Category Archives: Future Thinking

Words Fail Me

I’ve been thinking about writing for a while but it’s difficult to know what to say. So many horrible things have happened around the world it’s hard to keep track. Although I still believe that measured using decades and centuries–not months and cable news–humanity is demonstrably improving, we are nevertheless suffering through a difficult period. I would call it a patch but that implies we know it will end soon, and we don’t know that at all.
I was cheered when French President Macron won and UK Prime Minister Theresa May was humbled. (I’m always encouraged when any grand political figure is skewered by their ego-driven calculations.) I don’t find anything in the US cheering. Partisan politics, having created this situation, are unlikely to help resolve it. Although it is tempting to blame President Trump for our problems in the US, he is undoubtedly a symptom of the pathology, not the fundamental illness. The anarchist in me says that it’s the very fact we have a political process which is the problem. Powerful institutions attract huge egos and make partisan, petty monsters out of all of us…and each of us.
The conviction that there exists a right side and a wrong side is, in my opinion, a disastrous delusion that costs us dearly. There appear to be two fundamental secular ways of thinking about the human condition, about the best way to live our lives. (I say secular because there are other religion-based approaches which I don’t dismiss; they essentially argue that our secular concerns are irrelevant.) One is that humans attain their ultimate greatness as individuals. The other argues that humans attain greatness in community with others. Where I think we veer off-base is when we think one of these philosophies is destined to prevail. I suspect the truth is that both are right to some degree and that both are wrong  in excess. Given that the two appear irreconcilable, the job of our political process is to mediate the tension between the two, regulating the pendulum to avoid abrupt and destabilizing swings.
This is not a new idea. In the book The Discovery of Chance, the biography of the Russian philosopher Alexander Herzen by Aileen Kelly, she writes about the French philosopher Pierre Leroux who insisted on an

ineradicable conflict between the human drive toward social solidarity and the individual’s urge for self-realization. In this…perception he was ahead of his time…In the next decade {Pierre Joseph} Proudhon asserted that conflict between the individual and society was not a temporary aberration but “the very condition” of social existence.

Methinks that gets it just about right.
Can anything be done? Perhaps we need to pull together a corporate board for America. Its membership would be comprised of individuals who each side hates the most but who don’t currently hold political office. The so-called conservatives could identify their bete noires, perhaps Tim Cook, Oprah, Bill Gates. The so-called liberals could name theirs: the Koch Brothers, Peter Thiel, Peggy Noonan. The job of the corporate board would not be to make policy but simply to issue statements that they can all agree to. And when they can’t come to an agreement on a policy question–say health care, they issue a document that dispassionately lays out the most important areas of disagreement.
I’m being completely silly in making this suggestion. My only point is to demonstrate how unhelpful, in fact disastrous, our current partisan political process has become. And how difficult it is to come up with an alternative.
Ideology is the enemy of common sense. And the competition for political power has become a destabilizing arms race. It is long past time to demobilize. But no one knows how.
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The Ten Habits of Non-Conventional Thinkers

One of the things I do a couple of times a year is lead a discussion on conventional wisdom. It wasn’t my idea to do this. I was asked a few years ago by someone who was teaching a class on intelligence who wanted to hold a session on conventional wisdom. He thought I was the perfect person to lead it. Whatever…

Conventional wisdom is like the monster under the bed for intelligence analysts. We’re all afraid of it but we can’t quite describe what it looks like. Some worry very much that they are actually guilty of it themselves. But we’d rather not talk about it.

I struggled with the assignment because I felt that to talk about conventional wisdom I needed to use examples. Otherwise it wouldn’t be meaningful. But of course my example of conventional wisdom might be someone else’s strongly-held beliefs. I finally hit upon the idea of talking about conventional wisdom in the context of cosmology. If you study the history of man’s understanding of the universe and its origins, you become aware that it is actually the story of conventional wisdoms (plural intentional). The prevailing theory is replaced by a new theory that sooner or later becomes conventional wisdom ripe for replacement by the next new theory. Second verse same as the first.

The lessons I draw could also be reversed and thought of as best practices for people who don’t want to be conventional thinkers. And so here they are. The 10 habits of non-conventional thinkers just in case you want to be one too.

