The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky
There is little doubt that we are living through monumental times in the history of humanity. I was born the child of the Cold War seeing that conflict end as I transitioned to adulthood and my professional life then seeing the birth of globalism powered by technology and communication unthinkable a generation before. My chosen profession looks increasingly like a relic of that Cold War, and increasingly irrelevant to the World that unfolds before me. My workplace is failing to keep pace with change, and I’m seeing it fall behind modernity in almost every respect. It’s a safe, secure job, but lacks most of the edge the real World offers. All of the forces unleashed in today’s World make for incredible excitement, possibility, incredible terror and discomfort. The potential for humanity is phenomenal, and the risks are profound. In short, we live in simultaneously in incredibly exciting and massively sucky times. Yes, both of these seemingly conflicting things can be true.
We are seeing a massive collision of the past and future across the globe pitting the forces of stability and progress against each other. We see the political power of conservative, anti-progress forces gaining the upper hand recently. The resurgent right wing seeks to push back against the changes pushed by demographics and empowered by technology. The reinvigorated tendency to use bigotry, hate and violence increasingly in a state-sponsored way is increasing. The violence against change is growing whether it is by governments or terrorists. What isn’t commonly appreciated is the alliance in violence of the right wing and terrorists. Both are fighting against the sorts of changes modernity is bringing. The fight against terror is giving the violent right wing more power. The right wing and Islamic terrorists have the same aim, undoing the push toward progress with modern views of race, religion and morality. The only difference is the name of the prophet the violence is done in name of.
This unholy alliance draws its power from the bookends of society. On one hand you have the poorer, uneducated masses of the population, and on the other you have the entrenched interests of the rich and powerful. The poor and uneducated are not able to manage the changes in society and want the brakes put on progress. The rich and powerful like the status quo and fear progress because it might not favor them as well. Together they ally against the middle class, who stands to benefit the most from progress. The alliance empowers violence among the poor, grows their ranks through polices that favor the wealthy. We see this happening across the globe where right wing, racist, Nationalist, overtly religious movements are attacking any societal progress. The rich and powerful pull the strings for their own purposes, enhancing their power and wealth at the expense of society as a whole.
The most insidious force of this unhealthy alliance is terrorism. The right wing wants to fight terrorism through enhancing the police-National-security state, which provides the rich and powerful the tools to control their societies as well. They also wage war against the sources of terrorism creating the conditions and recruiting for more terrorists. The police states have reduced freedom and lots of censorship, imprisonment, and opposition to personal empowerment. The same police states are effective at repressing minority groups within nations using the weapons gained to fight terror. Together these all help the cause of the right wing in blunting progress. The two allies like to kill each other too, but the forces of hate; fear and doubt work to their greater ends. In fighting terrorism we are giving them exactly what they want, the reduction of our freedom and progress. This is also the aim of right wing; stop the frightening future from arriving through the imposition of traditional values. This is exactly what the religious extremists want be they Islamic or Christian.
Driving the conservatives to such heights of violence and fear are changes to society of massive scale. Demographics are driving the changes with people of color becoming impossible to ignore, along with an aging population. Sexual freedom has emboldened people to break free of traditional boundaries of behavior, gender and relationships. Technology is accelerating the change and empowering people in amazing ways. All of this terrifies many people and provides extremists with the sort of alarmist rhetoric needed to grab power. We see these forces rushing headlong toward each other with society-wide conflict the impact. Progressive and conservative blocks are headed toward a massive fight. This also lines up along urban and rural lines, young and old, educated and uneducated. The future hangs in the balance and it is not clear who has the advantage.
The purpose of life is to contribute in some way to making things better.
― Robert F. Kennedy
The cell phone becoming a platform for communication and commerce at a scale unimaginable a decade ago has transformed the economics of the World. People are now connected globally through the cell phone, and these mini-computers allow new models of economic activity to sprout up constantly. The changes to how we live are incalculable with the cell phone shaping both our social and economic structures in deep and unforeseen ways. The social order is being shaped by the ability to connect to people in deeply personal ways without the necessity of proximity. We meet people online now and form relationships without ever meeting physically. Often people have had ongoing relationships with people they’ve never met or met rarely. They can maintain communication via text, audio or video with amazing ease. This starts to form different communities and relationships that are shaking culture. It’s mostly a middle class phenomenon and thus the poor are left out, and afraid.
