Oh, media, why can’t you learn?

princeThe death of pop music savant Prince this week provided a very visible example of the difference between those who understand the era we’ve entered and those who don’t. The raw emotion that surrounded his passing was palpable, and the event greatly transcended the basics of who, what, why, where, and when. This made it the perfect news event to observe the behavior of everybody – the fans, the press, and the music industry – in how we all reacted.

The first thesis of The Cluetrain Manifesto states: “Markets are conversations.” This, of course, means nothing to those who refuse or are unable to board the train, like the folks who continue to run traditional media platforms. It’s so fundamental to new media that its simplicity confounds the money makers and baffles those attempting to reinvent themselves. Let’s look at it this way:

The difference is like communicating with people from a stage and communicating with people at a party or family gathering. In the former, people are there, because they want to see what’s on the stage. They’ve paid for the privilege through a ticket price or their time. With all eyes focused on the stage, the performers are able to sell the audience anything, simply by slipping in either a point-of-view or an actual commercial message. The fact that all the people are there in one place at one time is what gives the venue value. We call this mass marketing.

At the family gathering, however, it’s very different. The host doesn’t plaster the walls with commercial messages, nor do the guests come wearing advertising placards. And imagine what it would be like to walk up to Uncle Harry to offer condolences for the death of Aunt Alice and providing first a message from Coke about the latest packaging craze. You wouldn’t open your phone to share pictures of your kids but first force them to sit through an ad for adult diapers. Why not? They’d all walk away, because you were acting like a fool. Plus, you’d never be invited back. Think about it.

This is the reality of what’s happened over the past week with the death of Prince. This was personal for people who grew up with the guy or were otherwise influenced by him and his music. We all knew the guy was special, and we were grieving. Media companies got everything about the event’s importance, but they forgot this was a wake and not a theatrical performance. I was both incensed at times and embarrassed for those who can’t bring themselves to board the friggin’ Cluetrain.

Bandwagons in the new age are untoward and off-putting. Turning a tribute into an ad produces the opposite of its intended effect. Taking hurting and bewildered people to a comical ad for car insurance or otherwise filtering emotional information is a violation of human decency, and this must stop if we really hope for any relevancy in the future. Who do we think we are? Oh there were some wonderful tributes made available to people, but everyday software often got in the way, because media companies still think they’re in the content business. Social media was flooded with both good and bad, but even some of the good turned bad when people clicked on whatever link was provided only to be greeted by a clearly out-of-place ad.

When things like this happen in our world, normalcy must take a back seat to the uniqueness of the event. And every single one is different and demands attention. When people are in shock, the last thing they need is to be treated like mindless morons who’ll gladly waste precious minutes so that presenters can pretend they’re on a stage.

People dress in black at wakes for a reason.

It’s called respect.

Applying a Postmodern context

horizontal

Current events continue to reveal what our culture is up against as the age of Postmodernism continues to unfold and expand. This vision is so clear to me that I see things that others don’t, and while I’m sure some people view that statement as arrogance gone to seed, it would be foolish of me to deny reality. The problem most folks have with this is a lack of context with which to view ongoing events.

Premodernism: I believe, therefore I understand.
Disruption: The printing press.
Modernism: I think and reason, therefore I understand.
Disruption: The internet.
Postmodernism: I participate, therefore I understand.

The single, most important difference between Modernism and Postmodernism is that the former is hierarchical while the latter is horizontal. This produces an inherent conflict, and while these conflicts can be obvious, they don’t mean anything other than just news items unless and until they are put into the context of a significant cultural shift.

For example, here’s a cute story about 9-year old reporter Hilde Kate Lysiak breaking a murder story ahead of the local press. Ha-ha. Funny, huh? No, this is heavy-duty stuff in light of the culture change. Miss Lysiak has her own printing press – a.k.a. website – and considers herself a journalist. Here’s the way the Washington Post put it.

As the editor and publisher of the Orange Street News, in her hometown of Selinsgrove, Pa., about 50 miles north of Harrisburg, Lysiak is a dedicated multi-media journalist who loves going after crime stories. Her father is an author and former New York Daily News reporter who took Hilde to his newsroom and to stories he covered around New York and hooked her on the rush of chasing news.