1. Non-conventional thinkers are very suspicious of what anyone says they “know”.  They consider knowledge a pretty slippery character who is largely the creation of whatever sensemaking tools are popular at the moment. When we develop new tools, we develop new knowledge that often topples down all previous architectures of knowledge.

2. Non-conventional thinkers eschew tidy, neat thinking. They like messy ideas. They go looking for them. They are not taken in by common human crutches such as the desire for symmetry.

3. This is hard, but non-conventional thinkers try to avoid falling in love with their ideas. They are mean to them, even abusive. (or at least they should be!)

4. Non-conventional thinkers don’t censor themselves. They try to say out loud or write down everything they’re thinking. I think too many people don’t even offer up the good ideas inside their heads.

5. They talk to and listen to very diverse people. They enjoy reading about ideas that are way out there. Last night on Netflix I watched a fascinating biography of William Burroughs. My Netflix Horoscope right now says I enjoy watching cerebral biographical documentaries.

6. They don’t think much is sacred. Not even Albert Einstein. Albert Einstein was a brilliant man. It seems like he was also a kind person. But he famously hated the idea of an expanding universe. Because astronomers and physicists were so in awe of him, they tried to explain away for about 20 years data that pointed to a big bang.

7. Non-conventional thinkers love to attack disciplines and ideas that have been static for a long time. They like even better to attack truths.

8. They love to look at things from completely different angles. They want to see the very finest details. They actually prefer to know exactly how things work. Non-conventional thinkers take no perspectives for granted and expect to find an element of truth even in the most outlandish points of view.

9. Non-conventional thinkers like to stimulate their thinking with sillinesses. They will engage in little rituals that fertilize their brains. Today I colored.

10. Non-conventional thinkers never stop looking.

We’re All in the Same Bathtub

When I was much younger, 34 years ago, I ended up having to take Economics 101, 102 before I could start graduate school. I was in the DC area, poor (in the way college kids are poor, which is different from how struggling families are poor), and so I enrolled at Prince George’s Community College. The professor, whose name I can’t remember, was a smart fellow, an engaging teacher, and clearly quite conservative in his economic and political orientation. It was fun and I learned a lot.

During one afternoon lecture, I remember Prof getting quite excited about how wrong it was for government to promulgate laws and regulations that imposed non-economic costs on businesses. How it messed up the purity of economics, I guess. At the time he was citing examples such as the relatively new requirement for companies to control pollution. Everyone in the class nodded in agreement but I decided I couldn’t let that one go. I raised my hand and noted, based on my not very commanding knowledge of economic history, that over the centuries many different “noneconomic” costs had been imposed on businesses: they couldn’t employ children just to get the cheapest labor; they couldn’t force workers to toil in unhealthy conditions; they couldn’t build cars that were firetraps. In the end, it seemed to me then and it still seems to me now, businesses are just another element in society and culture, and they essentially have no choice but to operate in accordance with whatever the socio-cultural norms are at the time. Being a business doesn’t exempt them, neither does the argument that certain costs are noneconomic. Given that currency itself is a social construct, in the final analysis all costs are noneconomic, or so it seems to me. (I know that last sentence doesn’t really make any sense, but it does accurately convey my thinking (muddy) here.)

The “occupy” events of the past few weeks and the growing discussion of Corporate Social Responsibility have reminded me of that Economics 101 class. I can’t help but think that we keep making silly distinctions about what category things fall into–such as economic vs. noneconomic, domestic vs. international, nature vs. man-made–when the rather obvious reality is: We’re All in the Same Bathtub. The “occupy” protests really are about trying to change the current social norms as they apply to business and profit. My guess is the very act of protesting is already changing those norms, but it is also probably true that the fact the protests are occurring indicates the norms are already changing.