The way we live, work, sleep, eat, and relate to each other has transformed completely in a decade. The balance of personal empowerment and threat to privacy sits at the precipice. The cell phone has made the Internet personal and ubiquitous redefining our social order. This excites people like me, and scares the shit out of others. We are seeing a change in our society at a pace unseen in the course of history. Violence is a likely result of the pace and intensity of this change. Economic displacements are accelerating, and our standard systems are poor at coping with everything. Everything from schools too many employers are incapable of evolving fast enough to benefit from the change. I perfect example are institutions like I work for. Despite being high tech and full of educated people, it is conservative, rule following, compliant, security conscious (too a paranoid level) and obsessively bureaucratic, largely incapable of adopting technology or taking risks with anything. My level of frustration is growing with each passing day. I’m seeing modernity pull ahead of me in the workplace due to fear and incompetence.
For example in my public life, I am not willing to give up the progress, and feel that the right wing is agitating to push the clock back. The right wing feels the changes are immoral and frightening and want to take freedom away. They will do it in the name of fighting terrorism while clutching the mantle of white nationalism and the Bible in the other hand. Similar mixes are present in Europe, Russia, and remarkably across the Arab world. My work World is increasingly allied with the forces against progress. I see a deep break in the not to distant future where the progress scientific research depends upon will be utterly incongruent with the values of my security-obsessed work place. The two things cannot live together effectively and ultimately the work will be undone by its inability to commit itself to being part of the modern World. The forces of progress are powerful and seemingly unstoppable too. We are seeing the unstoppable force of progress meet the immovable object of fear and oppression. It is going to be violent and sudden. My belief in progress is steadfast, and unwavering. Nonetheless, we have had episodes in human history where progress was stopped. Anyone heard of the dark ages? It can happen.
We’ll be remembered more for what we destroy than what we create.
― Chuck Palahniuk
I’ve been trying to come to grips with the changes in where I work. My workplace is adapting too slowing to modern life, and the meaning in work has become difficult to square with realities. The sense that my work doesn’t matter anymore has become increasingly palpable. I’ve gone from working for a clear sense of purpose and importance to a job that increasingly seethes with irrelevance. Every action from my masters communicates the lack of value of my work. Creating a productive and efficient workplace is never-ever important. We increasingly have no sense of importance in our work. This is delivered with disempowering edicts and policies that conspire to shackle me, and keep me from doing anything. The real message is that nothing you do is important enough to risk fucking up. I’m convinced that the things making work suck are strongly connected to everything else.
With each passing day the nature and forces at work and the rest of my life become more separate. It becomes hard to feel like I’m making the best, most productive use of my time and effort in work when I know so much effective productive effort is being left behind. The motives and rules of my employer are focused on safety and security above all else. Everything that makes modern life tick makes them uncomfortable. In addition things are evolving so fast for technology that organizations like mine cannot keep up. I can adapt quickly and learn, but if I do my desires and knowledge will become a source of tension rather than an advantage. If I keep up with technology I am more likely to be frustrated than productive. This is already happening and it is driving me up the wall.
The problem many organizations (companies, universities, Laboratories) are that they are large and move slowly. With a pace of change that is large by any historical standard, they don’t keep up or adapt. You get into a position where the organization is falling behind, and the forces of fear and hesitation are deadly. Add in a government who supplies the funding with rules galore and strings attached and you have the recipe for falling behind. Unless the organization, its leadership, and its people commit to adapting and pushing themselves forward, the organization will stagnate or be left behind by the exciting innovations shaping the World today. When the motivation of the organization fails to emphasize productivity and efficiency, the recipe is disastrous. Modern technology offers the potential for incredible advances, but only if they’re seeking advantage. If minds are not open to making things better, it is a recipe for frustration.
This ends up being a microcosm of today’s World. Modern advances in technology or society offer tremendous advantages for those willing to be bold, but they come with risk and discomfort. Many are deeply tied to the past and the old way of doing things along with old-fashioned sense of purpose. There is an inability or unwillingness to accept the potential of the modern. Without bold and willing endeavor, the new World passes organization by. This is where I feel the greatest pain, the passive manner in which the modern World passes my organization by. It is not unlike the broader social themes of those who accept the modern World, and the conservative resistance to everything. Organizations who fail to embrace the potential of the modern world unwittingly enter into the opposition to change, and assist the conservative attempt to hold onto the past.
The question to ask is whether these organization whose history and greatness are grounded in a time gone by can evolve into something modern. Do these organizations even want to change? Can they make the change even if they want to while tethered to the past? For those of us who are part of publically focused organizations, we are caught in between the forces raging politically. The institutions of government will almost certainly resist and avoid change. The result will be a slow decline and almost certain death for these organizations as the World changes. The alternative is the World not changing and progress stopping, this outcome is certainly worse for humanity.
History is always written by the winners. When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated, and the winner writes the history books-books which glorify their own cause and disparage the conquered foe. As Napoleon once said, ‘What is history, but a fable agreed upon?
― Dan Brown