Our future is nearly here
Sup y’all —
How’s everybody doing today? I’m doing great, thanks for asking. This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto For a More Generous World is just five weeks from release, and I’m deep in prep-mode for the launch. Please forgive me if parts of this email are a bit rougher than usual. Exciting/nerve-wracking times!
First, a little housekeeping. I have a number of public talks coming up, most importantly a special event in Los Angeles this week for Ideaspace readers.
This Sunday, September 29, I’ll be hosting an experimental workshop in Los Angeles for Ideaspace readers. It starts at 11am in Echo Park and will run two hours. The first one of these went amazingly well — I’m still hearing from attendees who are putting the ideas into practice two months later. To attend, RSVP here.
Tomorrow — Tuesday, September 24 — I’ll be speaking in Toronto at the Elevate Conference, and doing a live reading from the book. If you’re there, say hi!
My full event schedule is here. It includes talks in Lisbon, London, Los Angeles, Michigan, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. in October and November. If you’re in one of those places come say hello!
Even if you can’t make it out to an event, I’d love for you to be part of the book’s release. Y’all have been with me on this journey from the beginning and it’s meant a lot. As a way of saying thanks, my publisher has agreed to give away ten early copies of This Could Be Our Future to readers of this email. Just share your name and email here for a chance to win a galley copy for yourself and a friend. Don’t worry — I already made sure there’s no marketing up-sell that happens by entering. All love.
The more things change…
The farther things have gone with Trump, the more they’ve stayed same.
The Ukraine news this week is yet another example. We’re confronted with a new scandal and a new low that quickly gets churned through the media machine of escalating hot takes about which side is more offended, before the precipitating offense gets lost and normalized in all the noise. The actual problem is forgotten, the debate disintegrates into nonsense, our standards lower further, and the media conversation shifts to analysis of who won or lost the latest round of the culture wars.
I’ll save you the trouble of ever reading one of those columns again: the loser is always us. The collective us. Our institutions lose. Our social values suffer. Our ability to trust authorities and each other plummets.
The other night I watched ten minutes of an episode of The West Wing. It was the typical Aaron Sorkin shtick of staffers doing vocabulary gymnastics while walking through the White House performing the intricate task of government. This ballet of work, we’re meant to take away, is itself the eighth wonder of the world.
Watching this post-Trump, I couldn’t buy it. The sweat to produce the State of the Union address, the agony to capture the mood of the nation in a time of crisis — all of that seemed meaningless now. The power and aura of our own history and institutions are being destroyed by the ugliness of their corrupt application today. Each day, more of our integrity gets wiped away. Not just for our future. Our historic integrity loses face, too. The shadow casts in all directions.
Meanwhile event after event gets put through the same media ringer that obfuscates truth, hides responsibility, and avoids meaningful conversation. The media today is a sausage factory: whatever you put in, it comes out looking and sounding the same.
Imagine an extra-terrestrial encounter happens this week. We’d initially feel a sense of wonder at a new way of seeing the universe. Twenty-four hours later this would dissipate into the same hot takes applied to the new paradigm (from “Aliens are here to teach you that everything your parents told you is wrong” to “Did you know that aliens pay no taxes and are the universe’s welfare queens?”). Little would actually change.
Media creation and consumption have become a process of emotional mirroring. We root for things to unfold in ways that affirm our beliefs and grant us the hero’s role in the journey we imagine we’re on. We look for events to perfectly square the circle of our own narratives, and the media does too. Even when these narratives are to the detriment of human existence and in direct conflict with the facts, we persist with them. Lying about the truth is easier than confronting our mental dishonesty.
Combined with social media, our cynicism has turned into an anti-democratic force blocking our ability to make collective decisions of any kind. Shown to its most absurd end in the long-running paralysis of Brexit — which, and I mean this sincerely, may never end — the frustration of this process has caused many to even begin doubting the future of democracy itself.
If Democracy were a new Silicon Valley startup, I wonder how many of us would support it. We like the idea of people deciding together how they should be governed (partially because we probably think our opinion is the majority one), but the form of democracy we have in the US today is very different from the startup version we might imagine.
The Democracy startup, for example, wouldn’t discourage voting by making voter registration systems and voting processes intentionally difficult as many states do (especially if you’re a person of color). It’s doubtful the Electoral College would be a Democracy feature (it reeks of the kind of “God mode” that got Uber in trouble). We wouldn’t want elections to be determined entirely by advertising, as they are today (though the startup would almost certainly want to keep bit — for-profit democracy scales best as an ad-supported model, after all).
