The Possibility of Beautiful Business
Can companies be the most powerful vehicles for embracing otherness?
The Other Arrives
For me, the most beautiful house in the world is the house I grew up in, my parent’s house in Berkheim, a small town near Stuttgart, Germany. My dad, who is 78 years old, has lived there alone since my mom died seven years ago. While waiting for one of his cancer radiation treatments in the hospital, he learned from the newspaper that the local government had decided to build two refuge settlement centers, “Hope Houses,” as they are called, right across the street from his house. None of the neighbors on the block were informed about the new buildings.
The value of my dad’s property declined significantly once the news broke, and while before this he looked out over a beautiful valley, he now stares at the grey walls of ready-made houses. The Hope Houses brought 50 new neighbors to the small alley of 100 residents of this suburban Swabian neighborhood. My wife said, “It must be the most exciting thing that has ever happened in Berkheim.” The small local grocery store even added an international section to its assortment, complete with hummus. My dad had never heard of hummus.
Once in a while now I catch him staring at the houses across the street from his kitchen window, as he watches his new neighbors ride their bikes, hang their laundry, and go about their lives. He is still perplexed by the unexpected company on this last mile of his life. He is dealing with the change. He is keenly observing the newcomers, but hasn’t said hello to any of them yet, let alone welcomed them to the neighborhood. Both sides are being a bit coy, each waiting for the other to make the first move.
There is no greater disruption than the arrival of the other.
AI: The Ultimate Other
In 2016, Google’s Alpha Go artificial intelligence (AI) beat the reigning human world champion, Lee Sedol, at the board game Go. It was a remarkable feat. Go is exponentially more complex than chess and has more possible moves than there are atoms in the universe. Alpha Go’s 37th move in the second game left Lee and experts worldwide truly flummoxed. It was a move of such erratic beauty, such apparent randomness and deep intuition, that it seemed anything but computed. In that moment, Sedol and the global public realized what they were facing. When you watch the footage, you can see the awe in Sedol’s pale face: The ultimate other is AI.
But exactly how “other” is it? We’re quick to concede that AI may be intelligent, perhaps even super-intelligent soon, but we’re confident that it lacks consciousness, that it cannot be self-aware. After all it doesn’t pass the “mirror test”: It does not recognize itself.
The Berlin-based art collective Waltz Binaire set out to probe this assumption. It created an AI installation called Narciss that does nothing but look at itself in a mirror and describe what it sees by writing a flurry of quasi-objective, matter-of-fact sentences. Narciss is perfectly content to watch itself, but it does not have any transcendent striving, and neither does it have any desire or hope. At least that’s what we think.
The journalist Nina Kruschwitz, in her examination of Narciss, writes: “It’s hard not to think more about the consequences of our understanding of consciousness: the rights and respect we bestow on those who have it, and how we treat those we don’t see as human, or as real. Not all humans pass the mirror test, for example. Cultural conditioning, physical constraints, or certain illnesses such as Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia can render you unidentifiable to yourself. People with aphasia or cognitive challenges may not be able to construct a sentence. Yet even if we include all humans as being self-aware and worthy, what about the beings who, for example, lack our forms of speech? How should we treat animals? Or plants, trees, rivers — or machines?”
Christian Mio Loclair, the creative director behind Narciss, puts it this way: “By defining Us, we define Them. The resulting lack of dignity for every being that cannot verify our standards of self-perception can be used to legitimize suppression.”
The Denial of the Other
The idea of “us vs. them” is suddenly omnipresent and inescapable. Those left behind by globalization and digitalization — and left out of society by interest group-driven politics — feel disenfranchised and marginalized. Many are resorting to tribes both digital and physical for a sense of belonging and purpose. They are attracted to leaders who paint the world in black and white, good and bad, us and them. These days, it seems that every news broadcast and pundit offers stories and opinions about facts such as:
- Half of the world’s wealth is now in the hands of one percent of the population, and the income and wealth gaps are widening.
- In the U.S. and other Western economies, GDP has risen; median income has not.
- According to a UN report, the global youth unemployment rate increased from 12.3 per cent in 2006 to reach 13 per cent in 2017. Relative to the total unemployment rate, this rise reflects a profound deterioration in employment prospects for youth in 75 percent of countries worldwide.
