Words by Katie Puckett
Agustin Chevez reveals what he learned about the future of work on a six-week walk from Melbourne to Sydney …
The Possible: So why have you just spent 42 days walking all the way from Melbourne to Sydney?
Agustin Chevez: The walk was just a mechanism for a mental journey, a pilgrimage. If you think about it, isolation is what gives us uniqueness and diversity. The reason that Mexico, where I’m from, is different from Australia, where I live now, is that they evolved separately for many, many years. The Galapagos Islands have three distinct species of land iguanas — because populations on separate islands didn’t meet, their genes could diverge. I wondered if the same might be true of ideas. In an increasingly connected world, ideas might be like one successful colony of iguanas — there are many of them, but all very much alike.
Melbourne-Sydney is the world’s second busiest domestic air route, and there’s a big push to create a mega-region. Does the amount of ideas generated by the connectivity between these cities come at the expense of the diversity of ideas? What kind of ideas might you have if you had to walk for 42 days to Sydney instead of jumping on a plane? Could temporary isolation create an idea with its own unique DNA? That was the rationale for this experiment.
TP: What kind of idea were you hoping to come up with?
AC: My area of research is work and the workplace, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the impact of cognitive computing. We’ve already been through the replacement of the body by technology, with robots doing physical work for us. Now algorithms are replacing the mind. Designers and creatives thought that would never happen because creativity is a uniquely human trait. But the IBM computer Watson beat humans at [game show] Jeopardy!, which was thought to require uniquely human attributes. And after that, it invented a barbecue sauce, so it came into the area of creativity. Technology is redefining what properties are supposedly human, so I wanted to think about the notion of purpose in a post-cognition era. What happens to us once technology can do white-collar jobs?
TP: So how did it go?
AC: It was amazing! The walk is very easy to describe, in terms of distance, altitude and time — it’s very linear. The problem is how to convey the pilgrimage, which is more abstract, but more valuable. Have you ever been in a beautiful landscape and you take a picture, then you look at it later and don’t even recognize it because it loses all context? Even though I wrote down my thoughts and experiences every day, it was difficult to capture the context.
TP: Can you share what you discovered? What is the purpose of humanity?
AC: In all honesty I think I could walk the Earth until I die and never come up with an answer to that. Perhaps what the journey allowed me to do is to reframe the question, like in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, when the answer to the meaning of life is 42 — the problem is the question. I’m still trying to digest it, but I do have some insights.
I think we are going to be replaced by computers faster than we expect, not only because technology is evolving very quickly but because the behaviours that organizations reward, consciously or unconsciously, are those that make us more like computers or robots. Organizations are obsessed with efficiency, consistency and reliability, but that’s a transient competitive advantage. You might be more efficient than your human competition, but you won’t be able to compete with AI or algorithms.
It’s not logic that defines us as human, it’s things that are hard to codify. What we should celebrate and nurture is absurdity, irrationality. You could have an algorithm that will spit out weird things but eventually you would realize that there is a pattern of weirdness, whereas humans have a unique way of being absurd beyond a framework or protocol. Evolution is very logical, but revolution is absurd because you’re jumping one generation, there’s no continuity. So perhaps the way for humans to innovate is not through the linear process of logic, which would be superseded by computers, but to revolutionize through absurdity, which is uniquely human.