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A Working Hypothalamus
How an exceptional new show made me think about work, DAOs and me.
Welcome to People vs Algorithms 18.
I look for patterns in media, business and culture. My POV is informed by 30 years of leadership in media and advertising businesses, most recently as global President of Hearst Magazines, one of the largest publishers in the world.
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Here’s the set up. You walk into the office each morning remembering absolutely zero about your life outside. And the minute you leave, all memories of your work life are completely inaccessible to the outside you. This total mental separation is the result of being "severed", an elective surgical procedure causing the work half of one's existence ("innie") to retain no knowledge or memory of the personal side ("outie").
Such is the premise of the exquisite new show Severance on Apple TV. The nine episode series was written by Dan Erickson, directed by Ben Stiller (6 of 9 episodes) and features a terrific cast including star Adam Scott with Patricia Arquette, Britt Lower, John Tuturro, Zack Cherry, Tramell Tillman and Christopher Walken.
Puncturing this work-life duality and unraveling the mysteries behind it, is the driving dramatic energy that propels the plot.
Other than surreal office interplay and hysterical behavior-reinforcing office celebrations (Melon Party!), work at the fictional "Lumon Industries" amounts to an abstract and mindless data sorting exercise (rendered perfectly in green screen retro-tech). Exactly what the data represents and the aberrations they seek is the subject of some speculation inside the “Macro Data Refinement Department”. These are trench workers of the data age. Commentary on modern office existence are always sly and artful.
The premise is the perfect canvas to explore our relationship with work, the tradeoffs we make to sell our time to corporations, how these environments, and the social rituals that define them, shape us. Given a pandemic induced reconsideration of the meaning and customs of work, the timing is impeccable.
I really do hope you watch it.
Severance tweaked me for a lot of reasons beyond its exquisite creative appeal. I literally had to pause it a few times as I processed memories of days when I was so preoccupied with work that my personal time evaporated between the commute to and from the office. Like my brain had been severed too and there just wasn't that much left for "outie" life. Looking back, I am so grateful to my wife and family who patiently supported me through moments of work neurosis.
It spurred deeper reflections of how I engaged at work, for better and worse. This is a bit personal and meandering but... indulge me.
Partly as a reaction to what I perceived were the cold confines of conformist office culture that I never imagined being part of; partly a function of growing up in small, hyper-personal, unstructured working environments; partly as justification for my juvenile behavior, I developed a work philosophy that belonged to the "bring your whole self to work" school. I think there might be a book about this, with a similar title, but I am pretty sure you don't want to read it.
My concept was this: satisfaction and success in a modern work environment was born of aligning who you were and what you needed as a human with what an organization needed from you. I felt work was and should be personal. The goal was to find a magic center of the venn between "the whole you" and "what the org needed from you." Finding this overlap and creating an environment where you could express it made work more fun, was intrinsically motivating and produced better results for the company.
As a result, I have always been drawn to a certain type of work colleague and work relationship. I am an intense guy who likes to find the shortest path between points. Sometimes I miss signals on that journey. Occasionally I laugh at the wrong things at the wrong times. I love quirky, smart, intense people that were ok with that and wanted to join me on the mission.
Looking back, it was great for some, not great for others.
It meant I would develop deep relationships with my closest collaborators at the office. My work relationships embodied an intensity in how we pursued professional objectives and and how we interacted on a personal level. Which made work fun, at least for me and a group I was closely connected to. The people outside of the group probably didn't like it so much. And, as I ascended in organizations and circumstances to places where you words and action where scrutinized ever more closely, my disruptive style became a liability.
I have spent a good amount of time thinking about this and how I grow beyond it.
The truth is, we are never severed — we always bring the personal to the professional. The pandemic brought cameras into our homes and made our real lives and real selves more visible to the people we work with. Perhaps it has created a blurring of lines between the work and life that is more civilized, where it’s ok to weave the things you do and need as a human into the person you are and the role you play in an organization. Assuming, of course, it doesn’t negatively impact people around you.
I wonder if a new generation will be less defined by one professional self. Will a singular work-life identity give way to a more complex but fulfilling structure where you an independent, self-driven entity on “the network”, engaged with a variety of co-conspirators, inside dominant professional roles and a portfolio of secondary ones. It feels like work is becoming less geographically and organizationally constrained — full legitimization of the side-hustle ethos. The social and professional constructs that develop as a consequence are not well understood.
Thanks for indulging me. Back to regular programming.
There’s something pretty disruptive happening in how we organize, motivate and reward people. It’s DAOs, which are pretty much the opposite of the dystopian workplace rendered in Severance. But I have been doing some work here, so I thought I would share a few observations.
As a quick reminder, DAOs stands for Decentralized Autonomous Organization. There's a endless amount of good reading on this (start here, go here, and here). I will attempt to simplify. Think of a DAO as a group of people with a shared wallet and a mission. There are rules that govern how people work together. These are written in code and recorded on the blockchain. DAO's are decentralized which just means they are self-governing with no formal leadership structure. A token currency underpinning each DAO offers the mechanism for ownership, governance and financial reward.
It’s a powerful idea, but seems pretty far out, considered in the context of managing large, complex organizations or shepherding small fast moving ones. But there's plenty of evidence that DAOs are gaining traction as a fundamentally new way to connect people to a mission and get stuff done.
