The New Energy Crisis

Human energy


Like all good energy crises, it's here because of how we think about value.

Pricing and prioritization depend on it.

In 2004, a family discovered a leak in their roof. While that needed attention, nobody noticed the large painting underneath the leak. Propped up near an old springbok and mattresses, it sat there. Two years later, burglars raided the attic. But they missed the painting.

Then, the owners found it while clearing out the attic. The house had been in their family since 1871. After three months of expert analysis by art dealers, they learned it was a Caravaggio. A painting likely worth $170 million.

Because nobody questioned or recognized its potential value, the canvas had been languishing in a dusty and leaky attic for more than a decade. That value is recent. Caravaggio, like many artists before and after him, has had a comeback.

No individual, company, product, or business escapes this: value seems to be subjective and subjected to the broader culture. Things like human behavior are still hard to predict with accuracy. Though not for lack of trying.

But the individuals and companies that experience a comeback have an important thing in common: they understand the energy of a prime mover and the objective nature of value.


Where enthusiasm pools, there's a way

Energy like the early days of blogging. It was electrifying. I've compared it to Brian Eno's scenius concept. At the Sydney Luminous Festival, Eno says:

I was an art student and, like all art students, I was encouraged to believe that there were a few great figures like Picasso and Kandinsky, Rembrandt and Giotto and so on who sort-of appeared out of nowhere and produced artistic revolution.

As I looked at art more and more, I discovered that that wasn’t really a true picture.

What really happened was that there was sometimes very fertile scenes involving lots and lots of people – some of them artists, some of them collectors, some of them curators, thinkers, theorists, people who were fashionable and knew what the hip things were – all sorts of people who created a kind of ecology of talent. And out of that ecology arose some wonderful work.

The period that I was particularly interested in, ’round about the Russian revolution, shows this extremely well. So I thought that originally those few individuals who’d survived in history – in the sort-of “Great Man” theory of history – they were called “geniuses.” But what I thought was interesting was the fact that they all came out of a scene that was very fertile and very intelligent.

So I came up with this word “scenius” – and scenius is the intelligence of a whole… operation or group of people. And I think that’s a more useful way to think about culture, actually. I think that – let’s forget the idea of “genius” for a little while, let’s think about the whole ecology of ideas that give rise to good new thoughts and good new work.

That's what it felt like. Early social media also felt charged with possibility. Serendipity and connection opened opportunities. That part was empowering. But then the money stuff came, and little by little, it ate at it. Until there was little fertile ground left. We're all the poorer for it.

Now, I'm not against getting paid. But the idea that the only definition of value should be tied to money for one person (only, mostly) got us stuck. New media, yet old exploitative models. Because the tools have not caught up with the ways energy can flow for better circulation.

And by better I mean, to benefit a greater pool of contributors to the scenius. This is the problem we still haven't solved. There's energy in a new wave of creators who are working on building tools that address parts of the problem. Hence why I share a bunch each week.

Value requires an engine or means of transformation: i.e. a business model. Value is therefore relative to one's access to a prime mover. Without it the value is trapped. 


The crisis is here, just unevenly distributed

Humans need both to stay energized: exploration and exploitation. Each in moderation can fertilize and spur forward the other. I've been reading and researching many current theories and models. Their problem is still the same.

Modern theories do not challenge the premise: the purpose is to make money. We're conditioned to start there. Hence all potential value gets sucked into it. It's everywhere, especially in the language we use. Or maybe it's everywhere because of the language we use.

Exploitation is eating the world. Efficiencies at scale got us here. But our current thinking is not enough to get us to what's next. If we are to have a more equitable and sustainable future. You can't improve or optimize something that is not there.

Plenty of evidence says humanity is running on fumes. Your city, company, county, or country may not be affected right now. Maybe you pivoted. Eventually, though, it's going to catch up with most. If the pandemic taught humanity something is this: no one is an island.

