What we can learn from the past, even as we cannibalize it

I was recently looking at the principles that futurist and science fiction author Bruce Sterling offered up for the Veridian dark green movement, a movement intended to counter climate change. Sterling wound down that initiative in 2008 after ten years. Although he and his compatriots were mounting an effort to counter something, I think there are some valuable lessons that could be applied to the active promotion of new ways of work.

The Futurist Principles that Sterling enumerated are illustrative. Here they are, as summarized by Tim Maly:

  1. Eat what you kill. Before superseding or obsoleting some old practice, it is important to fully understand what you are destroying.
  2. Avoid the Timeless, Embrace Decay. Nothing lasts, so it is important to design for the end of an object’s lifecycle. When your thing breaks, what will happen to the parts? Harness and even aestheticize rot, rust, and decay.
  3. Planned Evanescence. When an object ends its inevitable usefulness or is replaced by something better, it should disappear without a trace.
  4. The Future is History — Be When You Are. Viridian design understands that one can only act upon the present and warns against dangerous romanticism for the past or future.
  5. History Accumulates. Every generation has more history than the one previous. This constitutes a resource, a ‘compost heap’ to be managed. We need better tools for this.

And here’s a pass at applying this sort of mindset to the context of organizational change in the transition to the new form factor of work.

We risk losing our footing in the present by focusing on distant futures, even when they are cast in the warm light of utopian desire. As a result, we must be when we are: we can only act in the present, where we are embedded in the context of today’s challenges and opportunities. No matter how clearly we may see what’s over the horizon, that air cannot be breathed today.

Focusing on today means understanding how today’s business operating system works: what it can accomplish, and what it disallows. And when you work to carve something out of the way things work today, you must eat what you kill. We have the obligation to leave things better than we found them, and to clean up any mess that any change has wrought.

And just as we are working to transition from old and outmoded ways of working, we have to realize that what we replace them with will, in time, become a hindrance to future aspirations. We should work to avoid the timeless, and embrace decay: and to the extent possible, we should build that into the architecture of work we erect, incorporating planned evanescence instead of pretending that we are building for eternity. This extends from business doctrine — which should be constantly evolving — to the ideal of lifetime employment, which is now a hollow pretence, but which has yet to be fully replaced by something better than ‘everyone for themselves’.

Business culture is richer and more diverse than ever before, because history accumulates. We can mine the aspirations and short cuts attempted in earlier eras, like the tribal, command-and-control, and industrial notions of business operations. The contemporary entrepreneurial, collaborative business cultures are slowly yielding to faster-and-looser forms of work, but we should cannibalize every good idea and promising mistake from those approaches to business, before we leave them behind, and sell the rest for scrap.

Sterling is well-known for his one liner —

The frontier of the future is the ruins of the unsustainable.

— which is apt in this setting too. We have reached and passed the limits of the 20th century’s notions of how we should work together to meet our individual and larger goals, but we aren’t living in a future, better time. We are here, now, confronted with urgent and near-term requirements: to reëngage with our own work, to create more and looser ties so that our business activities decrease the friction inherent in cooperation, and find new ways to increase the capacity of our social systems to help us learn, and to apply the results of that learning. And to tie this into the challenges of our sprawling, messy, and divided world society.

We cannot adopt this mindset without a slow, deep, and clear-eyed analysis of what serves as the basis of business philosophy and ethics. As we take the next steps forward, we now, more than ever, need to know where we are coming from.