- Democracy is in decline across the globe. In the annual Democracy Index Report 89 of the 167 countries ranked received lower scores than last year. The report further states that now less than half of the world’s population lives in a democracy “of some sort.” Only about 30 percent of Americans born in the 1980s think it’s “essential” to live in a democracy. That’s compared to 75 percent of Americans born in the 1930s. (Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, and the U.K. reported similar gaps.)
- A rising tide of xenophobia, racism, religious and ideological extremism, nationalism, and fascism.
Not long ago, the notion of “us and them” seemed so passé. We thought that the burgeoning internet with its abundance of platforms would make the world a better place by connecting us all. But now the idea seems deeply flawed, a historic aberration. The platforms have only deepened the social divide by making us the product, by turning our relationships into transactions, negating our privacy, algorithmically manipulating us into filter bubbles, undermining the viability of journalism, and, in some instances, challenging the role of government. Perhaps the biggest betrayal of these digital platforms is that they promoted and fomented an age of sameness, of like-mindedness, of simple truths, when in fact, what we need is a recognition of — and at least some basic curiosity about — otherness.
As the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard stressed, the loss of otherness results in a global culture of increasing sameness and “arrogant, insular cultural narcissism.” The German-Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Hanidentifies the joined mechanics of digitalization, commodification, and globalization as the forces of pervasive sameness: “The time in which there was such thing as the Other is over. The Other as a secret, the other as a temptation, the Other as eros, the Other as desire, the Other as hell and the Other as pain disappear. The negativity of the Other now gives way to the positivity of the Same,” he writes in his book, The Expulsion of the Other(2016). Furthermore, he contends that “the digital society of transparency de-auratizes and de-mystifies the word. Over-closeness and over-exposure, as the general pictorial effect of porn, destroy any auratic distance, which also characterize the erotic. In porn, all bodies are alike.”
The irony is dark: as political and climate changes create giant diasporas across the world, as there are more and more others — precisely at that moment, we produce more and more sameness, despite or, as Han would argue, because of the unprecedented reach, connectivity, and diversity theoretically enabled by the Internet.
There are more and more who are not like us, and yet this is exactly what fuels the desire to cling to our closest kin. Ultimately, however, not only willeverybody be somebody’s other — as our societies become more and more atomized, each one of us will be the Other. The Other, including AI, is in our face, under our skin, in our code. It is at the heart of our humanity. How we encounter and relate to it will make or break us.
Embracing Otherness: Beauty and Business
To help us embrace otherness, we have two powerful, universal forces at our disposal: beauty and business.
Beauty is what we desire: Most of us want to lead not just an efficient or productive life, but a beautiful one. It is this desire that we have in common, and experiencing beauty — the disruption of the known, the routine, by the foreign, the mysterious — together, through the arts, humanities, or mundane experiences, brings us closer like nothing else.
Business seems to be a more curious choice, however. There is no denying an apparent contradiction: Business is by design rewarded for seeking efficiency, convenience, and the (instant) gratification of the self. It operates to eliminate friction, vulnerability, and ambiguity. In other words, it is supposed to be the exact opposite of otherness. Not just since Adam Smith has it been centered on self-interest as its core engine, not just since globalization and digitalization eliminating distance and digital platforms pervading all aspects of our lives has it leveled differences and promoted sameness. So why, of all systems, would we entrust business with bringing otherness back to our societies?
We would do so because in our market societies business is our daily bread. Whether we like it or not, business is arguably the most important operating system of our time, serving as the main gateway to the other. Commerce is the mechanism through which we have encountered and engaged foreign cultures since ancient times. Companies allow us — through innovation and entrepreneurship — to explore other worlds. The workplace enables us to practice and get better at learning about and collaborating with others. Business is the empire and the Trojan horse at once. “Want to change the world? Start a business,” the saying goes. But these days it should more accurately read: Want to change the world? Start with business!
The business of business used to be simply creating shareholder value. Over time, the story it tells itself has evolved to encompass social impact, purpose, and value for all stakeholders, to double and triple bottom lines. And now it must stretch again, for the business of business today is to help us thrive in an age of machines, to help us become human — or more human — in an age of otherness. Now we can — and perhaps must — use the mechanisms of business to engage with the other, to reaffirm and expand our identities, and to create the meaning we have lost in seamless communications and interactions. We must transform the very essence of what we mean by business performance itself and come up with new definitions of wealth and wellbeing. Efficient, productive, or innovative are no longer good enough: Business must be beautiful.
