It’s a very tough time to be in the audience business. The Great Horizontal structurally inhibits the gathering of people together at any one time for focusing on any one thing. People are now firmly in charge of their own viewing or reading schedules, and they view mass scheduling as inefficient and a waste of time. Mass media’s one-to-many paradigm is disrupted by one-to-one interactivity, which seems utterly chaotic to value propositions based on the mass.
But chaos is not the enemy here; it is, in fact, our friend, and even if it wasn’t, we’d still need to be able to face it with confidence and grace, for it is the doorway to prosperity tomorrow.
15 years ago, I read a book by theologian and historian Leonard Sweet that spoke to a lot of questions I’d been having at the time. Sweet is one of the early writers about cultural postmodernism in the West, a serious issue for some in Evangelical Christianity. It was Sweet who introduced me to the terms “postGutenberg” and “postChristian” in describing the events of the day, and while I’ve gone in a slightly different direction since then, it’s amazing how his work parallels mine. Today, Leonard Sweet is considered either a reformer to “the church” or a heretic. It all depends on your view of the faith.
I was making a presentation to a media group many years ago, and one fellow in the audience said, “This is the first time I’ve ever heard the term “postmodernism” outside of my church. Leonard and his work live within the confines of the circle of Evangelicals, and that’s why I think the concepts expressed in his work aren’t more widely discussed. That’s a shame, because the vibe he has ridden is pertinent to anybody concerned about life or business in the 21st Century — even and especially those who’ve prospered under the controlling mantra of modernity: “I think and reason, therefore I understand.”
Modernism is/was the era of logic, science, manufacturing, hierarchies of knowledge, the left brain, the dawn of atheism, managing versus leading, manipulation of the masses through mass media, and especially the creation of technology to make our lives easier or better. It’s important to understand, however, that wrapped around all of this is the one thing that people busy prospering during the era failed to see coming: the empowerment of the people who by now had come to be known as “the consumers.” The word “consumer” removes the humanity from humans by transforming them into groups of traits and characteristics to be studied and manipulated on behalf of the cultural haves. I’ve written plenty about the social engineering that began with Woodrow Wilson’s Creel Committee and then fanned out across the culture in the form of so-called “professional” journalism and public relations. In his book The Engineering of Consent, Edward Bernays, the “father” of professional public relations and a Creel Committee member, makes what is arguably one of the most astoundingly anti-human statements in all of history:
“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.”
Bernays’ “group mind” concept doesn’t give the masses a voice in being manipulated, which is the key to hierarchical success. Today, however, the “group” now has abundant power to talk back and especially to each other. This connectivity signals the end of the modern era, for it overwhelms the authority of hierarchies and reveals such manipulation for what it really is, the self-centered logic of the haves. It will give way to a revolution of the people who, with technology as their weapon, will dismantle anything of the modern era that keeps them in ignorance or subservience to the ruling class. This is the essence of the postGutenberg, postChristian, postModern era. Historically, most revolutions have been bloody, and that will be what’s different about this one. Unless the ruling class can stop it (they can’t), one day in the seeming twinkling of an eye, the people will rise up connected and demand participation at the highest of levels.
In Mr. Sweet’s church, God, the Holy Spirit, will rise to precedence over God, the Father, or God, the Son. God, in a postmodern world, rides no hierarchical throne, because access to Him or Her is available to all equally. This is utterly chaotic to those whose identity is tied to the hierarchy or hierarchies in general. What we will see is Martin Luther’s 95 Theses all over again.
Modernity, the era of the plan
What troubles modernists about chaos is that their lives are dedicated to planning for a reliable tomorrow, and “the plan” either doesn’t exist in our postmodern future or it demands different rules altogether. We need a plan to know when to duck, to rehearse both the good and the bad in preparation for either, to map our way from here to there, to study the currents and conditions around us, so as to steer a steady course. And of course, we need equilibrium to manipulate in the name of gain, be it personal or otherwise. Our whole worlds in the modern era are governed by planning, or better, the idea that you CAN plan your way to a healthy and happy life. And let’s face it, in a hierarchical world, this is about as good as it gets.
