There Is Nothing New Under the Sun

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In some ways the concept of disruption is oversold in our world today and this is important for us to remember as innovators and futurists. It is so easy to focus on the new and I don’t want to undersell its importance. However, as an innovative disruptor I spend far more time looking backward than forward. I have found that the real trick in understanding how effective disruption will be lies in looking at the underlying patterns of human activity and recognizing that the more that technological change challenges those patterns, the more likely it is to fail. Dana Meadows calls these inflection points and we should consider these carefully as move forward with the FOEcast project.

I have been involved in technology since the early 80s when my family got its first Apple ][+. By my estimation we were probably among the first 2 or 3 million households in the world with a personal computer. I figured out fairly quickly how to get the Apple to bend to my will and began writing and gaming on it.

For the rest of my life this put me in somewhat rarified company. My brain adjusted to the idea of computational thinking at a young age. It made me think differently about the world and whenever I approach a new technology it is with this lens. At the same time I am a keen student of history with a particular focus on technology and how humans adapt to it. I have probably read thousands of books on the subject over the years. However, when I got to college I decided history was too impractical as a career path so I chose political science instead. This turned out to be a happy accident as I got stuff out of the social sciences that I probably would never have gotten out of history. In particular, I became fascinated with organizational behavior, which was the final piece of the puzzle in how people adapt to the pressures of technological change: they create organizations and organizational cultures whose purpose is (usually) to resist it.

These three elements, computational thinking, historical analysis, and organizational/cultural theory, form the cornerstone of my approach to the challenges of change management and are likely to turn out to be central to the success of the FOEcast project. As an employee I have always been the innovator/disruptor in every organization I have ever been a part of save perhaps for my brief stint at Apple in the 90s. People have always passed computational tasks to me. As I matured and moved up the ranks, I found myself in positions where I was driving change and had to become mindful of the larger forces at work that retard it.

We have all probably experienced this to one extent or the other: culture and organizations resist change no matter how rational that change might seem to us. We like to think that we are the carriers of the future. However, we often find ourselves almost exclusively fighting the structures of the past.

This colors our approach to our jobs. If the world always seems to be pushing back against our efforts, we gradually accept that as the norm. As we move up into positions of leadership or consulting, more and more of our jobs become less and less about technology and more and more about cultural and organizational management. We want to be excited about the latest and greatest technological toy and the abilities it confers but in the back of our minds is always the question of how it will be used. There is a huge lag as individuals and organizations finally inculcate ideas we now consider old hat. I remember a couple of years ago that podcasting suddenly became a thing both on campus and in the larger world. We, of course, have been playing with this technology for over a decade.

Lately, the disconnect between technology and its cultural impact has taken a particularly dark turn as many of us have had to confront not only how a technology will be used but also how it might be abused. This is particularly sad as we are also charged with protecting the sanctity and safety of the academic environment (both for teachers and for students). These days it is easy to see dragons lurking over every hill.

This disconnect is widely shared throughout the tech community but also masks a greater reality: for the most part there is nothing new under the sun. One of the things we are discovering as we start to more closely track our bodies is that we really haven’t evolved that much since the inception of agriculture and that there are significant parts of us that are essentially unchanged from long before that. Our struggle against obesity and sedentary-related ailments is ample evidence that our bodies are poorly designed for our current lifestyles.

Culture, commerce, and our perception of the world have been almost as resistant to change as our physical bodies. What we have changed is the speed and metaphors for these activities. Cultures that were once isolated or hidden altogether are now suddenly thrust together by the speed and transparency of online communications. I don’t think it’s an accident that the recent visibility of the LGBT movement has coincided with the growth of social media. What was once a lonely, hidden part of people’s lives can now be connected to a larger community of likeminded individuals.

The tools of technology have enabled smaller communities to become larger communities by reducing factors of time and speed that were once major barriers to interaction. This also applies to our own FOEcast community. Many, if not most, of these communities have a very positive impact on our societies. Some, like those based on racism or other forms of bigotry, which ironically preach separation, are also empowered by this same technology, often artificially inflating their perceived numbers and influence.

However, as I pointed out in “There be Dragons,” it is easy for society to become out of sync with the pace of change in communication and other metaphors for our social interactions. There are many dangers here but they are largely of our own making and are not the fault of the technology itself. The interactions themselves are the product of deep-seated cultural and social patterns. Bitcoin may be the latest rage but the mythology of currency is nothing new. Even gold only has value because we confer it to a shiny rock. Fake news goes back as far as writing. Public fights and debates are as old as speech.

The key to futuring lies in understanding these deep-seated patterns and only then speculating how technology will interact with them. This was a mistake that the Horizon Report made early on. It focused on technology over the normative structures that opposed the integration of those technologies. The risk here is that we miss the real dragons of applying technologies that organizations are not ready for. Over the last 3-4 years of the report we gradually worked toward shifting the Horizon Report toward technology adoption and human organizational and cultural barriers rather than the technology itself.

As we consider our own futuring project under FOEcast, this is a caution we would be wise to consider. There is nothing new under the sun. Therefore, we need to focus first on how technology can applied to our needs rather than what the technology can do. The dragons of our future lie in how we respond to natural human reactions to technology rather rational paths of progress. We are seeing this now. We have seen it before. The future is almost always mirrored in the past.

We have at least one new tool in our box: transparency. Repetition of past failures is usually driven by ignorance. Therefore our mission is to leverage the tools of communication and community building as a mechanism for the free flow of information and to make those critical connections to what it means to be human. For it is only by addressing the human condition that true progress will occur, changing the world for the better rather than the worse.

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