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Evolve, Dammit!

  • Facebook privacy challenges continue as applications you trusted expose data you thought was private. Facebook is alarmed and promises to fix this. Your new normal: stop playing Mafia Wars.
  • The “evening news” is no longer the authoritative source for What To Know, as it was when I was a child (as nicely articulated by Clay Shirky). Media outlets frame information within a comforting tribal narrative – as research confirms that we trust scientists (and, theoretically, newsreaders) who confirm our belief system. Your new normal: commit to reading / viewing several different biased media outlets, in hopes of getting “the whole story.”
  • You think telecommuting would be the dream job – then realize your home is designed for distracted comfort rather than productive work. Your new normal: rethink your sanctuary.

This isn’t new, the association of increased responsibility with increased autonomy is a constant requirement for civilization. The U.S. military adopted ancient models when it structured decision making as a distributed function, within established rules and roles. As an enlisted recruit in basic training, I was told when and how to disobey an order that could be unlawful. It was my responsibility to disobey such an order, which meant it was my responsibility to understand the difference between lawful and not. This ‘professionalization’ of the enlisted was extraordinary (but not unique), and represented an advantage of decision agility over adversaries who employed a more autocratic decision model.

Being a technically literate and responsible citizen / internet user / driver is more important than ever, as consumer electronics and information acceleration places more responsibility on our shoulders. At a dinner recently, a friend recounted her experiences at a recent college reunion. Leafing through a friend’s photo album, she was aghast at what was considered appropriate party behavior (and costume) in the 1980s. Thankfully, this was before Facebook – so her secret is safe (until someone decides to buy a scanner). If those photos were available online, some of us would have different careers today.

Kids today aren’t more wild than we were, they just have more ways to have their past attached to their adult identity – and more ways to indulge a short attention span. Do we even know what is expected of our children, in order to manage safely their transition to adult? To be a responsible teen, children need to navigate significant ravines of risk while interacting with their friends. These ravines were puddles in the 90s, and cracks

in the sidewalk in the 60s. Gone is the long phone cord, stretched into a closet for privacy. Interactions ping them in the backpack or pocket – and can come from anywhere on Earth. And present an almost irresistible pull to teens and adults alike, even while attempting to drive a 3,000 lb automobile.

In the 70s, I balanced an AM radio on the dashboard to keep me company while driving a sales route in Manhattan. This, because the glovebox was unavailable, because that is where I stuffed an after-market 8-track player (also, the antenna needed to be closer to the windshield). Hard left turns sent the radio flying across the dash – a distraction because I wasn’t responsible enough to get the factory radio fixed. Compare this to the distractions available to drivers today. My Rube Goldberg sound system is nothing compared to the world of smart phone interactions that beckon us at every turn.

We are called upon to evolve. Faster. Develop greater discipline regarding what earns our attention, and how we make decisions. The new normal: Don’t trust anything you hear, even on cable or sent to your inbox or posted on your Facebook wall. Don’t indulge in every tempting distraction, however urgent that wall post or text seems to be. Also: don’t presume the answer is to avoid consumer electronics altogether. Government services will expect citizens to be connected and literate. Consider the broadband initiatives from the FCC – the interstate highway system of the 21st century is considered necessary to connect us to the new normals. Some advocates are seeking to prioritize these connections to favor first hospitals, libraries…and schoolhouses.

It’s idle fun for me to gaze at my grandchildren and wonder what their work and social life will be like in twenty years. I tend to forget that I expect to be around to witness it, and therefore will have some adapting of my own to accomplish.

What’s your new normal? How fast can you evolve? How do you avoid the inadvertent base jump?

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John Bordeaux

No argument here! And as soon as I figure out how to change my avatar shirt from SRA to IBM blue, JB O’Toole will be back on the air! 🙂

Bill Brantley

Fascinating post! I think you would enjoy Reality Isn’t What It Used to Be: Theatrical Politics, Ready-to-Wear Religion, Global Myths, Primitive Chic, and Other Wonders of the Postmodern World by Walter Anderson. Even though it was published in 1992, Anderson speaks to the ever-increasing need to evolve to the new normal.

I just finished reading an essay in BBC’s Knowledge in which the author argues that the prevalence of mobile phones and social applications can bring about world peace because every one can become a spy thus exposing the attempts by countries to hide their weapons and crack down on their citizens. He suggests that we would have to give up a little privacy but we would gain a more peaceful world. Is this a possible new normal?

Gary Berg-Cross

Lots to think about on this topic. It used to be the job of Futurists to enlighten us here, but they seem to have been swamped.

Humans have been the adaptive animal, but increasingly we are adapting to our adaptations etc. without a clear idea of where this is headed. Markets don’t care or reflect that type of strategic thinking and broad questions like the future of humanity. And there are global drivers that aren’t controlled by the traditional societal processes.

It’s about forty years since Alvin and Heidi Toffler described “Future Shock” the phenomena that change was rapidly accelerating and that we should be prepared for it. While popular the people who picked up on this were institutions who can do strategic planning and prepare for an organized future (although to be fair Toffler did recognize that families are impacted, it is just that we were more consumers of change or intermediaries).

Michael Crow and Daniel Sarewitz make a good point that preparing for the future obviously does not require accurate prediction as much as a foundation of knowledge upon which to base action, along with “a capacity to learn from experience, close attention to what is going on in the present, and healthy and resilient institutions that can effectively respond or adapt to change in a timely manner.” ( from Nanotechnology and Societal Transformation)

This is increasingly hard to muster and has always been hard for the individual. But social media may help!!

Since the Toffler’s wrote we’ve seen “distruptive technology” that transformed (for both good and bad) the way we live and work expanding to all levels of society (hospitals, libraries, schoolhouses as you say).

And now we have the broad idea of a new normal. One way this has been described is that continual, multi-level transformation Is the new normal. This is quick and complex enough that even strong instituions may not have the time and resources to develop a deep understanding of what is happening and the implications. (Perhaps an exemplar here is climate change which is complex with important impacts, but has so many nuances that we have only general ideas of how it will play out. Another is the impact of genetic manipulations.)

One last observation. Evolve is a nice term, but it implies some die off and failur. Perhaps adapt is a more hopeful concept.