Sunday, July 25, 2010

Following John Henry Into The 21st Century

The entire globe is in the midst of an economic upheaval. Where will it end?

No one knows, of course. But many people, especially in the U.S., are searching for ways to stem the tide of global change. What is the likelihood that the course can be reversed?

For a possible answer to that question, I’d like to borrow/steal an illustration from Daniel H. Pink’s excellent book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future:

You’re no doubt familiar with the American folk tale of John Henry, the mythical “steel-drivin’ man.” According to the legend, John Henry was a strong, hard-working laborer who used a 20-pound hammer to drive spikes in constructing a railroad line. He was famous for his unmatched speed and strength.

Every school kid knows the story: One day, John Henry’s employer brings in a steam-powered drill and announces that it can do the job better, faster, and cheaper than any man, even the great John Henry. A race is arranged. A fierce competition ensues. After falling behind, John Henry summons a superhuman effort and rallies for the victory. But the effort is too much for the big man, and he dies “with the hammer in his hands.”

The legend of John Henry gained popularity at the dawn of the Industrial Age. It succinctly expressed the anxiety of a culture struggling with the automation of traditional labor. That culture gave way to mass production, which gave way to a knowledge- and service-based economy in the late 20th Century.

Those transitions were traumatic and painful to the people they affected. But no matter how hard those people may have tried, they—like John Henry—could not stop the change from taking place. And, just like us today, they had no way of seeing what was coming next—they only knew what they were losing.

Ultimately, each painful transition brought about advancements that benefitted us all.

As we observe the present-day transition from the Information Age to what Pink refers to as the “Conceptual Age,” it is natural to experience angst over what we might be losing. But at the same time, we might balance that angst with a sense of hope that—if history is any guide—we just might be stumbling headlong down a bumpy road that leads to a better world.

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