Have We Arrived In “Brave New World” ?

No, we don’t clone and decant children yet, but …

I’ve recently been re-reading Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, published in 1932.

It’s a widely known book, having been on many high-school and university curricula over the past 50+ years.

A drastically dystopian novel, in it Huxley parodies in a phantasmagorical way the core dynamics of Western society after 100 or so years of the impacts of the Industrial Age.

He posits a society in which there is a rigid and (almost) completely accepted social stratification. Betas are glad they’re not Alphas, and lowly Gammas are quite happy not having to live with other Betas or Alphas, for example.

The book also chronicles the resemblance between people complacently contented by a life of significant leisure and how today’s consumerization keeps us yoked into working at things that are more often than not quite meaningless to us.  Anti-human, if you will.

It has struck me for a long time that the arrangements in today’s society are not far off from the descriptions of how the Brave New World’s society is structured and operates.  You have to go “off the reservation” to find real life and grapple with the mysteries of why, what and how.

How We Got Here

Thanks to the significant codification of work and organizational design via scientific management principles and the deep alignment of this codification with the accelerating consumerization of Western society, we have lived now with 60+ years of organizing, arranging, measuring and managing peoples’ work, and their lives outside of work.

That this is arguably so struck me again with force when re-reading an essay from several years ago in which I outlined the core tenets of the basic method with which work is designed and arranged into the hierarchical and pyramidal organizational chart we know so well.

Let me elaborate by referring to the methodologies with which I used to work …

“The Hay Method uses the model that all work has three phases—input, throughput and output—and employs three core factors to measure that work:

1.  Know-how – knowledge and skills acquired through education and experience.
2.  Problem-solving – the application of the said knowledge to problems encountered in the process of doing the work.
3. Accountability – the level and type of responsibility a given job has for coordinating, managing or otherwise having impact on an organization’s objectives.

There is a fourth factor called working conditions, but in many cases this is treated almost as a throwaway factor, especially when it comes to knowledge work, as it relates to fumes, chemicals, outdoor exposure, dangerous physical conditions, unusual exogenous stress, etc.

On the face of it, these factors seem eminently reasonable and the method (and the related ones cited above) have, since the early 1950’s, largely served organizations well for designing one or another particular pyramid,.  These methods are put into practice along with other key assumptions from the era when organizations grew and prospered.  The assumptions as articulated are derived from the philosophy of Taylorism (aka scientific management) and the divisions of labour and packaging of tasks that have underpinned the search for efficiency and scale ever since the beginning of the 20th century.

Industrial Age assumptions about knowledge

Just as important is the underlying assumption of these methods about the fundamental nature of knowledge. It assumes knowledge and its acquisition, development and use proceeds slowly and carefully and is based on the official taxonomy of knowledge, a vertical arrangement of information and skills that are derived from the official institutions of our society.

The other two factors (problem-solving and accountability) derive from and reinforce the know-how factor. For example, the rules of job evaluation are such that you cannot have a problem-solving or accountability factor assessment that is of a higher order than the know-how slotting.

The definitions of the know-how (knowledge and skills ) factor levels are paraphrased from the semantic definitions on the actual Hay Guide Chart.

A – Unschooled and unskilled (learns work by rote)

Epsilons in Brave New World

B – Some school, some skill (needs to know how to read & write)
C – Basic high school, routine work (read, write, apply formal routines & communicate effectively)

Deltas in Brave New World

D – Vocational school, community college, trades, senior administrative (follow & adapt established routines & practices)

Gammas in Brave New World

E – University graduation, senior trades, managerial (reads books & applies thought to policies and practices)

Betas in Brave New World

F – University plus 10 years experience, grad school (puts the books to use)

Alphas in Brave New World

G – Deep knowledge and expertise (writes the books)

Alpha-Plus in Brave New World

H – God (has others write the books)

Mustapha Mond ? Ford’s representative in Brave New World

 

These arrangements are now essentially baked into the structures (and thus much of the dynamics of our society that are generated in and from them).