In doing a little research for this post, I found an interesting discussion on this blog about economic and noneconomic costs in society. The following expresses what I’m thinking much better than I ever could:

Donohue-White submits (with very good reason) that every “market economy is shaped by the culture in which it exists, and, in turn, it affects the daily practices and customs of the people that comprise it.” By the rather broad term culture, she means the sum of “customs, traditions, and practices of a people.” In turn, the market exerts an influence on the culture in which it subsists, fostering particular sets of virtues or vices. Market and culture–while certainly conceptually distinct–are inextricably bound up in the concrete, practical affairs of a people. On this view, the market cannot be properly evaluated without recourse to the culture and society that shapes it AND to the impact the market has on this same culture and society. The “economic rationality” exhibited by many contemporary corporations seems to be largely devoid of the consideration of non-economic “costs,” particularly with respect to treatment of workers (wage, outsourcing, lay-offs), wealth accumulation and disregard for local and expansive tradition.

Because we’re all in the same bathtub, the argument that socially responsible behavior is not relevant to corporations or doesn’t make good business sense just falls apart.  US companies for example are already feeling the consequences of our declining education system. They can’t find the highly skilled workers they need, or at least not enough of them. Their transportation costs are rising because of the decaying transportation system. Internationally, I remember people making the argument that Somalia was not worth anyone’s attention, and so we ignored it. Ten years later, Somali pirates over the last two years have cost business $7-12 billion once you count all the related costs.

As automation and internet networks intrude into every line of business, I’m betting these changes will not only cost jobs; they will eventually shrink the size of corporations, including their profits and revenues. I can imagine a day when corporations evolve away from being primarily money-making activities to actually embracing their social responsibilities as one of the fundamental reasons for their existence. Business and government both will become less important organizing concepts for society. At first corporations will embrace greater community involvement as a clever way to market what they do; eventually I think some of these community activities may actually end up generating revenues for them and perhaps creating new types of jobs for the economy. They may no longer be profit-making entities, although they will still make money. Already I think you can see signs of this in the rise of NGO’s and other nonprofits in the world economy. Public Services International notes that NGO’s are now the 8th largest economy in the world, employing more than 19 million paid workers. The US is currently home to about 1.5 million nonprofits, with 30-50K being created every year.

Being in the same bathtub applies to the world economy as well. When the bathwater gets dirty–i.e. during the global financial crisis–everyone suffers. Until we discover sentient (and prosperous) life on other planets, we will have to find a way to make this financial system work, despite its imbalances. There is simply no other place for China, or any other country, to invest its trillions.

One final link. The latest piece in the Harvard Business Review by Rosabeth Moss Kanter powerfully discusses some of these dynamics. Money quote:

Only if leaders think of themselves as builders of social institutions can they master today’s changes and challenges.

Turkish Insights

Today is my 8th day in Turkey, a country I had not been to until now. (I’ve had the good fortune to visit much of the world, with the exception of Latin America and Asia, which are underrepresented in my travels.) I had no idea before the trip began that this journey would be such an eye-opener. Turkey is bursting with the new energy coursing through the planet. Unlike the US and the West, which at this moment appear overwhelmed by problems of their own making and undermined by an epic clash in values—particularly in the United States, Turkey strikes you as a country optimistically committed to its future. I know Turkey has problems—after all every society has, but they do not appear to be defeating the optimism of the Turkish people.

Some impressions I’ve made:

Turkey is pointed toward the East and has the opportunity this century to truly optimize its natural position as the connector between the East and the West. I suspect, however, that Turkish businessmen and the Government, if forced to choose, will declare “Go East, young man.” Flying around on Turkish airlines I’ve studied their route map. Today, they fly to 14 destinations in India, China, and the rest of Asia, compared to six destinations in the Americas, 4 in the US, 1 to Canada, and an intriguing connection between Istanbul and Sao Paolo, Brazil. True, Turkish Airlines has an impressive flight network in Europe, flying to nine German cities alone, but this is almost matched by its comprehensive coverage of the ‘stans, other former Soviet Republics, and the Middle East.

Turkey is still traveling on the uphill slope of its potential curve. Turkey is edgy in a good way. Just a short walk on the streets of Istanbul reveals all the cracks and fissures in the society. For example, every possible perspective on the role of women is seen walking on the boulevards: the great majority of women dress Western but head scarves and veils are also common, particularly in Istanbul. But most people on the street seem to be happily exploring how all these different value structures can best fit together, rather than choosing to believe there is a problem. It is altogether common, for example, to see women eating together at a restaurant, dressed in the full range from Vogue magazine to village traditional. I’m not familiar enough with Turkish politics to know if this generosity of acceptance extends fully to their politicians. I suspect that it doesn’t, knowing that politics, at least in the modern era, seem to thrive more on dwelling on problems than on devising solutions. But I can’t imagine Turkish politics has yet sunk to the level of American politicians, who are now fashioning their campaign platforms around our differences.  I’ve asked our tour guides questions, for example, about Turkey’s attitude toward Greece. My questions are dismissed as silly; we’ve grown beyond that. If only the West could learn again how to grow past problems, rather than dwell on them.

Turkey, I think, is not so often discussed when we talk about Islam, politics, and the Muslim religion, but we need to focus on it (and Indonesia) more as we think about how Islam will contribute to the setting of new global norms in the 21st century. Turkey, at least, strikes me as a very positive example. On September 11th, between 8 and 9 am East Coast Time, our tour group was sitting in Suleyman’s mosque in Istanbul, listening to our guide explain Islam. About halfway through the talk, many members of our group made the connection between the date and our context, and I think many of us—but not all—were happier to be in a mosque than to be in the US at that very moment. Turkey’s Islamic identity produces some interesting nuances in its relations with China. The Turks consider the Uigers to be part of the ancestral Turkish nation; the two languages have many similarities. So when we think about how international politics will evolve in the decades to come, one mental model we need to discard is that all situations involving significant differences will involve the US. You can imagine, for example, tensions between a country such as Turkey and China developing over the question of how China treats its Muslim population.

I could list more impressions, at this point all positive. Social media seems to be everywhere, for example. But the bottom line for me and many in our tour group, including veteran financial advisers and investment types, is that Turkey is much more appropriate exemplar for the world today than the US. And that was an impression I had no expectation having when I arrived.

Revisiting Lessons from a CIA Heretic

Events in Middle East have led me to reflect on the talk I gave in September of last year at the Business Innovation Factory. (You can read the prepared text here or see the video of my speech here)  I was noting how the world is changing and how that in turn requires a different sensemaking method. The key paragraphs:

If you think that the world is driven mostly by the secret deals and aspirations of powerful people—the Hitlers, the Communist Party of the Soviet Unon, Mao Tse Tung, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, I’m desperately trying to think of a likely woman here—then you will conclude that you need some kind of capability to figure out what these people are doing, to ferret out their secrets. To protect our nation from some very nasty ideas these individuals cook up. And you may also want an organization that can impede their plans, cross your fingers.

But if you think that most of the forces the US will need to navigate are not specifically man-made, or at least not specifically made by one man or a small group of them–then you need a different kind of organization. If what matters is that the US understand the trends in the world, like globalization or the emergence of new economies such as India and China and Brazil (which clearly no one is like trying to keep a big secret) than spending a lot of time digging out secrets seems not as important, and what you really want is to have your hand on the pulse of the world, to be out there sensing and in many ways just being part of the whole big ride.

(A little later in the talk.)  

Making sense of the world is so hard and so important that it demands collaboration with as broad a network as possible. It was around this time that this thought entered my mind: The CIA will end up being the last secret organization in the world. And being the last of anything is never a good thing.

And so back to the question. I actually think the answer to it is very complicated. But I do believe that more of what will be important to US prosperity in the future will lie in the second dynamic and our success will depend on how well we understand these large shift changes underway and are able to engage them. Here’s where the imbalance of the Intelligence Community really can hurt us. To deal with the first circumstance it’s important to be a closed network. But to understand and prosper in the second dynamic it’s best to be an open network.  What we have here is a real innovator’s dilemma.

That’s why one of my passions now that I’ve retired from the Agency is to do what little I can to help Americans think about connecting, about working in open networks, about transparency. I believe as a successful multicultural society the US is poised to be innovative in this new world, and this time perhaps all out of proportion to our size. I love all social networks and in particular Twitter because of its power to spread ideas faster than the speed of light. Just think of it. One thought can reach a thousand people much faster than a single beam of light could physically touch those same individuals.

