Somewhere along the line, we have accepted the marginalisation of kindness, normalised dispassion, and deepened the inequity of our society. Equality and fairness were never to be taken for granted, have always been fought for, but our current manifestation of State leaves fairness further than ever away from our truth. Kindness is relegated to a soft medicine, to be dispensed with grace, bestowed by the empowered. I speak neither as an idealist, nor a liberal, when i say that the current way we express our common good is neither common to all, not good for many. I speak not of left or right politics, or views of government, but rather of our deeper humanity.
What has changed? At a time when the voice of the individual is democratised and freer than ever before, we have silenced the vocal majority with excuses of complexity and politics that belie the fact that these are simple matters of decency and respect, tolerance and kindness.
Can we forge a society built on shared values, one that respects difference? Can we build a State that cares, not purely in a macro economic context, but at a personal and individual one? Can we find space for kindness against a backdrop of complexity and cost, where we have allowed compassion to viewed as a luxury for the charitable rich, or the saintly sign of the virtuous poor? Can we build a view of society that is built not from the extremes, not from saints and sinners, but through the everyday kindness of action, by state, by organisation, by individual?
Society has always evolved: from granular tribal units, through to organising principles of proto-states and kingdoms. We have experimented with hereditary power, through aristocracy, the state held power of bureaucracy, and the collective power of social communities, empowered by technology. But with growth has not come greater equality, universally higher access to resource, or State wide kindness. Our culture is still tribal and granular, reflected in the entities that we have built around us.
We have seen key transitions in communication and transport technology that have driven much of this change: improved communication allowed knowledge to be both standardised, attributed, and shared, allowing people to build expertise, grow reputation, and reach the masses. We have seen transportation systems that allow goods to be traded and to spread, for infrastructure to proliferate, for the functional utility of the individual to be mobilised to follow jobs, and for the boundaries of State to widen from as far as the eye can see, to as far as the signal will spread.
But this growth has come at a cost, and that cost may now be more visible than ever before.
In the old world, the organising principles of villages, towns, cities, and State, made sense: the unit of global expression was Nation, and national concerns trumped all others. But as the Digital Age crashed upon us, the infrastructure evolved and we became misaligned. Transport is no longer a constraint, and neither is communication: we have moved from deficit to surplus. We now have too much of both.
The West struggles to prevent extremists travelling to hotspots, and our own government seeks to prevent closed communication. Neither of these things were historically possible: it simply wasn’t an option to travel with such ease, nor to hold broad secrets at scale. Our organising units were still essentially localised, whilst, over a few short years, we have become truly one shared planet. We are connected in many different ways, with ever more resilience in the system, ever more redundancy in our networks.
We exist in communities, leaving governments to rule over increasingly abstract geographies. I myself do not rely on a government to permit me to be European. Being European is my mindset, not the gift of formal power.
But in this titanic shift, through the rubble of our perished industrial economy, and through the shoots of the new Social one, we have allowed something precious to slip through our fingers. An aspect of our humanity has been lost, at the very time when we have the potential to score the greatest gains.
We have lost families that span generations, in favour of nuclear units that industrialise maternity, education, and old age. We have lost a local sense of community, in favour of closed cells of comfort, pods of consumerism, nested in abstract lattices of zoning. Whilst our villages and towns used to evolve through the actions of the individuals that inhabited them, today, they are planned, not simply from the perspective of bricks and glass, but social class and culture. Order is imposed rather than being emergent.
Our world has always had the potential for tragedy: illness, natural disaster, war, these things we strive to monitor, quantify, and change, but there is something that lies beyond this.
We are in a new Age, the Social Age. We can carry forward as much of our baggage as we like, but ultimately, we must make a decision: do we normalise old inequality and malice, or do we seek, do we strive, for a kinder space?
Again: i am not speaking of politics or power, but rather about the nature of our engagement. Our engagement with each other, within communities, into our wider society. Can we engage in our differences, or do we vilify and exacerbate them? Must we rule through conflict, or can we find consensus.
I wrote recently about ‘authenticity’, about how we strive to define this concept. We can see it: if a story is authentic, if it rings true, and we react badly when it’s lost or demonstrated to be false. Perhaps our authenticity is earned in the moment, through the way we engage in the world.
