Friday, January 26, 2007

Process Notes: How Change Happens

by Sara

One of the grandest -- and most frustrating -- things about carrying on the great democratic conversation via blog is finding out how many of your fellow citizens (including many who are nominally on your side) turn out to be looking at the world from a completely different set of assumptions than you are. In fact, there's simply nothing like the Internet if you want to be thrown together with people who have ordered their entire lives around fundamental propositions that would never have occurred to you if you lived to be 100. Behold your fellow earthlings, in all their bizarre and twisted glory….

You often find these meta-level disconnects at the core of online flame wars. There used to be a general rule of thumb that said if a comment thread exceeded sixty posts, you could pretty much bet that the thread had devolved into a pissing contest between two people who were now simply shouting past each other. Mercifully, most of the major blogs seem to have moved past that (and thoughtful people have learned to avoid reading the comments at the ones that haven't); in fact, we haven't had a decent flame war around here in ages (and, speaking of the devil, where did Paul Donnelly go?).

A goodly number of these online disagreements are based in our fundamental assumptions about how change happens. Believe it or not, different people can look at the same situation, and come to completely different conclusions about what's likely to happen next. These assumptions are among the things they train futurists to look for. Since they're such a perennial source of both online and IRL misunderstanding, I thought I'd offer a short taxonomy of the various assumptions people bring to their thinking about what drives social change.

My professors have, over the years, boiled the basic change drivers down to about nine. (There may be others; I'm open to suggestions.) In brief, here are the main assumptions people use to explain why change happens:
1. Progress. Change happens because humans want to improve their condition, and apply ingenuity and good problem-solving to create progress. The people with the best handle on the future are the optimists, though individuals have a lot of control over what will happen. Over the next 20 years, the social and economic conditions of the world will consistently get better, just as they have improved on a ever-rising linear path throughout history.

2. Development. Change happens because people want to build a decent life, which naturally leads societies toward increased specialization and complexity. Individuals don't have much control over this process; the real change masters are social engineers -- mostly experts, academics and political leaders of various sorts -- who direct the pace of development. Improvement occurs when people build relationships; over the next 20 years, we will continue to see networks of expert change agents emerge to manage increasing complexity.

3. Technology. Change happens because humans are motivated to solve problems, which requires the creation of new technologies, which in turn drive progress and social change. The real masters of the future are the scientists and technologists who will solve our current problems; and people participate in this change to the extent that they adopt and apply these solutions. Progress depends utterly on the amount of support we give to research and development efforts. Over the next 20 years, biotechnology will create the biggest changes in how we live.

4. Ideas. Change happens when culture changes through the dissemination of new ideas. One good idea has the potential to change the world. The real power to create change belongs to the media, which edits, frames, and disseminates ideas. As individuals adopt these ideas, they participate in the creation of change, and experience personal growth as well. Progress depends on how effectively we work to change people's thinking. Over the next 20 years, better ideas will be promoted by greatly improved media. The world will become more enlightened as human consciousness grows.

5. Markets. Change happens because people seek to acquire creature comforts -- desires which push entrepreneurs and industries to innovate. Industry leaders and economists are the leading experts here, but consumers and their choices are the main change drivers. Progress depends on encouraging people to produce, trade, and consume freely. Over the next 20 years, the world will generally continue to become more consumer-driven as standards rise in less-developed countries (though there may be bumps along the way).

6. Cycles. Change happens according to predictable patterns, which can be discerned by studying history. These patterns are usually seen as cycles or waves, with periods of great change alternating with periods of rest and recovery. ("History doesn't repeat itself -- but it rhymes," said Twain.) In this view, change is viewed as a natural process, with a lifecyle that includes birth, maturity, and death; and people have limited influence on how this cycle plays out. The greatest insight into these patterns belongs to historians and theorists who have studied them. Progress depends on our ability to learn from the past, and use that knowledge to surf the change waves as they come. Over the next 20 years, long-wave theories call for very large energy, technology, and political shifts.

7. Conflict. Change happens when groups of people engage in a struggle to improve their lot. Those who understand change best are Marxists, union leaders, and social justice advocates; people succeed in creating change only if they're willing to fight for it. Progress occurs when we pursue our own interests to the fullest. The next 20 years will be dominated by conflicts between developing countries and the Western nations who are trying to impose their values on them.

8. Power. Change happens when powerful people and groups decide to alter the status quo to further increase their power. Nobody really understands the future unless they're part of this elite; and the majority of us will have no say in their machinations. (Some will argue that it's better just to let these well-connected people make the decisions anyway.) Over the next 20 years, they will continue to consolidate their control over nations and industries.

9. Evolution. Change happens when the physical environment changes, and organisms adapt in response to those changes. Ecologists have the deepest understanding of change; the rest of us are co-participants, but nobody really knows what will ultimately come of our efforts. Our best chance of progress lies with our ability to understand the world around us, and find the most appropriate ways of responding to emerging issues. Over the next 20 years, we will either come to terms with our responsibility to nature, or risk extinction. Global warming, mass extinction, and the rise of virulent, drug-resistant organisms are among the biggest concerns.
You can go through almost any comment thread on this blog (or any other) and find several of these assumptions at work. It can also be very instructive to spend some time thinking about the ones that make the most sense to you, personally. Most of us have two or three dominant ones that we think explain just a whole lot about the world; and another one or two that we find genuinely distasteful. I've noticed that whenever I write about my own views on change (which pick and choose from the whole menu, though I'm particularly partial to cycle theories and think that #1, linear progress, was pretty much refuted by the Dark Ages), I'm sure to hear from partisans of other theories.

That's a good thing -- as long as we don't let it devolve into arguments, either online or in the real world. Part of the strength of the liberal worldview lies in our diverse views of how change happens. Most of these aren't mutually exclusive, though we shouldn't be afraid to have reasoned debates about which model most accurately fits the situation we're discussing. In fact, making sure we're working off the right change model is critical if we want to make plans that will actually get us where we want to be.

Market theory, left in a vacuum, looks pretty good. Put it alongside the limits of nature, and it looks like a recipe for disaster. Evolutionary thinking explains much about nature, and Dawkins argues persuasively that it may also work for cultural ideas; but when you apply it to social issues, you can easily end up with social Darwinism (which is implicit in the Power model). Not good. And so on. Each model has its appropriate uses, its explanatory strengths, and its limits. The key to making good guesses about the future is to choose your model carefully, stay mindful of its drawbacks, and be sure it actually fits the circumstances of the scenario at hand.

I'm offering this in the hope that it will help make some peace in the progressive camps. It's tempting to dismiss people as clueless idiots who just don't get the point, when all they're really doing is interpreting events through a different change assumption. And maybe yours is better, and maybe theirs is wrong; but that's a discussion reasonable people should be able to have without resorting to ad hominems.

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