Hope is a flatterer, but the most upright of all parasites; for she frequents the poor man’s hut, as well as the palace of his superior – William Shenstone (1714 – 63) Poet and landscape gardener
In 1545, a Fransiscan friar named Bernardino de Sahagún began work on a remarkable ethnographic research project into Mesoamerica, entitled “La Historia Universal de las Cosas de Nueva España“. His motivations were not, however, entirely academic. His aim was to evangelize indigenous peoples and convert them to Christianity. Over the following decades, he edited and revised several versions of a 2,400-page manuscript, addressing a number of religious, cultural and ecological themes. It has been described as “one of the most remarkable accounts of a non-Western culture ever composed.” Now better known as The Florentine Codex, it is preserved at the Laurentian Library in Florence. Amongst a whole lot more, he recorded the native language of Nahuatl; elicited information about cultural authorities and the ways that Aztec culture recorded and transmitted knowledge; attempted to capture the totality of Aztec culture on its own terms and collated data on the conquest of Mexico from the point of view of the conquered. From Sahagún’s research we know a lot about Aztec cuisine, the most important staple of which was corn, a crop that held a particular mythological significance. Strangely, the Aztecs developed a taste for corn smut, a plant disease caused by the pathogenic fungus Ustilago maydis and to this day it is considered a delicacy in Mexico, where it is known as huitlacoche and it is often compared to truffles in food articles describing its taste and texture. Despite the efforts of the James Beard Foundation, which held a high-profile huitlacoche dinner in the late 1980s, it has failed to take off as a more widely accepted addition to our diet.
That’s all very interesting, I hear you say, but what the hell does smut have to do with the world of work?
Well, I suppose it’s really a tale of durability against changing mores and fashions. A great many of the problems we face in our working lives are relics of a distant past: our approach to leadership; the pursuit of profit; the mistreatment of workers; a focus on the short term; an obsession with legacy; the taking of risks; the confounding of innovation and the suppression of individuality; the fear of the loss of power; the fear of emotion, of bringing our whole selves to work; everyday sexism; glass ceilings and revolving doors; low pay and low morale; the absence of a compelling social purpose. And our answer? Stuff. Stuff and more stuff. At work, at home and at play. Gadgets on your wrist that say “Buck up, fatty!” Boxes and frameworks so we can pin down people like moths in the lepidopterist’s study. A swirling, ever-expanding ecosystem of collaboration tools that don’t talk to each other. Big data for narrowing of minds. Data, data everywhere but not a drop to really quench our curiosity for true insight. We’re connected like never before but equality seems as out of reach as ever it was. Hashtag bandwagons instead of face to face compassion. The widescreen, HD artifice we call reality TV. Is it any wonder there’s a sense we’re all stuffed. We’re looking for answers in the wrong places.
This isn’t to say that all hope is lost. Sometimes insight occurs in a very serendipitous fashion. In 1929, a Swiss chemist, Albert Hofmann, began a mission to map the unchartered territory of compounds derived from a fungus (not unlike the one that causes corn smut) and inadvertently ingested some of the substance he was working on. He started to feel rather odd. He left work early to go home and have a lie down, subsequently claiming to have experienced “fantastic pictures” and shapes with “intense kaleidoscopic play of colours”. He’d discovered something that, arguably, would lead to the Beatles, the Byrds, the Yardbirds, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, the Doors, Pink Floyd, the Summer of Love and Woodstock.
The lesson seems clear. It’s a cliché to say that, if do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you always got. Like so many clichés, it’s a cliché because its true. We either need to look very differently at the way the world of work functions or we need to cross our fingers and hope that serendipity saves the day. For now, work looks like being a rather unhealthy parasitic fungus that’s not going away any time soon.
Postscript – Sometimes I get a little stuck with blogging. So I go on Twitter and ask folk to give me three words. This time round I’m grateful to Ian Perry (Stuff), Ian Pettigrew (Serendipitous) and the mysterious @WhisperOfWicked (Smut).