And it is these arrangements that are failing us, that are shopworn and ineffective in the face of the accelerating complexity encountered as the institutions and people in our societies are experiencing atomisation, customisation, automation. The economies we live in and the financial system(s) that underpin them depend upon growth, and upon the exploitation of human creativity, imagination and labour. The core assumption of growth and extraction of profit at the cost of someone else’s consumption and/or compliance is deeply embedded .. just the way things are, the natural way a society should operate. Legal strangleholds on copyright, employment legislation, commercial activity, invention of new value ensure that this set of arrangements benefits from deep inertia.

However, it seems clear that this center cannot hold, and that it is being blown apart by accelerating and essentially uncontrollable streams of information between connected people (whether in formal organizational structures or somewhere out there on the edges of society).

Friend and colleague Harold Jarche has written often and brilliantly on the emergent yet deep changes to work that are beginning to appear .. more frequently, thicker and faster every month. In various essays he has laid out how the basic tenets of complexity theory found in Dave Snowden’s Cynefin Framework pertain to the changing nature of work, primarily by noting and clarifying the fundamental necessity for ongoing adaptation when faced with these new conditions.

His most recent blog post is titled “The post-job economy”. In it he sets out clearly what is underway and “gathering steam”. I agree with him that there will not be any return to “the normal we thought we knew”, and that there are a range of important societal mutations in front of us, just waiting for us to meet them.

Now, it also seems clear that ‘jobs’ and ‘work’ as we know it in structured-for-efficiency organizations won’t disappear completely for a very long time. People doing structured work are necessary in vast numbers to keep things going more or less as they have been. And yet, there are a number of signs of real difficulty on the near horizon .. be they some additional crisis in the supply of oil that threatens the tightly-linked systems of logistics that keep food in stores, fuel in gasoline stations, or threats of contamination to water and food sources and supplies, an acceleration and intensification of the impacts of climate change .. there are more than enough early not-so-weak signals that should make us want to wake up and do a deep re-think of what we are doing, why and how.

And it also seems clear that the politicians currently leading the world through a series of coincidental crises are by and large not coming clean with us. In many senses they are place-holders whose mission is to keep things intact and functioning whilst attempting to persuade people that a brighter day will soon be at hand. They are not visionary and deep change-makers with a long view on the path of human and societal evolution.

If several of the crises we know about continue to unfold on trajectory, it seems clear that we will be forced to adapt through developing human and cooperative capabilities on a smaller and more local scale, where things can be more manageable for individuals and groups bound by common values and interests.

As for me .. I want to both get out ahead of the curves by stepping out of the manic technocratic mainstream, and by offering my capabilities to those who are interested in seeking and exploring ‘better’, more human and more honest ways of getting through this life. I don’t really want to be part of the Brave New World I think I see coming at us quite quickly.

By the way, it creeps me out that the text box on Facebook asks you “what are you feeling, Jon ?”

Facebook is mining us in order to benefit and profit from the notion of “the feelies” in Huxley’s novel Brave New World.

That seems clear to me.
.

10 comments

  • Steven Forth

    Certainly an interesting theme to explore. How will the combination of Transparency, Linked Open Data, Data Mining (and all of its associated pattern recognition techniques), pervasive use of Socail Media, etc. combine with demographic change and changing modes of production? Which results will be on the whole positive, which negative? How can we nudge things in a more positive direction? I look forward to your developing thoughts on these themes. I suspect that changing demographics plays a key role in many of the changes we are seeing. I look to Japan as one model (only one, but an interesting one) for how society and culture will change as society ages and populations begin to decline. (And I see declining populations as a very good thing, though a new challenge).

    • wireuser

      Hi, Steven.

      Very very good questions and yes, it will be interesting to explore the evolution and convergence of these themes going forward.

      One thing that troubles me quite a bit is that except on the margins of society (but yes, more and more frequently moving towards the center), our fundamental assumptions about how things should work for all of the people in a society are not being questioned and re-thought deeply enough. That said, theres more and more questioning and exploration in that direction every month .. for sure.

      • Steven Forth

        I don’t think we yet understand the long-term implications of the trends we are seeing: near-zero real interest rates, very low growth in real asset value, the need for life long education, the need for multiple careers over the course of a life (and I mean different careers and not just different jobs). At the same time there are reasons to believe that some manufacturing will become local again and that much more manufacturing will be based on reuse and repurposing. Perhaps we are returning to a mode in which more and more production is done by dedicated amateurs, leveraging the information coded into parts and available through networks. Wirearchy is not just about how we work, but about how the things in our lives are connected – including the food we ear and the clothes we wear.

        • wireuser

          I’m in fundamental agreement with this comment, Steven.

          As you may know, I am friends with the fellow who wrote “The Internet of Things” and hope to have dinner with him in Amsterdam in about two weeks.

          Rob van Kranenburg and a co-creator (Christian Nold, of BioMapping) wrote a fascinating piece a few years ago titled “The Internet of People for a Post Oil World”.

          Here’s the link … I am sure you will appreciate it if you take the time to read it.

          http://www.situatedtechnologies.net/?q=node/108

  • Sue Braiden

    Jon, I’ve been allowing this to bump away in my noggin’ for several days now, and find myself coming back to a couple of questions that I’m having a tough time resolving. I recognize a great deal of wisdom and truth in what you’ve shared here, which leaves (for me) an uncomfortable dilemma. Facebook, one particular tool you’ve mentioned, has become sort of a “public utility” or meeting ground, which in itself has a great deal of value. Beyond the social problem it solves, shrinking my universe to a comfortable kitchen table where I can break bread with a very diverse group of people and groups, it has also become an unexpected and valuable problem-solving tool for me. Whether I wish to toss something out into the ethos to draw on the wisdom of those crowds, or search out that wisdom more quietly through easily discovered allies and interest groups, it is a very effective tool, and one I’m loathe to give up. Where else do you find this kind of living network of intelligence and willingness to share? I realize people would argue the internet itself fills this gap, but I don’t agree. It feels more like an impersonal directory or map to the individual doorsteps, lacking the personal choice people have made to coexist and cooperate under that one roof, such as Facebook. Like you I continue to become more and more aware of the price to be paid for that privilege, because the platform facilitating this is -not- that public utility as I treat it, but a commercial business whose bottom line interests don’t always align with my own.

    Like you, I’ve had a blog for sometime, but largely abandoned it and interact mostly through Facebook and 2 other private networks. I realize it’s because the blog felt like sitting in a room waiting for people to come to me, and that I had to be more formal in my posts (read: work harder to share), rather than being at a larger kitchen table where I could simply toss something out there. The latter certainly creates it’s own problem, as trying to keep up in a space like Facebook is kind of like standing in front of a fire hose. I know there’s a happy medium in there somewhere. Just haven’t found it.

    So this leaves me with a question that I’m anxious to explore: if not Facebook, what? It’s hard to argue with the fact that it clearly serves an important purpose. Why else would so many people and organizations treat it as the holy grail of connecting and sharing?

    The closest thing I’ve come to answering that was omidyar.net, a public space based on the “attraction” of people with shared goals and values, versus the “promotion” of it’s own agenda, or that of commercial interests. This was possible because it’s hosts, Pam and Pierre Omidyar, had both a sincere desire and the means to create and offer such a structure without attaching commercial interests to it, and the wisdom to be as “hands off” as possible at all times, allowing the community to find their way through how, why and what they connected around. They also funded projects and needs that bubbled up on their own merit through a “reputation system” akin to what they had built into eBay, and ultimately what made it so successful. However, the evolution of this new kind of “network of trust” was not without it’s growing pains, and I was sad to see the network disappear within a few short years. In the end, I suspect it didn’t serve the needs of it’s hosts, to more effectively and authentically find new ways of discovering global good and funding those things to help scale them up and share them more broadly. While wildly admirable, at the end of the day, the platform and network itself depended on the agenda of it’s host, and when a network is private, whether commercial or non-profit, it is rarely without an agenda.

    Is it possible to imagine developing a network of trust, similar to Facebook, where it exists without a commercial agenda, and in a way that truly does respect the privacy and rights of the people who comprise it, while nurturing their well-being, and ultimately that of their local communities?

    Whether you define a community by geography, or as a collection of people with common interests, doesn’t really matter. There is clearly a need and a value to having a technology-based “public utility” that makes it easy for people to gather, share and celebrate. If not Facebook, what? And how might we go about seeding such a thing within our communities?

    Perhaps a tool like The Brain? It allows us to gather knowledge and resources and ideas in a common space, and easily discover the connections between those things that we often didn’t even know existed. If perhaps we had a “community brain” locally, connected to other community brains, it would create a platform rather like Wikipedia in it’s (supposed) democratic and self-governing growth, but with an intelligence and connectedness behind it. I’ve been using “Personal Brain” since Jerry Michalski introduced me to it about 10 years ago, and it’s the one tool I keep coming back to when thinking about the dilemma you’ve posed regarding the problem with Facebook.

    I’m not yet brave enough to let go of Facebook because of the immense value I feel I receive from it, but I recognize the price I am paying for that choice. Deeply curious to see where your own thinking evolves on this Pandora’s Box you’ve popped the lid on, Jon, and grateful for the chance you’ve given me to recognize it and think more deeply on it.

    — Sue.

    • wireuser

      Sue ..

      There is an enormous amount of thought, care and feeling in the comment you have offered, and some important and deep questions that may not have any really effective answers.

      I don’t want to reply right away. Rather, I want to go through the comment again a couple of times, and carefully, and then I’ll respond. But I’ll probably only respond after I have the chance to write out on paper for myself what I think. Then, I’ll let my fingers loose on the keyboard, hopefully with some thought helping to move them across the keys.

      And, in my first read I am sure you realize that you are posing the questions I have of course posed to myself before coming to the conclusions (for the moment) and decisions I have taken.

      Thanks so very much for your attention, interest and intelligent exploration of such a contemporary dilemma.

    • wireuser

      Hi, Sue. Here (below) is my first attempt at addressing your thoughtful comments and questions.

      ***********************************************************

      I recognize a great deal of wisdom and truth in what you’ve shared here, which leaves (for me) an uncomfortable dilemma. Facebook, one particular tool you’ve mentioned, has become sort of a “public utility” or meeting ground, which in itself has a great deal of value. Beyond the social problem it solves, shrinking my universe to a comfortable kitchen table where I can break bread with a very diverse group of people and groups, it has also become an unexpected and valuable problem-solving tool for me. Whether I wish to toss something out into the ethos to draw on the wisdom of those crowds, or search out that wisdom more quietly through easily discovered allies and interest groups, it is a very effective tool, and one I’m loathe to give up. Where else do you find this kind of living network of intelligence and willingness to share?

      Indeed .. everything you state is true. Therein the polarity, the dilemma.

      I realize people would argue the internet itself fills this gap, but I don’t agree. It feels more like an impersonal directory or map to the individual doorsteps, lacking the personal choice people have made to coexist and cooperate under that one roof, such as Facebook. Like you I continue to become more and more aware of the price to be paid for that privilege, because the platform facilitating this is -not- that public utility as I treat it, but a commercial business whose bottom line interests don’t always align with my own.

      In a nutshell. And it’s more FB’s philosophy than it’s bottom line interests that has bothered me. I also think that its continued use by a large critical mass of people will have real and lasting and perhaps permanent effect on what we understand as culture, right to dissent and protest, etc. The more we use it, the more we are mediated out of ‘real life’ by its philosophy and thinking and what it wants us to do .. which I think is in direct inversion to an holistic human experience of life in all its vagaries and joy.

