Ben Hammersley It’s been a fan­tas­tic set­up, the pre­vi­ous three speak­ers. We’ve seen, real­ly, the shock that is run­ning through soci­ety at the moment. The mas­sive changes that’ve been hap­pen­ing. This year is the 21st year of the World Wide Web. It was turned on on Christmas Day twen­ty years ago, just down the road.

In those 20, 21 years, the Web has been part of a major rev­o­lu­tion which has real­ly ripped apart Western civ­i­liza­tion. And this has cre­at­ed a bizarre sit­u­a­tion that we have now, which is a split­ting of the gen­er­a­tions and a chang­ing con­cept of coun­tries and orga­ni­za­tions. More to the point a change in the con­cept of the psy­cho­log­i­cal make­up of Western civ­i­liza­tion, and that’s what I want to talk to you about today.

Over the past few days, you’ll have seen the same bewil­dered look on lots of old peo­ples’s faces. If you were watch­ing tele­vi­sion last night, you’ll have seen it on Hosni Mubarak’s face. He had the look on his face which is the same look that you’d get from say, a Swiss indus­tri­al­ist who’s just met the Internet, or a media mogul who’s just real­ized that their news­pa­per’s gone bank­rupt. It’s the look of What the hell just hap­pened there?”

So I’ve been very inter­est­ed the past year or so in look­ing at the psy­cho­log­i­cal effects of what we will be talk­ing about here in this room for the next cou­ple of days. Because those psy­cho­log­i­cal effects are hap­pen­ing very very strong­ly in the group of peo­ple who hap­pen to be run­ning the world. The peo­ple over about the age of 55 or 60 who are the elites, the polit­i­cal and indus­tri­al and intel­lec­tu­al elites, who were meant to be run­ning the future and yet are extra­or­di­nar­i­ly con­fused by the present.

Of course, the peo­ple younger than the peo­ple in this room, the dig­i­tal natives,” Generation D, what­ev­er you want to call them. The kids. They don’t have a prob­lem with this. They don’t talk about inno­va­tion. They don’t talk about the future, it’s just the thing that they do. The only peo­ple who talk about inno­va­tion are the peo­ple our age, the buffer gen­er­a­tion, the dirty half-breeds that we are. And the old guys who’re a lit­tle bit freaked out.

So I want­ed to find out pre­cise­ly what is it, psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly, that’s mak­ing these old­er guys freaked out, because I have to deal with these peo­ple on a dai­ly basis. I have to put projects through and get them to agree to it, as do every­body here. So that’s what we’re going to talk about.

In the begin­ning was distance

Let’s talk about what defined a coun­try. A cou­ple of thou­sand years ago when we had democ­ra­cy. A cou­ple thou­sand years ago, coun­tries were defined by the dis­tance between us and them. We knew we were us because we’re here, and we know they’re them because they’re over there. They’re the oth­er peo­ple who are far away. And we’re us cause we’re close. That pret­ty much defined a coun­try. And over time, dif­fer­ent cul­tures, dif­fer­ent lan­guages, dif­fer­ent lit­er­a­tures, dif­fer­ent reli­gions, dif­fer­ent forms of gov­ern­ment, dif­fer­ent creeds, all of these things devel­oped sim­ply as a mat­ter of dis­tance between groups of peo­ple. The rea­son why the Swiss are Swiss and not the French is because the French are over there, and the Swiss are here. All the oth­er stuff came afterwards.

The dis­tance defined us, it defined exact­ly where we were. It was only after­wards, as a mat­ter of con­ve­nience, that we start­ed draw­ing lines on maps. We defined our­selves by being us and the oth­er a them. This is the same soci­etal­ly. You knew where you are in the struc­ture of your soci­ety. There’s peo­ple above you, and there are peo­ple below you.

So these coor­di­nates, this sys­tem of know­ing where you were and who you were as a per­son, was very hier­ar­chi­cal and very ingrained into all of civ­i­liza­tion. You are British and middle-class. We know where we are. There’s peo­ple above us, peo­ple below us. And these hier­ar­chies aren’t just soci­etal. They’re in our fam­i­lies; dad­dy at the top. They’re in our com­pa­nies; there’s the CEO at the top. They’re in our aca­d­e­m­ic insti­tu­tions; the pro­fes­sors and the chan­cel­lors at the top. The pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als at the top. The mod­els at the top. The foot­ballers. Whatever it is. Whatever indus­try you’re in, there will be a hier­ar­chy with the peo­ple at the top, you know­ing your place, and peo­ple below you, hopefully.


So at the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry, begin­ning of the 20th cen­tu­ry, Freud came along and he kind of wrote this down. And he cod­i­fied the soci­ety based on these hier­ar­chi­cal rela­tion­ships. He gave two things to Western civ­i­liza­tion: he gave us an expla­na­tion of a lot of this stuff, and he tracked it way back to the Enlightenment when the Pope was at the top. And he also gave us a cog­ni­tive toolk­it, the abil­i­ty to under­stand sys­tems. Not just the abil­i­ty to see there was a hier­ar­chy in cer­tain places, but the abil­i­ty to under­stand that hierarchy.

