The revolution is digital

The industrial revolution began with technology that allowed us to manipulate our world in an entirely new way. As it developed it began to shape how we organize ourselves and even what we thought.  Over time it shaped civilization as we know it. And now, as we reach the limits of that civilization it appears history is about to repeat.

In his 2001 book Macroshift, Ervin Laszlo observed that new civilizations begin with “technological innovations that destabilize the established structures and institutions of society.” In the last decade, we’ve seen digital technology enable revolutions and uprisings around the world and trigger exisistential crises in the industries of music and media. Indeed, there is virtually nothing that digital technology has yet to impact. As W. Brian Arthur describes in The Nature of Technology:

“This is because a new domain of significance (think of the digital one) is encountered by all industries in an economy. As this happens, the domain combines some of its offerings with arrangements native to many industries. The result is new process and arrangements, new ways of doing things, not just in one area of application but all across the economy.”

Like in the industrial revolution we’re also already starting to see the effect of digital technology on our models of organization. In The Future of Management, Gary Hamel put it bluntly. “Argue with me if you like, but I’m willing to be Management 2.0 is going to look a lot like Web 2.0“. Hagel, Seely Brown, and Davison take it further in ‘The Power of Pull’:

“Using pull, we can create the conditions by which individuals, teams, and even institutions can achieve their potential in less time and with more impact than has ever been possible. The power of pull provides a key to how all of us- individually and collectively – can turn challenge and stress into opportunity and reward as digital technology remakes our lives.”

Finally, back in Macroshift, Lazslo considered mindset the deciding factor for the trajectory of the new civilization. In our case, he projected that successful transition would be marked by a shift in mindset:

“from competition to reconciliation and partnership; from greed and scarcity to sufficiency and caring; from outer ‘authority’ to inner ‘knowing’; from separation to wholeness; from mechanistic systems to living systems; from organizational fragmentation to coheren integration.”

While it’s too early to tell, digital technologies do seem compatible with that shift developing and I think it could be argued that there is movement along some of those dimensions.

So, if it is true that history repeats, it would appear that we are indeed in the midst of a transition from one civilization to another. While our success is anything but certain, it is helpful to understand the context of the changes we are experiencing and see the full potential of our future. The revolution is digital.