Wednesday, August 8, 2007
Human Adaptability and the Decimation of the Landscape
A close friend was upset with my characterization of the U.S. auto industry, particularly since I blamed its problems on both a bottom-up and top-down malaise. I pointed out that my former boss, Brian Fuller, does the same with the journalism industry in his excellent blog, Greeley's Ghost. This represents neither masochism nor a suicidal death wish for one's chosen profession. It's called tough love in the face of unprecedented change.
In the popular musical Fiddler on the Roof, protagonist Tevye must face each of his daughters' demands that he break with the Jewish tradition to accommodate changes in the "new" Russia. He bends and bends until he gets to Chava, telling her if she marries outside the faith, he cannot bend or he will break. She elopes.
In the 21st century, whether we are employed in auto manufacturing, chip manufacturing, or media and information services, we are being asked to bend and bend and bend again. Some would say this means "bend over," and would characterize each adaptation as submission. The problem is, typical bifurcations between boss and employee, or between ruling, middle, and working class, no longer apply. This is why the DailyKos' call for a blogger's union sounds so silly. There's so much self-employment in the new society, we end up oppressing ourselves.
Within a matter of years or even months, the industries we have spent our lives with may no longer exist. Just this week, a survey from Veronis Suhler Stevenson indicated online news advertising will eclipse newsprint advertising by 2011. This could mean that printed newspapers are gone before 2020, not by 2035 as pundits were saying only a few years ago. Those on manufacturing lines, whether in production of SUVs or DSPs, may find all available jobs moved to Asia before 2010. And in this case, fighting globalization is like the proverbial King Canute trying to hold back the ocean.
The grimmest aspect to the new reality harks back to the famous quote from Vietnam about having to "destroy the village in order to save it." Old models on manufacturing, information dissemination, etc. were clung to for so long, the old world may have to be utterly destroyed before a new one can take its place. Sure, that sounds Jacobin or even Pol-Potist, but let's look at journalism. No one wants to support serious information-gathering any more, everyone wants infotainment, so the sources of legitimate news may have to vanish before society swings back to seeking good information. You can make a similar argument for David Ricardo notions of "comparative advantage." If the society wants Wal-Mart-like lowest possible prices on everything, manufacturing goods that are safe to use may be impossible, even in China. But the manufacturing industry may have to utterly collapse before people decide that lower prices are not always best.
Kafka alluded in The Metamorphosis to maintaining the adaptability to cope with suddenly finding you were only an insect, dreaming you had been a human. That's where we're standing today. In our national affiliations, in our employment, in our personal relationships, we will have to bend and bend and bend again in adapting to the 21st century, kicking over traditions and assumptions one by one. If we choose, like Tevye, to say that we cannot bend any more or we will break, we will be left for dead in the snow. Of course, there's always the option of withdrawing completely from the society now in gestation. But involvement is always more fun. And that requires an adaptability that must become close to infinite.