The Fight Between The Future And The Past

At dinner last night with Amy and friends we ended up in a long conversation about what’s going on in the world right now. We went down a few different paths, including a set of provocative questions like “Should the US have gotten involved in World War II earlier?” (me: Yes) and “Should the US have have gotten involved in World War I earlier?” (me: I don’t know – I never have really understood World War I .)

The subtext kept cycling around what, if anything, is different today. Sure – many specific things are different – but is the essence of anything human fundamentally different?

I kept coming back to the idea that we have instantaneous information about everything everywhere all the time. That has been enabled by technology, especially over the past twenty years, and is accelerating. Technology doesn’t address everything – for example, air travel still sucks.

And, more importantly, the instantaneous information we have isn’t necessarily the truth. In fact, much of it isn’t the truth, but rather a point of view that a subset of people would like to enforce on another subset of people. This is a fundamental tenet of human behavior that has been going since, well, before, well, forever. If you are struggling with what I’m suggesting, just ponder religion (and the history of religion) for a little while.

As I mulled over our conversation this morning, I feel like we are in the middle of a profound struggle between the future and the past. Many people, companies, and organizations are trying to protect the past at any cost. We see this regularly in business as the incumbent vs. innovator fight, but I think it’s more profound than that. It’s literally a difference in point of view.

For those trying to protect the past, it is a way of retaining power, status, money, a way a life, predictability, comfort, control, and a bunch of other things like that. It is a struggle against the inevitability of change. The approach, as change becomes more certain, or accelerates, is to become more extreme in one’s behavior, in an effort to defend the past. The defenders of the past get uglier, nastier, more hostile, louder, and more irrational. Ultimately time passes, people die as mortality is still a foundational characteristic of humans, and the future becomes the present on its way to the past.

Our dinner discussion reminded all of us that this cycle plays out over and over again in the history of humanity.


Also published on Medium.

  • Really?

    The incumbent first move is to rebrand as the future. Carry the attributes of trusted into a “doing it right” because we know best repositioning. The survivor understand the cycle of change to be just that a cycle and stay one pulse ahead of at least appear to do that to the center Quintiles of the audience, and ignore the 6% on either end.

  • “It is a struggle against the inevitability of change”

    This is good summary of it.

    As you know, I’ve spent a lot of time over the years going into companies large + small (WMDC, Amazon, Wily, Stubhub etc) redesigning dev processes to increase efficiencies, yada yada yada.

    A consistently appearing issue I encountered was people’s resistance to change. It’s thematic. The psychology at play here is nothing new. Many (most?) people seek out + get comfortable in systems that favor them – or at least don’t actively disfavor them – and then work really hard to maintain those systems when even the *perception* of disfavor emerges.

    I saw this dynamic play out over + over again.

    • Manish Vachharajani

      Note that we also operate in a field that is relatively friendly to change. Imagine other industries that are far more change averse.

  • Turning 50 is circumspect isn’t it? It happened to me 2 1/2 years ago. That and the first buddings of my children. My oldest is going to be a sophomore at CU. Watching her and being immersed again in the University constantly being surrounded by 20 year olds and how they think gives great perspective. The cycle. We are them and were just like them when we were there. They are us and they will become us exactly how we are now in 30 years. I submit to the monumental nature of the passage of time. While we may have iphones, our nature has not changed.

    • So true – and profound, at least to me.

  • conorop

    The biggest hope I have for myself is to continue to embrace change as I age. My 88 year old grandmother continues to push progressive agendas and I admire that. I’m curious if it’s because she had to fight for her own rights and isn’t complacent.

  • Michael Scholz

    ‘Dead Wake’ (E Larson) was my summer read and lent some WW1 insight…

  • Bob Hampe

    I was thinking that the “Cycle” of Old vs New was ready to begin in earnest again as I was watching POTUS speak last night. As you are so fond of referencing – “All this has happened before and will happen again”

  • Tim Ahmann

    Dear Brad, what are you favorite books on history/politics? I just ordered two books by Francis Fukuyama and wondered if you’ve read any gems on these topics.

    • Amy loves Fukuyama’s books. I’ve been reading lots of biography.

  • I’d go a bit further in elaborating about your point-which I agree with. I think it’s also a fight between big government and freedom to choose. Do we believe in govt bureaucrats or do we believe in entrepreneurs to solve problems? Should we have term limits? Should we have independent redistricting to stop gerrymandering?