And that was the dom­i­nant intel­lec­tu­al frame­work for the 20th cen­tu­ry. The dom­i­nant intel­lec­tu­al frame­work for the time of mass indus­tri­al­iza­tion. The dom­i­nant intel­lec­tu­al frame­work for the build­ing of mod­ern Europe. The dom­i­nant intel­lec­tu­al frame­work for the Industrial Revolution, for moder­ni­ty, for post-modernity even.

Now, because of these hier­ar­chies and because of these sys­tems and these dis­tances, we start to judge our­selves by num­bers. Our economies are based on num­bers, obvi­ous­ly. And our posi­tion in our com­pa­nies, or our pop­u­lar­i­ty on Twitter, are based on num­bers. And those num­bers have to be count­ed in some way. You have to set boundaries. 

And we’ve inher­it­ed real­ly old bound­aries. It makes no sense what­so­ev­er eco­nom­i­cal­ly to count say, the French econ­o­my as every­thing inside the French bor­ders. Because there’s bits of France which are real­ly rich and there are bits of of France which are real­ly poor. And they’re only all French because a thou­sand years ago it was hard to get on a horse and go fur­ther than that. These are arbi­trary bor­ders and arbi­trary things, but still these are very ingrained in Western civilization.

The wrong cog­ni­tive toolkits

So we find our­selves now in the 21st cen­tu­ry, in the sec­ond decade of the 21st cen­tu­ry, and the third decade of the Web, with the wrong cog­ni­tive toolk­its. What do I mean by this? Well, think back. Pretend you are 60 years old. If you think back, you grew up dur­ing the Cold War, and you grew up dur­ing a com­plete­ly hier­ar­chi­cal sys­tem. You knew who the ene­mies were because they were those guys over there. You know where you were in soci­ety. You knew where you were in your busi­ness. You knew that you had to go that way. [points upwards] This was all under­stood as part of the intel­lec­tu­al frame­work of your soci­ety because that was based on Freudian thought, and it was all very sim­ple and all very easy.

And in 1989 the Berlin Wall falls, and sud­den­ly the them over there don’t exist any­more. A year lat­er, the first Web serv­er is turned on, and these net­works start to form. First it’s just nerds, geeks, peo­ple talk­ing about social net­works in 1993. But slow­ly and sure­ly, this thing starts to hap­pen. And you start read­ing about it in the newspapers.

In 1999, 2000, the dot-com boom hap­pens, the rules of eco­nom­ics seem to be rewrit­ten. 2001, the dot-com crash hap­pens, and the new rules are ripped up again. Suddenly we’re left with no rules at all. 

And then September 11th hap­pens, and even the type of ene­my we have is changed completely.

If you are old­er than mid­dle age at that point, it’s per­fect­ly rea­son­able for you to be com­plete­ly con­fused. Thoroughly, thor­ough­ly weird­ed out by mod­ern times. The tragedy is, is you are about to be in charge.

Future shock

So no won­der you’re a lit­tle bit freaked out. And no won­der for the past decade or so, we’ve had con­fer­ence after con­fer­ence after con­fer­ence talk­ing about inno­va­tion. We’ve got to be inno­v­a­tive, we’ve got to think in a new way, we’ve got to think out­side the box. 

Telling some­body to be inno­v­a­tive is like telling some­body to be fun­ny. It’s real­ly hard. Doesn’t kin­da work. But this is one way of get­ting out of it. It’s one way to sort of self-therapy. Instead of start­ing drink­ing, you start read­ing self-help books. And you start to be innovative.

So we now find our­selves in a sit­u­a­tion which is per­fect­ly nat­ur­al for peo­ple under the age of peo­ple here at Lift, where all of those hier­ar­chies, and the fun­da­men­tal basis of those hier­ar­chies, have fall­en away. The dis­tance that made us cre­ate those coun­tries, which then built those soci­etal hierarchies…that no longer makes any sense. As you know, right? You can send an email any­where in the world, it’ll get there in the same time. And for the inter­na­tion­al elite that we have in the room here today, you all have, undoubt­ed­ly, friends in New York and San Francisco and Berlin and Tokyo and Australia or what­ev­er, all of whom you have much more in com­mon with than you do with your neighbor.

You’ve cre­at­ed dias­po­ras of inter­est. The death of dis­tance has cre­at­ed many dif­fer­ent new forms of coun­try. Countries which aren’t based on how far it is from us to those guys over there, but new coun­tries based on what you’re inter­est­ed in. On your cul­ture. On your beliefs. On your principles.

These new cul­tures might be reli­gious. They might be based on a love of vam­pire nov­els. They might be based on being inno­v­a­tive or being open source pro­gram­mers, or what­ev­er it is. But you have stronger ties now I would say, to peo­ple of your inter­ests around the world, than you do with your neigh­bors. And almost undoubt­ed­ly than with your fam­i­ly. Think if it’s pos­si­ble for you to explain your job to your par­ents. I bet most of the peo­ple in this room can’t. 

