New Yorker cartoon by the late Charles Barsotti
“Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice but to carry on!”
– Stephen Stills
My friend Nancy White just wrote an article lamenting the loss of thoughtful asynchronous communication — the modern equivalent of the longhand letter. There is seemingly no time anymore to engage in thoughtful back-and-forth online discussions over an extended period of time on interesting and important (but not urgent) subjects, often with people we respect and value as sounding boards but have never met in person.
Nancy will probably not like my response to this, which is in essence that we have no choice over what we do or don’t do, so we shouldn’t mourn the loss, or blame ourselves (or others) for what is happening around us — or hope for, expect, or even agitate for improvements.
“It’s going to take a major shift in thinking [to improve things]”, writes the author of the article in Fast Company that inspired Nancy’s article. But let’s be real — there isn’t going to be and never has been a “major shift in thinking” of the type needed to avoid the global collapse of our industrial economic system, runaway climate change, or any of the other dangerous trajectories we are now on. Our thinking is biologically and culturally conditioned; it is beyond our control. I may change my personal beliefs on some subject, but only if my past conditioning has been to challenge what I currently believe, and if the change is consistent with what I’ve been conditioned to believe anyway. That “re-conditioned” change in my beliefs is inevitably going to happen, or not, and has nothing to do with what is “needed” at any scale. We have no control over our “thinking”, so we cannot “shift” it, especially at any scale like an organization or entire culture.
Change in beliefs and behaviours — that is, cultural change — occurs only when a generation passes the torch to another and shuts up or dies. Changes in attitudes, and hence laws and actions, about slavery, the equality of women, LGBT rights, the social acceptability of smoking and drinking, and other issues happened — generally slowly over several generations — because younger generations were differently conditioned than their forebears. They didn’t grow up thinking that slavery was acceptable or economically necessary, that women were inferior, that LGBT people were dangerous or mentally ill, that tobacco was healthy and alcohol inevitably socially ruinous, as previous generations had been indoctrinated to believe.
For the same reasons, we have seen no such welcome changes in our beliefs and behaviours related to (just a few examples here) our toxic diet, our insane faith in GDP and economic growth as a “good”, our horrific, condoned treatment of farmed animals, our reliance on pharmacological and chemical treatment of illness instead of prevention and self-management, our utterly unwarranted belief in the superiority of institutional schooling, our willingness to spend trillions waging foreign wars, or our disrespect for those providing and advocating government services and regulations that might alleviate the obscene inequality of wealth that is tearing apart our social fabric.
If our civilization and our habitable planet survive long enough, we might see such changes in coming generations — younger citizens’ attitudes towards them are largely untrammelled (so far anyway) by the blindness and propaganda that formed our attitudes on these matters, and which perpetuate the resultant tragic current ills.
We are conditioned by our bodies, our culture and our environment, and we cannot think or do otherwise than what that conditioning causes us to think and do. Biologists are now beginning to find compelling evidence that there is no “self” — nothing in the brain or elsewhere that constitutes “conscious” “us” — and that “we” don’t actually make decisions (the neurological activity in the brain that purportedly represents the decision-making actually occurs after we’ve already started to implement the decision, and all the brain is doing is an after-the-fact rationalization of what we’ve been conditioned to do, as being somehow “our” thought-out decision).
That is not to say we’re automatons. It’s worse than that — “we” don’t exist at all. The play of life and all its apparent creatures and elements and environments goes on not automatically but improvisationally, continually adapting to the changes of the moment in amazingly creative and utterly unpredictable ways. But “we” have nothing to do with it. Our belief in individual control, free will, agency and choice is an illusion, or more accurately the mental delusion of a brain obsessed with finding patterns and making meaning (with the best of intention to advance our survival), where there is actually none. Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice but to carry on.
So getting back to Nancy’s article: Is “focus and balance” of reflective time and thoughtful asynchronous communication actually something “companies need to protect in order to be successful”? And if so, what if anything can be done to restore it?
In the context I have tried to outline here, these questions have no answers. Companies and the complex billions of influencers (human and otherwise) that affect their success will do what they will do, what they are conditioned to do; they have no other choice. We cannot predict their success any more than the grossly overpaid “leaders” that take unwarranted credit for it (and get unwarranted blame when it fails) can influence that success. What we do know is that humans are conditioned (it’s an evolutionary success factor) to do our best to help others we are in contact with — unless that conditioning is overridden by conditioning to fiercely compete or to exploit (which it often is in larger organizations, organizations that, as explained in The Corporation tend to become more and more psychopathic as they get larger, and start to condition such behaviour in their “leaders”).
It doesn’t take much cultural anthropology to discover that (not-too-large) organizations whose people are unrestricted in their freedom to do their best to help those close to them (colleagues, customers etc.) almost inevitably “succeed” no matter how you define that term. Exceptional “leaders” are unnecessary, as are mission statements, strategic plans, goals, roles, sophisticated technologies and processes — in fact these are all usually a waste of time and money, and a distraction from the essential work of people on the front lines doing their best (in spite of these management-mandated obstructions), through “workarounds”.
Communities that are similarly unrestricted do likewise, though nowadays we have more or less obliterated true communities, unwittingly, as we tried to do our beleaguered best to help our families survive the economic and social brutality of modern industrial civilization culture, leaving us no time at all to nurture community. No one is to blame for this; this is the game of life playing itself out, with an inevitable and unfortunate end in the cards for what we have built up in this culture, leading to what is likely to be a long period of misery for generations until the collapse is complete and some new temporary equilibrium begins. To change this we would have to smash the systems, and we can’t, and won’t. They won’t last much longer anyway.
I wrote many years ago, when I still believed individuals had agency to change organizations and cultures, that the only way knowledge truly gets “transferred” or exchanged is through one-on-one iterative conversations (and demonstrations) between people with shared values, on subjects they have knowledge about (know-how, know-what or know-who), and care about. I said this sacrilege as one of the founders of, and early “thought leaders” in, the field of “knowledge management”, charged with increasing “organizational knowledge” (whatever that means) through online tools and repositories. The statement in bold above is still just as true today. We can’t change human nature.
Asynchronous communication (thoughtful back-and-forth online discussions over an extended period of time) is a feeble attempt to achieve this exchange of knowledge and understanding without face-to-face contact. The challenge with it is that even face-to-face conversations are becoming ever-more fragmented and incoherent. The chaos of the modern uncaring corporation prevents trust from developing, encourages rapid turnover, and makes long-term thinking impossible (and largely irrelevant). So we are less likely to care, to share values, to have shared context, or to have a useful coherent history to impart to others in our organizations. We also have less and less experience with extended, deep, probing, intellectually challenging oral discussions with others, since our attention is increasingly fragmented and our communications increasingly short, online, and one-way. We have endless distractions, and we tolerate them because they make us feel important.
So here I’ll make another outrageous statement: Adulthood is the process of pretending to know, to have our act together, and to be in control of ourselves. Children wonder at how adults can pull this off, and wonder if it’s just a game, because there is so much evidence that it is just pretence. Children know that nothing is under control, that nobody really knows anything, and that to the individual everything is kind of terrifying. It is a game, a con, one that we increasingly come to believe and accept as truth mainly because everyone around us is pretending too, so it seems humiliating and foolish and nonsensical to go on believing that it’s just pretence. Adults fool each other into actually “buying” the life-long relentless role-playing as being, somehow, who they really are. Growing up is just buying the con, for life.
So things that make us feel important — appreciated and paid attention to — like the mountain of distractions sent online “to us” (by email, on Facebook, on Slack, through Sharepoint, etc.) help us with the pretence that we’re important, in control, knowledgeable, connected. And it’s easier to keep up the pretence online than face-to-face or even by telephone — it’s like a little mask between us and the rest of the seemingly-in-control world.
The combination of the ever-accelerating stress of trying to make ends meet (for the 99% anyway) and the ever-increasing firehose of seemingly-urgent distractions that make us feel important, in control, knowledgable and connected, mean that there is less and less time for real communication (“knowledge exchange”).
It’s also true, I think, that time has made us a bit cynical of the enduring value of thoughtful back-and-forth discussions over an extended period of time — whether online or face-to-face. Why exert so much energy to carry on a deep conversation, no matter how interesting or apparently important the subject, when it’s unlikely anything substantial or enduring will come out of it anyway? In writing the many thousands of pages of this blog over 14+ years, I’ve had many conversations, both online and face-to-face, but looking at the “Best 58 posts” on my sidebar, more than three times as many of them were inspired by reading books or articles (or in a few cases, by watching long, substantial videos) as were inspired or informed by asynchronous conversations. That’s pretty sobering, since my blog is basically a record of what I’ve learned over those 14+ years.
Those books and articles and videos have utterly changed my worldview, and modestly changed my behaviour as well. But they came at the right time, when I was ready for their messages. Why was I ready? Was it due to conversations I’d had previously? Mostly not, though in a few cases the books or articles or videos were brought to my attention during a conversation in one medium or another.
Of course I have had no control over any of this. I am by nature intellectually curious, especially about culture, human nature and how the world really works. Once my life and career allowed time for me to explore these subjects in more detail, it was pretty inevitable I would end up taking in these books, articles and videos. They’re very complex and challenging issues to try to deal with satisfactorily in conversations, especially online.
So I’m less distressed than Nancy at the decline in the number of conversations, especially asynchronous ones, I’ve had over the last few years. There is, it seems to me, less and less that is really important to say.
It’s not like I really know anything anyway. It’s kind of nice not having to pretend anymore that I do. Not that I have any choice in the matter.