Over the past several weeks millions of Americans have been forced to use technologies in ways that they never knew they could. Zoom (and ‘zoom calls’) has become a household name in short order. Slack, the simple messaging platform, has also quickly leaped the chasm of adoption. From ordering groceries online to conducting all of one’s work online, we have collectively been through a shift of rapid adoption that is historic.
But there is a precedent for this. Thirty five years ago in the Bay Area we can see the outline for this moment. Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog (what Steve Jobs referred to as the Google of his generation), and Larry Brilliant (who would later go on to be the President the Google Foundation), created the first community oriented online forum- the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (or WELL). Long before the public internet, computer enthusiasts were connecting online around topics that were interesting to them.
Interestingly, WELL quickly become the home of what is generally considered the first truly active online community, that of the Grateful Dead’s newsletter- The Golden Road to Unlimited Devotion. Dead heads used the forum to discuss their favorite shows and to trade tapes. The intersection of hippie culture and techno-culture might surprise some people, but it is baked into the history of both. Indeed, Stewart Brand was an early writer for Wired, as were many others that grew out of the Bay Area culture of the time.
Another early writer for Wired was former Grateful Dead lyricist and (later) co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), John Perry Barlow. Barlow (1947-2018) was a pivotal figure in all of this. In his iconic manifesto, A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, he coined the term cyberspace and envisioned a model of online social interaction that was free of many of the constraints that encumbered the analog world. The manifesto was idealistic and at least fifteen minutes early, but maybe it has caught up with us now.
In many ways Barlow’s manifesto and the WELL presaged the development of open source software and all that goes with that. Open access to information in the context of peer-to-peer egalitarianism is at the root of all of it. When you are at home working (for your employer) online, no one is monitoring you or watching how you are working (unless you have video enabled on a Zoom Call). You are free to work in more autonomous ways than perhaps you did last month. What will stand out in this accidentally experimental period we are in are RESULTS.
When you remove the countless analog constraints that are built into most systems of management, who knows what might happen. I guess we are in the process of finding out. Having been a part of the open source culture as early adopters of coworking for over a decade, and long-standing advocates of open source culture generally, we at OpenWork have created an online Culture Platform designed to help companies understand the technology-culture linkage and to begin the adoption and adaptation process. In some form or another we have been working on this for around two years, though the timing is indeed odd and surreal to say the least. At the same time, in the spirit of open source, we have also compiled a free remote working resource guide that provides categorized direct links to some of our favorite tools. Feel free to download and use this as you need to.
Going forward we will all need to get used to using more tools and technologies. The very act of learning about them and how to use them, and then working within the autonomous and decentralized application of them at work, will be a cultural learning curve. This is the point. It is what the early advocates of the internet knew long ago. This is their moment, and they deserve it.