A 2015 study by researchers for the Institute of New Economic Thinking found that in every US congressional election except one between the years 1980 and 2014, there was a direct relationship between how much money a candidate spent compared to their competitor, and the percentage of the vote share that they received. “For every 1% increase in the money split compared to the other party’s,” the researchers wrote, “the vote is expected to increase by 1.277%.”
In other words, elections are almost entirely decided by money. This is how you get Congress having an 11% approval rate and 96.4% of its members getting reelected, as happened in 2014.
Facts like this make us want to blow the whole thing up. This is a growing consensus. A recent study by American and Danish researchers found that, “24 percent agreed that society should be burned to the ground; 40 percent concurred with the thought that ‘When it comes to our political and social institutions, I cannot help thinking 'just let them all burn'; and 40 percent also agreed that ‘we cannot fix the problems in our social institutions, we need to tear them down and start over.’”
This is exactly what those coming into power are exploiting. They’re using our disgust as license to dismantle, destroy, and betray the same institutions which have held our societies together for centuries. It is this onslaught against them — through actions and political rhetoric — that has made people turn against these institutions. Not the institutions themselves.
In an age of hyper-individualism, we view the destruction of these institutions as our right, and even our duty. I just finished reading The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman’s masterful account of the beginnings of World War I. In it, Tuchman mentions numerous times that in the lead-up to the war, there was a belief on all sides that a war would improve the world. It was a necessary step towards progress. It was this belief, she writes, that “some good would accrue to mankind [that] kept men and nations finding” for so long.
By the end of the war when this great transformation was to occur, there was only disillusion. “All the great words were cancelled out for that generation,” D.H. Lawrence wrote. The pain and obscenity were so great even the past was erased.
The age of organizations
As organizations age — whether they’re governments, companies, or churches — they become more brittle. The urgency that first birthed them transitions into a different kind of energy. The vigor of a startup fades into the complacency of success. This is what has happened to many Western institutions and democracy itself.
Every organization needs its “avocation, or secular mission to the world,” as the Japanese business guru Konosuke Matsushita put it, and a mandate to pursue it. That comes when people are given real problems to solve and the authority to design and implement real solutions.
In the 1950s and 1960s the US was focused on the growth of its middle class, to tremendous and unprecedented success. The entire explosion of the internet began with incredibly successful government grants and loans meant to spark the computer industry. The government had a mandate to plant the seeds of future prosperity and to ensure they were shared by all. It did this amazingly well.
Starting in the 1970s and 1980s, the US abandoned its focus on the middle class. Instead, the focus became the top-line growth of wealth. The goal was to grow the amount of money that existed, without any thought to who had how much or why.
This is the history my book explores. It’s also a history that’s rapidly evolving. In August, a group of the largest companies in America called the Business Roundtable announced a change to the expectations that companies should be held to. Instead of companies being expected to maximize “shareholder value,” they should now think about “all stakeholders,” a return to how companies acted in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
It was a surprising statement likely motivated by nightmares of being the face of corporate greed in Elizabeth Warren 2020 Presidential attack ads. But it also mirrors a “enough is enough” mindset that we’re starting to see among conservatives for the first time. Last week Utah Senator Mitt Romney — one of the inventors of private equity, a force as responsible for America’s shift from moral values to financial value as any other — wrote a letter to Donald Trump urging him not to lower capital gains taxes (thanks to Matt Stoller for pointing this out). Even the rich are starting to say this is too much. Their epic returns — executive compensation is up 1000% since 1977, while worker compensation is up about 10% — have hollowed out the ground underneath them to a dangerous degree. (Of course they made sure they locked in other tax cuts — which are already exploding America’s national debt — before making such a noble stand.)
This energy is growing, but we don’t yet know what to do with it because our institutions are still overseen by a rapacious playbook of profit-seeking in everything. Significant change needs to happen inside our institutions, but not the kind being fought for now. There’s a need for renewal of purpose. A refresher of meaning. A sense of optimism in our collective potential. A re-commitment to the whole.
The question is whether there’s enough time.
The goal of Trump and his wealthy funders is to destroy government beyond the point of salvation, ensuring a future in which public institutions are feeble and the public is reliant on private companies for everything, thus irretrievably transitioning power from the public sphere to the private. Though Republicans may dislike aspects of Trump, they’re on board with Trump’s macro-mission of destroying public faith as a way to ensure permanent political and economic control. No matter how low the public approval ratings get, as long as the machine stays the same and money keeps calling the shots, so will they.
The side effect of all side effects of our financial growth is being felt by our natural environment and the organisms that inhabit it. The New York Times reported that 30% of all birds disappeared since the financial maximization age began. Global temperatures may soon start growing faster than interest rates. If that happens it really will be “the last party,” as an environmental scientist once told me.
Unlike House Democrats in the face of Trump, people aren’t taking the desecration of the environment lying down. The Climate Strike, begun by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, has grown to an amazing degree from its humble beginnings of a single schoolgirl staying out of school one day a week to draw attention to the climate crisis. That small act of civil disobedience has exploded into something much bigger.
On Friday my wife and I participated in the Climate Strike in Los Angeles. We were very glad we did. The energy — largely coming from high school kids and younger — was inspiring. It felt good to take action as a group rather than just mourn and lament on our own.
Do I think those couple of hours changed the world? No. But I do believe actions add up. I encourage you to watch this very sobering talk by one of the founders of the Extinction Rebellion on the state of the climate. One of the most interesting things they say is that just 3-4% of the population taking a stand can be enough to transform society. A movement doesn’t need everyone to succeed. It just needs a small minority willing to sacrifice to make it happen.
They cite what happened with the civil rights movement in the US as an example. How Americans thought about race changed after actions by the Freedom Riders, mostly white Americans who put their lives on the line to help force the end of segregation. There were just 450 total Freedom Riders, but the violence they experienced was enough to make the public see the life of black Americans closer to what it was. (Though it should not be forgotten that the press and the establishment often attacked the Freedom Riders for inciting violence by forcing the issue.)
Similarly, Extinction Rebellion focuses on the metric of the number of people who get arrested while performing acts of non-violent civil disobedience as a way of transforming how we think about the climate crisis. It’s the willingness of an ordinary person to momentarily sacrifice their freedom for something greater that has the most power. This is something that the filmmaker Adam Curtis brought up in an interview I did with him several years ago:
In the 1950s, young white activists went down to the South, worked with the young black activists for years. Many of them were beaten up; some of them were killed. They surrendered themselves to something, and they changed the world using that power.
The contemporary idea of freedom is very much an individualist one. I, as an individual, want to be free to do what I want to do.
There is another definition of freedom which simply says, “In whose service is perfect freedom.” By giving yourself up to the Lord, you free yourself of the narrow cage of your own desires and your own selfishness. You become bigger. You become a bigger person and part of something.
If the science that Extinction Rebellion and others cite is true, this is a moment that demands a similar level of courage. Not from all of us — just 3-4% of us. Or, as Greta Thunberg told Trevor Noah on The Daily Show:
“If I were to choose one thing everyone would do, it would be to inform yourself, and to try to understand the situation, and to try to push for a political movement that doesn’t exist. Because the politics needed to “fix this” doesn’t exist today. I think what we should do as individuals is to use the power of democracy to make our voices heard, and to make sure that the people in power actually can not continue to ignore this.”
Art: I recently saw two amazing short films by the artists Micaela Durand and Daniel Chew at an event hosted by Rhizome. Both are about the internet without actually showing the internet. Their vibe is fresh and super real. If you get the chance to see them, jump at it.
Podcast: The recent appearance by author John Higgs on Ezra Klein’s podcast is a great trip. Higgs is the writer of one of the books I recommend most frequently, about the KLF. Amazingly, it was an earlier mention of that book in this newsletter that introduced Ezra Klein to his work. Ideaspace represent! From the podcast, Higgs’ re-examination of the film The Breakfast Club and his exploration of metamodernism have both stayed with me long after listening.
Essay: I really enjoyed/related to “Jobs To Be Done” by Toby Shorin, which explores our need to close the loop, and cleverly reduces most of life to a desire for the satisfaction of finishing a job.
Film: I rarely watch anything other than the NBA and climate change terror videos, but I recently saw Memories of Murder, one of the first films by Korean director Joon-Ho Bong. Dark humor, definitely worth seeing.
Music: A new mix. Tracklist:
01 Gravediggaz, “Mommy, What’s a Gravedigga?”
02 ESG, “My Love for You”
03 The Cleaners From Venus, “Corridor of Dreams”
04 Gospel IQ’s, “Peace in the Land”
05 Pavement, “Box Elder”
06 Hailu Mergia, “Shilela”
07 Charles Mingus, “Group Dancers”
08 The Fugs, “Morning Morning”
09 Delta 5, “Mind Your Own Business”
10 Stereolab, “Three-Dee Melodie”
11 The Smiths, “Rusholme Ruffians”
12 The Minutemen, “History Lesson Part 2”
13 A Tribe Called Quest, “Steve Bilko (Stir It Up)”
14 Solange, “Exit Scott (Interlude)”
15 (Sandy) Alex G, “SugarHouse (Live)”
Thanks for reading and hope to see you soon!
Peace and love everyone,
The Ideaspace is an email sent every other week by Yancey Strickler. If you signed up in error or no longer wish to receive it, you can unsubscribe below. To share with a friend, forward this email. This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for a More Generous World, will be released on October 29 and can be preordered here.