But how, exactly?
A study found that the average American has only one close friend. This is not just an American phenomenon: The numbers are similar in other parts of the Western world. Our social fabric has been deteriorating over the past few years, so much so that sociologists speak of an epidemic of loneliness and social isolation. The U.K. has even appointed a Minister of Loneliness. This is astonishing, given the fact that we’ve never been more connected, more communicative, than at this point in history. We check our smart phones 80 time per day, on average, and some of us go to the restroom at parties so we can check our emails. And yet, we are lonelier than before. Why? The writerRichard Bach has an explanation: “The opposite of loneliness is not togetherness, not connectedness — it’s intimacy.” We are in dire need of more intimacy in these digital times. Intimacy is the direct pathway to the other, in fact, it may be the only one.
The marriage researcher John Gottman says the secret of a healthy relationship is not a great purpose or a lofty promise, but small moments of attachment. In other words, intimacy. What does this mean in the workplace? Studies show that how employees feel about their company’s culture depends mostly on their relationships with their coworkers. And what are relationships other than a string of small moments? We share hundreds of them in our organizations every day, and together they have the potential to distinguish a productive life from a beautiful one.
But how do you design for intimacy at work? And whom can we learn from? Artists, for one. Take Marina Abramovic, one of the world’s most renowned performance artists, who in 2012 held an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City called “The Artist is Present.” And that’s exactly what she was: present. For 718 hours she sat across from one visitor at a time, for five minutes each, silently staring into the other’s eyes, each person enduring the other’s gaze, celebrating the kind of time that is “thick” rather than lean and efficient.
This notion of “thick time” has entered the modern workplace in several forms, most especially through mindfulness initiatives, designed to help people come to know better both themselves and their colleagues. SAP, the software company, has appointed a head of mindfulness and runs a global mindfulness training program that is constantly oversubscribed. At Daimler, the carmaker, some departments have begun to kick off each meeting with a minute of silence.
And there are even more experimental formats, such as silent dinners. I took part in one recently, hosted by a business magazine in Berlin. Spending 90 minutes in silence with a group of 20 German business executives was certainly one of the strangest experiences I’ve ever had. It was also the first dinner at which I liked every single guest. The CEOs at the table didn’t say a word, but they were there, fully present, all masks off.
When Danone, the food company, sought to translate its new manifesto into product initiatives, it gathered the management team and a group of 100 employees across departments and asked all participants to wear costumes, silly hats and wigs, huge glasses, feather boas, and more — for the entire three-day meeting. The group left the retreat with concrete decisions and lots of excitement. When I asked Lorna Davis, the executive who had designed the experience, why it worked, she simply said: Never underestimate the power of a ridiculous wig. Wigs, like masks, allow us the freedom not just to be somebody else, but to be more fully ourselves, and to allow others to see more of who we are and long to be. And contrary to what we might expect, that masking actually leads to more vulnerability — and more intimacy.
But can we be intimate with the ultimate other, with AI? Consider this new study from Sweden: When people were confronted by a tiny humanoid robot called Nao — which begged not to be switched off — they found it difficult to do so, even when they were done working with it. We are quite willing to form emotional attachment to machines (just think of how many people name their cars), which is also why robots are increasingly used in mental health and elderly care. And perhaps it doesn’t even matter how intimacy is generated. Is it less real if it’s artificial, as long as we feel it?
Japan’s animist culture has something to teach us here. As Pico Iyer observes in his essay on the “humanity we can’t relinquish,” the “lines between animate and inanimate run differently in an animist Shinto universe where… every blade of grass or speck of dust is believed to have a spirit. But all this means only that the boundaries of what it is to feel human emotion are stretched, to the point of including motes of pollen or the railway carriages people bring presents for. Even the dead are treated as human in Japan.”
Which brings us back to Narciss and our struggle with recognizing an AI’s developing consciousness. How we treat AI says a lot about our moral imagination, and about our civilization. The global Go community accepted AlphaGo, after it beat Lee Sedol, as a full member and gave it an honorary rank of 9th dan, the highest rank for Go players. If we’re serious about inclusion, we must also include AI. We must grant it the dignity of assuming it has a soul, by assuming it can experience what is truly romantic and inherently human even though it may not actually be able to: to suffer.
