It’s increasingly difficult to define “normal”, but with the chaos comes a new freedom to re-examine big ideas we’ve long taken for granted, accepted as fixed or thought were good enough. Some figure we have 5 to 15 years to get our economic and governance systems together before too much environmental or social instability. We need to look where we’re headed — be it Star Trek, Mad Max or Idiocracy.
Instead of endlessly creating and iterating based on really old scripts, it helps to get some perspective, to back out of our current systems and ask — what do we actually want and need? Usually it’s pretty basic — to eat, have a place to live, learn, do good work, get help when we need it, hang out with family and friends. Some of us have more challenges with that due to health or circumstance. But ultimately, our systems and technologies could be serving us instead of vice versa.
Thinking about this big picture, I created the diagram below inspired by things like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, artist Jennifer Moon’s factions of the Revolution and a mix of utopian manifestos and design briefs.
On the left there’s the material side. For instance, you need clothing (small circle). You can make or buy or be given clothes (medium circle) and either the clothes or raw materials have to get to you via a larger system of production, distribution and regulation (large circle). Then there’s the metaphysical side on the right. As a child you have basic emotional needs (small circle). You have some form of family and usually go to school (medium circle). Where you go, what you are taught, how your family thinks they should teach and relate to you is through public or private educational institutions along with culture, history, societal norms, etc. (large circle). Though all aspects are important and different kinds of people gravitate towards different parts, the center becomes a grounded, balanced place to return to. The melding of these sides also gives us inspiration, art, experiences, health, design and craft. In contrast, it’s easy to get lost around the edges — caught up in process, bureaucracy or abstract ideology.
Focusing on the basics and the realities of how they’re made and distributed is crucial because most work today is completely disconnected from our needs both as producers and consumers. Resources and rewards are focused on convoluted structures that game profit for the few while distancing and externalizing abuse, deception, and exploitation in a global moral and economic race to the bottom. Think invasive social networks that use ubiquitous tech surveillance and AI to exploit cognitive weaknesses for ad money, online or chain superstores that strong-arm small businesses and creators to drive prices down, political campaigns that drive polarization for instability and power, sharing economy platforms that disrupt markets by ignoring labor and consumer protections, or low-cost consumer goods made of toxic materials by foreign workers for poverty wages. This is the norm — inspired by an extremely fragmented and isolated view of our problems and supported by an extreme, reductive form of capitalism. It’s competition for the best way to crush all competition. It’s easy to blame the top 1% for creating this bizarre world, but what about the top 20% that work for them? And what of the rest who strive to make it into that 20%? If things get worse, those causing the problems will just try to buy their own way out. But what about the rest of us?
It’s extremely hard to switch gears and go against the flow. It’s also hard to look towards a future that’s so murky. How will work be funded? What happens when there are no jobs? Or if systems start to collapse — what then? More of us are starting to feel that urgency. The good news is there are people working on alternatives. We can see what they’re doing and how and start changing, even in small ways. Those are the early adopters worth looking at. Those alternatives will be most valuable if/when things start to break — and in the meantime will be the ones most likely to prevent that from happening. What’s interesting, if not overwhelming, is that every aspect of life could use new, integrated approaches. There are infinite manifestations of work requiring people in every field, on every level for different kinds of people in different kinds of places. You can start a free-range organic goat farm, but if there are no distribution channels, information-sharing processes or product support systems, it’s difficult to succeed. But perhaps this abundance of need and variation can ease feelings of competition and scarcity and foster the cooperation we need to survive. There’s no one, final solution. There’s just the work, in all its natural variety, that needs to be done to keep going.