Mailing lists with guns

This cre­ates all sorts of inter­est­ing sit­u­a­tions. We talked about 911 ear­li­er. Al Qaeda is a mail­ing list with a weapons bud­get. It’s a Facebook page with explo­sives. They’re not a coun­try. They don’t have an address. You can’t go there and vis­it them and give them a nasty let­ter. You can’t vis­it them and com­plain loud­ly. You can’t bomb them. They’re a new cul­tur­al form that’s cre­at­ed as a dias­po­ra of inter­est across this net­work. This is a fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent type of thing than we had before with the Russians, because the Russians, you know where they live. You could call them up. You can send them piz­za. Same thing hap­pens in Tunisia and Egypt. It’s very very dif­fi­cult to shoot a hashtag.

Pyramids and Sheets

So now we have our­selves split into two types of gen­er­a­tion. You have the old­er guys, much old­er than peo­ple in this room, who lived in and were brought up in a world of pyra­mids, or hier­ar­chies. And you have a younger gen­er­a­tion, much younger than the peo­ple in this room, who’ve lived in a world of sheets, of net­works, where there are no hierarchies.

And we’re in the middle.

We have a very dif­fi­cult job. Because the peo­ple who did­n’t grow up with hier­ar­chies have absolute­ly no con­cept of what a hier­ar­chy is. And the peo­ple old­er than us, who grew up sole­ly with hier­ar­chies have no con­cept of how a net­work could pos­si­bly work. Every time you try and explain what’s hap­pen­ing with these net­work things, they try and fit them onto a men­tal lens of hierarchies. 

You can see this again in anti-terrorism activ­i­ties: Shoot the leader and every­body else will go away.” Whereas the gen­er­a­tion younger than ours will go, That does­n’t make sense at all. What’s a leader?”

They can’t under­stand that they can’t under­stand what they can’t understand.

I apol­o­gize to the trans­la­tors for this fol­low­ing sen­tence. The prob­lem we have is the peo­ple run­ning the world right now, the elites at Davos, the peo­ple advis­ing Mubarak, the heads of the cor­po­ra­tions, the peo­ple in charge of the edu­ca­tion­al syl­labus­es, pos­si­bly your boss­es, not only don’t under­stand this non-hierarchical world, and not only do they not under­stand how to under­stand it, but they don’t under­stand that they could nev­er pos­si­bly under­stand how to under­stand it.

They lack the intel­lec­tu­al frame­work on which to base this new form of busi­ness, this new form of think­ing. The prob­lem is that we kind of can’t kill them. We can’t get rid of these peo­ple. Demographically speak­ing, in Europe they’re in the major­i­ty. Which is why it’s thrilling to go to Brazil, or China. Because it’s native there. But here in Europe, old-style gov­ern­ment and old-style cap­i­tal­ism is still going to be around for a bit, at least. Unless there’s a real­ly real­ly cold win­ter, we’re kin­da stuck with these people.

So what can we do? This real­ly is your mis­sion for the rest of the week. Your mis­sion for the rest of the week is to look at all of the things that we talk about here, look at all the new inno­va­tions, look at all the new ideas, look at the new ways of doing busi­ness, new ways of think­ing, the new ways of run­ning your coun­tries, the new ways of run­ning your cor­po­ra­tions, your orga­ni­za­tions, your per­son­al lives, and start to think about them in a way that you can explain to the old guys.

Because for the past ten or fif­teen years, we’ve talked con­tin­u­ous­ly, over and over and over again about inno­va­tion and dis­rup­tive tech­nolo­gies, and rev­o­lu­tions. And the rea­son that you’ve had prob­lems, the rea­son that your boss­es don’t let you do that project, the rea­son that the rev­o­lu­tion has­n’t come unless peo­ple take to the streets, is because the peo­ple we’re talk­ing to lack the cog­ni­tive toolk­it to under­stand what the hell we’re talk­ing about.

Explain, not complain

So our mis­sion, our pri­ma­ry prob­lem isn’t to encour­age inno­va­tion, because peo­ple are going to inno­vate any­way. Because it’s fun. It’s why you get up in the morn­ing. Our pri­ma­ry prob­lem isn’t to encour­age inno­va­tion. Our pri­ma­ry prob­lem is to trans­late it.

And there’s a gen­er­a­tion between the old guys who don’t get it at all, and the young guys who don’t even see it as inno­va­tion. There’s a gen­er­a­tion between those whose job it is to do that trans­la­tion. Our job is to clear the path to allow the young peo­ple to come through with this revolution.

So that’s what your job is for the next cou­ple of days. It’s to look at every­thing that hap­pens on this stage and work out How can I explain that to my moth­er?” And when you come up with that answer (explain it to your moth­er or your chair­man or your pres­i­dent or your par­lia­men­tary mem­ber or what­ev­er it is), then your respon­si­bil­i­ty for the future is to do just that. It’s going to be a real­ly real­ly dif­fi­cult job. But it is much more nec­es­sary than encour­ag­ing peo­ple to innovate.

Thank you very much.

Further Reference

Presentation descrip­tion [Wayback] at the Lift con­fer­ence site, and at their video archive.