05 / 03 / 2021

Future Schlock (Or The Gray Lady Has Become a Tramp)

In the 1944 film Gaslight, Ingrid Bergman plays a woman who is made to doubt her own sanity by a husband who repeatedly lies to her in order to keep a secret — that he murdered her beloved aunt. The movie has largely faded from sight, but the practice of “gaslighting” is going strong. Even the once mighty New York Times seems engaged in a form of it with its constant stream of speculative stories. If it’s trying to hide that it has become little more than click-bait for a certain segment of the population, then it’s not doing a very good job.

Carey Smith | Founding Contrarian

They say that in order to make a new word part of your active vocabulary, you need to use it three times. So expect to read the word “newshole” at least that often in the next few paragraphs, because when a colleague said it in conversation, I knew immediately that I was in the presence of greatness — as far as words are concerned. “Newshole,” an old newspaper term for the space left over for news after the ads have been placed, captures perfectly, though unintentionally, the essence of most journalistic output these days, especially the surfeit of conjecture and prophecy surrounding the future of office work. All the prattle is a result, my colleague said, of the “unlimited newshole” that the Internet provides.

The topic came up during a discussion of an article in The New York Times, one of the gazillion written in the last year on the topic of working from home: Who likes it and who doesn’t; what’s good about it and what isn’t. I admit, I’ve penned one or two, because once the novelty wore off — within a week — I did little but grumble about the inconvenience and isolation of it all. Meanwhile, this article, clearly directed at millennials, claimed that people weren’t anxious to get back to the office and old routines; all they really wanted was to get out of the house. If that’s the case, the problem might be their office. And an even bigger problem might be that they could soon find themselves out of a job.

The writer, Anne Helen Petersen, makes a slew of predictions about how different things will be when the pandemic passes: There’ll be flexible schedules, employees will share desks, and managers will learn to really communicate! There will even be more “silent meetings,” a reference that was puzzling until I scanned the abridged version of something called the Silent Meeting Manifesto — yes, there is one. Turns out they’re not entirely silent, but still, WTF? What’s the point of sitting around a conference table if not to talk?

And it’s all presented in the future tense, as if to say, this will come to pass.

The problem with these prognosticative articles is that there’s never any accountability. “Futurists” spin predictions, and the public consumes them like the cotton candy they are. They’re totally lacking in substance. Only when the futurist makes a huge splash — I’m remembering Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock — does anyone bother to check back years later and see how accurate they were. (In Toffler’s case, it was a mixed bag.) And now we have the additional problem created by the unlimited newshole: There’s no end to articles like this one that serve no real purpose other than as fodder for the hole. And the once mighty New York Times doesn’t even care if it serves a purpose or not, because their business model has changed from their one-time role as a public utility of sorts. They’re no longer the Gray Lady of journalism but a click-chasing hooker.

Petersen ends with a rallying cry: In the brave new, flexible, post-pandemic world, companies should ensure that all workers benefit, not just those in high demand. But as a manufacturer and employer who put a high premium on a strong company culture, refused to outsource jobs — and yes, enjoys face-to-face meetings — I’d suggest that what companies should really focus on is making the office somewhere that people actually want to be. Because as soon as people think they don’t need to come in, that’s when every one of them becomes a commodity that’s easily replaced.

And there’s nothing like unemployment to make the office seem like a damn good place, after all.