The hiker’s guide to humanity

Words by Agustin Chevez

Illustration of Agustin Chevez

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?

AC: 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.

colourful iguanas one behind the other

“I have tried to meditate so many times, I downloaded an app and paid the $20, but nothing did what walking next to the road for six weeks did to me”

TP: So how could the workplace nurture absurdity?

AC: If anything, we have the direct opposite right now, so I think we’re going to go through many iterations. It’s only recently that we have recognized that emotions should be present in the workplace. Fifty years ago, either you were rational or you were emotional. Now you cannot talk about innovation without talking about passion. But that transition took a lot of time.

TP: What about the office itself — what would an “absurd” space look like?

AC: We need to stop thinking about space in terms of how it looks. Perhaps its most fundamental attribute is its “place” component. So you and I might both know London, we can describe it as a physical space, how it looks, but it’s a different place for you than for me because it has different emotional cues, experiences and ultimately meaning.

Perhaps a more relevant question is how will we work, how will organizations be governed, what will the rules be? I like to use the analogy of a chessboard — you can play checkers and chess in the same space, but they are completely different games with completely different rules. So maybe the office might look exactly the same, but the biggest changes will be in its policy and its management and its operating system.

Some of this goes against the paradigm. The concept of beauty is pretty much intrinsic and a lot of the time designers favour beauty over anything else. But beauty can get in the way of meaningful insights. On my walk I went through some beautiful landscapes, but the problem is the beauty overpowers you and the only thing that you can think of is “wow” and taking selfies.

When I was walking along the road and just looking down into this ongoing gravel, I got bored beyond belief. By the third week I was talking to myself out loud, whistling … But eventually I arrived at a sense of clarity and mindfulness that I have never achieved before. I have tried to meditate so many times, I downloaded an app and paid the $20, but nothing did what walking next to the road for six weeks did to me.

TP: How did you get back from Sydney to Melbourne?

AC: I just jumped on the first plane I could, and it was the most interesting flight I ever had. I never thought I would be jetlagged flying from Melbourne to Sydney, a one-hour flight in the same time zone. But my brain could not make sense of the fact that it would take an hour, not 42 days.

There’s a phenomenon we don’t acknowledge that has revolutionized society beyond recognition and that’s our relationship to distance. It’s completely disrupted. When I was on the walk, I’d ask where the nearest place to eat was and people would say it was five minutes away. But that’s by car, it took an hour to walk there. We have built cities and societies based on our ability to drive.

In the future, we might create environments that are based not on thinking at a human pace, but at a computer’s pace. We’re already seeing this in work environments. Work processes are not human any more, they’re technology-assisted and that enables us to operate faster. We’re in danger of being superseded, but we’re going to become machines before machines become human. I’d like to experience what it felt like to work in an office of the 1800s, where the activities were tailored to human speed and human cognition.

Dr Agustin Chevez is a senior researcher at architect HASSELL, and an adjunct research fellow in the Centre for Design Innovation at Swinburne University of Technology

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