Punchinello’s Chronicles

December 12, 2008

Obsolete Solutions to a Shifting Paradigm

Filed under: Butterfly Wings — Punchinello @ 2:02 pm
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The word paradigm (“Par-uh-dime” rhymes with “maritime”) originally mean a sort of example. But in the 1960s, the term was popularized to mean a way of thinking. It refers to your general world view, the assumptions you use, and the way you typically comprehend reality. For example, in physics we assume that gravity, mass, energy and light work in a certain way. If new information were to prove that they work differently, then all of physics would experience a paradigm shift.

So right now, are we living pretty much the same old thing, or are we experiencing a paradigm shift? Is the economic “downturn,” real-estate market and corporate downsizing just a temporary phase? Or are we entering into a fundamentally different set of rules?

Here’s a story about Rob, a guy I know who’s in his 50s. A couple of years ago, Rob bought a cell phone to carry around on the road in case of emergencies. He didn’t much care about having a phone in the car to call people, but liked the idea of being able to contact emergency services if need be. Rob grew up in the days when phones had cords, you dialed an actual dial, and the phone rang with the sound of a bell.

Rob’s car wasn’t doing too well, losing oil on a regular basis. One afternoon, driving along the expressway on his way home from a visit, the car ran out of oil. The engine tappets started chattering, protesting the lack of oil. Rob got more and more nervous, knowing exactly what was the problem. He tried nursing the car along, also knowing he was still half an hour away from any main roads.

Hoping and praying, crossing fingers and chanting magical spells, Rob felt the car start to vibrate. And then, all of a sudden, there was a bang! The engine blew out and all the cylinders froze. The car coasted to a stop on the shoulder, and there he was, stranded. Only at THAT point did he think to use the cell phone to call for roadside assistance.

While he was waiting, he told me how he realized what an idiot he’d been. All he’d had to do was stop the car when he first heard the engine grinding, use the phone and call someone to bring out a couple of quarts of oil. The cost of the service call plus the oil may have been more than $100. But that still would have been way cheaper than a blown engine, and the cost of buying a whole new car (not to mention the tow from the expressway)!

So how come he didn’t take that option?

It comes down to a paradigm. In Rob’s world, nobody had cell phones. He never thought in terms of cell phones. He didn’t think in terms of up-to-the-minute contacts with people. A phone was a pay-phone, or the one at home. Even with that cell phone sitting in the car, it was the last thing he thought of, not the first. The world had progressed and we all live in a new paradigm now. But a person’s mind doesn’t change so easily.

Think about the buggy-whip industry, and example often used to demonstrate progress in technology and economies. Back when everyone used horses, everyone needed carriages, wheels, lanterns, and buggy whips. Horses were fairly affordable, but the new automobile was very expensive. Only the rich could have a car, and who would want one anyway?

But the world was changing. The price of automobiles came down, Henry Ford introduced the assembly line, and soon people started switching away from horses and buggies. The entire horse-based industry began to go away, jobs were lost, companies shut down, and before long, anyone who made whips for horses pulling buggies was an odd antique.

Should we have protected the buggy manufacturers? Should we have bailed out the buggy-whip companies? What about the blacksmiths, wheelwrights, and manure companies? Would that have solved anything?

What about our friend Rob? Should he have sued the car company for making a car that ran out of oil? How about the cell phone company for not calling him to remind him to use the phone to get some oil?

At this point in history, we’ve been running on Keynsian economics for nearly 100 years. We’ve had the same model for businesses and corporations for almost a century. Automobiles and the gasoline engine haven’t changed in nearly all that time. The way we live, the way we do business, the way the government works, all are part of a paradigm that’s been in existence since the early 1900s.

The world is changing. There’s a reason we don’t often see 5th generation technology. By about the 4th generation, whole new technologies emerge. Most things become obsolete after 80 years. Even people die out after about 80 years, which gives rise to the ancient word of a “seculum.” That’s about the length of a long, human life.

And yet everyone is scrambling to find solutions to the problems “suddenly” arising today. Those solutions are part of the old paradigm. We see corporations starting to falter, with the underlying model for national business starting to shift. A global economy is emerging, not because people are making it happen, but because it’s a natural evolution of societies.

With more and more corporations undergoing fundamental shifts, the old model doesn’t work anymore. Employees aren’t fitting into the emerging model anymore, and so jobs are starting to be redefined. Medical care and retirement, all depend on an assumption that “old age” begins at around 60 years of age. People are living well into their 80s, now, and so Social Security has gone bankrupt. It never was designed as a long-term security plan.

Pricing, education, competition, lifestyles, consumerism, debt, financing, world currencies, technology: All these are changing in basic, foundational ways. Nothing will remain as it was, just as the automobile totally changed the transportation systems. As such, standard solutions, typical answers, and traditional problem-solving methods no longer will work.

The question is whether or not the underlying paradigm is changing and shifting. If it is, then it doesn’t matter what Congress does, or what the President tries to do. It won’t matter what international trade conferences attempt to do, or how the monetary system works. All that’s been the assumption for the past 100 years will no longer hold true. And so, all the proposed solutions that remain stuck in the old models will fail.

What about this stupid “today” kind of aphorism that we should “think outside the box?” What does that even mean?

It means being able to not only understand one’s own paradigm, but to then creatively form an entirely different perspective of reality and think in terms of that different paradigm. How would that happen when we penalize creative thinking, punish competition, and damp down imagination in young people? What sort of new thinking will we expect when we have such things as tenure, job seniority, and top-down organizational structures?

Anyone in today’s world who thinks entirely differently is a lunatic, as far as the mainstream viewpoint is concerned. And so things will rot on the vine, decay, and eventually collapse. Just as Rob’s car engine had to blow up before he began to think in new ways, so too our social structure will have to grind to a halt. Only then will people begin to think about new and better ways to run their lives.


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