Don’t Be Like Ned

Nobody is sure if Ned Ludd was a real person, but in his time, he achieved legit legend status.

He made his mark sometime between the late 1700s to early 1800s, at a time when monster technological advances in steam power and tools enabled the creation of machines, factories and modern industry.

While fortunes were being made by industrial entrepreneurs, Ludd, who was an old school, stay at home weaver, watched as weaving machines took his job and ultimately his livelihood. Legend has it that in a fit of frustrated passion, Ned smashed the shit out of a couple of mechanical knitting machines, aka his competition.

This story spread amongst the disgruntled weavers of jolly old England, who were also all being out woven by machines. So, inspired by Ned Ludd, these self proclaimed “Luddites” took it upon themselves to merrily smash as many mechanical weavers as possible, Project Mayhem style.

The Luddites are an interesting phenomenon of a unique time in history. The industrial revolution was culture change fuelled by a convergence of technologies that happened super fast.  So much changed about the way people lived (or could live) that depending on who you were, and how you saw the world, I can only imagine that it would have been either terribly unsettling or downright inspirational.

I think we’re in the middle of a similar period today, so I’m going to tell why and what to do about it.

Let’s start with three converging indicators:

Indicator 1: Internet Usage

World internet usage before 1996 was basically zero.  As a technology it had been around since the early 80s, but hadn’t really taken hold.  Even though people went a little bonkers for internet stocks in the late 90s, true usage on a world scale was only around 20% by the mid 2000s.  But as of 2016, 46% of the entire population of the world was using the internet. This isn’t just the first world, it’s the WHOLE WORLD.

In just 10 years, global internet usage skyrocketed:

Errbody got that internet

Indicator 2: Cellular Network Usage

Next in the holy tech trinity is cell phone and cell network usage, which as a technology that has been around a long time.

Hello, 1973, I’m the brick. Install me in your convertible and get all the attention.

But real cell phone usage didn’t pickup until the late 90s, and on a global scale it was still statistically near zero in 1995.

But, by 2015 there was almost 1:1 ratio of mobile cellular subscriptions to people in the WHOLE WORLD.

That’s a massive adoption rate globally.

Indicator 3: Smartphone Usage

Here’s the clincher – as of 2020, it’s estimated that 78% of the global population had a smartphone subscription.  That’s not just developed countries, or North America, that’s the WHOLE WORLD.

This kid has 10 million followers on Instagram

The iPhone, which is the gold standard of smartphone, wasn’t even launched until 2007, and in 2006, only 64 million smartphones were shipped globally (sounds like a lot, but less than 1% of the population getting a smartphone).

Again, 10 years and boom, smartphone usage goes from non-existent to freaking everyone.

Ladies and gents, I give you mass technological adoption of three converging technologies over a staggeringly short period of time in history.

While this may not be news to you, what’s important to understand is that this really disrupts culture.  Proof of this disruption, in my opinion, is the amount of volatility in the world.  I’m not talking just financial volatility, I’m talking more human volatility. So many people seem to be unsettled, unstable, or just hanging on, while others are doing unbelievable and seemingly revolutionary things.

I’m concerned for that first group of unsettled people, because their frustration can manifest in unproductive ways (like Ned and is pals) .  It’s the unfortunate price we pay for fast paced technological change. At the same time I see unbelievable opportunity to create new and better things and ways of doing things that will improve our lives, and I’m inspired by those actually going out and making change happen (just like those early industrialists).

Who has two thumbs and is impressive as f&%k? This guy.

Cultural norms and rules will slowly cement themselves in place as the people who were born into the internet/smartphone world become the majority of the adult population.  The volatility will subside, and in 50 years there will be very few people still alive who lived in the world before the mass adoption and use of the internet and smartphones.

Assuming I keep eating my vegetables and achieve slightly above average life expectancy, in my later days I will be in a small minority of people alive who remember a pre-internet/smartphone world.

“I remember the days before the internet, but I can’t tell you the last time I had an erection”

But 50 years is a long time from now, so what do you do in the mean time?

If you want to get through this cultural change, create success in a new context, and lead others through it, it’s not just about understanding the tools, but it’s about understanding their effect on both our physiological selves (as mildly evolved cave people), and the foundational elements of our current culture.

Just think…

Why do some people still get all their news from CNN or one newspaper, others crowd source it from Twitter, and some consume no traditional “news” at all? 

Why are many families sitting around their house, physically together, but with their heads in their phones, while many tech CEOs very strictly don’t let their kids near smartphones? 

Why are established businesses having a hell of a time attracting and retaining younger employees, while companies like Tesla have 500,000 applications for 2500 job openings? 

There are a million questions worth digging into where the answers are a function of this techno cultural change.

So the first and most important thing to do is really test as many assumptions about the rules of our culture as you can.  Ask “why do we/I do it that way” more often than you think it’s appropriate, and especially on topics that make you feel uncomfortable. The second thing you can do is start to really understand the tools not just by using them, but also by looking under the hood and learning how they actually work.  All technology has abilities and limitations, and it’s important to understand what a particular tech does well and doesn’t.

I’ll admit that I sometimes feel frustration like I imagine the Luddites did.  I’m old enough that I had already found a lot of comfort in the culture of the pre-internet world, it’s how I grew up into my teens and early 20s, and it’s the foundation of how I relate to my peers and older generations.  Challenging this foundation of how I see the world can be very difficult, but I aspire to act like those early industrialists, because while I’m sure it felt good to permanently tune up a weaver with the business end of a pitchfork, the machine smashing efforts of the Luddites didn’t manage to stop the industrial revolution.