    On WW2, we got involved economically with Lend-Lease. We were woefully underprepared militarily at the beginning of the war. Our fighting force was smaller than Romania’s in 1939. If you read Rick Atkinson’s trilogy on the war, it’s almost shocking that we were able to fight and win it. I still can’t believe the Allies won the day at Normandy.

  • eliasmoubayed

    Plus ça change….

  • I have nothing to add, so I’ll just agree with you and share your post.

  • Wondering about how Facism gets going in democracies, I’ve been reading more lately about the lead-up to WWII. Two excellent non-fiction books I found are a new book entitled “Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War” by Adam Hochschild which led me to an ever better book published in 1941 by an American foreign correspondent named Virginia Cowles called “Looking For Trouble”.

  • I woke up with the words “Choose Love or Fear” in my brain, after watching the aspirational love-fest this week in stark contrast to last week’s dystopian forecast.

    I’m working smack in the middle of your description of the fight –
    “it is a way of retaining power, status, money, a way a life, predictability, comfort, control, and a bunch of other things like that.” Entrepreneur seeks Fortune 100 experience and boy am I getting it! Mergers bring out the worst in office politics, power grabbing and human nature.

    It’s a super-interesting POV right now, watching human behavior amidst extreme uncertainty, I guess that applies to both my company’s environment as well as the political arena right now. 🙂

    Oh what a wild ride…….

  • Bastian Moritz

    Is it really a fight of the new vs. a status quo? Isn’t it “the natural path” of Evolution – the never ending story of becoming?

    All the instant information available is useless until it is brought into context with more information (this is why we have/need journalist to curate and to elaborate) and the more information units we receive the more information content we get and the uncertainty of content decreases (Shannon’s Information Theory).

    The most interesting thing about the Zero Days documentation – which you seemed to be quite fond of – is, that it was the joint interest of the people who came forward to talk to Alex Gibney because they think it is of utmost importance to involve the public and to get the subject matter into the public discourse (discourse ethics of Habermas).

    Therefore the informational bits get into a system and have to find retention in order to become a part of a new status quo. Since the status quo will intrinsically be more irrevocable (path dependency andself-reinforcement ) it will always feel like a battle of the new vs. established, but it’s nothing to resign about.

    Knowing the past (history burdens) and the present (environment) makes it very much possible to change the future by initiating breaking points in the trajectories. So, is it a fight? Yes! Will it become more extreme? Probably. Can we do anything about it? Yes – find the right fit. Just like a startup has to find problem-solution and product-market fitness everything else seems to be subject to the evolutionary algorithm. Therefore my guess is, as the functional principles are the same we cannot be that different.

  • Sachin Patel

    This article made me think about the dangers of immortality. The entrenched power and ideologies would probably be inimical to progress.

    I recently read an interesting article about politics and scientific revolutions which you may find interesting:

  • Heavens above, Brad- you almost had me thinking you might actually be …..a Libertarian….. (OMG), with all this talk of perceived v actual v relative truth (the “from a certain point of view” model).
    The difficulty-as I’m getting from your posts-is the dichotomy or difficulty that most people have in separating the how (their truths) from their why (values) & their vision (their what). Do I have it about right?

    • Yeah – that sounds like a different way of saying it.

      • I’m of your generation, Brad, & I learned long ago that is people’s experiences (challenges) & desire that are the only effective means of influencing and changing their truths & values.
        (And I’ve had quite a few ‘challenges’ that have caused me to look deeply at my own truths).
        And the only tools that I have (in an abundant framework) is the vision I can impart, or in helping they themselves to see. Of course, in a world of scarecity, fear & loss & authority are effective tools (as is often employed by the state) -as is happening in Turkey.
        My Dad seems to have worked it out -he used to say “It’ll be alright in the end, and if it’s not ok yet, it’s not the end.”
        I’m not sure I’ve completely got my head around that pearl of wisdom, but it seems to be something to do with influencing where you can, and not taking on the strain of that which you can’t.

  • Joel

    Brad, just recently started reading (Chris Sacca’s recommendation), thanks for sharing so much. Just wanted to answer your implied question about WWI. The book you want to read is The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman. Very lucid writing that gets the whole story out without getting lost is the minutia.