How do you feel when you think of the future? Optimistic? Pessimistic? Worried?
It’s not difficult to imagine why so many people feel either pessimistic or worried when they think about the future. Not because there is necessarily anything to be worried about, but because what’s new or unknown is more difficult for our brains to process until we have something to anchor that new information to or a logical context to consider it in.
It’s hard enough for adults to get their heads around the changing nature of our world right now, but I feel strongly about our need to help the next generation think more constructively about what lies ahead, probably because I have two teenage children of my own who are starting to think about what comes next for them.
We’re right in the middle of our game
In Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind, Israeli historian Professor Yuval Noah Harari summarises our current position like this.
Humans in their current form have been around for about 300,000 years. From then until about 1200 BC, their efforts were centred around transforming materials, first with stone tools, then bronze tools and then iron tools. From about 1700 AD until 1973, their efforts were centred around transforming energy, first with water power, then steam power, then electric power and then combustion power. 1973 marks the beginning of human efforts being centred around transforming information, first around communicating and storing information and then from about 2008, computing information or knowledge and algorithms.
That’s a pretty amazing way of thinking about human history and the future of humans, isn’t it?
Well, he’s not the only one.
According to sociologist Manuel Castells, we are in the process of creating a new society in the way that our economies, states and societies will co-exist. He said this in 1998 but I can’t help feeling that it’s even more relevant since 2020.
He says, “just because humans have dominated the material world, does not mean that the Information Age is the end of history. It is in fact, quite the opposite: history is just beginning, if by history we understand the moment when, after millennia of a prehistoric battle with Nature, first to survive, then to conquer it, our species has reached the level of knowledge and social organization that will allow us to live in a predominantly social world. It is the beginning of a new existence, and indeed the beginning of a new age, The Information Age, marked by the autonomy of culture in relation to the material basis of our existence.”
That’s a lot to take in, isn’t it?
The phrase from that quote that drew my attention was “our species has reached the level of knowledge and social organisation that will allow us to live in a predominantly social world”.
A social world
Most of us know what the word social means, but what does “a social world” mean? A life of endless parties? Probably not.
According to Oxford Reference it’s “a term which is frequently applied to ‘universes of discourse’ through which common symbols, organizations, and activities emerge. They involve cultural areas which need not be physically bounded. Typical examples might be the ‘social worlds’ of surfing, nursing, politics, or science.”
Also a mouthful, but what I believe Manuel Castells is saying, is that the Information Age, will be characterised by people pursuing ideas and activities, and in the process, forming communities with people who share their interests rather than just their DNA or geographical location.
It’s the “forming communities” part that I’m interested in.
Where I live, we already have lots of in-person and online community groups. In particular, Facebook groups that address different needs, like offering and accepting unwanted items of furniture or clothing, asking questions or exchanging information about fire risks or events in the local area. I belong to several groups relevant to horse owners that include members from around the world.
This kind of organic problem-solving and community building is where I see our future heading, not necessarily just online but in real life too. I don’t mean just creating more and more groups, I’d like to see everyone, everywhere be equipped with a basic awareness of the social dynamics within groups and communities or what’s really going on when people behave the way they do in the various groups they’re part of. How many comments do you see (or make) in online social groups or pages that are angry, derogatory, jump to conclusions or assume the worst?
Why, when we know so much about the human brain and the way we make sense of the world, are we not teaching everyone, everywhere, why we do this, what it means and how to do something different? So if that’s the case, how does that help a high school student who doesn’t know what to do with their life or anyone else who doesn’t know what the future holds for us, imagine a future for themselves?
What the future could look like
I’m not suggesting everyone hit the pause button and dash off and get a degree in behavioural psychology or sociology, but I am suggesting that if we’re going to be living in an increasingly social world, it would be helpful if everyone in it, had some understanding of group dynamics or at a minimum, what role they play or could play, in a group setting.
Starting with the question, what are they good at. I don’t mean, an individualistic “best marks in the state” or “better than everyone in the world at something” good, I mean “good with words”, “good with people” or “good with engines”. Then, I’d ask when they look around them in the world, what issues interest or trouble them enough to do something about them. It might be climate change or what a disadvantage women are at or electric cars or something even more specific.
I’d like to add another factor to this equation and that’s to consider, in relation to what someone is good at and what interests them, what role they’re suited to play in making things happen. We’re not all leaders, planners, big-picture thinkers, detail people, supporters, campaigners or any of the other roles that go into starting something from scratch. Having ideas is one thing, and even that, isn’t everyone’s forte, but executing them is something else.
From my perspective as a small business marketing coach and digital marketing specialist, I work with lots of people who want to start something new. Not knowing what to do next or how to get things done, stops more people from achieving a goal or realising a dream or just trying something new, and most of that starts with not being strategic about the limitations and advantages of the type of person they are or, or to use a sports analogy, the type of position they play.
When you consider a team of professional athletes, each one plays a different position or said a different way, has a different natural skill set, but none are less important to the success of the whole. Constant negative commentary or self-talk has no place in a successful team environment and if I could wave a magic wand around the world, I would make people realise the consequences of being immersed in negative commentary both inside their own head and outside it and framing situations or events in a negative context.
The power of the group
In his book The Self Illusion, developmental psychologist Bruce Hood talks about our need to be accepted by the various groups that we’re part of. Membership in some of those groups is voluntary, like ‘mothers’ or ‘people who play netball’ while membership in others is out of our hands, like ‘people who are overweight’ or ‘people who aren’t liked at school’.
There is clear and abundant evidence that individualism and the solitary and individualistic nature of our modern lives is making many of us miserable and unhealthy. Loneliness or a lack of meaningful connection within groups we want to be part of, is such a big problem (it’s now a greater predictor of early death than smoking, alcohol and obesity) that several countries including the UK, have a national loneliness policy.
In recent times, innovations which connect us with each other or create a sense of community have disrupted society more than those designed to elevate a single individual. Think of Facebook, Google and Zoom as just three. Those are examples in the tech space but the same concepts could be applied to other parts of society and each of us can work towards this concept in different ways.
We know that successful teams spend a lot of time thinking about the strategies of the group and the roles of the individuals within that group. They talk about how everyone needs to respond when things don’t go to plan and most importantly, they talk about fostering a sense of constructive optimism and belief in everyone. And yet in our schools and societies, we’re still firmly focused on the individual.
We know that a champion team is better than a team of champions but in our classrooms, we’re still encouraged to think of individual achievement over group achievement. I say this because we usually only give out awards for the highest marks, the best individual achievements and those who make teachers’ lives easier, rather than kids who make other kids’ lives better. Life in the real world – particularly when looking towards the future – isn’t about knowing the answers and being the best, it’s about starting from a particular point and using reason and more importantly, collaboration, to work towards resolutions or discoveries.
A different perspective
Our schools, workplaces and societies are still the way they’ve always been and they’re not going to change overnight, so we have to work from where we are, starting with things that will create the biggest impact. In my opinion, that’s accepting that the people around us behave in the way they do, usually for reasons they’re not aware of or that have nothing to do with us or with logic.
The know-it-all kid in the class may be annoying but behave that way because they want to be thought of as clever or useful. The negative kid who does nothing but criticise, might behave that way because that’s the commentary they get at home so it’s become their default. The teacher favours the perfect pupil because they make her look good and her life easy. The beautiful, popular kid behaves the way she does, because in her experience, she is praised because of the way she looks, regardless of how she behaves.
If you’re not sure what you’re supposed to be doing with your life, how about thinking about how you can help? What you’re good at, what you’re interested in and what role you tend to play in the groups you’re part of, but most importantly, how you can bring people together to get things done while giving them what they want.
If you include the know-it-all (because they’re motivated to get things done), the negative kid (because they’ll quickly work out the flaws in your otherwise great plan), the perfect pupil (because then you might get the teachers support) and the popular kid (because then your idea will gain popularity with everyone) with the aim of everyone getting something out of it and not necessarily you getting to be the hero of the piece, then that’s the kind of thinking that we need in the future. A social future based on information needs us all to be smarter about what makes us and other people do the things they do.
I’d encourage you to think about the position you play (type of person you are) and the challenges that people like you face. Working out how you can help is one of the most effective ways of finding connection, feeling useful and finding your place. I’d encourage you to reach out to others in those groups in whatever ways feel comfortable or possible or to start with, even just imagining what that could look like for you. Success in a social context isn’t about personal achievement, it’s about collaboration and imagining something that makes people feel good about themselves and able to connect with each other.
Mark Zuckerberg didn’t start Facebook as a platform for everyone to be able to admire how fantastic he was (unlike almost every Instagram influencer I’ve come across) he turned it into something useful that would help people fulfil an undeniable need of connecting people with each other in lots of different ways. He may have originally done it to see if he could or to test out an idea, but he was probably encouraged at every step, by the way it was embraced by everyone who used it.
A champion team
If we accept that humans are a highly social species who are heading into a new phase of evolution, where economies, states and societies are able to co-exist in ways that they never have before, and that the emerging commodites of the global economy are information, algorithms and the power of social connection, then it seems reasonable to assume that this is where future opportunities could exist. Not necessarily just in science, technology or computing, but in every possible definition of the term social connection.
In particular, understanding how social connection works or more specifically, how each of us makes sense of the world around us and what role we are suited to play in our relationships and communities. Learning to understand our own and other people’s behaviour for what it is and educating everyone on the building blocks to good social, emotional, physical and financial outcomes. Expecting those among us with the greatest power to take the greatest responsibility for the things in the world which need to be put right.
Since the start of the pandemic in particular, our quest for meaning has caused many to question their willingness to participate in structures that keep them locked into hierarchies that they have very little control over, as is evident from the decline in rates of participation in religious organisations, political organisations and in rates of employment with corporate organisations. Our desperate need for meaning and the type of close, social connection that humans evolved to exist in as hunter-gatherers, combined with our resistance to being dominated, which some paleoanthropologists believe is the reason that early humans split from our chimpanzee ancestors, is fuelling our steady march towards demanding something more logical than the kind of patriarchal domination of the weakest by the strongest, which is a hallmark of the societies of our closest animal relatives.
If humans are indeed smarter than our cousins in the animal world, then the ultimate step in our evolution will be for us to use what we know, to lift everyone up not just the ones who are the strongest or shout the loudest.
A champion team, rather than a team of champions.
- Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind by Professor Yuval Noah Harari (2015)
- Manuel Castells: The Rise of the Network Society (1996), The Power of Identity (1997), and End of Millennium (1998)
- Bruce Hood:The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity (2013)
- UK Government Loneliness Strategy