      Like you, I’ve had a blog for sometime, but largely abandoned it and interact mostly through Facebook and 2 other private networks. I realize it’s because the blog felt like sitting in a room waiting for people to come to me, and that I had to be more formal in my posts (read: work harder to share), rather than being at a larger kitchen table where I could simply toss something out there. The latter certainly creates it’s own problem, as trying to keep up in a space like Facebook is kind of like standing in front of a fire hose. I know there’s a happy medium in there somewhere. Just haven’t found it.

      I started feeling more and more like I was being forced, almost, to be more narcissistic and more displaying-of-myself than I wanted to be .. and while there are some good (no, excellent) conversations develop here and there that I have both watched and sometimes participated in, the bulk of Facebook is, I think, full of people being shiny and happy.

      That includes / included me, and I didn’t enjoy it enough to keep doing it.

      So this leaves me with a question that I’m anxious to explore: if not Facebook, what? It’s hard to argue with the fact that it clearly serves an important purpose. Why else would so many people and organizations treat it as the holy grail of connecting and sharing?

      Very good question. I think that there are people here and there working on this issue, on creating alternatives. I’ve long believed that as we get more ‘practiced’ and also get tired, let’s face it, of the constant bombardment of stuff other people post, “we” will want to distill our online relationships down to those that are meaningful to us and yet find a way to let the adjacency of discovering new delightful or interesting people surprise us in positive and desired ways. In effect, both FB and G+ let us do this .. concentrate on the people with whom we want to interact. In both cases, “we” are the product. What troubles me is that I think also there’s a real possibility that us being the product stands a good chance of changing us in inner ways more than we may realize, without us being conscious about it.

      Which brings me to the more philosophical business aspect, I think. I think Google is less flagrantly ‘sociopathic’ if you will, in its exploitation of us as a product. It offers a wider range of possibly-useful services. Yes, FB enables a fundamental need, of connecting and sharing in easy and expressive ways. But it’s also clear that all it is doing is mining us, exploiting us. It’s completely aligned with the dominant cultural frame of our times, the beat that drives us on. It taps into our barely conscious anxieties, helps us feel less ‘naked’ and completely bereft in front of forces over which we believe we have no control. We ‘huddle’ together and toss aphorisms about some kind or other of change at each other.

      The closest thing I’ve come to answering that was omidyar.net, a public space based on the “attraction” of people with shared goals and values, versus the “promotion” of it’s own agenda, or that of commercial interests. This was possible because it’s hosts, Pam and Pierre Omidyar, had both a sincere desire and the means to create and offer such a structure without attaching commercial interests to it, and the wisdom to be as “hands off” as possible at all times, allowing the community to find their way through how, why and what they connected around. They also funded projects and needs that bubbled up on their own merit through a “reputation system” akin to what they had built into eBay, and ultimately what made it so successful. However, the evolution of this new kind of “network of trust” was not without it’s growing pains, and I was sad to see the network disappear within a few short years. In the end, I suspect it didn’t serve the needs of it’s hosts, to more effectively and authentically find new ways of discovering global good and funding those things to help scale them up and share them more broadly. While wildly admirable, at the end of the day, the platform and network itself depended on the agenda of it’s host, and when a network is private, whether commercial or non-profit, it is rarely without an agenda.

      I wish Omidyar.net had flourished more. I really dislike being as cynical as this will sound, but I think that the bulk of people don’t really give a shit. If they did, we would have seen more massive social actions to date, or protests and push-back against the dumbing down and soporificizing that’s been going on for two-to-three decades at least, by now.

      Is it possible to imagine developing a network of trust, similar to Facebook, where it exists without a commercial agenda, and in a way that truly does respect the privacy and rights of the people who comprise it, while nurturing their well-being, and ultimately that of their local communities?

      I don’t know. Perhaps if ‘everybody’ has a reasonably well-developed sense of how to manage their privacy, and their interests in so doing. The lack of awareness and privacy ‘literacy’ on the part of individuals is not down to a lack of warnings or material analyzing the core issues. Technically, I think the capability of managing access to you is available in both FB and G+. What is not open to discussion to date is your ‘ownership’ of information about you and your friends, for example not having the option to deny FB using that information to extract prices from advertisers because FB is where everybody is.

