Monday, June 10, 2013

Unjamming the next generation

In the Simpsons episode "The Old Man and the Lisa" which first aired in 1997, Lisa helps Mr. Burns regain his lost fortunes by inadvertently giving him the idea to "recycle" sea creatures into slurry. After Burns sells the business, he offers her a check for $12 million as her share of the profits. Lisa has a crisis of conscience about where the money came from, however, and tears up the check instead.

I always thought Lisa should have taken the money and spent it on the things she believed in, and I'm sure others did as well. But none of us condemned her decision to refuse the money as being flat-out wrong; after all, it was perfectly in keeping with how we all thought back then. For my generation, Generation X, virtue was about identity. And guarding your identity meant staying independent, in order to retain personal freedom and control over who you are. Once Lisa took that money, it would have owned her, in all its corruptness.

So we of Generation X set about to rebuild the world in our image, and nowhere were our efforts more successful than in the world of music. Pearl Jam, one of the most socially conscious bands of the 90s, could have been the next U2; instead, they sabotaged that chance. Resenting the loss of freedom that comes with fame, Eddie Vedder sang in "Corduroy" to the millions who adored him, "I don't want to take what you can give, I would rather starve than eat your bread." Which makes sense; when virtue lies in who you are, then being obnoxiously big means you've sold your soul on some level.[1]

As a result of cautionary tales like this, some of us sought shelter in indie rock, which was explicitly designed to help bands avoid Pearl Jam's fate—or worse, the fate of those who tried for that level of fame and failed. When you stay small, you get to stay in control. You get to keep your soul.

Because ultimately, those who choose independence recognise that they're human. They're not good enough to scale, and so they don't try. Sure, every now and again, one of the countless indie bands out there does manage to win over a large audience, but they typically fade out as quickly as they came, making their short-lived success most likely the result of chance or favoritism. Of course, we'll attribute it to hard work or some innate quality instead, validating our belief in the virtue of independence. Unfortunately, this also warps our understanding of what it truly takes to compete, and then we wonder why their success isn't so easily repeated.

But there's really no mystery here. Independence means giving up scale and leverage in exchange for retaining individual freedom and control. And this applies to indie labels as well. Unlike Geffen, who signed both Guns n' Roses and their future archrivals Nirvana with no other concern than profit and prestige, an indie label carefully screens each new addition to its roster, ensuring first and foremost that they're the right fit. When preserving one's identity is paramount, scale and leverage simply can't factor into the decision-making process. So while indie rock should have produced the next two or three Radioheads by now, statistically speaking, it has instead produced none. This is a feature, not a bug.

As one of indie rock's rejects, I was awoken to the absurdities of the world built by Generation X pretty early on. Lately, though, I've been sensing a similar dissatisfaction amongst the younger crowd. Perhaps it was there all along; we'd just never crossed paths. But I do believe we'll reach a critical mass soon, at which point the next generation will openly question the notion that independence should be the highest virtue. In a world where people are literally starving, why would you resent being given free bread? Especially when you're perfectly free to spend it on the things you believe in?

For the Millennials, then, virtue won't be about identity, but about impact. And making an impact means seeking out interdependence, in order to maximise leverage and the chance to scale.

Because ultimately, those who choose interdependence also recognise that they're human. They're not good enough to scale either—on their own, that is. But when they team up with other individuals, each of whom has something remarkable and unique to offer, they can accomplish superhuman feats, at will, again and again.[2] When we come together with others to create something greater than the sum of its parts, we become, quite literally, superhuman.

Maybe I'm just seeing what I want to see, but these days, signs of an upcoming change really do seem to be cropping up everywhere. Here's one example: twentysomethings pursuing lucrative careers, thus having more money to give away. At the very least, this isn't something you would have read about twenty years ago. As the article explains:

In another generation, giving something back might have more commonly led to a missionary stint digging wells in Kenya. This generation, perhaps more comfortable with data than labor, is leveraging its wealth for a better end. Instead of digging wells, it's paying so that more wells are dug.

I don't know if these kids have hit upon the best solution, but it's definitely another step in the direction of equating virtue not with who you are, but with what you get done.[3]

Let's get back to Lisa Simpson and her decision to refuse $12 million. Now, there's no doubt that her counterpart in real life would have taken the money. My point is that, within the safe confines of a fictional universe, the episode's writers could count on its viewers to feel that Lisa did the right thing by following her heart. At the very least, certainly no one would judge her decision to be immoral.

And yet, symbolic gestures don't feed people or save lives, do they? So at its core, what really happened was that she took $12 million that could have gone to charity, and instead gave it all to Mr. Burns and his evildoing ways. How is that not flat-out immoral, fictional universe or otherwise? What if, in the future, we all spent less time worrying about our identity, and more time maximising our impact? That's what Mr. Burns's counterparts in real life already do. So why wouldn't the world be better off if everyone thought this way?


[1] Kurt Cobain presents a more obvious case study for exploring what Generation X's values did to its heroes, but I'd rather not wade into those waters.

[2] It's encouraging to hear Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes sing in "Helplessness Blues," "I was raised up believing I was somehow unique... [but] now after some thinking, I'd say I'd rather be a functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me." The problem is, cogs are essential, but also easily replaced. So it's not clear to me whether he longs to be subsumed into some grand and noble purpose, or rather to play a unique and indispensable role within it. And that's a crucial distinction to make, because only the latter situation represents true interdependence. Being unique is a good thing; you just have to earn it, and of course that's the scary part.

[3] Turns out this whole consequentialism thing mentioned in the article has been going on for some time now. I'll definitely be looking into it.

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