The Great Restructuring II: The next ism

I continue to muse on the great restructuring I wrote about recently: more than a crisis, a recession, or a depression, what we’re enduring is a millennial shift in the economy and society, the true start of the post-industrial age. What will it look like?

I got an email from a German reader of What Would Google Do?, Joachim Günster, suggesting that we are witnessing a shift from old systems – communism (fail), socialism (never realized), capitalism (now suffering fundamental challenges) – to something new. He said that’s what I chronicled in my book and so he called it Googleism (which sounds much more impressive and less grating auf Deutsch: Googleismus).

At the Brite conference – which I recounted in my last post – Umair Haque described an economy that is fueled by the ability of people to create, by the failure of models built on screwing people, and even by love (see also Clay Shirky on love). I said this sounded like a moral imperative: a new religion. Craig Bromberg called out that it sounded like dialectical materialism. I agree. It is a fundamental shift and that it is brought on, I’ve often said, by a shift in the control of the means of production and distribution (that does sound Marxist, eh?).

Now Bromberg blogs on the notion, saying that Haque’s idea of “constructive capitalism” bears close similarity to the “march of Marx’s dialectical materialism, the resolution of class conflict through various stages of history from feudalism to capitalism, socialism, and then finally to the ultimate of abundance, the big C (no, not Citibank, for Karl’s sake: Communism!).”

Right: the post scarcity economy, the economy of abundance. Religions couldn’t do it (no heaven on earth for us, not yet); socialism couldn’t do it (because, Günster argued in his email, our individual needs and desires simply are not shared); communism couldn’t do it (because, Günster said again, nobody, especially a dictator, is smart enough to plan three years ahead); capitalism isn’t doing it (because our abundance turned out to be a big lie, a balloon with a hole in it).

So will the internet get us to the promised land? Well, no. We still do have scarcities of food and energy. But our economy will soon not be built on them. It will be built, at least in part, on the abundance of knowledge. That is a fundamental, millennial, shift, a next phase perhaps in Herr Marx’s march.

Bromberg concluded:

But what most struck me in the days after Haque’s talk, was this notion that the raison d’etre of the new networked capitalism is Love: people’s love for information, for getting it right (or at least right enough), for connection. And that this newfound love of creativity for its own sake and not just Mammon is creating behavioral change in startups and perhaps even in the way we think businesses can and should be run. Et voila, Jeff Jarvis’s question: What Would Google Do (if it were running the hotels, restaurants, car companies, governments, utilities, shops, manufacturers, and even Apple.

So where Godard once proclaimed (some 45 years ago in Masculin/Feminin) of his generation that “We are the children of Marx and Coca Cola,” we now seem to think we are the children of Marx and Google. It doesn’t have quite the same poetry, and I’m not sure about all the squishy emotion (as Shirky calls it) here, but I am noticing it, and wondering if we’re heading towards another moment of massive cultural change conflating capitalism and eros. Anybody for a Godard film night? We can always download some torrents from that secret cinema site I’ve been hearing about.

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“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, do we?” a smart leader in a challenged industry asked me under a hot sun at South by Southwest.

Yes, we do, I said. The change we’re seeing is that fundamental. Our response must be equally fundamental.

That is my problem with trying to replant old business models, line by line, in a new economy. There are a million examples from media (why can’t we charge still, damnit? why can’t we sell scarcity anymore, damnit? why can’t we control the product even though we no longer control the means of production?) to manufacturing (why not the disaggregated car?) to retail (post-stores) to religion (see this post) to education (see Union Square Venture’s Hacking Education Session) to government (you ain’t seen nothin’ yet).

That is my problem with not seeing the imperative for change. It may be instinctual to cower from it, but that accomplishes nothing. Instead, seek out change, run to it, see the opportunities in it, learn from it. I’m tempted to end here with the obvious bromide: Change is good. But that value judgment is entirely irrelevant. Change is inevitable and right now change is seismic. It’s millennial.

I am the opposite of the guy in a beard (well, a long one) and rags (worse than mine) holding up a sign (or a tweet) proclaiming: The end is near! Doom is upon us. Instead, I’m proclaiming: The beginning is near. Call me a bloomsayer. (Or don’t.)

Of course, your view of this dichotomy depends on your perspective. If you’re trying to protect a past, then yes, that end is very near. It’s here. Last stop on the Cluetrain Express. Everybody off. But if you’re trying to innovate and experiment and create and build the future, then your time is now. That’s why, in the ever-more-emotional debate over the future of news and other industries, my confederates and I (see again: Shirky) are accused of trying to tear down, to destroy, to dance on graves.

But we’re doing the exact opposite: We’re heralding new opportunities in a new world. Hallelujah, comrade.

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In my own head, I keep fighting between the instinct to try to update the old or abandon it for the new. I keep thinking we can put the old wheels from the horse cart on the new truck. Except in this new economy, there are no wheels. Even the fucking metaphors don’t work anymore.

Pardon me for thinking out loud, but that’s what led me to my book. Like Bromberg and Haque and Shirky and new friend Günster – but not as smart – I keep mulling over the change and see and saying, it’s bigger than it appears in our rear-view mirror.