Here are just a few emergent examples… in collective investment (PleasrDAO, FlamingoDAO), professional communities (JumpDAO, VectorDAO, Crypto Packaged Goods), cultural collectives (Friends with Benefits), metaverse (Decentraland), incubators (Seed Club), defi (Uniswap, Sushiswap), community activation (RabbitHole), tools for DAOs (Aragon) and media (PubDAO, BanklessDAO).
For all intents and purposes, bitcoin is the original DAO. It has a mission (decentralized alternative to financial system), no centralized legal entity, a set of self enforcing code (how the system is validated, number of coins issued, etc), and while it has no organized governance system, miner and nodes are a close proxy as invested actors in the system. Per crypto VC Nick Tomaino in the Slow Death of the Firm: "Most people think of Bitcoin as a digital asset, but it can be thought of as something more general than that: a decentralized organization. Years from now, Satoshi’s creation may be looked at as a catalyst for the slow death of the firm."
As a quick aside, there may be a unifying property underneath all of this stuff that finds common ground for left and right — the libertarian mindset embraces crypto’s deterministic and anti-authoritarian virtues, those on the left see an opportunity to create a more inclusive and equitable system. Perhaps they find shared interest in the DAO construct that embodies the spirit of collectivism but is rooted in ownership and individual enterprise. Something to think about.
But can a DAO make you rich, you ask? Conceivably if you hold enough of the tokens, the entity performs a valuable economic function pushing up token value and liquidity. Uniswap is an wildly successful example of a protocol and now DAO in the defi space. It's founder, Hayden Adams can surely attest to the economic potential.
I talk to a lot of media people that are uncertain about what crypto means to their business. Should they try to get in the NFT game, do they build crypto capabilities into ad products and creative studios, should they be publishing to the blockchain. DAOs will represent something more significant, I think. As observed several times in previous note, the highest order achievement for a media brand is as gravitational center of a community. This stands to reason. Content that resonates drives engagement, moves people to action, to identify with the brand and connect with one another. Community is the most resilient distribution mechanism media and DAOs are the ultimate mechanism for media as community.
Media DAOs are starting to emerge as appendages to traditional corporate structures (LLCs). Two examples I've encountered recently are Decypt's PubDao and the Bankless's DAO. Both of these are young vertically focused media brands. Both have DAOs that sit alongside them.
PubDAO is a Media DAO, focused on using Web3 to create a better path for online content. While utilizing Web3 to build products focused on improving the way we create Media.
Think of PubDAO, initially, as akin to a decentralized Associated Press.
PubDAO story ideas get brainstormed openly in our Discord channel, a truly collaborative process that favors coordination over competition.
The decentralized wire service is merely the first part of a broader plan for PubDAO that will ultimately produce guilds made up of writers, editors, photographers, illustrators, advertisers, and marketers. Those guilds—and an evolving set of protocols—will reduce the cost and friction in online publishing.
The Bankless DAO mission and vision, slightly more evangelical:
A decentralized autonomous organization that acts as a steward of the Bankless Movement progressing the world towards a future of greater freedom.
We will help the world go Bankless by creating user-friendly onramps for people to discover decentralized financial technologies through education, media, and culture.
To live in a world where anyone with an internet connection has access to the financial tools needed to achieve financial independence.
These companies can see a world where a traditional profit-driven organizational structure and the DAO co-exist. And both can imagine a world where the LLC is progressively decentralized and subsumed by the DAO.
The DAO idea fits well with a couple of important trends in media — a shift from institutions to collections of expert independents and, a need to assemble communities of believers around the brand with a stake in the mission, to replace or at least augment a broken network of social and Google driven distribution. Think of DAOs as something akin to a mission driven social network but with community ownership and governance and the center.
I suspect you are going to see a lot more here. As I pointed out in last week’s note, the world of crypto is going to suffer through a lot of humiliation as it matures. Just this week another OpenSea hack saw dozens of NFTs and million in value stripped from users accounts. But the force is strong. Set against a backdrop of dissatisfaction with existing social, economic and political systems, smart, well resourced next gen leaders are pursuing a new vision of the future with religious zeal. Core to this are the organizational systems that bring people together, allocate resources, and reward effort. These are DAOs.
This morning I stumbled onto a 2017 essay by crypto/entrepreneur/author guy Taylor Pearson called BlockChain Man. It is a libertarian take on social order in a post "Organizational Man" paradigm, one that could only be written by a successful and intellectually-mobile proponent of a new crypto world order — it’s a fun read, but best with a grain of salt. The post imagines a new class of worker, an enterprising free-agent, detached from paternalistic organizational structures, thriving on-chain, building a stream of tokens along his or her journey:
The Organization Man was defined by the Social ethic which emphasized the individual as subordinate to the group, the importance of belongingness, and The Organization as the means to achieve belongingness and achieve the proper subordination of the individuals to the group.
The Blockchain Man’s world will be defined by the three tenets of the Protocol Ethic.
a belief in the individual as the source of creativity
a belief in serving the needs of the protocol as the ultimate purpose of the individual
and a belief in the application of blockchains to achieve an individual’s highest potential.
The Blockchain Man exists as a unit of the blockchain. Of himself, he is isolated, meaningless; only as he collaborates with the blockchain does he become worthwhile, for by sublimating himself to the blockchain, he helps produce a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Sound's better than "severance." I wonder what the Canadian truckers would say about it.
Crazy dayz. Have a great weekend.../ Troy