The Perfect Storm

As a young man, I used to dream of a shining city on a hill: fair institutions, enabling technology, engaged citizens, recognition of effort, open minded debate and, ultimately, the victory of rationality and democracy. Peace and prosperity in our time.

Clearly, this is no longer the way things are going and although I struggle with letting go, I have to face the fact and abandon this dream. Human societies being what they are, we’re simply reverting to the norm, and creating a plutocracy supported by the populist appeal of offering the not-haves the pleasure of socking it one to the system and winning the lottery. This usually does not end well.

Still, I’ve been trying to figure out what is actually going on beyond dubious historical parallels — after all, history only repeats itself in our telling of it. Every day is a new day.

The usual suspect, of course, is finance: clearly, the masters of the universe make money around the investment factor, buying and selling stuff, companies, divisions, equipment, securities, people, and don’t much care what it is they’re buying and selling as long as they can leverage it and crank up some fees. This results in a commoditization of everything, where the good and the bad are treated at equal “value” and that we all suffer from. Asa mechanism, this also results in the crazy inequality we thought we’d left behind, where so few own so much and so many are left behind — hello return to the norm of human societies.

But this is not the only factor at work — other planets are aligning as well, many of our own doing.

If money is made from buying and selling stuff and taking a cut in the process, money is lost by operating stuff. In this worldview, the only thing that matters is reducing unit cost (regardless of the service fallout or overcapcity it creates, since it can be refinanced). The modern way of doing so is by implementing optimization software to make decisions in lieu of people — whether in engineering with CAD drawings, production with ERPs, logistics, insurance, finance, crazy IT systems have already taken over the world. Do not fear that robots will replace workers — this has already happened. You don’t see it because a human is speaking for the computer, but so many humans now are only a voicebox for what they screen tells them. As a result, few people either understand or feel commited to whatever instruction the system issues.

Then, our desire for clarity of roles and hierarchical structure has bureaucratized society to the point that very few people have to live with the consequences of their decisions. Most jobs now are about doing something to someone else — and incentives are about process, not results. Not only do people feel “I just do what they tell me to do,” on top of it, conequences don’t touch them — someone else has to live with it both because of increasing bureaucracy and short stays in executive roles.

Finally, technology that aimed to free every one’s expression has turned out as an accelerator of “winner takes all.” The power curves have deepened every where. In books, for instance, self-publishing has increased massively how many new books are on the market, but the same Internet distribution effects make it so that fewer and fewer titles carry huge sales whilst the long queue increases. This completely squeezes the professional books I grew up with where someone researched, thought through, published in her professional field, with some hope of contribution, and, through field reviews, didn’t have to compete with all the other nonsense out there. Times have changed.

Ironically, although we have ample proofs this is NOT the way to go, we are recreating a soviet style centrally scheduled economy via optimization software and bureaucratic project management, where the few people actually adding value, whether through work, initiative or creativity, are shamelessly exploited and burdenned by the work of all those whose full time job is to tell them what to do, how to do it, and mostly stop them or tax them.

What I can now see more clearly is that the very mechanisms we used to build the shining city on the hill, our vaunted optimization systems, bureaucratic institutions and capitalistic incentive systems are precisely those that most perverted the dream. Where, in all of this is the quality spirit? The human impulse to do good work for someone else and participate in the chain of value?

Where is each of us, I ask? Are we actually creating value or living of the scraps of a system that destroys value? Breaking the system won’t help either, as we’re about to experience firsthand. Only reinvesting in education and meaningfulness might help. Maybe.

Not surprisingly, the resulting society is fracturing in unexpected ways and where I dreamed I was headed towards my shining city on the hill, I wake up in a casino. The system wins. But the system is blind and stupid, so, as meaning is taken away, people rebel in any way they can think of, and, of course, make matters worse. Irony is indeed the driving force of the universe.