“I just like letting people know all the information,” Hilde said Monday. It’s also what she sees as her career, no matter what stupid adults might say about the future of journalism. “It’s just what I really want to do. And crime is definitely my favorite.” She said she learned of the murder story because “I got a good tip from a source and I was able to confirm it.” Well, that’s how it works.

When community members squawked on Facebook that a 9-year old has no business reporting on such, Miss Lysiak went ballistic: “If you want me to stop covering news, then you get off your computers and do something about the news. There, is that cute enough for you?”

Meanwhile, across the sea, two people described as “freelance multimedia journalists” produced a video about Israel bulldozing Bedouin homes and a school in the occupied territories, presumably to one day build Israeli settlements on the land.

And of course, the big story worldwide this weekend was the release of what are being called “the Panama Papers” from an unknown whistleblower. Wired reported that the cache of documents leaked was enormous:

”In total, the leak contains: 4.8 million emails, three million database entries, two million PDFs, one million images and 320,000 text documents. The dataset is bigger than any from Wikileaks, or the Edward Snowden disclosures.”

So the whistleblower – presumably someone with access to the knowledge of the “business” dealings of the Panamanian law firm that was the source of the documents – was able to transfer these files to investigative reporters around the world via the same network that makes participation in the distribution of knowledge files possible in the first place. This has nowhere to go but up, and if you’re involved in some hierarchical dealings that you’d rather not your underlings know about, I’d be pretty damned nervous about what’s going on in this “Age of Participation.”

Technology may be providing the means, but it’s the culture’s rebellion against hierarchies that is providing the heat for the Postmodern awakening. The press, in the form of a 9-year old neighborhood reporter, freelance multimedia journalists in the Middle East, or whistleblowers distributing confidential business documents, is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of disruptions to modern western culture. Every complex organization will be impacted, because the view from the top is no longer private, and as I wrote long ago, every day that an average person uses the internet, they become more and more disruptive. This principle shows no sign of slowing down, as long as the Web remains open. Efforts to close it – through government or privatization – are already beginning to appear, for example, with net neutrality threats.

Those who have ears to hear, let them hear. Those who have eyes to see, let them see.

Another postmodern signpost – banks

Here we go again.

A new Citi Global Perspectives & Solutions (GPS) report on how financial technology is disrupting banks provides another look for us into our rapidly ascending postmodern future. According to the report, mobile distribution will be the main channel of interaction between customers and the bank, which will mean a dramatically reduced need for bank branches. This will lead to the loss of 1.8 million employees between now and 2015, down a whopping 40-50% from its peak in 2007.

banks

An article in Business Insider referencing the report compares it to earlier projections:

That’s in line with former Barclays CEO Antony Jenkins’ recent prediction that pressure from the tech industry “will compel banks to significantly automate their business” and “that the number of branches and people may decline by as much as 50% over the next years.”

The CITI report suggests that as more and more transactions move to mobile, there will be a “rebalancing of staff from transaction-based roles to advisory-based roles,” but I don’t believe such jobs will pay as much. As such, I’m not certain this “rebalancing” will make much difference for those out of work.

This is downside of the Great Horizontal, when it’s viewed from a strictly modernist, top-down perspective. These bank executives know that reduced expenses mean increased profits, so their concern about employees is disingenuous, at best. They will be surprised when faced with the granular investment opportunities that will occur along the bottom of their top-down paradigm, and then the real postmodern disruption of the banking institution will begin. A modernist culture requires banks, but I’m not convinced they will be at all relevant as the twenty-first century moves along.

One thing is absolutely certain: making a living will be completely redefined, and the time to start thinking about that is today.