A Political Statement, of Sorts

This morning I wrote back to a friend who had asked me what I was up to these days. This particular friend, whom I haven’t seen in 20 years probably, is very interested in politics of the conservative spectrum and so I wrote a rather long paragraph that connected my interest in social media to my political views, such as they are. After rereading, I’m resposting here. Parentheticals represent text I added here but were not part of my original email response.

“…I have over the years developed a very small brand as a senior government executive who really believes in social media and the need to reconceptualize the concept of work. And let me tell you…I really believe in the transformative power of what these technologies achieve, which is effective connectivity between people, effective enough to let people self-organize to do important things together without the need for government or some other artificial authority. When I was in college 35 years ago it struck me that government was essentially “middleware” in human society–that conviction has never left me–so in that sense I am definitely not a liberal (at least not as it is understood today.) (The idea that government is something humans created to deal with transactions they could not otherwise handle themselves did actually invade my head at some point during my undergraduate years at Catholic University, where I majored in Comparative Government. I couldn’t at all imagine how humans could or what would allow us to thrive without government, but I developed the conviction that we would in fact evolve to this point. In the work context, managers fill that government role, and I similarly think social work, social business, networked work–pick the term you think least inadequate, will change the role of managers. Instead of controlling the work of individuals, they will transition to monitoring the health of the business network.)

(Although this view would seem to place me at the conservative end of the political spectrum), I am extremely turned off by the ethnoracist/xenophobic beliefs of some “conservatives”–not all. Some of the anti-intellectual bent is also a turn-off; I don’t care what they say, Ayn Rand was not the acme of intellectual achievement in the 20th century. I think perhaps I might vote for Carl Reiner, P.G. Wodehouse, or Preston Sturges! I am almost equally turned off by the elitist views of many liberals–not all. So I find myself not really represented by any political party, which would bother me more if it weren’t for the case that I think there are much more important things to spend energy on than partisan politics. My essential political/philosophical conviction is belief/faith/trust that human society still has a lot of upside potential–so in that respect I call myself progressive. I tire very quickly of individuals who have a kneejerk reaction against any new idea. My bias definitely is to be much more tolerant of individuals who are enthusiastic about the new.”

Sex and Money

A couple of weeks ago I began wondering whether same sex marriage was about much more than sexual identity. Was it, instead, one of the early moves in a long process that will gradually reconceptualize human society?

What a crazy thought, I thought! But I parked the idea, on yellow sticky notes, thinking I needed to get back to it and unpack it even more. (At this point I interrupted this blog post to tweet: New ideas squirmy little creatures, difficult to pin down. You’re not even sure you like ’em. You need to catch them to get closer look.)

Three tweets were actually involved in my first feeble attempt to capture the idea:

Wondering if same-sex marriage is about more than just sexual preference. Thinking it could be first step in reconstructing society.

How does human society change if sexual drives and acquisitive desires no longer the key motivational constructs for our lives?

Most religions seek to control sexual drives and acquisitive desires for common good. Sex and greed tend to drive violence.

Then a friend and follower commented, re religion:

Largely by treating women as something akin to evil.

Perhaps a bit harsh, but can’t deny the historical record.

The daunting girth of the idea and the need to find other treatments of it, because I imagine these must exist, also delayed any attempt by me to address it.  And then I realized this morning (or maybe just reconciled myself to accepting as a convenient excuse) that it was highly unlikely I could ever, through my own research or words, do the topic justice.  So what follow are comments I know in fact are incomplete and insufficient.

The Catholic Church, with which I am most familiar, argued last century that agreeing to contraception would eventually lead to a cascading series of social changes that were bad. And they have been proven correct in their causality chain if not their value judgment. Contraception has “led” to abortion, which in turn has led to what Pope John Paul II called the culture of death. People disagree as to whether society today is better or not than it was 100 years ago and more to the point about what “better” is. But the original point the Church was making, that seemingly minor acts of legislation or social change can have major downstream effects, seems unassailable.

