Essays

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The “Great Transmogrification”

 

The relationship between the individual and the organization has been defined by 2,500 years of organizational thought in terms of how the corporeal individual behaved as a cog in the corporate machine. It started with the Art of War by Sun Tzu (500 B.C.), where the individual was a mere participant to achieve the corporate mission of victory on the battlefield. Fast forward a quarter millennia with The Wealth of Nations (1776), written by Adam Smith, which was the first collected descriptions of what builds a nations' wealth off the battlefield, and is now the fundamental work in classical economics about the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution and mass production.

            In 1956, a mere 180 years later, William H. Whyte, Jr. wrote the nationally acclaimed book The Organization Man. In it Whyte explored the impact of mass organization on American society. Almost three decades later, Tom Peters would make another American corporate contribution with his book In Search of Excellence (1982). He would take the baton to continue the relay race to define the physical organization of men. The latter created a cottage industry of corporate self-help books read in the twin towers of corporate business and tenured academia.

            The year 2020 is the year that will forever change the individual-organizational paradigm as we know it. It will be the Great Transmorgrification (trans·mog′ri·fi·ca′tion). The COVID-14 pandemic forced the global workforce to universally telework from the home office. It might be a kitchen table or corner nook with the kids running around it or the guest room with a door converted to the home office. It also meant fast food and many other goods were now delivered or picked up at the drive-up window or the reserved and numbered parking space.

            It would be the forced transition of the global work force from the assembly line to the virtual line. With this paradigm shift, the social relationships changed. Gone was the traditional white-collar cubicle and the blue-collar workstation. What also vanished was the quintessential “water cooler” and lunchroom social interaction. This was replaced by the socially distanced “facebook” experience. These are not temporary conditions.

            After 2,500 years we have gone from corporate physical organization to the corporate virtual organization. The final step will be the complete replacing of the assembly line human with the assembly robot. That paradigm shift has already started. The great automobile assembly lines of Detroit, Michigan and Nagoya, Japan already have computer brains managing computer arms with no union representation.

            November 17, 2019 was the date that the first reported novel coronavirus “patient zero” of in Wuhan Province, China. My stepson is there and I have tracked this modern day plague from day one. It started the final phase of the virtual revolution. It is a date which defines the Great Transmogrification.

            As a boy, I read books and the genre called science fiction. It was the world created by people like Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein. And every change we have experienced in the last decades they psychologically created. Star Trek was one of the corniest television programs ever created. It first aired in 1966 and never stopped. It was a humorous joke on humanity that encapsulated the profound truth of science fiction into a one-hour sitcom. But Star Trek was as prophetic as the Bible. The tricorder became the cell phone, the replicator became the 3D printer, and holodeck became virtual reality. The joke was on us as a species.

​            The change we face is exponential, as it is existential. It is nothing short of a cultural pandemic. In medical terms, a pandemic is an epidemic of infectious disease that spreads across a large region, multiple continents, or even worldwide. But a disease is curable. Either you cure it, or it kills you. Humanity has faced these many times from the black death to the avian bird flu. But a cultural pandemic is not curable. A cultural pandemic is immutable. In other words, it changes you, you don’t change it. I use the word immutable for a very good reason. What we are facing is nothing short of immutable change. Immutable means unchanging over time or unable to be changed. Ponder that. It is exactly what Heraclitus of Ephesus told us 2,500 years ago, "The only thing that is constant Is change." There is the oxymoron for you = immutable change. 

            I always shake my head when I read an article that starts with the premise that we are at some existential crossroads or turning point. Humanity is always suffering from some crisis. It was only 155 year ago that the greatest war deaths occurred. The recent coronavirus pales in comparison to the World War II that end with 85 million deaths, or 3 percent of the world’s population. Compare that to the projected deaths from the coronavirus of far less than 1 million. In WWII look at what happened the so-called losers of Japan and Germany. And then look at what happened to the winners. The world became a better place to live for everyone. That is the mark of a true cultural pandemic or revolution. The world is permanently changed!

            However, the greatest changes do not occur from wars or pandemics. The greatest global changes come from what I call cultural pandemics. Unlike the physical pandemics of disease, where the rampant disease finally ebbs and vanishes like the Black Death or the lesser Coronavirus, cultural pandemic change our reality for good. Such events in the past were the Old Testament (5th Century BC), the rule of Charlemagne (circa 9th Century AD), the advent of movable type with the Gutenberg Bible (15th Century AD ) and the Industrial Revolution (circa 19th Century AD).    

            The most recent cultural revolutions occurred in the infamous 1960s (20th Century), a time that I lived through. One occurred in America and was deemed the “Counterculture Revolution of the 1960s.” It brought us female equality, birth control and sexual freedom. The other occurred in the People’s Republic of China with the “Cultural Revolution” and transformed China from a communist economy to a quasi-capitalist one.

            However, the effects of the socio-political revolutions of the 1960s are starting to ebb as we transition to the next great cultural pandemic, which coincidentally is occurring at the same time as the coronavirus impact. This would be the what is called the “Technology Revolution” (21st Century AD)  that spawned emerging technologies in fields such as robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), nanotechnology, quantum computing, biotechnology, private-sector space travel, and the Internet.

            Setting cultural change aside, it is also called the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The others being Mechanization (1st-1765), Chemicals/Communications (2nd-1870), Computers (3rd-1969), and (4th-Today).*  This greatest human cultural revolution (and pandemics) will occur in the 21st Century. It will be when humanity either totally adapts to or is adapted by the very technology we created.

            This is what I call the Great Transmogrification. It will be one where humanity is increasingly served by robots and AI technology, and pandemics become increasingly a way of life. It could make the movie Blade Runner look like a cake walk.