The Future Is The Past?

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by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

What if one of the futures coming after our miracle of the Internet and the madness of our economics is a model of living and investing we last saw about a hundred years ago?

Just change the names, technologies du jour, and consider:

  1. The world is effectively unknowable – At the beginning of the 20th Century, the vastness of the world was beyond the reach of most people. Sure, they got info about it, but the content was infrequent, often indirect, and many times anecdotal. It would be fair to say that most folks ended each day knowing and believing what they’d started their days knowing and believing. In 2009, it’s not all that much different. We have infinite access to the world as rendered via the Internet, but the content we gain comes with a loss of confidence and veracity. We see and hear more, but know less (generally speaking)
  2. Communities are of paramount importance – This statement has been true for thousands of years, not just a hundred. We base our beliefs and lifestyle/purchase decisions on the counsel and judgments of those whom we know, trust, and value. Folks in the early 1900s were "members" of wide-ranging groups (organized religions, for instance), but the reality of that involvement was defined by very specific and focused involvement in a particular institution. Civility required that men doff their hats in the presence of women, but that wasn’t the same thing as acknowledging active membership in the same club (i.e. it was no different than "friending" someone on Facebook today)
  3. All business is local – Most commerce in the early 1900s was local…products and services were offered within (and limited to) reasonably nearby geographies. Production and consumption were integrated into mutually-supporting networks, even as the manufacture of certain complex or expensive products was being centralized (like light bulbs and cars). Most of the institutions on which society depended — banks, insurance, social services — were local, as was most of the food production and entertainment (people played music more than they listened to it, for instance)

OK, it’s with that third point that my theory falls apart. 

Little of what we rely upon today is local; in fact, commerce and our institutions are global. Manufacturing is outsourced to distance lands. Banks lend to people they don’t know. Insurance risks are spread out among strangers who don’t even know they have a shared involvement. Energy is produced in far-away plants, using fuels from even more distant sources. Pollution is spread out all over the planet. 

We celebrate this as progress toward the future.

But perhaps our global institutions (and our descriptions/affection for them) are getting too far detached from the local reality of our lives? Maybe the real future is in recognizing the presence and relevance of the past?

Think about it. We have numerous crises these days — financial, environmental, social — and the problems all seem to stem from the enormity of the enterprises and their impacts on our lives. Yet the solutions all seem to be local, or at least the crises reveal our interests to be so. 

  • Who needs lower-priced retail if it means destroying our local communities?
  • What good is energy production if it destroys the environment in which we raise our kids?
  • How does connecting with people in distant lands affect our regard and help for the people who live next door? 

It’s as if the answers we turn to in these times of need are the same qualities upon which we’ve relied for a long, long time. Close is better than far away. Authenticity is better than anonymity. We can’t fix there unless we understand and support here.

In other words, maybe our lives (and our businesses in particular) are not only supposed to be local, but never stopped being so?

Maybe my theory doesn’t fall apart after all? 

Imagine a future in which the Internet enabled a more holistic, unified approach to our lives, in which our roles as consumers and citizens weren’t separate? 

  • We’d spend lots more time reaffirming our communities, most of which would be geographiclly local
  • The stuff we bought would be made locally (when possible), as would the energy we used
  • Commerce that required shipping or other transit costs would be analyzed in terms of how it impacted our environment
  • Banks would lend to neighbors, and insurance companies would go back to their roots as mutuals, and help neighbors protect one another
  • We could invest in companies next door (i.e. implement the micro-lending model). 

The anonymity and lack of accountability inherent in the very premise of global institutions would give way to sustainable local (and individually-based) enterprises. 

I’m just pondering whether we ever "recover" from the current malaise, or if we instead emerge into a new — though perhaps familiar — new state for our world. 

Crazy thinking for a Friday afternoon. It’s what dim bulbs do.

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