The heterosexual family unit has been the building block of most Western societies for some time now. (But interestingly enough not the main building block of many (most?) mammalian social structures, many of which organize themselves into same-sex groups, except during the mating season.) Changes in the composition of that building block unit have already altered society, and same-sex marriage and parental teams seem likely to continue this trend. But what’s most intriguing to me is what a society less organized around concepts of male-female sexual relations would look like. I don’t know and I won’t live to see it, but it intrigues. (It’s not clear to me, by the way, whether same-sex relationships are really that much different from heterosexual ones. Concerning that latter point, this piece three years ago in Time Magazine is thoughtful.)

Are there some early indicators of this shift? The declining birth and marriage rates in most of the West seem to point to something. A few weeks ago the media was amused by the stories of Japanese men’s declining interest in sex, although my Google search shows this story appeared at least seven years ago in USA Today. Finally much is written about the different, more tolerant attitudes of Millenials toward a range of social issues, although I tend to be skeptical about how enduring generational change really is. We “want-to-teach-the-world-to-sing” baby boomers certainly didn’t take a back seat to anyone on acquiring material wealth.

Sex and money–powerful drivers of the modern world. Capitalism is the ultimate expression of a society that organizes itself around money. And yet today, now that a decent interval has passed since the collapse of communism, people are writing seriously again, even in the Harvard Business Review, about whether there is a better set of organizing principles for modern economies. If we can rethink our attitudes around money, can sex be far behind?

We the People

Four tweets I posted this morning in search of a blog:

“About 500 years after government as social institution achieved full operational mode, the socials themselves are having buyers regret.” It’s not easy to assign a date for when modern government began, but the 17th century, with its scientific revolution, the long reign of Louis XIV, and Europe’s expansion in earnest into the Western Hemisphere seems as likely a spot as any. During that century, you still had strong allegiance to the theological justification for government, divine right of kings and all that rot, but philsophers in the 18th century began to react by asserting some essential human rights.

“Governments, i.e. Functionaries, think themselves separate from and above people and groups. Au contraire Govt is below both, their creation.” It’s hard to resist thinking, if you’re a senior Government official, that you have somehow attained a higher level that the average Jane. (I know. I was one of dem for almost ten years!) And without you even realizing really, you begin to treat laws and regulations as if they are the primary source. WHICH IS LIKE REALLY WRONG!! Laws and regulations are secondary and tertiary sources: the primary source in democratic societies is the will of the people. My time in government taught me there really is no such thing as bureaucracy. Instead, what really happens is that we all become Bureaucrats. Bureaucrats worship false Gods.

Even in dictatorshps, government survives in large part on the consent of the governed. The people find it difficult to generate enough willpower and fortitude to overthrow it. (What we saw in Egypt was an inspiring example of what happens when the people do in fact get their Motivation going.) I don’t mean in any way to criticise individuals or blame the victims. I doubt I could be so courageous. But I’m simply repeating what my priest-professor once said in a Catholic University philosophy class: The only way you can be compelled to do anything is if someone physically picks you up and makes you do it. Otherwise everything is coercion, and the success of coercion always correlates to the strength of the will.

“Social networks, computing power allow individuals, groups 2 redress balance of power btw them & institutions of Govt. Trend will continue.” For much of human history, government, once established–even democratically, began to accrete to itself more and more power, in many cases, particularly with 20th-century authoritarian regimes, creating effective monopolies of power. Today, the balance of power is sliding rather
inelegantly but joyfully away from government and toward the Socials, the people and the groups they form. We are only seeing the start of a dynamic that will affect all institutions, even democratic ones and private businesses, that have allowed their actions to wander away from their popular mandates or customers.

“In a sense Govt laws and regulations are like the terms and agreements u receive when u install new software..cept u really can NOT ACCEPT.” As I wrote these tweets I was reminded of the Terms and Agreements you never can read–I mean really who would have the time and power of concentration?–but nevertheless must default accept to install new software. When we join a group we accept similar terms and agreements, except the ones written down are supplemented by unwritten ones you figure out yourself through trial and error, like playing a giant game of Myst. Demonstrations and popular uprisings are not unlike mass selections of the “I do not accept” and “I do not agree” options. To function better as societies, we need to make the “I do not accept”option much less traumatic–by the way, software developers need to do the same for this step to become meaningful again in software deployment. Government and business engagement in social activities and networks and their willingness to adjust in real time and meaningful ways to feedback are the only ways to ease the trauma of rejection.

