Work and lifestyle on the cutting edge: In our conversations with contemporaries, we examine the claims, clichés and ideals surrounding our workplaces. This time we spoke with Mercedes Bunz who deals with the forms and trends of digitalisation. In a talk with Angelika Molk, she tells us about the meaning of algorithms, constant availability and a red robotic lamp.
Mercedes Bunz lives and works in London as well as at the Leuphana University in Luneburg, where she is the head of the Hybrid Publishing Lab. She received her doctorate on the history of the Internet, worked as the editor-in-chief of the newspaper Tagesspiegel Online and as a technology reporter for the Guardian, and is considered a pioneer in digitalisation. In her latest book "Die stille Revolution. Wie Algorithmen Wissen, Arbeit, Öffentlichkeit und Politik verändern, ohne dabei viel Lärm zu machen" [The Silent Revolution. The Algorithms Change Knowledge, Work, Public Life and Politics Without Making a Lot of Noise] (edition unseld), she examines the influence of digitalisation on society and work, making a case for understanding technological progress primarily as an opportunity.
Digitalisation makes it possible for us to work wherever and whenever we want. Do you take advantage of this or do you also have something like a "main workplace", and – if yes – where is it?
I have two workplaces because I commute between London and the Leuphana University in Luneburg. But I would consider my Mac Book Air to be my real workplace. Wherever it is, I can do my work. My team at the university consists of eighteen people; we have moved the desks together into a huge conference table, which is where we work. I like it when employees are near each other, especially for project work.
So this means that the office still has meaning as a "real" location, even in the age of digitalisation?
Yes, it is very important as a meeting point, as a social space. Nowadays the workplace has become an area where you meet instead of just a room where you sit behind a computer. The office also helps to spatially separate work from private life. You walk out of the office and leave the work behind you.
In your book "The silent revolution" you compared the effects of digitalisation with those of industrialisation. Industrialisation endangered the workplaces of the proletariat. In the course of continuing digitalisation, will the heads of the employees and knowledge workers roll?
The heads won’t roll, but they will change, and mental work is indeed undergoing a transformation. The algorithms don’t take over our work but partially replace it. This is a good thing, because the work done by the algorithms is not work that you want to do yourself. Today we can know much more than we used to, and this knowledge can only be handled with the help of automation at this point. Before, the newspaper informed us how many degrees it is in Berlin. Today you can look this up much more precisely, for every hour and city. Information is getting more accurate all the time, and if we want this accurate knowledge, we need algorithms.
While some people can’t imagine working without the new technologies at all, others complain about the increasing strain and excess demands posed by the constant flow of information. Constant availability - do you think it’s a blessing or a curse?
You have to be able to handle the constant availability, that’s the problem. Accessibility is something made by humans, not something imposed on us by technology. The curse is not the device but instead the employer or boss who demands constant availability from you. What we have to learn is that every electronic device comes with an off-switch. The decision is up to us. Now some areas that used to be separated have been communicatively linked and we have to learn to deal with it. But we can also look at this from another perspective: any parent who has ever worried about where his or her children are and can now simply call them on the phone will tell an entirely different story about this availability.
Nonetheless, many people are afraid of automation and technologisation. Do you think that this fear is justified?
I think that the fear of being displaced by algorithms is unfounded. Algorithms always follow rules. Someone has to make these rules, and that someone is still human. A country such as the US that doesn’t have this fear, and countries that are willing to create and explore, I think these countries will be successful in the future.
Where do you most like to work?
My favourite place is in very classic, large libraries, because there it is easier to concentrate. I can’t use a telephone and may not speak to my neighbour, i.e., I can’t distract myself or do anything else. A library is a huge concentration machine.
And where do you not like to work as much?
Wherever music is playing. Because then my thoughts always want to go with the beat.
What would your dream office look like?
I travel so much that I no longer dream of an office like that. I think that dream is dematerialising. But I would rather not work in a theme park. I’m quite satisfied when the office can stay an office and don’t really want it to be telling me "Hello, I’m your time off!". I don’t need table football or any of that. Anyway, I find it creepy when business is always telling me, I’m much nicer than the rest of your life. I like work to be part of my life, but it isn’t everything and it shouldn’t be everything. What is really important is a good coffee machine, that is crucial for the quality of a good office.
What does your workplace look like? Do you have a lot of personal, private objects or is your office purely functional?
My office is certainly personal. It has a little robot lamp that I’m very proud of, a photo that an art photographer made of my mother, who is an identical twin, and then there is a container from the Bauhaus in Weimar and my favourite book by Foucault. It has nice colours, since it is a room where you spend many hours, and of course it should be a place where you like to be.
Do you think of the office as a place of inspiration, of creativity?
Not really. Creativity is generated through a discourse with things and the office is a place of implementation.
What is the most important tool for your work?
As I mentioned, my MacBook. And my head.
The thing you most wish for in an office?
Work changes and this also requires different spaces. I’m really glad that by now we have understood that work isn’t always just silent work at a computer. An office should think about what kind of communication situations there are between humans and technology – and between humans. For example, you shouldn’t underestimate the office grapevine.
Thank you for the interview.