Death of an era, and the rise of the new Networked Economy | M&M Global

Death of an era, and the rise of the new Networked Economy

The end of the New Industial Age is going to hit us hard. We must all learn to cast off powerful habits, writes Mark Adams, London Tech City ambassador and founder of the Digital Leadership Council at University College London.

Mark Adams

I’m getting sick to death of hearing the words “disruption,” “innovation” and all the other correlatives – it’s all bullshit, right?

I’ve stood on stage many times and said as much but last week, the urgency and meaning of those words suddenly hit me again for the first time in years. I went to see Death of a Salesman and Arthur Miller reached out through the script and punched me straight in face. Through his masterful script I finally saw the human face of the innovation issues like I’ve never seen it before.

“The competition is maddening,” Willy Lomen rails to his distressed wife, Linda, in the early scenes. After more than 35 years of being on the road, the 60-something salesman is unable to keep up with insurance payments and is later fired by his boss, who simply tells him: “Willy … there just is no spot here for you.” He slinks away from his superior, distraught, only able to ask, “What has changed?”

As the audience, we desperately plead for Willy to realise that his predicament is nothing personal. The economy has shifted its focus dramatically and the militant pace of progress renders the character traits he carefully cultivated in the previous environment of no value in this new world.

Death of a Salesman“I don’t know what the future is but I get the feeling that I am not getting anywhere,” he laments, as he begins to confront the fact that the world around him is unrecognisable. What he is observing is a new 2.0 industrial system driven by “dark satanic mills” that are utterly oblivious to his “rugged smile”.

Seismic shift

The feeling that the world is going through a seismic shift, cutting good and well-meaning people out of the economic equation, is once again the theme of our times.

We all know the story by now and have seen this play before several times. In the ‘music industry version’, the middle class label jobs disappeared as control of distribution moved to Napster, YouTube, iTunes and Spotify. In the ‘film version’, the same story played out but the actors this time were Netflix, Hulu, Bit Torrent and Pirate Bay. In the taxi and hotel versions… well, you know how they end already.

What about the marketing and advertising industry? A decade from now will we all share a bottle of Rose at the ‘Cannes Festival of Creative Technology’ and tell our front row renditions of this very same tale?

Willy’s tragedy was that he unconsciously witnessed the start of the New Industrial era; ours is that we are unconsciously witnessing the end of it.

A remake of a remake of a now classic story that has the same “hubris gets punished” structure as all the others that have played out before. Do we really have to watch this avoidable tragedy ‘strut and fret about the stage’ once again? I believe the people I work with everyday in this industry are some of the best and smartest human beings I’ve ever met, so I’m really hoping not.

Willy’s tragedy was that he unconsciously witnessed the start of the New Industrial era; ours is that we are unconsciously witnessing the end of it. Faith in an old industrial world that no longer exists and our refusal to accept that we have entered another paradigm will give us a tragic amount in common with Willy.

So we must begin to accept right now that the industrial era is no longer the growth engine of our economy and it never will be again. The long run that brought ever-increasing productivity (and along with it, well-paying jobs for an ever-expanding middle class) is ending. The internet has squeezed inefficiencies out of many systems, and the ability to move work around, co-ordinate activity and digitise data all combine to eliminate a wide swath of the jobs the industrial age created.

The networked economy

It is no coincidence that the industrial economy has faltered at precisely the same time that the networked economy has begun to take hold.

For a while, politicians and organisations promised that things would get back to normal. Now it’s clear to many that this is the new normal.

There’s an idea that, somehow, if we just do things with more effort or skill, or cut more corners in our manufacturing methods, we can go back the good old days where, “The competition is (less) maddening.” It’s not an idea, though, it’s a myth. Some people insist that if we focus on “business fundamentals” and get “back to basics”, all will return. That is not so.

The ‘Four Horsemen of the Industrial Apocalypse’ – Uber, Airbnb, Amazon and Netflix – are a sure sign that an era is coming to an end.

My prediction is that, a decade from now, we will be calling back through time to our 2015 selves, desperately willing them to understand that the ‘Four Horsemen of the Industrial Apocalypse’ – Uber, Airbnb, Amazon and Netflix – were not anomalies at all, but a sure sign that the Industrial Age was coming to an end and a powerful new Networked Economy was rising. I think we will say that any company hard-wired for success in the industrial era of the 20th Century was doomed to failure in the 21st.

It takes a long time for a generation to come around to significant revolutionary change. The newspaper business, the record business, even Hollywood – one by one, our industries are being turned upside down, and so quickly that it requires us to change much faster than we’d like.

Like Willy Lomen, most of us have not altered our thinking to a degree which begins to reflect the profundity of this shift, or comes anywhere close to the approach needed in order to thrive in this change of environment.

The great challenge of the next 10 years will be our ability to cast off the powerful habits, thought loops and convictions that the industrial era has programmed into us. This challenge will not be technological. It will be human.

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