The Tiny Homes Disruption

From time-to-time, I come across little signposts pointing to the disruptive nature of our horizontal culture. Here’s one that requires a certain vision that’s not commonly shared. It’s an article from fastcoexist.com, a niche vertical information site from the folks at Fast Company.

tinyhomesThis is a fascinating look into the tiny home movement and the work of Auburn University engineering students. The idea is to build a house that costs less than $20,000 in order to sustain somebody living below the poverty level. If you’re a student of the movement, however, you know that people are looking at tiny homes in many places and in many ways. It’s an idea percolating from the bottom of culture, because, well, it costs so much money to own a “regular” home.

What these folks at Auburn are doing, however, is exploring (and changing) the problem of a housing industry that doesn’t fit the requirements of this new model. In addition to designing and building these tiny homes, a second objective is to do so in such a way that supports the workers who will build the homes. This is why they’re designing homes outside a pre-fabrication model. Apparently, that would be too culturally disruptive, which is the very real danger to the broader culture in the destruction of its institutions.

What they’re learning, however, is the depth of reinvention necessary in the new era. Rusty Smith is associate director of Rural Studio, the undergraduate program handling the work. According to Smith, they’ve had to study and work with zoning laws and banks in order to craft new approaches for each. These have been incorporated into guidelines that Rural Studio is publishing along with actual instructions for building the homes.

“The most daunting problems aren’t brick and mortar problems,” Smith told Fastcoexist, “they’re these network and system problems that are threaded together and all intersect in the build environment. We’re able to attack all these problems simultaneously—when we see a lever over here and wiggle it, we can very clearly see the implication it has on other systems down the road.”

And this is exactly the problem with infrastructures designed to support the top-down culture of a fading industrial age. Silos that are connected at the top each have their place in an elaborate – and highly inefficient – system in which each is rewarded for its disconnection with the people actually doing the paying. The Auburn University group is trying to overcome this, but it will likely only see limited success. There’s just too much at stake for the housing industry to up and revolutionize itself, and yet here we find evidence of its inevitability in a culture where the bottom is able to cut across everything to overcome the inherent bias of modernity.

Postmodernism isn’t just some weird philosophical theory; it’s a new age in Western civilization, and we – that’s you and me – really need to be paying attention.

Sadly, it’s not the kind of news beat that sells.

The Long View

Elegantly quoting scripture in a blog post for Christianity Today, Blogger/Theologian Ed Stetzer has written a nice piece about the need for us to take “the long view” in our lives. In other words, keep our eyes fixed on the prize of an afterlife in heaven. He writes of “delayed gratification” and notes, “Our perspective on the future impacts our decisions in the present.”

Yes it does, Ed, but it can also be a deceptive and sinister trap.

canaanIt’s interesting that I would read this article today, for I was just considering the lyrics of nearly all of the bluegrass gospel songs that I listen to daily. I LOVE this music, and yet the overriding theme is the afterlife that Mr. Stetzer has written about. The general theme is this:

All my suffering and broken dreams won’t matter on the day the Lord takes me “home.” Here’s the chorus of My Eyes Shall Be On Canaan’s Land:

I’m traveling to the land of Canaan.
I know that He will take my hand.
When storms of life shall rock my vessel,
My eyes shall be on Canaan’s land.

This is the message of the gospel, the hope to which Christians cling that includes the ideas that “the last shall be first” and that rich people will have a very difficult time entering into that land of Canaan. Sadly, however, another interpretation could be “if I keep my nose clean, do what I’m told, and don’t make waves, I’ll be rewarded in the end.” And all this despite the corrupt nature of those in charge, who live the good life in the here and now and have their “good lives” supported by the labor and suffering of those who do so willingly in order to get to those shores of Canaan.

I know that I’m often pigeonholed as a cynic by those who don’t know me (and probably by some who do), but I just can’t help pointing out the convenience of this stance for those who run everything. And what is/was colonialism if not the bastardization of this spiritual concept in the natural world? “Let’s enslave everybody and teach them that their lot in life doesn’t matter as long as they’re going to heaven.” Right.

Back to Ed Stetzer’s article:

By contrast, the spirit of this age encourages you to take the short view. The Ashley Madison hack last year opened the world’s eyes to a website for people seeking to cheat on their spouse. They told visitors, “Life is short; have an affair.” The implication is “the long view doesn’t matter.”