      Whether you define a community by geography, or as a collection of people with common interests, doesn’t really matter. There is clearly a need and a value to having a technology-based “public utility” that makes it easy for people to gather, share and celebrate. If not Facebook, what?

      Yes, that is a critical need. Somehow in the past we figured out how to create libraries and have them be at the center of a community. I think Facebook could have been a truly great arrival into the arc of human history. I think if I had been Mark Zuckerberg, I might have made FB into some kind of cooperative or not-for-profit that still managed to create well-paying jobs for as many employees as it now has. But, it went private. That’s a clear sign of the times. Our world is much more about money and clever business models that extract money from peoples’ lives .. which is why advertising is still really the only business model on the web with any widespread effectiveness. A real pity, that.

      And how might we go about seeding such a thing within our communities?

      I don’t know.

      Perhaps a tool like The Brain? It allows us to gather knowledge and resources and ideas in a common space, and easily discover the connections between those things that we often didn’t even know existed. If perhaps we had a “community brain” locally, connected to other community brains, it would create a platform rather like Wikipedia in it’s (supposed) democratic and self-governing growth, but with an intelligence and connectedness behind it. I’ve been using “Personal Brain” since Jerry Michalski introduced me to it about 10 years ago, and it’s the one tool I keep coming back to when thinking about the dilemma you’ve posed regarding the problem with Facebook.

      I’ve always liked the Brain, tho’ I stopped using it about a decade ago. I remember meeting Harlan Hugh, the creator of The Brain, in 1997. I liked the concept and tool then, I still like it. Yes, I think it could create a Wikipedia-like platform with intelligence and connectedness at its core, or as the main and fully-nested platform for purposeful development of higher levels of awareness and (dare I say it ? ) consciousness.

      I’m not yet brave enough to let go of Facebook because of the immense value I feel I receive from it, but I recognize the price I am paying for that choice. Deeply curious to see where your own thinking evolves on this Pandora’s Box you’ve popped the lid on, Jon, and grateful for the chance you’ve given me to recognize it and think more deeply on it.

      Interesting choice of words .. “not brave enough”. Isn’t that just enough for you to experiment with that lack of “bravery” ? You could always de-activate your FB for a month or three, and see what happens, and then go back if you really start getting the shakes. And if you do, I guess maybe you’ll be done for 😉

  • mary hodder

    I left this on Sue’s FB post of this blog post:

    Wow.. what a fantastic article. I will be thinking about it as i’ve just read through once.. but it covers various smaller bits i’ve posted here and elsewhere about what I see happening. I know about 20 highly functional interconnected people in the world who refuse FB and i feel the reasons, while not so well articulated, are along the linkes of Jon’s articulation. It’s worth reading more than once and thinking through.

    Yesterday I was talking with a health care provider, saying that I felt we have to be our own EPA and FDA etc in order to live a healthy life in the US.. do a lot of work just to be healthy verses the landscape and system that push the very unhealthy. To be healthy is to “go off the reservation” as Jon articulates analogously in how we choose to work and live/ not live a consumer-y life. In every aspect of our lives, in order to be healthy, physically, spiritually, mentally / emotionally, intellectually, we are forced to go “off the reservation” and that means being healthy is in direct opposition to everything in our culture and society.

    It feels really really weird.. because you feel terribly disconnected from the main and causes everything you do to be a “fight” on some level, even just in your own head as you insistently push to find the authentic and healthful. And yet, we as humans want to connect to each other and feel “in” with our fellow humans.. which is what FB plays upon. Even if FB is rarely providing deep, real personal connection as it is always mediated through their technology that wants to “own” us and drive us to an unnatural state.
    …..

    I’ll write more as it comes up …

    mary

    • wireuser

      Thanks, Mary for your heartfelt reflections in the commentary above.

      Coming from someone that has been as aware and as constructively active in some of the important debates early on and now, I’m pleased and honoured by the compliment.

      Yeah .. all told, I think we’re heading to some strange place(s).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *