Warning! We Are Trapped Between Two Worlds

Why we must embrace new and unknown tech to ensure we all live a better life (now and in the future).

Erik P.M. Vermeulen
Jul 28 · 4 min read
Photo by Joseph Gruenthal on Unsplash

“Digital” is hot. Everyone seems to talk about it. Politicians. Scientists. CEOs. But when I listen to most of their “stories.” I get this feeling of deja-vu. It’s like I’m re-watching Ghostbusters. And I mean the original, 1984 version.

For anyone of my age, it is one of the defining films of the 1980s. Watching it now, I am struck by how contemporary it seems. Not the special effects, the acting, or the song. But the story.

It is the story of a group of idealistic entrepreneurs looking to change the world with a disruptive new technology that no one quite understands. There is a market demand for the service that they are offering, but the government — in the form of the Environmental Protection Agency (the EPA) — wants to shut them down.

The Ghostbusters are working to create a new world. The EPA are clinging on to the past.

Two worlds colliding. The old and the new. One that is familiar, and apparently comfortable and safe. The other untested, uncertain, risky. And everyone has to pick a side.

Ghostbusters is fascinating precisely because it clearly takes the side of the new and risky (the entrepreneurs) against the old and safe (the government).

“Who ya gonna call?”

We live in a similar moment right now. Engaging with digital and machines is amongst the biggest challenges of our times. And everyone has to make a choice.

Let me put it this way: Do new and unknown technologies scare you?

My answer? Oh yes! I am scared, but not by the technologies. Even though they can sometimes seem shocking.

What scares me more, however, is the way politicians, businesses, schools, society are mostly failing to deal with the unique challenges and opportunities of a digital age.

Everyone can see and recognize the explosive growth of technology. How can they miss it? Entire industries are being disrupted and revolutionized. The result? More tech positions. More research. More investment. We see new rules and regulations being imposed.

This all sounds great. Technology is driving our economy and changing our lives.

But something is missing. The more I discuss the new world with people, the more I realize what is wrong. We continue to use old models, old knowledge, 20th-century skills to operate and engage with our new digital reality.

Too many people “think with the old to understand the new”

People think they are living in the new world, but — in reality — they cling on to the past.

Consider marketing. Companies try to engage with consumers, using old media platforms with “sales messages” (TV-commercials, billboards). Or, they understand that they have to do something else, something digital, and start using YouTube, Facebook, or Instagram.

But their messages are produced and bland. Old world and “corporate” without any emotion. They lack creativity. They aren’t authentic. In short, there is no story. No heart. No soul. They don’t inspire. But the biggest problem is that they don’t lead to any engagement whatsoever.

Think about it the best “marketing results” in the age of social media come from inspirational and emotional stories. The launch of K-Swiss Gary Vee 004 — Positivity and Optimism — shoes is a recent example of marketing done right.

I can tell a similar story about the organization and reporting practices of large, established companies.

Many companies understand the importance of stakeholder engagement (just read, or try to read, their massively produced corporate statements). But they still rely too much on “satisfaction surveys” and other “old school” engagement methods. They don’t realize (often supported by consultants) that creative, personal and out-of-the-box ideas usually lead to real engagement both inside and outside the company. Inspirational ideas create dialogue. Dialogue leads to communities. Communities enable co-creation. Co-creation is necessary to remain relevant.

Examples: Patagonia’s Worn & Wear Program (creating partnerships between company and customers) and Kylie Jenner (and her cosmetics company) who encourages her community to co-create new products.

Digital (thinking) is human (thinking)

What I have learned over the last few years is that the new world is undoubtedly about technology. But it’s also about leaving the mass production, principles of specialization, division of labor, and standardization of processes, that characterize the 20th century, behind. Digital technology allows us to become more human and authentic. Making mistakes is allowed, hiding them will be punished.

Digital technologies enable the emergence of flatter organizations, more peer-to-peer transactions. It redefines who and what we trust. It will lead to a more inclusive and equal society. But the same technologies help us to become more human. We need to be more human to ensure we continue to be in control and don’t let corporates and machines dictate our lives.

This is the only way to make sure we continue to make smart decisions. Technology is developing so fast. We need a broader and human engagement to continue to make “smart decisions.”

And, again, Ghostbusters is remarkably prescient in this regard. Our heroes understood that storytelling, authenticity, and co-creation will become the new normal.

Who would have realized in 1984 that we would still refer to the “life-lessons” of this fantasy comedy with Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray, and Harold Ramis 35 years later?

Erik P.M. Vermeulen

Written by

Fascinated about how new technologies are turning the world upside down. Sharing what I learn as a writer, teacher, and traveler.

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