by Gwen Moritz
Posted 8/19/2013 12:00 am
Updated 8 months ago
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus is credited with the observation that the only constant is change. Only he said it in a form of Greek that has, of course, changed in the ensuing 2,500 years.
Isaac Asimov, the science fiction guru, took Heraclitus one step further: “It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.”
And he drove the point home for all of us:
“This, in turn, means that our statesmen, our businessmen, our everyman must take on a science fictional way of thinking.”
I don’t think this means we all have to become Trekkies or “Star Wars” geeks. (Those people can be vicious. When President Obama made a mixed-up reference to the “Jedi mind meld,” fans of both series jumped on him like the pack of cute little blue aliens from “Galaxy Quest.”) I do think it means we have to stop trying to figure out how to keep things the way they always have been and start thinking of how things will be or could be or should be in the future. And that is hard, personally and professionally. Sometimes I wonder if starting an entirely new business isn’t easier in some ways than trying to reconfigure an old business plan.
Human needs, after all, remain relatively constant, but the mode, manner and media of satisfying those needs are at the mercy of many factors — climate, culture, fashion, technology. For instance, climate traditionally determined the foods available in a geographic area, but technology (including hybridization and transportation) has made almost any food available almost anywhere, changing culture and fashion in its wake.
But change isn’t only linear. Sometimes we correct course.
When I was a girl, non-natural foods were popular and even fashionable. I grew up eating margarine (which my mother called “oleo”), Miracle Whip and an ice cream-like substance known as mellorine. “Space Age” alternatives to natural foods were advertised heavily. Tang is still on the grocery store shelves. Who remembers “Space Food Sticks”?
Today, natural is fashionable again, primarily because we’ve seen that high-tech food hasn’t worked out quite as we expected. We don’t want Miracle Whip; we want mayonnaise that says “real” on the label. We don’t want high-fructose corn syrup; we want plain old sugar, even if it is more expensive. We don’t want the high-tech foods that went to the moon; we want the heirloom tomatoes that travel the shortest distance — even if they cost more than the red plastic things that come from who-knows-where.
There is a sort of pendulum-swing to most fashions. All humans need shelter, but gigantic houses have fallen out of favor, and I predict the “tiny house movement” will remain on the fringe in the United States. Enormous gas-guzzling SUVs have lost some of their sheen, but I notice that the Mini Cooper folks are now selling a bigger model called the Countryman. Electronics got smaller and smaller, until they corrected course and are now getting bigger.
Political fashions also change. Government gets too big and there’s a course correction toward conservatism. Societal needs reach a crisis point — think high unemployment and crippling health care costs — and Americans expect government solutions. Statesmen, Asimov told us, need to take on a science fictional way of thinking in order to anticipate the inevitable change that is the dominant factor in our society. Unfortunately, politicians of late only seem to know how to react to situations they failed to anticipate. This is no way to run a future.
Change in my industry has been dramatic — technologically and culturally. Assuming that advertising dollars would follow readers, most news organizations gave away some or all of their news to online consumers. It turned out to be the worst possible assumption about the future: Advertising dollars literally vaporize when the medium switches from print to digital, and that’s something that shows no signs of changing. After training consumers to think online news is free, the industry is attempting to retrain consumer to think of news as something they are willing to pay for.
Fortunately, information is one of those basic human needs. What’s more, I think that after 15 years or so of the Internet age, consumers are starting to realize that some news sources are like locally grown heirloom tomatoes and some are like those red plastic things.
Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. Email her at GMoritz@ABPG.com.