To act in a new way, we must first see in a new way. I suspect most of us understand this, and yet, nearly all of us consistently undervalue the tools of vision, while proclaiming the virtues of action.
Many circumstances arise in which action is not helpful, wise, or even good; yet our culture—particularly the culture of innovation and change-making—treats a bias towards action above all else as a sign of boldness, even of integrity (disparaging, for example, those who talk and don’t “do anything”).
This leads us into a peculiar predicament, for we live in a time when industrial-scale efforts work to limit the range of our vision. Literally hundreds of thousands of people are employed in roles in which their main duty is to protect the interests of economic incumbents in the media, cultural and political debates. Most often, their highest priority is to define the “realistic.”
The line drawn by the consensus definition of realism bounds the realm of the publicly possible. What we regard as realistic, we can argue over; what is unrealistic is not worth discussing. Defining realism, therefore, works at a level above all other framing and messaging to control the direction of a democracy.
Those deeply invested in the status quo understand this full well, which is why, in every contemporary democracy, any time an issue comes to the fore, you can expect to see an army of flacks deployed to attempt to set expectations about what is reality and therefore what is realistic.
We’ve seen this on climate change, of course: the two-pronged effort of denying scientific reality (attempting to redefine realism on the need for climate action) and attacking competing solutions, like clean energy (seeking to bound the public’s sense of the amount of change which is realistic to even hope for) is nothing but reality management.
But we’ve seen it in nearly every other arena of conflict over change, on both the national and international scales, from education to public health to poverty alleviation to ending the arms trade. The result of this bombardment of lies and spin is that most of us—maybe all of us—lack the ability to see what is actually realistic, much less what might be possible.
This is, I’ve come to believe, the central political fight of our day, and the one on which the fate of national democracies and the global rule of law depend.
Increasingly, though, this question of reality and realism seems to me to be the central economic question of our time as well. Because for all our excitement about what many of us see as explosion in innovation with unparalleled emerging creative capacities, another wave of technological acceleration, a cosmopolitan global solutions network, new business models, new funding models, new cultural values in enterprise—for all our enthusiasm about worldchanging action—nearly all enterprise still attempts to work within the realistic as defined by incumbent industries and supporters of the status quo.
That is the cost of action without inquiry: to play a game whose rules are set by the players who started the game before you. It is still sometimes possible to win that game (especially when you can make a genuinely unexpected move), but most of the time, those players either forestall or capture innovations that threaten their power. For example, I think there are many potential uses of social media that could, and sometimes do, shift power away from incumbents, but does anyone intelligent actually believe that Facebook, say, constitutes any kind of meaningful challenge to business as usual?
Some people do see these boundaries, but are so convinced that the status quo is invulnerable to change that they decide to play their best game within the limits set on them. But others of us should know better, if only because of history and foresight: history tells us no player, no matter how big, sets the rules of the game forever; and simple foresight tells us that the current system is massively and immediately unsustainable, and that which cannot go on does not long continue. Once we wave aside the fog created by PR agents, lobbyists and kept intellectuals, we see that the entire edifice of the status quo is cracking and crumbling and swaying dangerously.
Truly worldchanging action can’t be based on the expectations of our day, which are already full of dry rot and covered in dust. It has to involve seeing in new, growing ways. It has to involve anticipation of that which already exists but is very hard to spot. It has to employ the tools of foresight, systems storytelling and planetary thinking. It has to understand that in a moment of rapid change, when seeing clearly is the biggest competitive advantage there is, talk isaction.
Thanks for reading!
Alex also writes a free weekly letter sharing new ideas, short reviews and interesting links. Sign up here: