↤ August 16th, 2013
I will not die for you
I will not kill for you
I will not fight for you
I will hold your burning flag in my hand
— Coup d’etat by Refused
History is filled with two types of people: the ones that want to maintain a comfortable status quo and the ones that want to move humanity forward.
The maintainers of the status quo tend to be the ones on top of the food chain. The ones that want to bring humanity forward are usually the ones who are questioning the laws, the mechanics, the inner workings of whatever is going on at that time.
Over the centuries the ruling classes set up schemes to structurally keep everybody else out. Over the same centuries though, they had to cede step for step that more and more people could benefit from the privilege of an upper class.
There is this phrase “on the wrong side of history”. We use it when we look at societal issues that are discussed at a certain point, today, or in the past. Democracy, slavery, racism. A contentious issue will always have people arguing either side, and over time we see who got it right. The others are on the wrong side of history.
Giving the same opportunities (at least on paper) to women is a novel concept as of as little as 100 years ago and is still not evenly spread around this planet, especially in the western world.
The USA have built a whole country around that idea that you can work your way up from the lower classes to power, fame and wealth. Under the hood, however, you see the same structural oppression of the lower classes that you can trace through the middle-ages, Rome, Athens and ancient Egypt.
For the most part, I think it is obvious what history tends to align with: making things better for a large group of people at the expense of a few privileged ones.
Money is what enables business, enables society, and thus enables progress.
People who manage money should never be the ones making final decisions or define culture, work or otherwise. However, today, they dominate education, culture and business. And we all suffer for it.
The focus on money today is obscene. Just look at some of the language around it: “money works”, bullshit, money does nothing but representing a value, people work.
People get compared by what they are “worth” as if merely having money has any meaning. Only if you do something good with your money, you are an asset to society, are worth something.
We allow current generations to be exploited for short-term capital gains, while feeding the next generation the same ideals and thus manifest this whole travesty into our culture for generations to come.
Over the past few decades though, we have forgotten that, because it enables things, money is a utility, and yet we treat it as means in itself.
We need to get back to understanding that money is a tool and that people who manage money are enablers for the ones who push for progress.
A few weeks back Dennis Plauk was on German TV. You have likely never heard of him and likely never will again, but his appearance made a distinct impact on me.
He was on a national TV news show, giving his expert opinion as the editor in chief of a music magazine.
More importantly though, THAT DUDE WENT TO MY HIGH SCHOOL. He was a year ahead of me, and from the fifteen hundred people that went to that high school, he was one of the very few that made an impression that lasts until today.
Seeing him on TV solidified a feeling that I had for a while. My generation, I was born in 1982, is gearing up to be the generation that runs this world. We are gradually being passed the baton of history to carry it all forward to make a mark. If we so choose.
If you’d ask me to characterise my generation in one word I’d choose apathy. I see early 20s today that have a much keener sense of making their mark in world than my generation ever had.
This is our time. Let’s make our mark.
My industry is high-tech, software to be precise.
My job is to take ideas that are of certain value to certain people and tell computers how to provide that value.
With “job” in the getting-paid-for-it sense, I get to do what alchemists have failed at for millennia: making Gold. Making Gold out of thin air (and coffee).
On top of performing alchemy on a daily basis, the people in my profession get treated like unicorns. We get to choose what we work on, when to work on it, for how long to work on it, where to work on it. And if we bloody please so, we take a week off and hang out in Dublin and speak at a conference along with and in front of like-minded unicorns.
In order to do our job, or taking a step back, in order to live, we rely on a modern society built on people who “do their job”, whichever that one is. On any given day, we rely on people who maintain the civic infrastructure, water, power, waste, provide us with ways to purchase food in various forms, people who clean our homes, offices and gardens, people who cut our hair, who drive us around town and many many more that we don’t even see or interact with.
I don’t suggest that these people can’t or won’t find pride, honour and fulfilment in their work, but they sure have to live with a lot fewer every-day liberties than the lucky bunch that is us technologists.