But that’s the exact opposite of the perspective we see in the Scriptures. Instead the Bible says that life is eternal; therefore, live your brief time on this earth in light of the eternal realities. It’s about taking the long view.

It’s not that I disagree with his conclusions, but I do have problems with those who assume this or any other issue is a matter of black and white, all or nothing. If the quest for heaven is the goal of the “long view,” then it must follow that any other view is evil. This is preposterous, and yet that’s what were confronted with in the world of absolutes. Is it not possible – even preferable – to do both? Can we not live in the moment in taking the long view? These are the kinds of questions, I realize, that don’t sell a lot of tapes, but they’re the kind that must be addressed in the Great Horizontal.

Mark my words. The institution of religion will one day bow its knee to the people, for just like every other creation of humankind, religion began in service to others but has evolved to serving (mostly) itself.

The horizontal church

pomoLet’s get one thing absolutely straight about institutions, postmodernity, and the Great Horizontal, a.k.a. the age of participation: hierarchies are inefficient, self-centered, and therefore, unacceptable governors, and this truth is universal. Therefore, anyone proposing hierarchical governance – regardless of the logic applied – is cutting a path back to modernity and even premodernity by virtue of its one-to-many paradigm. This is where those writers of postmodern Christianity or postmodern churches do themselves a disservice in their prophecies. They don’t look beyond the immediate future, and thus are prone to error in advancing postmodern Christianity today.

Of course, culture change isn’t a zero sum game, for vestiges of all will remain in Western civilization, but the rejection of hierarchies as self-serving is a core concept of the postmodern era, which has just begun. It will be viewed as anarchy and chaos for those who long for the equilibrium of external command and control of the masses. Ah, those good old days. Let us never forget the social engineering words of Edward Bernays, the father of professional public relations, in his 1947 essay and 1955 book “The Engineering of Consent:

If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it.

Or from his 1923 book Crystalizing Public Opinion:

Those who manipulate the organized habits and opinions of the masses constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.

Bernays and cronies like Walter Lippmann may have brought these concepts into sharp focus at the start of the twentieth century, but this knowledge has existed throughout human history. Humankind has always known individuals striving for the top with the unspoken goal of raising one’s standard of living by arranging for lesser “others” to do all the work. As Ricky Scaggs sings in his song My Father’s Son, “The rich man writes the book of laws the poor man must defend.” It’s our innate animal nature. The strong thrive and survive, right?

For most people, the word “postmodern” causes a subconscious roll of the eyes or a conscious face palm. Christians have heard about the postmodern practice of deconstruction, but only insofar as it relates to their faith, and this is not an accurate depiction of postmodernism or our response to it. It’s much, much bigger than that.

Deconstruction is not an analysis, a critique, or a method, and I’m afraid that those who are defining postmodernism within the church today have reduced it to exactly that. Let’s be real here, folks. Postmodernism rejects much of what has held up the modern world, including processes and systems that were used to justify the institutions themselves. Just allow your imagination to wander, for example, to the institution of medicine, which is one of my favorite targets. Horizontally shared information and knowledge is a profound threat to anyone who has a stake in maintaining the medical status quo. It is fundamentally naive to think that protecting its turf isn’t job one for any institution, including medicine. As Clay Shirky points out, it’s the duty of institutions to help maintain the problems for which they are the solutions. I think this is true, and as such, health care in the West will always default to the haves, unless and until everyday people do something about it. And as I’ve discussed many times in the past, this is already taking place without crossing the line of “practicing medicine,” which is the government endorsed task of the institution. Postmodernism won’t do away entirely with institutional medicine, but it will alter its value proposition considerably.

This is why I’m so outspoken regarding those with something to lose (or gain) within Christianity by writing about postmodernism and deconstruction as if they were handy tools for reinventing the faith in the image of itself. This is not what’s in store for Christianity, and I will pull no punches in expressing that view as I further explore the disruption of equilibrium in Western culture.

Along the way, we’re going to try out some pretty neat stuff. I hope you’re ready.