One of my favorite books is Working, by Studs Terkel, an oral history and radio interview collection. Terkel interviewed over 30 people to get at the nature of their work, or as the collection’s subtitle says, “People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do”. It’s beautiful for so many reasons, but especially because so many of these stories uncover powerful truth about what it means to have purpose, hope, and joy under capitalism, in and beyond their work.
Another book I love from a very different genre, is World War Z , a fictional oral history where everyday people talk about their experiences surviving the zombie apocalypse. It’s a sociopolitical zombie story (more literal than the rest of the genre), with stories about celebrities having nervous breakdowns over the new post class society, zombie warfare strategies adapted for a Chicago with no electricity, and elaborate tax code descriptions that I can actually stand to read (this is an overt KSR call out).
I’ve been thinking about both of these books a lot over the last few months as I’ve read and collected a lot of data about the future of work, technology, and social change. Though this research started as a way to prototype a better curricula for nonprofit communications, it took me down many unexpected rabbit holes: aquaponics and the circular economy, the neuroscience of emotions and learning, the proliferation of social work research applied to business, AI in collective decision making, fiction as a teaching tool, and, as always, the imperative of organizing as a practice in a world facing climate extinction.
As part of this project, I conducted (and continue to conduct) a lot of interviews where, as Alie Ward of Ologies says, I asked smart people dumb questions -- about their work, the future, and their hopes for the world.
I am a notorious ideation addict and pointless rabbit hole faller (double air sign), so I was surprised to find many of these rabbit holes and interviews were tied together by two very similar themes.
Almost all of them were related to work and hope.
As a freelancer, the son of a former teacher’s union negotiator + social worker, and a person who has often struggled with rage about how fake (both paid and unpaid) work can feel, these themes challenged me. Hope was even worse: to me, hope had always felt like an abstraction, or just a trite way to admit you were powerless. Whenever hope comes up in articles or conversations about climate extinction, white supremacy, or capitalism, I always feel my brain shutting down and moving on as if the person has tacitly said “I have no idea what to do, don’t listen to me.”
Brene Brown writes about hope as a learned cognitive practice -- a type of work that moves you towards resilience. She sees hope, and many other ‘abstract’ ideas I’ve struggled with my whole life, including trust, connection, and identity, as cognitive processes that can be learned through practice -- or, you know, work.
In Farsighted: How to Make Better Decisions, Steven Johnson talks about reading and writing fiction as a key part of building a new cognitive practice. He says that novels and storytelling, especially about potential futures, are about inhabiting the processes of the characters as a ‘dress rehearsal’ for using those processes in your own life.
Working 2050 is a a series of fictional interviews with workers of the future. It’s a way to try to better understand these themes and try out new cognitive processes, as well as a blatant rip off of Studs Terkel’s Working and Max Brooks’ World War Z. This future world (like our world) is no utopia, but even imagining a world where these interviews could exist feels like a hopeful practice.
I’m excited to write these 10 interviews. I hope they’re fun to read, and help you with your own work and or cognitive practices -- if you’d be interested in writing an interview, reading an interview for audio recording, or collaborating on something completely different, lmk.
Side note: every picture of Studs Terkel I've ever seen astounds me because he looks so aggressively the way he sounds.