Cal Newport started an interesting conversation on redefining productivity:

My thinking in this area is still half-formed, but I’ve become increasingly convinced that what this conversation needs are alternative definitions of “productivity”; definitions that believably deliver on the promises of profitable value generation in businesses and resilient satisfaction in our personal lives, while rendering the excesses of overload culture as unnecessary at best, and profoundly harmful at worse.

Cal has been consistently tuned into the currents that lead to the real issue. As he says, “the real issue is neglecting to figure out what specific notions actually make sense for our current moment. In other words, finding the actual problem.

The current cultural zeitgeist and thus setup favors “done” over “understood.”  Which is ironic, given how much knowledge work supposedly contributes to value creation. Does it really? Or does it suffer from the same version of industrial production thinking?

In 2004, the same year the old Caravaggio painting was overlooked in the dusty attic, Jonas Ridderstrale and Kjell Nordstrom observed:“Societies are measured by the buildings they create. The Greeks left the Acropolis behind. The Romans gave us the Colosseum. Modern times bring us the shopping mall.” 

How we think about value got us here. We have built business models that destroy value by turning what's worth more into what's worth less. And that kind of transformation is irreversible. You can't buy what you destroyed in the pursuit of profit. 


Efficiency is not effective anymore

The comment by Ryan Yates on Cal's post speaks to the asymmetry in the relationship between workers and leaders. That's the uneven distribution. And a symptom of how disconnected leaders have become from society's issues. A byproduct of insulation from the troubles that have been building up for regular workers.

Yates also notes that “fuel-efficient cars don’t necessarily lead to a reduction in fuel use. People drive more and often end up using more.” In other words, efficient is not effective. You cannot work with a solution that entrenches the cause of the problem it's trying to address.

Thomas Wells provides an example of why effective altruism is not effective:

“Singer and other effective altruist philosophers believe that their most likely customers find institutional reform too complicated and political action too impersonal and hit and miss to be attractive.
So instead they flatter us by promising that we can literally be life-saving heroes from the comfort of our chairs and using only the super-power of our rich-world wallets. A big part of making this work is to make us feel in control of what happens to people around the world, and this in turn requires simplifying and personalizing the logistical chain between action and outcome.
Even if we end up achieving less good in total, we can be confident that the good that was achieved was due specifically to us – that we made a difference – and this may be a powerful psychological motivation for many people in our individualistic consumer societies and therefore result in more donations and more good achieved.”

Over time, the superficial “good” of the instrumental purpose obscures the deeply “bad” methodological assumption. 


How we think about value is limiting

In a recent exchange, Peter Tunjic provided a good example of this: nudge economics, where homo economicus provides the archetype. In our discussion, technology becomes the means by which individuals are nudged/turned into consumers (utility maximizers) that are the perfect counterparts to corpus economicus (the profit maximizer).   

We both suspect that technology-mediated transformations of value just don’t generate the same types of capital to an individual that human mediated transformations do. There's something going on here that we can’t yet explain. But it's there and worth noticing and exploring.

Peter's more important point is “the systems doesn’t keep going. It is descending measured in terms of the available energy to support the system. A simple metaphor explains this. The faster a car travels the more fuel it consumes and the less distance it can travel until the tank runs out.”

Instrumentalism, or the idea that corporations should essentially make their money solving social problems, “does not change the fact that we are encouraged to turn high value capitals into low value capitals that can do less work–the equivalent of emptying the tank.  The system, like the car can’t keep going without finding fuel.”  

Peter describes this as the “value crisis” but we could equally call it the “energy crisis.” Companies have been trying to address employee engagement as a point solution. The problem is available energy. “But it's not all bad. Once you get the concept of relative value and capital dynamics you quickly realize how much untapped value exists just waiting for the invention of new engines.”

Cal Newport suggests we need alternative definitions of productivity. My take is that we need a proper definition of value. Then we can go about inventing new engines. Until we do, we're like the home owners whose large canvas is collecting dust in the attic.


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