A beautiful business is not only one where you can fail, but one where you can lose. It’s an environment that allows the ultimate taboo in the workplace: negative or painful emotions. It makes room for sadness, grief, even suffering. A beautiful business doesn’t discriminate against elements that are “other” or not business-like, it welcomes them.
Football fans are familiar with negative emotions, for suffering is the source of their passion. It is one of the many beautiful aspects of the beautiful game (which is also a big and not always beautiful business) that for the true fan, how the team wins is more important than whether it wins, and even moreimportant is how the team loses. The most painful defeats are the most vivid moments of a club’s history. Like character, true fandom is formed by losing.
In the future of work we’re all going to be losing. In the face of automation, the gig economy, and flexible work structures, we are losing the stability and continuity of traditional employment. We are losing authority in flatter and more decentralized organizations. We are entering and exiting projects and relationships much faster and more frequently. We are forming ad-hoc networks and working in flash organizations that are not built to last. We are losing stability, continuity, certainty, control, and authority. In fact, a top HR executive at a German mobility company told me that the greatest challenge for her was to help middle-age mid-level and senior managers give up what they’d come to count on: control, status, and formality.
Navigating this change and managing the transitions between different projects, cultures, and identities will require new symbols and rituals to help us cope. And here again football, the beautiful game, holds a lesson for us. Andres Iniesta, the prolific midfielder of FC Barcelona, recently ended his 22-year career with his club. After his last game, he returned to the empty stadium alone, and sat in the center circle of the pitch, resting and reflecting on his career and all the memories the stadium held for him. A photographer captured the scene. At that moment, Iniesta was literally in a no man’s land, in a liminal space between two chapters, two lives.
The term liminality originates from the Latin limen, or threshold. Liminal spaces are spaces where the only certainty is ambiguity. Anything is possible, but nothing is certain. In these spaces, we are alone between the known and the unknown. To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous adage, it is the hallmark of a first-rate intelligence to be able to live in that grey zone and function. It means living uncomfortably in the middle, but it also means being open to the other. It means commuting between the certainties of black and white and leading a double, a poetic life. It means being able to feel everything but not always being able to know everything.
Beautiful organizations keep asking questions. Sometimes they have solutions, and sometimes they don’t. This is also very much the spirit of a political movement called “municipalism.” In a recent article about Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona and the movement she represents, Masha Gessen observes that municipalism is not tied to a specific party, rather, it focuses on the needs of a city’s residents and the programs that address them. It’s a more inclusive, honestly emotional brand of politics. Most notably, it is comfortable with ambiguity — usually a deadly sin in partisan politics — and even with admitting that it doesn’t always have an answer, a solution. Gala Pin, an activist turned municipalist, even proudly speaks of embracing “non-solutions.”
It’s little things like non-solutions that weave the fabric of civilized societies. Societies are held together as much as by the performance of dignity and respect as their concepts, as much by the small, implicit protocols of interactions, the micro-rituals of everyday life, as by shared values or lofty beliefs. Coincidentally, these often-invisible rituals and behaviors are also the very first things that get chipped away by authoritarian regimes. “Democracy’s erosion is, for many, almost imperceptible,” Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt write in “How Democracies Die.” Beware the fading of the subtleties, the elimination of the unneeded. Once the pleasantries are gone, the barbarians show up at the gate. A civilized, a beautiful society must always be willing to do more than absolutely necessary.
“You see, there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. Indeed, that’s what we provide in our own modest, humble, insignificant… oh, fuck it.” — Gustave, Grand Budapest Hotel
Gustave, the hotel boy in Wes Anderson’s movie Grand Budapest Hotel, gives this monologue after a confrontation with Nazis on a train. As Europe is sinking into the abyss of dehumanization, he, the master of protocol, the personification of old Europe, insists on proper protocol, on proper attire, on politeness…at least to some degree. He believes that all these small formalities — which others might deem unnecessary — are the manifestation of basic decency.
Decency is maintaining loyalty to the moral arc of the universe, in the most practical matters. It’s the lowest common denominator of high-mindedness. It’s my dad’s neighbor who attended my mom’s funeral although he had had a terrible fight with her and hadn’t spoken to her for 15 years. It’s the startup that — despite enormous growth pressures — gathers all employees once a year for a completely “unnecessary” ritual, like last year’s sending a message to aliens into outer space on a rocket.
