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Sipping a latte while Rome burns: 1 of 3, Yesterday

January 10 2008 | Jim's Blog,
by Jim

I’m a surfer and deep inside me I hear someone screaming “outside!” That is what's yelled when you're out on a big day and a sneaker-set of waves is swiftly building on the horizon. It's when adrenaline kicks in.

Looking backwards at history helped me navigate and understand the ramifications of the internet era, it gave me perspective that I so desperately needed. I find myself doing the same thing now. To better understand various future scenarios I find myself looking backward and then losing sleep over the connecting vectors.

This is the first of three posts, offering a high-level quick exploration into connecting some dots, framing some issues I see as critical. And hopefully offering some relevant approaches for moving forward.

The early stages of a movement are blurry. As they germinate societies don’t see a movement because because the beginning stages the only thing to see is a few people. There are always lots of ideas with few people aligned around them. The difference is the early stages of a movement also have other, sometimes uncoupled, forces adding the boost of a second-stage rocket. As the idea gains some traction and attracts others it’s often not seen in the same way by everyone. Yet when we look backward at a movement everything seems so logical, so understandable and so… simple.

A century ago smoking seemed perfectly fine to most people, it was simply a societal norm, in the middle of the last century massive fortunes were made based on the commercialization of that movement. Fast forward to today and smoking is banned in NYC bars. Look back at a more heinous movement, slavery. People owned other people just as they owned property rights or mining rights. Today the very word “slavery” makes us cringe and we wonder how our forefathers could have been so barbaric.

In the 1940s (date) women were not considered equal. Half the U.S. population couldn’t vote. Again, it seems almost otherworldly to think about growing up in a place where our moms, wives or daughters would be considered worthy of something less than general, regular, everyday rights.

When I was in high school Nelson Mandela was in a South African prison. His crime was challenging apartheid. I remember distinctly being at Special AKA concerts and pogoing along to somewhat abstract “Free Nelson Mandela” (abstract due to my suburban, sheltered life). Fast forward to today and he has been released, been President of the country and is enjoying a decent retirement. Oh, and apartheid couldn’t withstand the global pressures of continuing to exist in this day and age.

My point is that during the beginning stages of a movement it seems like populations are well out of synch, almost comically so. Watching old films where they are doing blackface routines, acting like Archie Bunker from All in the Family or worse… It feels wrong but perhaps even more significant it just feels odd. It feels like we are watching dramas but not dramas based on fact or history.

I was lucky enough to live through one of these disconnects, one of these tipping points, one of these societal inflection points in the mid-nineties. I had been heads-down, slaving away in software companies large and small when Tim Berners Lee idea finally caught on, fifteen years after being conceptualized. The early days of software and the internet were like living in a parallel world. We had our own lingo, visions of the future, conferences, magazines and dresscode. We lived every day with the full knowledge that we were literally rewiring global societies. Looking backwards on those days I see that a) we were right, virtually everything we dreamed of has come to pass (and so much more) but that b) we were massively out of step with the rest of the world. It took another decade for the better part of civilized society to catch up with the business, social and lifestyle vectors we were forging in the late 90s.

It's equally interesting to look at the forcing functions on these movements. Ok, so money from tobacco companies lied their way into addicting gillions of people on cigarettes. How are we getting out of that mess? I'm sure there are many reasons, but they include some savvy anti-smoking campaigns, decades of deaths from lung cancer, awareness programs, health related policy shifts, etc.

What matters to me is that you can step outside your day-to-day life and project yourself into a set of eyes looking out at society… but from the perspective of it being the year 2025.

What will the future look like.

If you can do that then,in my opinion, you’ll better see how our we will collectively be judged by those in the future for squandering the worlds natural resources, for taking much more than our share.
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