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Thursday, 23 April 2020

Kicking and screaming into the 21st century

Matt Mullenweg is the founder of WordPress, which is used by a third of all websites worldwide - and a very good job it does too, as you can see from this one I made earlier. Recently Matt was talking to Sam Harris about how the future of work is going to be telecommuting. (Though strangely enough he seems to think that tele- prefix must be something to do with telephones... Neither a Greek scholar nor a fantasy/SF fan, obviously.)

You can listen to that discussion here. Matt should know what he's talking about -- his company has over a thousand employees worldwide but they don't bother with an office. The future has been a long time coming, though. When my last office job ended in the credit crunch, I resolved to go back to working mostly from home. The energy and time wasted in being squeezed onto trains for hours each day is just crazy. "The commute has had its day," I told business colleagues, little dreaming it would take eleven years and a global pan(ic)demic for companies to drag themselves out of the 20th century mindset.

It's never that simple, though, is it? Matt and Sam talk about the five phases of online working, which start off with companies trying to replicate the habits and work culture of bygone decades using modern tech, and then gradually evolves as they realize that distributed working is not a poor substitute for an office, it's a whole new and better way of doing things.

The podcast's subject is work not play, but there are lessons there for gaming too. We already talked about how asynchronous roleplaying could lead to richer stories than forcing everything into the format of a regular sit-down around the table with all the players. Here's another trend: the last decade or so has seen a movement to strip away the clunky mechanics of roleplaying's wargames origins and replace them with simpler rules that favour character-driven stories. Online play can only accelerate that. Tim Harford, who contributes the annual Legend Christmas special to this blog, has lately been prepping a new campaign for our group. The rules he's written are two pages long, and most of that is the magic system.

Even when the coronavirus lockdown ends (or the current lockdown, I should say) we ought to hold onto the lessons we're learning from online gaming. Don't get stuck in Phase I, like the characters in Forster's SF story "The Machine Stops". Instead embrace the growth that disruption brings, something that Tim Harford talked about eloquently in his book Messy.

Come back tomorrow when we'll be turning Japanese. Hence the video.


  1. Sam's conversations across a massive range of topics are always fascinating and stimulating; he is one the sages of America, the polar opposite of Donald Trump. I never miss an episode of this Podcast. Talking of which, thanks for introducing me to "The Good Friends of Jackson Elias" which I am rather enjoying during these long Lockdown weeks - a great combination of humour, horror, history with three men who love their subject, love books and stories, and love to share it with their listeners.

    1. Glad you're enjoying the podcasts, John. When I set out for my thrice-weekly 10 mile walk (it should be a run but I'm lazy) I think, "Whose company do I want today?" And often it's the three fellers from GFoJE.