in may soon fill up completely with the new generation of robots and automated systems. The signs so far are that we are incredibly complacent about the implications of what is about to happen, especially in the longer term. As the researcher Roy Amara put it when coining his eponymous Law, ‘We tend to overestimate the effect of technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run’.

The problem we have now is defining what we mean by long term. What we can say about automation is that it is not as long as we might assume. Driverless cars are already on our roads, waiting for our attitudes, the legal system and insurance companies to catch up with the technology that will emerge over the next two or three years.

Similar forces are at play in almost all facets of the world and we shouldn’t underestimate what they do and how individually subject we are to them. It may appear we are at the centre of things, but it’s an illusion.

Mark Eltringham is the publisher of workplace design and management website Office Insight. mark@officeinsight.org