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.