The Thin Ice of Scale

For my last blog of 2021, I spent a while considering what it might be that has made us so prone to fragility at this time. Why do we find ourselves so ready to blame others for a natural event, and to seek government support for its consequences, rather then deal with it?

I ruled out anything to do with generations or nationalities because in the end, people don’t change much. We are all creatures shaped by the circumstances we find ourselves in and have shown over millennia that we adapt. There never has been, nor I suspect will there ever be, an apathetic generation – just those who find themselves somewhere on the growth and decline cycles of civilisation – either creating, exploiting, enjoying, worrying, complaining and eventually rejecting the consequences of an idea. I come from the worrying generation – I grew up in the Cold War. The generation that followed were brought up in an environment of automatic plenty, fuelled by increasing health and wealth, and it is the latest generation who are absorbing, and rejecting, the cumulative effect of an idea.

So what, I wondered, is the idea we find ourselves rejecting and why? I ruled out technology – technology is just tools, and it’s a poor craftsman that blames their tools. I even ruled out capitalism – even with its deep flaws, it’s still just a model, a tool we have created, one we can adapt. In the end ,it still has more options for our freedom than the mostly autocratic alternatives being experimented with at the moment.

I narrowed the suspect down to two, a form co-operative master and servant relationship. Greed, and Scale.

We have always had greed of course – it’s part of the human condition but has been amplified as we have become more individualistic and less connected to each other. The growth in Cities has eroded local communities, and competition between Cities globally has eroded national boundaries. London competes with New York, competes with Berlin which competes with Shanghai. Corporations have become the new Imperialists, and Governments their Courts. At least, for a time.

Scale has, I think, been the hyper-enabler of greed. Scale has three components – the production genius fostered by the industrial revolution, which has allowed us to produce to levels far in excess of natural demand. Then we had the advertising revolution of the early twentieth century, triggered by the work of Edward Bernays (a nephew of Sigmund Freud) who used his uncle’s understanding of the Psyche to create demand where no need was present, effectively giving us the ability to scale demand in order to provide our ability to produce a market. Finally, the financial revolution of the latter part of the same century created the ability to create and scale debt to provide the wherewithal to purchase the goods and services for which advertising has created the demand. Bingo. We now have the engine which has powered the dream of never-ending growth and led us onto the fast track to climate change.

This is of course a very simplified view of a very complex subject, but the essence is there – creating capability, demand, and debt to build an engine that is out of control. The question is what do we do – keep feeding the engine?

Natural and Forced Scale

I’m going to use the concept of an idea broadly here – it might be a concept, a product, or a mutation. All new ideas have the capacity to scale; to grow quickly and become integrated naturally into the ecosystem. We are most familiar with the evolutionary ideas that scale – new developments at boundaries – the Darwinian evolution of species, the Schumpeterian Creative Destruction of businesses, the technological innovation when computer meets phone, and biology meets engineering. Until relatively recently though, even the most radical of these encounters had a natural pace – estimated between twenty and seventy years from invention to widespread adoption, going through the familiar invention / early adopter / early majority process.

Now however, we have the ability to force scale; to compress it into time periods our psyche finds difficult to absorb. Social media models, potentially a huge advance in the way we communicate with others, has become a means of weaponizing scale. Fuelled by the appeal of $154billion of advertising revenue, social media changes the landscape. It hoses us with a form of digital mind altering media shaped by highly skilled people with very specific agendas, from populist politics to the $100 billion pornography market. We are awash in a sea of attention seeking content with little human value, and have moved from being client to becoming product. Our stunning achievements in communications technology has mutated into an attentional cancer energised by the appeal of Unicorn valuations.

We do however have a choice. The reality for most of us living normal lives of going to work and raising families is that most of the news and social media has no material impact on us. The impact comes from the stories we tell ourselves and each other driven by the high calorie content we are supplied with. The lives of celebrities, the noisy rants of angry people we do not know, and the “crisis du jour” of the tabloid press place us in a fantasy world, adrift in a sea of myth rather like a latter-day version of the Truman Show where an insurance salesman wakes up to find he is an unwitting star in a Reality TV show.

The appetite of the finance sector for scale leaves us on thin ice in the middle of a deep lake, whether as consumers, investors, businesses, or communities. And that strange sound we can hear as we enter 2022 is the ice cracking beneath us.

Finding Solid Ground

Underneath the cracking ice though are areas of solid ground, what Meg Wheatley calls “Islands of Sanity” in this 60 minute, very watchable extract.

We can all find an island that works for us. Somewhere to take time out, to sense check with others what is really going on, and what we can do about it. Somewhere to find and lend support, to check ideas and enjoy good conversation where nobody is trying to sell us anything. Somewhere secure to spend time as the ice melts and we can work out how to navigate our way back to the shore.

I suspect most of us have been able to sense that solid ground beneath our feet during the last two years of disruption. People we have connected to, who we may never meet, with whom we have found common ground and shared values. Questioning the wisdom of the commute when the alternatives are not just viable but preferable. Having the freedom to choose who we spend our time with, rather than “doing time:” in the office. Understanding that we have more options than we thought, and that we can make a difference to the things that matter to us, from climate change to mental health without the help of appointed “leaders.” We have the power to choose who to follow, and where to lead.

2022 is a time to feel for solid ground. Understanding what we have the potential to do, who we serve and why. Who we value and choose to follow. Meaningful contribution rather than mindless consumption. Meaning rather than more.

We’re on thin ice.

Reflections 2021

I’ve created a .pdf of all my weekly reflections in 2021, with links to books and videos etc. I hope you might find something useful there.

You can download it here

Onwards to 2022….

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