We are kind: but not universally so. Kindness is used and awarded upon a layer of convenience. We must run a health service that is effective, and if we do so, we can afford to make it kind. We run businesses that are successful (generating power and accumulating wealth at the top), and if we do, we can afford for it to be kind. We approach politics with the conflict of difference, instead of seeking out our shared differences, and finding the foundation of our common good. Conflict sells, it’s easy, but perhaps what we need is something hard.
In the work around Social Leadership, that form of leadership power that is awarded to us by the community itself, i put ‘collaboration’ at the top. It’s at the top, because it’s the hardest thing to achieve. True collaboration. Complex collaboration. And it’s hard, because it requires us to work for less than we want: it requires us to negotiate, to empathise, to work towards, a shared vision of commonality, not a selfish one. It requires me to start with a view of what you can have, rather than a view of what i may be able to take from this. Complex collaboration requires selflessness, humility, and an ability to be kind. And to do so not for either immediate nor deferred gain, but rather as an investment in society. The prize for kindness is society. The society we earn is the reward that we get.
Perhaps it’s a question of value: do i seek value in that which i own, or do i derive value from the society that i live in?
A true capitalist may seek value from possessions and the cocoon of the immediate, but a wise capitalist would find value in giving, in helping others to succeed, because they recognise the separation of mere currency from true society.
The conflict that we see in our society, the rise of extremism, the threat of terrorism, the hardening of right wing politics, all of this is a symptom of a society that has marginalised kindness. We retreat to our fighting tribes because we can see no option than to fight. We are separating on religious, ethnic, and wealth grounds, because we can see no option than to fight. We are unequal, because we somehow feel we must fight to retain inequality, as if in some way to be more equal would diminish the values of our beliefs, of our money, of our happiness.
The ecosystem of the Social Age has led to the rise of the New Victorians: men (and they are largely men) made rich and powerful beyond the dreams of avarice. But it’s a mistake to think that these individuals are uniformly driven by greed. Indeed, many are driven by curiosity and drive, a sense that everything is possible. Just witness the drive to the stars, the move towards autonomous infrastructure, the evolution of experience itself. These technological titans have barely begun to scratch the reach of their new power.
It is a new power: networked authority, held outside of any State, but not without limits. Uber has taught us that culture counts, but the problems that Uber faces are not simply a wild Chief Exec: instead, it’s a broader cultural context, a culture that promotes profit over kindness, that ultimately treats people as assets, not people. I suspect that the problem stems largely in principles of organisational design, and understanding cultural cohesion.
Old models of organisation will be punished by the new proto-cult, quasi-religious nature of the trans-national gods of technology. The State of old may become worth less than your iPhone. Not in financial value, although that is possible, but in terms of emotional engagement. People do not love politicians in the way that they love Netflix.
Our new organisations are linked to the societies they both profit from and serve in new ways. And the societies that surround them are bound together in new ways: no longer linear, governed purely within bonds of formal power, but rather networked, multi layered, and increasingly global and democratised.
It’s easy to look at the failings of our emergent society, but opportunity exists in equal measure, if we can find a state of kindness.
The ease of storytelling has rewarded a culture of conflict and exception, but through this ‘reality tv’ of culture, we have failed to explore the need for kindness. The need to celebrate difference, to organise around the primacy of the individual.
Perhaps it’s a rebalance: away from pyramids of power, to a view of society grounded firmly in the citizen. And in a view that we can engage on our shared views, and respectfully explore our dissent. In contrast to our current culture of difference, which collapses individuals and contexts to binary arguments of conflicted ‘right’. A culture of conflict, a culture of inequality, a culture of individual success at the cost of others, can only give us a fractured society. By contrast, a culture of engagement, a culture of celebrated difference, a culture of kindness can give us so much more. Starting with an ability to effect change, together.
An over reliance on the hard power of the State leaves us unwilling to believe in the co-creative power of an engaged citizenry. And yet without the power of the community itself, we are forever reliant on these levers of economics and industry, with no account for the economics of kindness and collectivism.
A culture of selfish individualism, a culture of persecuted difference, these are not the shared values we want: instead, we should find a humility to change.
As we move into the Social Age, we must explore the evolution of our hard structures of power, away from being simple mechanisms of control, towards being engaged and facilitating entities of fairness. We must find models of leadership that celebrate compassion and kindness. We much fight for equality through a recognition that society comes at a collective cost, and that if that cost is born by one individual, we collectively fail.
We need a new State: a State that learns to be kind. Industry built on kindness. Leadership through community. And a State that celebrates difference as a chance to engage, to find a new path, a shared path to a shared humanity.