Humans or Resources?
When I was at university I read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World because I wanted to appear clever. It left me deeply confused.
Brave New World imagines a future in which all people are happy, healthy and peaceful. People, in this world, are produced to meet strict grades and standards. Before they are born they are tested and modified. Later they are conditioned, shaped and trained to fit within a specific strata or castes ranked from Alpha to Epsilon. Members of each caste are carefully conditioned so that they are happy within that caste, desiring neither to move upwards or to drop down.
Does this sound like the perfect talent agency for your business? Does it? Be honest. We’ll come back to this.
In this world everyone is fed, nobody is forced to work too hard, soma (a drug that people enjoy) is provided without any stigma attached, sex is just for fun and no longer a taboo, everyone is healthy, and nobody fears death which they have been conditioned carefully to see as a perfectly normal and unconcerning element of life.
On the face of it, this all seems pretty good. Happy, healthy, peaceful people in a perfectly functioning world.
It’s only later, having experienced a little more of life, that I realised that this was a dystopia. I also began to suspect that HR departments around the world may have read this book and taken it as a how-to guide.
Firstly, lets look at what a dystopia is.
I used to believe that dystopias were stories in which people were unhappy and where life was hard. But later I realised that the true meaning of a dystopia is a future in which people are not allowed to be people anymore. In Mad Max people are turned into savages. In 1984 the state seeks to destroy “the organism” and remove the very essence of what makes us human; love. And in Brave New World humans are turned into cogs in a machine. A perfectly functioning machine with happy cogs, but cogs are not humans.
See, humans aren’t always happy. Humans are awkward and difficult. They get angry, they get intransigent. Humans are a pain in the proverbial and that’s what makes us so great. We’re messy, chaotic, and we don’t like to be told what to do.
Look around you at your workplace. Is that what you see? Or do you see a bunch of people in the same kind of clothes sitting at their desks doing what they’re told? Do you see performance appraisals with standardised tests and people placed in little squares on some kind of matrix? Do you see polite business speak and corporate buzzword bingo? If you do, you have to ask yourself, how different are you from the world Aldous Huxley feared?
And you know, even if this safe and secure world is one in which you feel comfortable, remember, along with the reduction in the chance of anything negative like war and famine Brave New World also showed us a place without high culture, without strong attachments, without the chance for something greater.
As a creativity coach I have to look at these worlds, these Brave New Corporations and wonder how exactly they expect creativity to live within the machines they’ve built. Where the resources are only half human because professionalism dictates that they leave the awkward and difficult parts of themselves at home.
I find myself endlessly pushing back against process because process is often what we put in place so we can avoid and ignore the fundamentally chaotic nature of the universe. We write documents and pretend they mean something. We blind ourselves to what is actually happening. But the worst of it comes from a desire that many businesses seem to have to take humans and make them into machines that they can switch on and off at will.
A lot of people inside of HR talk about the importance of treating people like people. Well that’s not good enough. You need to not only treat people like people but the entire business needs to start understanding that the machine needs to fit the shape of humans; this awkward shape. This passionate shape. This shape that makes neat and tidy a thing of the past. And until we embrace that, no amount of outreach or engagement will matter. Until businesses stop trying to make humans into machines and instead start building businesses that speak human, we’re all destined for a brave new world.
Founder and Coach
Sabre Tooth Panda: creativity’s hard, not complicated