You Feel the Earth Move Under Your Feet

You feel the sky come tumbling down.

EGYPT

Egypt is about much more than a popular uprising against a ruler who has stayed in power through what can only be described, charitably, as a corruption of the democratic process. Egypt is the most compelling example to date of how the physics of human society are being rewritten. In much the same way that Quantum Physics turned Classical Physics on its head, the twin revolutions of information and connectivity are turning society upside down or perhaps better put, every which way and loose. 

The fact that Egypt, the society political scientists always marveled at for its stability even in the face of daily, accumulating disasters, is the country that’s exploded has concussed even the most loyal adherents of the Status Quo. When the Tunisian regime fell you could discount it as the kind of thing that happens to small countries, even the Colored Revolutions of the former Soviet Union didn’t really capture the elite’s attention, because in these revolutions you often were replacing one elite-based power construct with another. (And this might still happen to Egypt, by the way.)

But Egypt seems different right now.

And everyone should be paying attention. Not just the political scientists, the national security experts in their dark suits reciting by rote the laws of classical society, the intelligence agencies. Everyone should be paying attention, particularly anyone supposedly in charge of an organization of any kind. Steve Denning today writes a blistering post on what the dynamics behind Egypt mean for American business leaders. There’s very little I can add but these two points:

  • The history of the world has been dominated by the machinations of men, and they’ve usually been men, making secret deals in backrooms. Transparency and Collaboration are destroying the backrooms of all institutions. Open, dynamic forces that carry with them their own advantages and disadvantages will take their place. Start adjusting now.
  • All institutions of any age are disconnected from this powerful dynamic. Their survival depends entirely on how quickly they adjust to it. Time grows short.

Thoughts for the New Year

Does my right to privacy extend to the right to be invisible?

Are humans basically good or bad?

Why do we try to control others?

Why do we tolerate such a sub-optimum nation-state system?

Is the material world the only reality?

Something big is going on right now in how we humans organize our societies and our lives. Most people don’t deny that now even though I still encounter folks who ask me whether all this social media is just a fad. I’m full of optimism about how humans will continue to learn and thus improve our lot. These steps forward are not for anyone to prescribe; they will emerge from our interactions and our improving ability to record and share our experiences.

Still there are some habits of thought, propositions that are too often accepted as true in public discourse, that stand in the way of that forward momentum. In my view, they’re increasingly not true but I must admit also tremendously stubborn in their influence. These 5 mental frameworks, most of which have been with us for a very long time, for the most part create friction and inefficiencies in human society. I’m betting that in the years to come they will all be recalibrated as we work to achieve a fuller human potential.

Does my right to privacy extend to invisibility? OK, I admit this is a relatively new difficult question. It’s been with us for most of the post WWII period but sharpened acutely in the last five years. But here is the distinction I want to make. Much of what we think of as privacy issues in this social media/Facebook/Twitter/Google Latitude/pervasive video cameras-engineered world aren’t really privacy issues at all. They are visibility issues. When I go to the store to buy milk, I’m not trying to keep that transaction “private.” It of course would be impossible to do so. What’s really different is that by checking in on Four Square or using my loyalty card or simply carrying my smart phone (really consumers lost this battle a long time ago!!) I am making the transaction more visible (and more important recordable and thus analyzable). There are legitimate privacy concerns out there: I don’t want everyone to know my bank balance or my SSN but it’s important to distinguish that much of what we are fretting about is a new kind of visibility, not an invasion of privacy. If something bad happened on the way to the grocery store–if I backed into a car leaving the parking lot and fled the scene–the police would immediately look for people who “saw what happened.” I would not be able to claim a right to privacy because none exists. Why is any of this relevant? A society that understands more of what is happening will be a smarter society and should make better decisions. I would be smarter about myself if I understood the patterns of my own life better. And a society with improved understanding should be able to self-organize more effectively. Again, it’s not my intent to argue for the right trade-off between visibility and invisibility. We will work this out over time with the usual fits and starts. I just believe we’re confusing two important terms–privacy and visibility.

Are humans basically good or bad? I’m in the basically good camp, always have been, although I would phrase it a little differently. I think humans are usually well-intentioned but feckless. I think bad behavior follows bad decisions and bad outcomes, not the other way around. Most people don’t set out to do the “wrong” thing; they think they are choosing the best option, although admittedly there is plenty of delusional thinking out there, and frankly absence of thinking, not to mention hyperactive lizard brain. (Absence of knowledge and lack of understanding of other perspectives also contribute to the bad decisions that lead to bad behavior.) But when the decision begins to go bad and they are scrambling to recover, that’s when I think humans most often fall into the bad behavior trap. They run with their survival instincts, which evolution tells us are largely selfish. So to return to the visibility issue, if you think humans are basically bad then no wonder you worry about what people will do with all that information about you. My friends who ask me if social media are a fad also like to ask me if I’m not worried about all the information that is out there about me. Well as an optimist about human nature I’m not worried. And even if I were to worry, I trust that the general lack of feck will waylay most plans to do bad by me.

My first point here is that I really hope we humans can get beyond this debate about our basic natures sometime soon. I am biased here as to what I think the right answer is. The belief that humans are basically bad, in my view, is the driver behind many institutions/processes that over-control and micromanage. But I also recognize that we will only bury the humans-are-basically-bad meme through a long record of actions, fueled by truly millions of personal conversion experiences. My second point: if you are an advocate of self-organizing communities, you are essentially assuming people are basically well-intentioned and that more, shared information will allow them to make better decisions. So it’s best not to mock people who don’t get it; I know I’m guilty of that myself sometimes.

Why do we try to control others? The belief that you know the right way and your job is to force others to accept that truth is the single most destructive quality in humans, in my view. It must also have some significant evolutionary benefit for it to persist. If you’re asking: well, isn’t your writing of this blog an indication you too want a slice of that control, then I have to admit you have a point. I think enough of my views to try to express them carefully, although luckily I can’t force anyone to read my blog. Indeed, this is why this particular drive is so seductive and so strong in so many individuals, even those that start off with the best–that word again–intentions. I believe our human potential will be best expressed when we minimize our control instinct, but I’m not sanguine this will happen quickly. But it will happen. Governments and organizations built on the desire and need to control others will eventually contract as individuals learn–and have the capabilities–to manage most of the transactions themselves.

Why do we tolerate such a sub-optimum nation-state system? Why indeed? You know, I worked for 32 years in one of the great creations of the modern nation-state, the Intelligence Agency, so you would think I’d know better than to ask such a question. After all, I must be a realist, right? But nevertheless I’m puzzled more people don’t question why we tolerate such a nutty arrangement. The nation-state system, and here I’m speaking specifically about how countries relate to each other, runs on a set of rules–spoken and unspoken–that have been largely discredited in and abandoned by other systems. The nation-state system still assumes the inevitability of conflict, the need to expect the worst from others, the need to hide things from and trick others, the wisdom of short-term, grab-it-while-you-can thinking, etc. etc.  (There was recently a good article in Financial Times by Parag Khanna describing how the world system might evolve differently.)

The reason I phrased the question the way I did is because I think the answer is in the question. The nation-state system exists as is because we tolerate it. In fact, we more than tolerate, we accept it and some–neocons and marxists, for example?–revel in it. We are complicit. What will be interesting to see is the reaction of nation-states as individuals and communities begin to distance themselves from their status quo. You see the beginnings of this today as individuals, many of them completely delinked from their nation-state identities, interact with each other seamlessly across Twitter and other social media. If you dismiss such thinking as utopian or pollyanish, fact is humans have already broken at least twice in our history with very powerful governing systems–Royalty and Churches. But both aristocracy and the church heirarchy went down swinging and I’m betting the governing class will find it hard to accept its displacement. Stay tuned, more coming.

Is the material world the only reality? Well, in for a penny, in for a pound. If you don’t already think I’m nutty, this will convince you. But as I read about theoretical physicists struggling to understand the universe or universes, I can only surmise that our own existences are more complex than just the physical entities we know. Understanding what that exactly means is a purpose for human existence. We exist in large part to understand. And we understand better together.