We Cannot Escape History

I have been bopping around in the blogosphere and twittersphere a bit lately.  It’s a little mind-bending at times, but I have started to notice some trends. 

For example, I saw this article in Businessweek by Shoshana Zuboff, a former Harvard Business School faculty member, that basically said, “gee, we screwed up,” and offered a new approach to business philosophy that has much more sensitivity to, and awareness of, the customer’s unique needs, rather than simply seeking more company profits and looking at each customer as a “mark.”

Now this is where I wish to veer considerably off from where you may have expected this to go. After reading this article by her in Businessweek, and I recommend it

http://www.businessweek.com/managing/content/jul2009/ca2009072_489734.htm

I had this little flash of a “duh” moment.  And I said, to myself (and posted the comment) – isn’t this the exact same business model, and approach to marketing and customer service, that Kris Kringle advocated in Miracle on 34th Street

What this online reading experience (and many others like it) has brought to light for me is, there seem to be an awful lot of people who simply do not know very much about history.  I don’t mean history in terms of memorizing dates and timelines or knowing the content of the Wilmot Proviso.  What I mean is the perspective on human nature that can be learned only by studying the “macro psychology” that history embodies. 

Because so few people have really studied history, they don’t realize that very often that, in terms of discussing and predicting societal trends, they are re-inventing wheels.  There seem to be an awful lot of newly minted books these days telling us things that, had we studied history (or as shown in the above example, old movies), we would already know.   

For example, with al the emphasis on the power of social media, it’s never seen as just the next step in a long (LONG) series of communication enhancements.  Twitter is influential and important, yes, but it has nowhere near the same influence as Gutenberg’s printing press or the invention of the telegraph.  (Just think how cool it must have seemed back then, to be able to predict the weather for the first time in history.) 

Twitter is very similar to the early Transatlantic cables, which would only allow 8 words a minute. New media is of course slightly different, every new advance is, but it should be understood in historical context.  Lack of that context leads to inappropriate magnification.  Societal effects can, to a certain degree, be predicted by past experiences with other advances in communication technologies.  But instead of seeing/pondering this, we get lost in a gold rush hoopla, borne of historical ignorance and the attendant lack of perspective. 

The recent financial meltdown, btw, was a repeat of past experiences.  Nothing new about it at all.  But in 1999, some congressmen who didn’t know history repealed the laws (put in place 100 years ago after an identical meltdown) that had been created to prevent such things. 

I just got a copy of Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan.  Most people only know him from his cameo in Annie Hall, but he also predicted the “global village” that would be created by electronic communications, and he did so back in the 60's.  If you want to learn about social media, I would start there. 

And if you want to learn management and leadership techniques, well, books by present CEO’s etc. are fine, but I would also strongly suggest Machiavelli’s The Discourses.  It’s 500 years old, but it’s just as relevant to the workings of organizations, power acquisition, and human nature now as it was when it was written, even more so because it’s based on a thousand years of Roman history, not just a few decades of recent highly specialized personal experience.   

–jl

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