When I try to understand the changes going on all around us, I think of a former investor relations client, the chairman/CEO of an NYSE global company. He often used the phrase “we experienced a perturbation” to explain to investors why the company fell short of earnings expectations. It was his way of saying “no big deal … we had a problem that was unexpected and won’t be repeated.” Actually, the explanation worked the first time he used it, and even the second time, albeit to a lesser degree. But a series of minor perturbations eventually end up at “something very serious is going on.”
So, when I think now of what the world is experiencing, I start with the premise that we are seeing more than a perturbation or two or even three. We are experiencing fundamental changes to the basic premises that anchor much of the world’s structure: our economic, political, social and cultural systems. And it’s happening because of the Communications Revolution.
My thinking starts with a different view of the Communications Revolution than is generally accepted. The commonly held view is that this revolution is all about the proliferation of new tools: the cell phone, the Internet, social networks, etc. That thinking underestimates what is happening. It is akin to saying that the advent of the skyscraper was because of the elevator and new engineering and construction capabilities, and the other then-new tools and processes that were necessary for skyscrapers to exist. But the real reasons for the success of skyscrapers were more fundamental: significant growth being unleashed after the Civil War, more intensive use and associated increased value of urban land, the “statement” an extremely tall and impressive building made on behalf of its tenants and owners, and a change in corporate organizations and the growth of white-collar workers. In other words, whereas tools and techniques were absolutely essential, skyscrapers started becoming ubiquitous in cities throughout the world because of other more fundamental changes. In the process, not only did these changes encourage more skyscrapers, but the growth of skyscrapers changed our cities, the way we lived, how we did business, how wealth was created, how we socialized and even how political candidates campaigned and where they went to seek votes. Wow — much more than a series of perturbations. Fundamental change rippled through the world, giving rise to even more fundamental change. What happened wasn’t about engineering and elevators. It was about more fundamental change than that.
Now we need to ask: In addition to the obvious changes in how we communicate, what are some of the less obvious but prospectively more consequential changes occurring from the communications revolution? Consider the following:
The concept of a nation will be radically changed. One of the major changes of the communications revolution is that people can easily join and leave groups that appeal to them, whether those groups relate to religious beliefs, hobbies, cultural preference, etc. When people join a group – a community – they will stay there because the group is providing value for the time and/or money the members of that community devote to it. When value isn’t provided, the community loses its members and becomes weaker. On the other hand, the provision of a high degree of value creates growth for the community. In the final analysis, the determining factor of whether a community grows or shrinks is value. What happens when a nation ceases to provide value to its “members” (citizens)? Historically, people had very little if any choice in their nation, but that is no longer the case. When all aspects of our life move to other than physical venues, what obligation will people have for supporting a nation that is defined primarily by its geography and is no longer so vital to their existence? The very concept of the role and the ongoing existence of a nation is going to be challenged.
Marx will be proven both right and wrong on a couple of his fundamental predictions. Workers of the world will not unite to create a global communist revolution. But people will unite to create the communities of their shared (often very narrowly focused) interests. Similarly, there will not be widespread provision of products and services from those who have to those who need, as Marx predicted. But, that philosophy will prosper within the new communities to which we belong. Look at social media: people who do not understand it but want to will belong to a community where they can turn to people who know it intimately to get help on how they can use it. In other words we’ll see the communistic principle of “from those who have (knowledge of social media in this example) to those who need (that knowledge)” put into practice. Yes, that’s a simplistic example, but others abound and that philosophy of a form of limited-venue communism will grow – within small systems, not within nations as Marx envisioned because the difficulties arising from a too-broadly diverse population will not exist within special interest online communities.
“Truth” will no longer be the same as “facts” and will be different but still immutable for different people. Groups have a vested interest in not only attracting new members but keeping members and making them ever more loyal for the sake of growth and strength. To achieve that goal, groups will leverage their ability to communicate directly and frequently with their members, especially regarding the theme of the group. For example, a community that is focused on the prospective harm climate change may cause will communicate on that issue and stay away from other issues. In that way, they will become for their members the trusted authority on the issue of climate change. The group’s members will believe the information they receive, which will become the “truth” for them, even though that “truth” will be quite different from what is considered to be true by those who belong to other communities that promulgate different views and broadcast different messages about climate change – even if that “truth” conflicts with “facts.”
Changes of this magnitude are not “perturbations.” They will transform (more appropriately, “are transforming”) the way we live economically, socially, and politically. Combined with other similarly fundamental changes, the way the world is structured will change. Some of these changes will be more significant than others, but taken as a whole, the net impact will be a fundamental change in the worldview that now dominates the human experience.