The Things We Think We Know

The Things We Think We Know

“And then he looked up at me and just stared at me with the stare that only Steve Jobs has and he said, ‘Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life or do you want to come with me and change the world?’” –John Sculley

Think a few years down the road. Where do you expect to be? …alive or dead? …more or less successful? …richer or poorer? …married, single or in some other way attached? …happier than you are today or not? Now keep going… How about your kids or grandchildren, how well do you expect them to be dong one, two or three decades from now?

This is no academic exercise. There are answers to these questions. Even when speculating about the future, trends can be observed and outcomes reasonably predicted. The stakes are real.

Ironically, while we know more than we ever have before, while we’ve never had more smart, well educated people studying important issues in detail, we appear to be no better off at predicting outcomes. Change never ceases to catch us by surprise.

The truth is, we live in a boiling cauldron of shifting circumstances and startling events. If the financial meltdown of 2008, and the Great Recession that followed, taught us anything, we should have learned that we are poor caretakers of our own future and that we, as Americans, are at risk of waking up some day very soon to find ourselves on the wrong side of history.

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Before Johann Tetzel attracted the attention of a little-known monk in the fall of 1517, he was at the top of his game, marketing indulgences. Late-medieval Germans, worried that the next world could be even worse than the one they inhabited, paid Tetzel to pardon them from the consequences of sins and to shave time off of Purgatory. The money he raised went to the real-world reconstruction of Saint Peter’s Basilica. Not a bad legacy, considering how remarkable Saint Peter’s is. But Tetzel isn’t remembered for that.

Johann was a company man. He did what he was told and, from all appearances, he did it well. He was the kind of fellow Willy Lowman might have admired, a guy who was good at making friends by knowing what people wanted and giving it to them. To the peasants he offered peace of mind. To Germany’s princes, the chubby priest was an easy source of revenue – since they took a share of the money he raised within their territories. To the Roman Catholic Church and Pope Leo X, he was a rainmaker, a first-class salesman, a closer for the the faith.

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther unleashed his assault on indulgences in a tract now known simply as The 95 Theses and soon thereafter Johann’s world would be turned upside down. In just four years, poor Tetzel would be dead – his reputation in shambles; Luther would be excommunicated but survive and live to become a household name within Western Christendom – a hero to some, a monster to others. Even before Johann Tetzel’s death, the market for indulgences would dry up and the men and Church who benefited from their sale would be looking for cover – condemned to be on the wrong side of history.

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On the day of its announcement, January 26, 2010, Twitter nearly buckled under the strain of commentary for and against Apple’s new iPad. Detractors called it the iTampon and complained about its lack of outputs, its inability to run Flash or to multitask. They called it a “giant iPod Touch” and “a solution looking for a problem.” They described how underwhelmed they were by the whole thing and wondered if Steve Jobs had lost his touch, if not his mind.

Then there were the admirers (disclaimer: myself among them), praising the iPad as the future of portable computing, as an instant Kindle killer, as a viable alternative to netbooks, as the future of tablet design and, in the long term, the future of personal computing. Maybe that was all a bit too much… Maybe not.

Who is going to be on the wrong side of history regarding the iPad? Are there clues? Is there a way to suss out which arguments to trust and which to ignore?

Sure, we can play the who-has-gotten-it-right-before game: Steve Jobs has launched more than his share of massively successful products (Apple II, Macintosh, iPod, iTunes and iPhone to name a few). It’s also true that most of the critics of the iPad have at best coin-flip reputations as tech prognosticators. John C. Dvorak, for example, gave Apple some free advice regarding the iPhone way back in March of 2007, telling them to “pull the plug” on the project before the first handset ever shipped.

But past performance doesn’t always illuminate the future as well as we might hope. Going by reputation, the smart money would have – and probably did – bet on Johann Tetzel against Martin Luther. Tetzel was a successful regional player working for an organization that held hegemonic sway over the spiritual and cultural lives of most of a continent. Furthermore, he had decades of success behind him, selling people what they wanted, something they were willing to make significant sacrifices in money and time to get.

Who was Luther? A manic-depressive intellectual who had violent arguments with hallucinations at night (allegedly Satan), who had wrecked his health trying to purge himself of imaginary sins, a man who could not be pleased and had no interest in pleasing anyone. In other words, Luther was a born martyr and had history been the sole determinant, that would have been his fate,.

