Anticipating inconceivable reversals

Reversals are inconceivable when we're caught up in moving forward with conviction, determination and familiarity. Reversals come as a big surprise whether they occur at a personal level in a process of integration, or at a global scale in a process of emergent complexity. As I explored in Offline Online Inline, Marshall McLuhan was fascinated by our collective blindness to the changes coming over us. He perceived that people caught up in the mainstream paradigm could not see the signs, notice the effects or predict the transformation underway. He valued artists, prophets, the next generation for living on the edge of society and being able to foretell and forewarn the oblivious masses. When McLuhan included the pattern of reversal in his Tetrad of media effects, he had in mind reverting to a tribal village mode of interrelating and a pointless mode of perception. He expected us to lose our point of view, our individual perspective about all of us and our detachment as we became immersed in what we know call digital media and platforms. He would not be surprised by Gen Y's multitasking, messaging and playing online games all night.

One of the sets of reversals I'm anticipating relates to the post-scarcity economy that Michel Bauwens continually explores and the 21st capitalism that Umair Haque writes about often. Economic analysis can explore distinctions like value creation vs. value destruction, exchange-value vs. use-value, authentic vs. artificial scarcities and premises of abundance vs scarcity. These reversals I'm foreseeing introduce some other variables such as job design, social capital, psychic income and sufficiency.

The industrial (a.k.a. scarcity, zombie, 20th century capitalist) economy designed jobs for production results and fit people into those slots. When individuals demonstrated skill gaps, weaknesses or a lack of talent, training and accountability measures were applied to eliminate the person's problem. The premise of fitting the person into the job remained unquestioned. The typical lack of results from such "improvement efforts" merely brought on the same accountability measures applied to training departments and human resource functions. Shared expectations about fitting people to jobs validated this approach and justified it's abuses. Personnel problems (turnover, low morale, loss of motivation, burnout, lack of initiative, office politics, apathy, etc) merely proved that people had deficiencies yet to be corrected or accountabilities that needed to be tightened. There was an underlying story advising managers to automatically "turn up the heat to get results while getting those who cannot stand the heat out of the kitchen". The reversal here will turn down the heat and fit the job to the unique person in it who reliably functions as a charismatic leader with a vision, values, particular passions and a significant purpose in being there.

The industrial economy expected people to enjoy themselves away from work and then buckle down at work. Managers could practice deceit, deceptions and manipulations so long as the workforce encountered honesty, integrity and transparency off the job. Workload could be oppressive, unfair and abusive while the workforce could let off steam by taking a break, abusing their bodies or going on a yearly vacation. The products and customer service could do a disservice to buyers, require hard selling to push prospects into submission and get steadily cheapened by cost savings measures so long as the workforce could really care for others, serve their communities and feel good about their efforts away from the job. All this spurred the deep investments in social capital and child rearing in each community's after school activities, fraternal organizations, volunteer projects, religious fellowships and civic involvements. The reversal here will yield social capital from investments in contributing to and benefiting from peer production, peer property and peer governance.

The industrial economy generates a huge cognitive surplus, as Clay Shirky calls it, that has enabled the phenomenal quantity and quality of Web 2.0 contributions. Employees are not sufficiently challenged, understood, utilized or respected at work to capture that dynamo of resourcefulness on the job. Employees expect to "do time serving their sentence", be disengaged, get mismanaged and endure the hardships by becoming tough. The only options are to game the system or get gamed by the system that looks to take advantage of every sign of softness, cooperation or vulnerability. The reversal here will get work done by transforming it into non-zero-sum games worth playing around on the job, where everyone wins and looks out for each other.

The industrial economy thrived on fueling insatiable needs for mass consumption and ostentatious materialism. By keeping people feeling insufficient, inadequate and defective, they would continue to alleviate those awful feelings by compulsive shopping and showing off their acquisitions, escapades and expanding stockpile. By extending massive credit to unworthy borrowers, business operations and investors, this house of cards was taken up to new heights of human folly. This shared psychology of "never enough" inevitably yields the burst bubbles, credit shortages, loss of consumer confidence, and under employment of the current global recession. The reversal here will provide everyone with a feeling of profound sufficiency that results by earning a massive psychic income from making a difference in other's lives with one's own self expression, continual learning, personal reflections and deepening understanding of other individuals.


  1. Hi Tom,

    More great thoughts as always! The general thrust of your reversals describe a world I'm keen to experience, so let me first say I share your enthusiasm for the on-coming changes.

