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.
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 9⁄11 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.
Presentation description [Wayback] at the Lift conference site, and at their video archive.