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Malcolm Gladwell has made social evolution a spectator’s sport and thanks to his book, The Tipping Point: How little things can make a big difference, America’s five-and-dime intelligentsia have felt empowered over the last decade to speculate ad infinitum about how events add up to steer history. Analysts in every field of study from global finance to lady’s underwear have looked around and seen what they claim to be tipping points.

Gladwell’s book is legitimately good, well written and well researched. So effective as a work of non-fiction, The Tipping Point might be considered a culturally ubiquitous work. Even if it hasn’t been read by everyone, nearly every educated adult in the society has been exposed to its premise and jargon.

Unfortunately, never has so much knowledge been applied so poorly, by so many. Since its publication in 2000, a decade of tipping points if there ever was one, the professionals have been left repeatedly with their pants down. Consider:

  • At the end of 2000, the Supreme Court of the United States ordered Floridians to stop counting ballots in the presidential election, handing power to the candidate who lost the popular vote, George W. Bush.
  • Not long thereafter we had the corporate accounting scandals that brought down Enron, Worldcom, Arthur Anderson and others.
  • We were attacked by terrorists on September 11, 2001. Then National Security Adviser, Condoleeza Rice, testified that while the Bush administration had been notified of the threat via reports from intelligence sources within the government, there was little they could have done to prevent the attacks or loss of life.
  • As a result, the United States went to war in Afghanistan and, in three months, replaced the Taliban government with that of Hamid Karzai. Eight years later, the Taliban have retaken much of the county.
  • America invaded Iraq on March 19, 2003, under false pretenses.
  • In 2004, the pictures of Abu Graib were made public. George Bush said, “the United States does not torture,” and despite evidence to the contrary, a majority of Americans chose to believe him or not to care, electing him to a second term as President.
  • Late in August 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck and 80 percent of New Orleans was left under water. Almost 2000 people died and over 700 are still missing.
  • January 11, 2008, Bank of America announced plans to buy Countrywide Financial.
  • March 16, 2008, Bear Stearns was sold to J.P. Morgan Chase over a weekend for less than ten cents on the dollar.
  • From July 13-15, 2008, the SEC, Treasury Department, Federal Reserve Board and Federal Reserve Bank of New York took extraordinary measures to shore up Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.
  • September 7, 2008, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were placed into government conservatorship.
  • September 14-16, 2008, Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11, Merril Lynch was sold to Bank of America and AIG was loaned 85 billion dollars by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
  • November 4, 2008, Barack Obama was elected president.
  • April 30, 2009, Chrysler declared bankruptcy.
  • June 1, 2009, General Motors declared bankruptcy.

Consider this the short list of events that caught the professionals by surprise or ill-equipped to comprehend.

What did I skip? Events that occurred in China, the E.U., Russia, Africa and Latin America — for starters. The environment, I didn’t mention that: global warming, islands of plastic waste the size of Texas building up in the oceans, over-fishing and dead zones, mass extinctions, shrinking rain forests, shortages of clean drinking water in many parts of the world. I skipped over energy: Anyone remember five-dollar-a-gallon gas or 200-dollar-a-barrel oil or rolling blackouts?

The last ten years have bristled with potential tipping points. But which ones are valid? Which look important now but dissolve into irrelevancy over time, and which might we have completely overlooked to our future regret? Is there a way to tell? Am I even asking the right questions or is this a Rumsfeldian rabbit hole where we ponder “known unknowns” against “unknown unknowns.”

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The early 16th century made for hard times in Europe. It was as unpredictable and dynamic as any since the fall of the Roman Empire. Western science, having just crawled out of its alchemistic cradle, was uprooting traditional assumptions about the natural world. While Luther attacked many fundamental tenets of Roman Catholic theology, Galileo’s science challenged even more. On top of that, Columbus’ “discovery” of America would be equivalent today of the discovery of intelligent life on another planet. In politics, nation states were displacing feudal traditions, which were beginning to think and act like empires. Technologically, the 16th century was very important too.

Catholic religious hegemony had been challenged in Central and Western Europe many times before Luther. With each heretic’s coming and burning, Rome only seemed to grow stronger. What made Luther different?

Part of it was timing and dumb luck. Science and exploration, the plague and economic dislocation each played a part in preparing Europeans for the Lutheran revolution. Most important, excluding the hand of God (which we can neither measure nor verify), was the influence of technology and Luther’s knack for exploiting it..

