The fourth generation
The North American Indians say that we are all the 4th Generation – shaped by the three behind us and shaping the three that follow us. If that’s true, we are at a significant turning point, with an awesome responsibility.
Even allowing for more recently arrived generations, the three behind us were shaped by a society created by the consequences of the industrial revolutions and two major, conventional wars. The three in front of us are being shaped by the digital technology, globalisation, connectivity, increasingly extreme inequality, the hangover from two hundred years of abusive extraction of the natural wealth of the planet, and the unknowns that will be generated by “combinatorial explosion” – the things that happen when complexities meet up.
The threats we face, whilst not certain, are scientifically and statistically robust. It’s not about the conscious button pushing choice of the cold war, and mutually assured destruction, it’s the opposite – destruction through neglect, hubris and complacency.
The industrial age was characterised by growth, albeit it interspersed with recessions / depressions. It required managing the economic model, not changing it. Where we are now means challenging choices, from how and how often we travel, our definition of growth, and reconciling the selfish pursuit of more with the fact that there is enough GDP on the planet to give every single on of us over $11,000 a year in income.
Whilst a logistical and political nightmare, poverty has become a societal choice.
Where we are now calls for something altogether different.
A made up word. Creating something original out of what’s available to us.
In the industrial era, and its immediate aftermath, we have grown economies through the brilliant application of scientific principles, initially to manufacture and latterly to services. We have become excellent at efficiency, systems, and optimisation. We teach the “right way” to do things, we celebrate case studies, and we educate our children based on these principles. She who gets the most qualifications generally gets the most financial reward.
Our success in process design and automation exact a cost. We no longer do mental arithmetic. We use GPS rather than maps. We no longer service our own cars. We don’t grow our own food. We’re in danger of forgetting important skills.
Six Sigma thinking isolates outliers, and the pursuit of scale homogenises offerings. The average quality of what we make and do today has never been higher, nor the relative cost lower. It is really difficult to buy a bad new car, and equally difficult to spot meaningful differences between them. Cars are at anything other than an ego level, are a commodity. The same is true of most manufactured goods.
The commoditisation of services is taking longer, but is accelerating rapidly to catch up. There is no discernible difference between banks, insurance companies, energy companies and regrettably, political parties. We have already turned most MBA degrees into instructional based templates. We start assessing our children against obsolete criteria at age 2, at the same time that machine learning and AI is rapidly encroaching on the skills we are trying to teach them. We prize “solutions” over creativity, and safe conformity over radical experimentation.
We seem to be encouraging a race to the middle in pursuit of an unsustainable short term economic prize.
We need to step away for a moment.
Nature, which has after all been around a while, doesn’t do optimisation, or efficiency. It adapts, on a continual basis, with a simple goal. Survival.
Those who study his work insist that Darwin didn’t talk about the “survival of the fittest” (that was a convenient reinforcing translation for those who found themselves winning in impossibly short, temporary time frames), he talked those who fit best to the changing ecosystem. Those who fit best, rather than the fittest. Nature doesn’t stand still. It has different time horizons to us. Depending on which version you choose to take, there have been between 250,000 and 650,000 generations of human. Claiming success based on a handful of generations over the industrial era within our family, tribe or nation is probably a little premature.
Over that time however we have reached, or are getting pretty close to several peaks and a number of troughs. Peak extraction, Peak Population. Peak Stuff. A mental health trough, a sustainability trough, a social stability trough.
We are at a point of choice. We can continue to follow current orthodoxy, or we can recalibrate. Remember how to value those sources of insight and joy that link all generations. A work of art. Something beautifully made. The example of a life of purpose. The sense of peace to be found in an old building. A sense of place amongst the generations.
To be ourselves, not who others want us to be.
To Originise ourselves.
So far, so ideal. But how to start?
In a world characterised by scale, quick wins and short term wins it’s easy to end up adrift and almost out of sight of what’s important.
small is beautiful. Leverage the magic of compound interest. Small changes to important small things quickly add up, and when they link, things change.
Work in Increments.
Little things. Turn and try swimming upstream, against the current for a while. Think independently, as only you can. Experiment.
“you cannot teach a man (sic) anything, you can only enable him to learn from within himself”
Change some habits.
All of us fall into habits that help us navigate our lives via the line of least resistance. They become almost invisible, but we know they are their. We are reluctant to change them, even though they bcome uncomfortable. We resist.
However, remember resistance is your friend, whether you’re working your body, mind, or business. Follow Steven Pressfield’s advice
In the words of Oscar Wilde.
“be yourself, everybody else is taken”.
Good advice then, even better now. When we are encouraged to conform, to behave in ways convenient to others, we become unexceptional, or worse, exceptional in an area of little importance.
We become increasingly undifferentiated in what we do from the technology that can (partially, but enough to matter) imitate us.
Each of us is a unique entity. There has never been one the same as us before, nor will there be in future. Each of us is a tiny part in a huge system, but with the possibility to make a difference – like the flap of a butterfly’s wing causing a hurricane. Most of us will not cause a hurricane, but we might cause a gust somewhere important.
Maybe this decade will be different.
We’re only a couple of months in, but even so I sense a difference. The power of scale, from politics to technology is faltering. With the drama of Brexit receding from theatre to uncomfortable reality, other issues are emerging, from dissent over post Brexit European budgets, to closure of borders due to corona virus, to disruption to supply chains, to a much belated start on meaningful local actions on climate change which will impact our accustomed habits such as travel, and food.
Scale and automation thrives on stability and continuity, and that is going to be in short supply for some time. Meaningful change seems much more likely to occur at local levels, driven by small groups in the context of their local needs.
If it’s true we become the verge of the five people we most associate with, now is a good time to choose.
Changing before we have to gives us more choice, and more time to practice.
If there’s a storm coming, remember when Noah built the Arc.
Before the rain.