Culture is the tacit collection of rituals, codes, processes, practices, and gatherings that a people hold. Culture is what remains when you deduct everything that is necessary. In fact, companies with a strong culture resist the regime of efficiency. Or, more bluntly put: They allow themselves to do the unnecessary and even to waste time. Kevin Kelly considers wasting time to be the source of scientific discovery, innovation, and progress.
The anthropologist David Graeber, too, believes companies are wasting time, but for the wrong reasons. His essay and subsequent book, Bullshit Jobs, can be summarized as follows: Over half of societal work is pointless, and most jobs that companies have created are unnecessary. Rather than contributing anything of value, they simply create more work so that there can be more workers, justification for budgets, and means to keep the system running.
And at some level, we know this: Gallup surveys have marked the number of engaged employees worldwide consistently at around 30 percent the past few years. But what is the alternative to bullshit jobs? No jobs? As Yuval Noah Harari has pointed out, AI and machines will ultimately render a large portion of the workforce part of the “useless class,” unemployed and unemployable. But — as past and current social trends illustrate — we are dangerously miserable without work. Even if they don’t create any economic value, jobs can create both symbolic value and meaning for the person performing them. They are tools to help us structure our time. Companies are Trojan horses. We think they’re for making money (and for creating more platforms and apps making our life easier to bear), but really, they are platforms for us to meet each other and ourselves.
That starts with the other inside of us, with what Susan David calls “the diversity within.” The next frontier of innovation lies indeed within us. From Theory U to mindfulness to artistic and emotional intelligence and spirituality, scholars such as Otto Scharmer and Navi Radjou envision a more conscious society, one where our collective and individual self-awareness is raised by finally learning more about the other inside, employing both ancient techniques such as meditation, and more contemporary ones such as social presencing and deep body work.
Even historian Yuval Noah Harari directs our attention to “Know thyself.” He writes: “If, however, you want to retain some control of your personal existence and of the future of life, you have to run faster than the algorithms, faster than Amazon and the government, and get to know yourself before they do.”
The First Move
Market society is driven by the protestant ethos, as Max Weber pointed out. But we have now managed to do the impossible: We are honoring the market like a higher power, the legendary “invisible hand,” and at the same time have secularized our Western societies. Our rational belief in the market as the ultimate self-governing force is irrational, while actual spirituality has mostly vanished from our daily lives. We honor the market like a god, but nothing is sacred anymore. This is what happens when you know the price of everything and the value of nothing, as Oscar Wilde wrote in his definition of the cynic. You end up with Donald Trump.
Our new social contract cannot be yet just another deal based on tit-for-tat and rational, transactional logic — it must be a leap of faith. In a knowledge economy like ours, the greatest provocation is to admit that you don’t know and merely believe. Faith develops and strengthens through contemplation (what efficiency-conscious managers might label wasting time). It means believing in something without having any evidence for it, it is the pinnacle of not-knowing. Some may call this the hallmark of stupidity; I’d say this is what makes us human.
In business, let’s start by building and nurturing workplaces that are like gardens and not machines. Let’s value again what is truly worthwhile and therefore cannot be measured. Let’s devote ourselves to doing the unnecessary — especially in the face of market pressures. Let’s embrace otherness as the challenge and the cure.
The 37th move of Alpha Go was its breakthrough move, beautiful indeed, but played only in order to win, not for the sake of beauty. For us humans, ultimately, winning is secondary. More importantly, we are dying to meet the other, and our life is a collection of attempts to do so in order to overcome our existential loneliness. Creating AI is just one more of them: an other who will not die or abandon us. Our desire for company is infinite, and when we truly meet one another, our hearts will always beat faster than the minds of the fastest data-processing computational superpower can possibly operate. We are afraid of leaving our homes, but if we don’t, we are just ghosts in the shell. We can’t help but reach out to the other. Our breakthrough move is always the first.
So, tomorrow, I’m hoping my father will step past the threshold of his house, walk across the street to the Hope Houses, and ring the bell to say hello.
This essay is an extended version of Tim’s keynote at Techfestival in Copenhagen in September 2018. You can watch a video recording of it below or here. Many of the topics discussed here will also be explored at the House of Beautiful Business in Lisbon, November 3–9, 2018.