The Age of Insight

September 29th, 2011

Seth Godin argues we’re at a juncture in economic history, just like the rise of mass production in the twentieth century:

The industrial age, the one that started with the industrial revolution, is fading away. It is no longer the growth engine of the economy and it seems absurd to imagine that great pay for replaceable work is on the horizon.

This represents a significant discontinuity, a life-changing disappointment for hard-working people who are hoping for stability but are unlikely to get it. It’s a recession, the recession of a hundred years of the growth of the industrial complex.

Mass production of standardized goods—underpinned by workers doing very tightly defined jobs that can, with relatively minimal training, be done by anyone—provided incredible value. This was because up until then, goods were largely made individually with poorly defined standards and processes, so they were expensive and time consuming to make. Mass production made goods cheap and plentiful because the processes for making them were standardized so that anyone could do it. The twentieth century was almost entirely about turning people into cogs in a machine in order to squeeze as much efficiency out of each one as possible.

Because there were so many gains to be made by using mass production for goods, it helped create an explosion of economic growth and development and, along with it, jobs. We needed cogs for those production processes. This was very beneficial for workers; because there was so much value created by mass production, companies could afford to pay very respectable wages and salaries and provide long-term benefits, all while the worker was responsible for very little more than following a series of steps.

But those gains have now been used up. There’s no more potential for growth in mass production, except in countries where labor costs are lower than others, and that will be used up in time, too. In manufacturing, it’s a race toward eliminating cost as much as possible, and that inevitably means eliminating people altogether.

What Godin argues is that the idea of long-term, stable jobs where individuals are responsible for very little besides doing their very specific job—an idea we grew up believing to be true because that’s what we saw in the twentieth century—is a myth created by the temporary explosion of economic productivity unleashed by mass production. It isn’t something we can always have or something we will soon get back to after this recession is over. It no longer exists.

This means suffering for many people, as we are seeing. Our society has been built on the assumption that, if only we do well in school, there’ll be a stable and respectable job waiting for us. That is no longer the case, and now people will have to adjust to it. A high school diploma and a college degree is no longer a ticket to a comfortable future. Rather than simply put in the time and work to be comfortable, we must now find insights into the world that will make us all better off. That’s the new frontier.

The Age of Insight

The nineteenth century was the age of the industrial revolution, the twentieth the age of mass production, and the twenty-first will be a new age, too, of the same scale.

Godin continues:

When everyone has a laptop and connection to the world, then everyone owns a factory. Instead of coming together physically, we have the ability to come together virtually, to earn attention, to connect labor and resources, to deliver value.

Stressful? Of course it is. No one is trained in how to do this, in how to initiate, to visualize, to solve interesting problems and then deliver. Some see the new work as a hodgepodge of little projects, a pale imitation of a ‘real’ job. Others realize that this is a platform for a kind of art, a far more level playing field in which owning a factory isn’t a birthright for a tiny minority but something that hundreds of millions of people have the chance to do.

Whereas the last century was about making goods—food, clothing, cars, toys—cheap and plentiful, the twenty-first century will be about making insights into what will truly make us better off.

It was easy to make huge gains in quality of life in the early twentieth century: providing any kind of affordable clothing, food and car was a giant leap forward. We can’t make those same gains now. That trick only works once.

Now, we have to be smarter. Now, we have to figure out what’s a better use of resources. We have to figure out what kind of car will both be more environmentally efficient and delight its owners. We have to think about completely disparate fields—say, manufacturing, software development, design, and psychology—and combine them to make products that conform themselves to humans, rather than making humans contort themselves to the product in order to use it. We must think about big ideas—ideas that will change society and how people interact—and the little ideas that merely improve people’s lives just a little.

We have to think. This is an age where all of our gains will come from insights into what make products, services, processes, and structures fundamentally better for us. Whereas the twentieth century was about standardization and following a series of steps in a well-defined process, in this new century, there are no defined processes. Everything is to be questioned, re-thought, re-made, or even thrown out altogether.

This century is about having a vision for the way things should be, and the audacity to make it so. Just a decade or two ago, it took immense amounts of capital to launch an idea that could change the world. Now, it takes a few people with an idea, a computer, and the willingness to learn how to build it.

The only thing holding us back now is ourselves.1 We are all artists, designers, manufacturers, managers, musicians, writers, creators—if we choose to be. And that is the fundamental difficulty of this new age: we all are responsible for our own success.

The twentieth century had a well-trodden path for people to follow: you graduate from high school, go to college, you’ll get a respectable and stable job, and you’ll live in comfort. Our responsibility did not extend beyond following that path.

That will no longer work. We will all have to take responsibility for ourselves, our future, and our ideas. We have to learn to think this way—to think critically of the things we see, of how they could be better and how we could make it so, and thus to see opportunities for ourselves.

We have to change how we think to be successful in this century, and we have to re-design our schools to prepare people for it. I have some ideas for how to do that, but what’s obvious is we aren’t ready for it yet. Not even close. We’re still preparing kids for the last century.

This is a new age, and we better start thinking about it that way.

  1. This is not, unfortunately, true for everyone. Poverty and lack of opportunity takes on a new meaning in this century. Rather than hold people back from an education and access to well-paying jobs, it now means holding people back from education that gives them the opportunity to discover a passion from something and discover a way to make something better and, therefore, make a living for themselves, because they are too busy simply trying to survive. This creates two very different classes in society, and is a fundamental threat to it. This, I think, will be one of the great challenges for our century: how do we not only revamp our educational system for a new economic age, but how do we truly make education available to everyone so everyone can participate? []