We are privileged. Privilege is when you don’t see a major problem with the world around you. When you don’t understand why someone or even a large group of people would be angry, after all, they all grew up here, they could just have done the same things that you did and they’d be fine.
Privilege is not something I was particular aware of growing up. That’s usual for people who grow up privileged. Sure, there were things I wasn’t particularly satisfied with, but looking back, my parents had steady jobs, I went to an o-kay school, we went to France for our summer vacation, in one of the two cars we had.
Understanding privilege was, for me, a very grown-up thing to do (yes, I still use “grown-up” in the sense that I don’t think I really am one).
My first reaction when it dawned on me that I did have a sort of privilege was shame, I was better off than others through no fault of theirs or feat of my own. That was a bitter realisation to make. In fact, it made me not think about privilege too much, which is yet another privileged thing to do (but I wouldn’t learn this until later).
I finally came to terms with my position when I understood that privilege is not inherently a bad thing (and if you tell me it is, fuck you for shattering my self-view). While it is very easy to exploit privilege, by simply doing nothing, or actively building upon your advantage to further it to the disadvantage of others. But, and here is where things turned around for me, you can use privilege for good.
Now, as a unicorn alchemist and accepting my privileged position in society, I understood that I do not only have the ability to use my privilege for good, but that I have a social responsibility to do so.
And given all the liberties we are given through our privilege, we don’t only have a responsibility of turning our powers into good, we have an exceptional opportunity to make this world a better place.
If we are looking at the ingredients for a revolution, we are half way there. We have the motivation, the opportunity and the timing. Let’s find out how to revolt.
An entrepreneur’s job is to find out how to create and extract value from current historic, societal and economic circumstances.
At its core business is a-moral. Money changing hands for goods and services does not care who made what under which conditions.
Yet, business gets to define so much of our culture. Our life revolves around working five days a week, working 40+ hours, working to maximise shareholder value.
There is plenty of scientific evidence that this status quo actively harms people, physically and psychologically, and as a consequence, holds back society. People get sick from too much work and stress, costing the healthcare systems more money than they can handle and people are no longer capable or able to do any good.
Business at large, “capitalism”, is a fantastic tool to achieve great progress at scale, but business for business sake, or profit for profit’s sake can never be a cultural goal, only a side-effect.
Yet, as it has always been in history, the people in charge, the privileged ones, keep this up for their own benefit.
We live in a culture that teaches everyone that you need a job to be happy, to be a useful part in society, to work hard to be someone.
The way this work “un-ethic” is engrained into our culture is deeply vicious. Through media and entertainment the people who are interested in keeping this status quo pay artists, filmmakers, TV producers, actors, musicians etc. vast amounts of money to keep retelling this story, a story a young person born into this world has little chance of escaping.
We need to prop up a counter-notion: the idea that the working-hard story is just that, a story told by people who benefit from you working hard.
We need to let life define work, not the other way around.
I don’t have a tried and trusted system, but I’ve started to experiment. Feel free to follow my ideas, or build upon them or experiment with your own ideas, and tell us all about it. Here is what I am doing:
Optimise for happiness. Nothing that is supposed to bring society forward is worth doing if it makes people miserable.
De-emphasise “work” as the defining constant in life. “Life” is the defining constant in life. We should be able to turn enough profit to support life and growth on working two days a week. Encourage that the rest of the time is spent volunteering, teaching kids to code, work at a charity, or just enjoy life with friends and family.
Get the money-people out of the decision line. Make them advisors, make your CEO the Chief Happiness Officer, or even better, turn the leadership of the company over to a non-profit that is bound by ethical statutes that will always override short-sighted monetary decisions.
This is a good start, let’s get that going and then address the next steps:
There are about five billion years in this solar system in front and behind our lives. This is our one shot. And we can make a difference.
We have an exceptional opportunity to make this world a better place.
We are in a perfect position to lead change.
Now is the perfect time to start leading that change.
The culture of business today is on the wrong side of history.
Let us change that.
Let us start a revolution.
This essay was created from the notes for my opening talk for the 2013 edition of brio. My thanks to Lena Reinhard for her invaluable editing help.