Out of Office: On the Change of Work

Work changes. Automation and artificial intelligence mean that we humans may soon no longer have to work at all. Or do something else and call it to work. But maybe it’s just the little things that make the difference. Like electricity, for example.

When I visited the Hamburg Museum of Work at the end of February, electricity was gone for a short time, and no device worked at all. Power is the new Wi-Fi, one jokes gladly at St. Oberholz in Berlin. On this day, the absence of electricity meant that I couldn’t buy a ticket for the museum and was allowed to go to the “Out of Office” exhibition for free.

On the third floor of the former factory of the “New-York Hamburger Gummi-Waaren Compagnie” in Barmbek, built in 1871, the digital change of the working world is still being addressed until May 19, 2019. In 11 stations, museum guests can learn about the dimension of change and the associated discussions to our society.

We are amid change – as always.

In 1996 the chess world champion Garry Kasparov could still win against the chess computer “Deep Blue,” one year later already no more. The machine had defeated mankind. Nowadays we use artificial intelligence in translation programs, for better pictures with our smartphone and also to get from A to B better.

This not only changes our lives but also how we work. But there have always been technical developments in the world of work. They are not new, and technologies still need a bit before they become everyday life in places of work. The change we are currently experiencing is only the change of our time. Nothing more.

So far, however, we have not given the social aspects of this change the importance they have. They probably revolve around the best answers to change, as the history of technology itself teaches us. The response to the Industrial Revolution, the last significant change in the world of work, was the welfare state.

"The Iron Rolling Mill (Modern Cyclopes)" by Adolph von Menzel, 1872 - 1875, National Gallery, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
“The Iron Rolling Mill (Modern Cyclopes)” by Adolph von Menzel, 1872 – 1875, National Gallery, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

It needs orientation in change.

So instead of working through the discourse on technology, as the authors who sell too much panic books like to do, we need orientation in times of change. The “Out of Office” exhibition, which begins with Adolph von Menzel’s “The Iron Rolling Mill” and ends with questions about necessary skills in the new world of work, does an excellent job of this.

The exhibition does not instruct you but creates a knowledge base on the subject in a pleasant way, sometimes with anecdotes of technological development. Building on this, the socially relevant question that needs to be clarified is also given. When I was there, three school classes engaged in intensive discussions. A lovely picture of young people.

Header Image: Stiftung Historische Museen Hamburg, 2018

UPDATE / 5. March 2019

This video of the television program “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” deals with the topic of automation. A perfect introduction to the material, even if the focus of the show is very much on the USA.