Without Gutenberg’s printing press, Luther’s Reformation would have been impossible. In the past, Rome had been able to quarantine heretical movements and then kill them off before they spread into the mainstream. The relative speed and productivity of the Gutenberg device enabled Luther to contend with Rome before a mass audience like nothing else prior. As a propaganda tool it was as well-suited to Martin Luther as it was ill-suited to the Catholic hierarchy. As a result, the fire of Lutheran heresy spread faster than Rome could move to extinguish it.

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If you’re trying to figure out how to sell handbags or communicate a narrowly defined message to a specific demographic, The Tipping Point may be helpful. If you’re a designer or a buyer for a department-store chain, and it’s your job to spot trends on consumer tastes and buying habits, Gladwell’s explanation of Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen may be a godsend.

But if you’re an entrepreneur trying to survive the Great Recession, a politician, an educator, a union organizer or a community activist struggling to break out of the bottleneck of ineffective mediocrity, The Tipping Point is probably going to fall short. But the failing isn’t Gladwell’s, it’s ours.

While it was plainly not his intention, Luther began the process of democratizing religion in the Western world. He translated the Bible into the language of the people and persuaded many that they didn’t need a priest to intercede for them with God. Science and technology amplified the Lutheran effect. Soon enough followed the democratization of education and economies, which led to the Enlightenment and the democratization of political power. So in a sense, for modernity, Luther is the ultimate tipping point. Luther was a Creative Disruptor.

Gladwell’s book is in some ways a perfect summation of the social sciences in America today, studying humanity as herd, like any other phenomenon of nature. How does a fashion trend take hold? How do we explain a massive drop in the murder rate of an American city? Gladwell – the entertaining, articulate, accessible voice of present-day academia – is there with an answer, loaded down with surveys, trends, pithy anecdotes, rates of this, probabilities of that. It’s solid, mainstream, respectable, void of individual will, void of creativity and impotent.

How do we prevent another Great Recession? How does a multi-cultural society like ours learn to govern itself? How do we educate our kids, all our kids? How does a capitalist democracy in the 21st century assert its authority over enormous multi-national corporations that work to undermine it and stay economically viable in a global economy? How do the industrialized nations of the world convert their carbon-based, planet-destroying economies to something sustainable and healthy? Gladwell, academia and the corporatized intelligentsia can’t answer any of these questions. They are out of their depth. They observe, they analyze, they categorize but they cannot assert or risk self destruction.

However, from Luther, the medieval theologian and natural-born martyr, we can learn a lot. Martin Luther looked into the eyes of 16th-century Europe and asked something very like Steve Jobs’ question to John Sculley: Do you want to keep doing the same old soul-destroying things or do you want to come with me and change the world?

It’s a dangerous game – world changing. Luther risked being burned at the stake.

In comparison, Steve Jobs doesn’t risk as much. At most he might lose his life’s work (Apple), some money and his reputation. But the risks are real and they are much greater than most people are willing to accept. In addition, there are many who would love to take Jobs down.

Nevertheless, Jobs must be considered a creative disruptor. The Macintosh bent the personal computer industry toward his kind of user interface. iTunes changed how we buy music, a disruption that still has the music industry reeling. The iPhone forced innovation in smart-phone design and the competition is still trying to catch up.

Critics of Jobs will say that he didn’t invent anything new – and they’re right. Yet absent his presence at Apple, does anyone honestly believe that the consumer electronics industry would be what it is today? Luther wasn’t the best theologian of his age. He wasn’t the best Christian. Yet without him, the West would be unrecognizable.

Love them or hate them, men like Martin Luther and Steve Jobs are beings of passion, of creativity if not invention, of personal will. They attack the problems before them with a mystical self-certainty. You risk a lot if you dare to emulate them. Your chances for failure will be high. When you make mistakes, they will be whoppers. Vultures will circle your every misstep.

But then consider the alternative: A safe life as a member of the calm, ever-moderate establishment, never gambling on what you know in your soul to be right or what you passionately desire, never risking your public reputation on some untested solution. With a little luck you will not suffer Johann Tetzel’s fate.

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Mark lives and writes from the Southern California hinterland, in a small town along the I-10, about 25 miles west of Palm Springs. You can sample some of his other work at TemporalFlush.com, where he writes about what he likes, when he likes.

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