    As a systems thinker though, it might be useful to pull some of the good/bad judgment out of the won't really damage the power of your observations, I don't think.

    The creation of huge institutions has been an amazing process to experience and surely there is much to be learned. The "zombie" state of most institutions today surely is nothing to be too proud of...yet it isn't necessary to classify them as bad/malicious/ineffectual, and automatically open up an un-critical free pass for the polar opposite.

    These orientations you describe, if I can paraphrase: individual conforming to structure /or/ structure adapting to individual ... to me they both seem inevitable and occur continuously and simultaneously.

    It is possible to isolate a given example and say:"See that? The company is blindly compressing the individual to suit its needs! How wasteful!" However, the "validity" of this observation depends on carefully etching the system boundaries around a whole stack of assumptions and duration limits.

    I have military background and I have hippy experience. In the military I must conform. As a hippy, I constantly shape the world to suit my preferences. Now let's ask some 'objective' questions:
    - Which approach offered me more learning?
    - Which opened more character depth?
    - Which provided better livelihood to my family?
    - Which provided better service to my country?

    Can you say which was better? Actually, these are all trick questions to reveal your own instinctive responses to [military vs hippy]... Personally I think the experiences are totally equivalent on every one of those measures, and can shift the system boundaries to prove it.

    Sorry for the long thread...just wanted to say that I admire the power and complexity of institutions, and can see a terrible beauty in the process of individuals *decreasing their personal identities* so that a greater mechanism can be built.

    In parting...argument by metaphor (always dangerous)...but consider the "oppressive" logic that is enforced over, say, freshly forming bone cells in the body. A 'non-conforming' cell is rejected without regard. Those who stay on are relentlessly tasked with their same inflexible job description until they are exhausted, at which point they are discarded.

    Who is to blame for this tragedy? The ones who would have bones, of course. And are bones 'right'? No...they are useless if your environment demands jellyfish-like flexibility.

    I submit that there's no way a structure like IBM or the Catholic Church or Greenpeace can hold its shape/identity if its consituent parts are not moulded (conformed) to their (predictable) roles.

    Would the idea of 'bone' be better served if it also included the idea of 'jellyfish'? I don't think that's an automatic 'yes'...

    My instinct would be to say: "let's be conscious of the power and potential of super-organisms..let's do what we can to encourage beneficial emergence through their complexity..." And to have a superorganism, I'm convinced that in some part of its systems and subsystems you will find relentless conformity.

    Perhaps this is all too personal: I'm 6'7" tall, and maybe I get nervous any time people start down the line of "big institutions are bad...." Yikes!!

  2. Thanks for these wonderful reflections, Sir/Dude! You're helping me clarify the impression I'm trying to convey. Speaking of any reversals is very prone to appearing dichotomous and oppositional. You're pointing the way into both/and perceptions. By doing that, you're functioning as a charismatic leader regardless of any position in a hierarchy or top-down vested authority in you. Your voice is individualistic and in favor of not being too individualistic.

    In your metaphor of bone structure, bones need cartilage at the joints and bones contain bone marrow. There's some jellyfish qualities combined with the rigid bones in that very workable solution. I'd equate the zombie economy critique with sun-beached skeletons, not living systems that incorporate articulated bone structures into dynamic processes. Your other metaphor of a super-organism captures more of the requisite variety and complex interdependencies these reversals are intended to point toward.

    These turnarounds I've forecast are not advocating anarchy, non-conformity or anti-structure spontaneity. The reversals pursue non-zero-sum games where structure is transformed from costly to beneficial for all involved. You're defining many of the ways structure can payoff the participants and outsiders who embrace it as part of their solution. I made passing reference to that possibility as generating social capital on the job, instead of compensating for the lack of it at work.

    I agree with your assessment of the benefits of suppressing individuality in the context of seeking cohesion and unified efforts. It seems like a balance needs to be struck so that talents get recognized when assigning people to particular roles and looking for solutions to chronic people problems. Conformity and creativity may be polar opposites that can be met in the middle when working peer-to-peer on collaborations.

    Very big systems that work very well allow for idiosyncratic traffic within them The highway, rail and air transport systems accommodate unique trips, payloads and intentions. The telephone, package delivery, mail and Internet systems also remain open to "non conformity" without falling into chaotic disorder. Enormous Web 2.0 platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube also combine restrictive imposed structure and self expression without debilitating either aspect. These are "best of both" games worth playing where bigger is better for access, movement and connections.

    Thanks again, big guy, for such a rich array of insights!