A plan for education, a plan for the vacation, a financial plan, a budget plan, weekend plans, a career plan, a health plan, a business plan, a project plan, a dental plan, political plans, a legal plan, a spiritual plan, a plan for today, and one for tomorrow, and another for next year. In the news business, we plan the news, which seems oddly oxymoronic. We believe we can have success and happiness in life if only we manage well, but this is delusional thinking, for it doesn’t consider the elements of time and chance.
In The Education of Henry Adams, while staring in awe at the twin electric turbines at the Paris World’s Fair in 1900 and feeling more than a little bit left behind by technology, Mr. Adams lamented a life that had permitted (encouraged) him to miss what was really taking place around him. “Chaos,” he wrote, “(is) the law of nature; Order (is) the dream of man.”
So this idea of a well-planned existence is nothing but a dream, and, in the end, one that favors the ruling class, those who provide the means for a life purported to be well-planned. This is the arcane reality of life in the West and why it has to change. It doesn’t work anymore. Look around. We’re drowning in debt trying to plan our way to a great life. Something has to give.
The verb form of the word plan means “decide on and arrange in advance.” It is the “in advance” aspect of the word that gives it meaning. Planning always refers to the future. A roadmap is just a layout of the land, but charting a course from here to there turns it into a plan. Chaos is the trip without the map, or more precisely, without the knowledge of navigating one’s way safely across the terrain.
Today’s media companies are facing the twin turbines of tomorrow, chaos and an archaic plan. It’s the wall of chaos that leads to the second, for a plan that “works” in modernist thinking doesn’t stand a chance in a postmodern world. Real time, for example, is chaos to the one who has a production deadline a few hours hence. Henry Adams saw this chaos as he faced his own reckoning that day in Paris.
“From cradle to grave this problem of running order through chaos, direction through space, discipline through freedom, unity through multiplicity, has always been, and must always be, the task of education, as it is the moral of religion, philosophy, science, art, politics and economy; but a boy’s will is his life, and he dies when it is broken, as the colt dies in harness, taking a new nature in becoming tame.”
Nobody wants to die, yet that’s exactly the path to resurrection in our growing networked and increasingly postmodern world.
And so we come full circle to today. Local media companies think they can plan their way to a prosperous future, believing with all their hearts that chaos doesn’t stand a chance against a tried and true business model. And so we stick to what we’ve always known, even though the signs around us say we should do otherwise.
The substitute for a plan in our postmodern tomorrow is a business vision, that which we can and perhaps even “should” become. We need to prepare for a season of being constantly in flux, for this is the new reality of doing business in the 21st Century. This vision-based endpoint drives strategy and tactics so as to enable arrival at some future date, although that may or may not be known. In the meantime, we must be nimble, fleet of foot, flexible and adaptive, for that is what will carry us when our steps run us into a wall (as they likely will). We must constantly monitor our progress and make corrections, all without forecasting, for the easiest way to miss the path is to try and force things to occur. Chaos isn’t inherently disorganized; it simply appears as such to the mind soaked in the brine of one-potato, two-potato, three-potato, four. There is something fascinatingly sweet to me about organization within chaos. It demands my constant attention, because the ground literally moves beneath me, as I move myself toward the vision that stands before me. Like in a gigantic maze, I move this way and that, confident that I will set foot at my destination. It requires a certain faith in your own ability to see the future, something that is scarce in the modernist business world of financial projections, forecasts and especially control. It is the world of leaders, not managers, as I’ve written many times before.
A thorough understanding of the movements of the network guides the vision. As the great Wayne Gretzky noted, “You’ve got to skate to where the puck is going.” But how do you know where it’s going? By paying attention to what’s happening, whether it agrees with your business model or not. That requires close monitoring of technological advances and especially for media, what’s happening in the fragile world of advertising today. For example, if we wish a seat at the table of content marketing, we must have a user-interface on our websites that cater to native advertising or sponsored posts. Switching to such a model won’t hurt our current strategy, but it does prepare us for participation in the new world of advertising.
I call this driving the car and fixing it at the same time.
Most of all, we need not to be afraid of chaos. Fear is tissue paper designed as a brick wall. Chaos is the natural order of things, and change is what it’s all about. Adapt and thrive in the tomorrow of tomorrows; fight it, ignore it, or look down on it, and you’ll find yourself dispatched almost overnight to the place that Henry Adams found himself those many years ago.