By Mark Adams 14-11-2014
“The competition is maddening,” Willy Loman rails to his distressed wife, Linda, in the early scenes of Death of a Salesman.
The 60-something salesman, after being on the road for more than 35 years, yet still unable to keep up with payments on the refrigerator, washing machine and life insurance, is later fired by his boss, who simply tells him: “Willy… there just is no spot here for you.”
He slinks away from his superior, wondering how, in the Darwinian jungle of the industrial era, he can achieve an identity that restores his sense of rank and self-worth.
Willy’s environment has changed dramatically and the militant pace of progress renders the character traits he carefully cultivated in the previous environment of no value to the new world.
“I don’t know what the future is but I get the feeling that I am not getting anywhere,” he laments as he begins to confront the new economic environment – a new industrial world oblivious to his “rugged smile” and “strong throwing arm.”
Willy knows that something profound is going on but finds it impossible to abstract from himself and see his predicament in the larger context of a global economic shift. The emotional pain of watching the play in 2014 is that we the audience know that the economic centre of gravity has moved immeasurably since Willy’s day. He was an unconscious witness to the seismic shift towards the industrial era but could not place himself in that larger narrative.
The feeling that the world is going through a seismic economic shift that is leaving many behind is once again the theme of our times. This is the era of the ‘networked economy’ and it will phase out and put an end to the ‘industrial economy’ at the same devastating pace with which it arrived in Willy’s day. The internet has squeezed inefficiencies out of many systems, and the ability to move work around, coordinate activity and digitise data all combine to eliminate a swathe of the jobs the industrial age created.
It is no coincidence that the industrial economy has faltered at precisely the same time that the networked economy has begun to take hold. There is an idea that somehow, if we just do things with more effort or skill, or cut more corners in our production methods, we can go back to the good old days where “the competition is [less] maddening.” It’s not an idea though – it’s a myth.
Some people insist that if we focus on ‘business fundamentals’ and get ‘back to basics’ all will return to ‘normal’. That is not so.
By the end of this year the last Polaroid film factory, in a suburb of Amsterdam, will be torn down. Despite a second attempt to save the company through bankruptcy intervention – what we typically refer to as ‘conservation’ when plants and animals are involved – Polaroid has become an endangered species and after recently announcing another 2,000 job losses, the investor community now widely believes it should have its ‘do not resuscitate’ order posted above the bed.
The one-time giants of image capture look like they will soon be extinct only two-and-a-half years after Instagram was bought for US$1bn with only 10 staff.
The demise of one business and the meteoric rise of another with similar DNA in the same hyper-acute period? This is symptomatic of a fundamental changing of the guard and handing of the baton from one paradigm to another.
It takes a long time for a generation to come around to revolutionary change. The newspaper business, the record business, even Hollywood – one by one, our industries are being turned upside down, and so quickly that it requires us to change much faster than we would like.
My prediction is that a decade from now we will be calling back through time to our 2014 selves and desperately willing them to understand the profound nature of the change that is happening right now. Imploring our past selves to understand that in 2014 the industrial age was coming to an end and a powerful new paradigm of networked economics was arising.
Like Willy Loman, most of us have not altered our thinking to a degree that begins to reflect the profundity of this shift, or comes anywhere close to the approach needed in order to thrive in this change of environment.
The great challenge of the next 10 years will be our ability to cast off the powerful habits, thought loops and convictions that the industrial era programmed into us. This challenge will not be technological. It will be human.
Mark Adams is among the speakers at FutureMedia 2014, taking place at Bafta on November 18 as part of C21′s three-day Content London event. To find out more and to book your place while tickets last, click here.