Paradigm shift 2020

We’re living through history. Again.

If you’ve had an internet connection at any point in the last three weeks, you know what I’m talking about. But just to underscore what I mean, here’s the New York Times Bestseller List.

Twelve out of fifteen are somehow related to race or racial justice. That is a seismic cultural event. Oluo’s book, in the first position, is two years old. Consensus has converged, in the space of weeks, on race as an essential factor that requires interrogation and understanding.

…America is suddenly cramming for an exam it’s been failing for 400 years.

Renee Graham, via Twitter

Though I’ve worked in a highly segregated industry, and I’ve long hoped to reform it, I’m not an expert on race or racial justice.

Where I do have some expertise is paradigm shift. I’m going to argue that what we are witnessing is a paradigm shift of a lifetime. But before I explain why, let’s sync on what a paradigm shift actually is: how it works and what you get out of it.

Historical paradigm shifts

The printing press is a cliche of transformation narratives, so let’s start there.

The press

Before the press, information was expensive. You needed an entire human who’d been fed, sheltered, and educated for years. Long enough to develop literacy. Only with such a human could you begin to plan for the replication of any information.

Even then, the process was long and arduous.

The printing press allowed automation of this process. Instead of a human reared for decades, you could produce armies of inanimate objects to replicate information instead.

The old assumption: information is expensive and requires specialized, highly educated, manual labor.

The new assumption: information is now much cheaper and can be produced at volume with machines.

This change in the basic premise of information technology had seismic effects. It created all new categories of business, like the newspaper and book publisher. It opened the door to new religious movements, by organizing and disseminating their points of view. It created a powerful new civic role, so dependent on this invention that it, too, is called the press.

The internet

The internet is one I lived through. It may eclipse the printing press on a long enough timescale. Or be dwarfed by something else yet to come. We should never get too comfortable, as you’ll see.

But in 2020, the internet remains a foundational paradigm shift, acting as a platform for all the future shifts we’ll discuss.

It’s so powerful that even at its most primitive, it sent shockwaves through culture, commerce and politics. Let’s be clear on how crude the early internet was. It required an expensive computer—something that might cost as much as $2500 inflation-adjusted dollars. It required a telephone line. The resulting connection was tethered to a desk, brittle and slow.

Even so, it changed how the world worked.

Old assumption: information was exclusively bound to physical media, like books, tapes and CDs, which took time to deliver.

New assumption: information was transmittable through electricity, where it could be delivered (somewhat) instantaneously.

This, too, spawned new categories of business: providers to deliver internet service, publications that leveraged the internet exclusively, e-commerce, and the list goes on.

It created all new venues for social and cultural exchange, from the early chat rooms and newsgroups, to services like Facebook, Flickr and Twitter.

It changed politics, everything from where the conversation happens to how funds are raised.

In terms of civics, it spawned a new means of accomplishing community goals. From open source software to Wikipedia, digital collaboration produces extraordinary outcomes between globally-distributed contributors. There’s no precedent for the speed and impact of this. Wikipedia is a universally-consulted reference that no one owns, while most of the internet runs on software that’s distributed free of charge thanks to volunteer labor.

The mobile revolution

Mobile is dear to me. As a first-generation knowledge worker, I rode the mobile software wave into a tech industry notorious for its exclusionary practices and cultural elitism. My lack of pedigree didn’t matter: the demand for mobile skills was too high.

This is the power of a paradigm shift. It makes everything negotiable.

When the App Store arrived in 2008, it was a collision of three incredible forces:

  • a computing device with an intuitive interface, battery powered, small enough to take anywhere
  • an always-on, portable internet connection
  • a powerful, object-oriented development platform with a mature standard library and aesthetically compelling UI framework

The result was an explosion of robust, novel, connected software. Google raced to compete, buying and furiously expanding the Android platform. Microsoft, despite playing in the space for most of the preceding decade, couldn’t keep up. Dogmatic about its hardware designs, and lacking the capacity for a competitive software platform, Blackberry also ceded the field. Same for Nokia and Palm.

Protip: You can tell it’s a paradigm shift because all the incumbents start going belly-up.

Old assumptions: computers are tethered to desks, have abstract interfaces, and people only use the internet for sessions with a defined start and end.

New assumptions: computers travel in your pocket, are easier to interact with, have built-in software distribution, and people are always connected to the internet.

Some companies born under the previous paradigm shift found themselves accelerated by this subsequent chapter. Facebook thrived in an alway-connected world. So did Twitter and others.

But all new companies emerged as well. Uber is only possible because of hyper-miniaturized computers with always-on, portable internet connections. Uber exists in the aether between the rider’s phone and the driver’s, using that linkage to collect money and set the terms of the transaction. Same for the rest of the gig economy.

How we socialize evolved as well. An astounding number of dates are now arranged through apps that match according to user location.

Civic impact may be most dramatic. The mobile revolution gave everyone with a smartphone the same news gathering capabilities as any television station. A high-definition camera, video editing tool, and even live broadcasting facility rides in every pocket.

This has certainly been an accelerant on our current moment. As demonstrators take to the streets across the country, they are recording events as they happen, sharing them via social media. Hundreds of unique instances of police violence ricocheted around the internet, building a consensus around the legitimacy of the protest.

Meanwhile, Black activists have worked tirelessly for the last decade to proliferate education on race issues via our newly-embedded social media channels. Just as America is facing a racial awakening, a network of Black thinkers is at hand to direct the public’s reading, advocate new policy, and provide analysis.

Not to mention: honestly critique the systems that got us here.

The result is a moment of mass-awakening. It’s how the New York Times Bestseller List ends up filled with racial justice books. It’s how everyone from Mitt Romney to the NFL to NASCAR feels unable to continue watching from the sidelines, even reversing their own past positions.

I think this leads to a new paradigm.

The next paradigm

If you follow venture capital at all, you know they’ve been tilting at two windmills:

Virtual and/or augmented reality, if it found traction, would represent an open field for new businesses, products, and social interactions just as large as mobile. Thus, billions have been plowed into Magic Leap only to produce nothing. Facebook bought Oculus just in case. Apple is said to be at work on their secret own hardware, while Microsoft noodles in public. Valve, which has owned software distribution on PC for over 15 years, developed VR hardware so they could own a piece of the next generation. Google makes some of the best VR experiences in the game. But the shift remains elusive. The combination of hardware and software hasn’t clicked just yet. We’re in the Treo phase, waiting for an iPhone.

Cryptocurrency is another quest. The promise there could be just as explosive. An end to financial middlemen. A new platform for computation. The short-circuiting of legacy financial systems. Cryptocurrencies would wipe the slate clean on the entire financial order. Of course people are chasing this one.

But while we wait for these paradigms to bear fruit, we’ve got a new one here ready to go.

Old assumption: white identity is default, ineligible even for examination, and other identities are to be discounted.

New assumption: whiteness is not the only experience worth considering; other points of view have been ignored for too long and require new consideration.

This is a bit jarring compared to the other shifts I’ve discussed: it’s not a paradigm shift built directly on a technology, but rather on a cultural change. But I would argue that it is no less impactful. In fact, I bet it’s bigger than mobile.

Consider how white identity has informed the structure of US power. 44/45 US Presidents have been white. Most of the Fortune 500 CEOs are white. All major social software CEOs are white. White household net worth is 13x greater than Black households. Most Oscar nominations, most Oscar wins. Most newsrooms. Pick whatever structure you want in the US, you’ll see whiteness coming out on top.

Which means that nearly every system that works under the old assumption is going to be either adapted or replaced. Remember, during a shift, some incumbents go belly-up. This has worldwide ripple effects, as US technology, politics, commerce and culture interact with a globalized economy and workforce.

You can argue that this is a passing fad. But I don’t think the genie is going back in the bottle. And again, neither does the NFL.

Riding the wave

The Bestseller List above is evidence that consensus agrees Black voices must be heeded. Race must be acknowledged and confronted. There are truths about how the United States has organized its priorities and power that Black America knows innately, while American systems and many of their players have buried their heads in the sand.

The existing missions and organizations that thrive in this new paradigm will be the ones who embrace the reality and act to correct their previous willful blindness. Those who embrace, rather than stigmatize and punish, Black leadership.

The organizations and individuals who fail to do this will find themselves isolated and declining in relevance.

Meanwhile, prepare for the ascendency of new ventures, power structures and social systems that harness the insights of everyone who is prepared for this new chapter. Prepare for new leaders and centers of power.

Ready to build the future?

Postscript: Black leadership

I want to revisit this phrase.

There’s an entire chunk of the population who hears “embrace Black leadership” and imagines this means an all-Black takeover of C-Suites. Years of internet just primes me for the reactionary replies.

But I’m actually saying something else here.

Instead of icing out Black colleagues from decision making, executive roles and vision-setting, like they do today, organizations must instead… include them.

Radical notion, I know. Just understand that some of the participants in these discussions are imagining the former scenario, even as everyone else is demanding the second.

Previously, on Twitter: