Truth in writing is something more intuitive that has to do with a work’s ability to become timeless in its timeliness and universal in its particularity. – Jeff Davis, from The Journey from the Center to the Page
Timeless in its timeliness. Universal in its particularity. Shakespeare, Steinbeck, and Spielberg come to mind. In writing The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck traveled along Route 66 among the migrant farmers of the Dust Bowl to delve into the personal details, the absolute facts and the objective truth of a specific era and specific place. Intuiting the epic proportions of the story at hand, the agnostic author used the dispirited peoples of the Bible as the framework for the novel. Steinbeck reworked the factual story to distill the truth, honed into one family and wrought a classic.
His venturous reflections upon humanity’s perseverance he weaves throughout the novel, and its structure reflects a shift in the character’s humanity from being selfish and competitive to selfless and cooperative. – Jeff Davis, from Journey from the Center to the Page
I was going in a different direction with this universals in the particulars theme. Probably something about symbol, myth, story, brand perhaps. Or using it as an introduction to my own hesitant quest story.
But I'm floored by the theme of Steinbeck’s novel. (It had been buried in my memory as I last read it as a teenager.) Is Steinbeck suggesting a startling different impetus than the Machiavellian notion of self-interest as our driving motivation?
I believe that we are successful when our ways are suited to the times and circumstances, and unsuccessful when they are not. For one sees that, in the things that lead to the end which everyone aims at, that is, glory and riches, men proceed in different ways. – Niccolo Machiavelli, from The Prince
It’s difficult to argue with Machiavelli sometimes. I couldn't have said this better myself: "We are successful when our ways are suited to the times and circumstances…” (The Prince was written in 1513.) And I thoroughly agree that we are driven by self-interest. But I’ll challenge: What exactly is in our own self-interest (and can I ever have all the information to truly know)? And what is this elusive self?
In Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Richard Wright he sets out to "define the arrow of the history of life, from the primordial ooze to the World Wide Web."
Using the backdrop of game theory, you should know that a sum-zero game divides the world neatly into winners and losers. As we move from cavemen survival to tribal clans to feudal empires to church states to nation states to corporate states and onward, we’ve become increasingly interdependent. Wright isn’t chanting a Woodstockian chorus of harmony and world peace. It isn’t exactly geared around altruism – we’ve simply become so intertwined and interdependent in our social structures that my self-interest is enveloped and enmeshed with your self-interest.
In a non-zero game it comes down to this: we all win or we all lose.
The one thing that sticks in my mind about this book is that the theme of expanding cooperative self-interest captured the imagination of the attendees at the first Accelerating Change conference a few years back. This is an audience of ardent futurists, uber-geeks, and a few financiers of the future. On the surface the audience appears to be concocted of a Darwinian-Machiavellian brew where the fittest cyborg triumphes. But following Richard Wright’s keynote, the conference bookstore tucked into the Stanford University hall was sold out of his book within minutes.
Machiavelli echoes, “I believe that we are successful when our ways are suited to the times and circumstances, and unsuccessful when they are not.” Over the course of history we’ve steadily moved from an egocentric to an ethnocentric to an increasingly world-centric perspective. Our minds cannot help but be informed and influenced by the memes of our time.
The historical evidence is clear: New times produce new thinking.
In an early age we found refuge in clans and safety in a threatening world by awakening the capacity to sense the spirits and placate them through magic. New times, new thinking.
When the magic and ritual become stifling, we escaped by asserting a raw sense of self and slaying the dragons that lurk in the dark. The powerful individual sought to dominate kith, kin and nature. New times, new thinking.
When chaos and anarchy then reigned supreme, we sought meaning and found peace of mind in the absolute and unquestioned order of a Higher Power or rightful authority, the organizing principle greater than any individual or group. New times, new thinking.
When that absolute order became oppressive and repressive and we grew wearing of waiting for future rewards, individualists challenged the authorities and tried to create the abundant ‘good life’ here and now. New times, new thinking.
When this progress-oriented materialism failed to bring happiness, we became lonely. Then we wanted to rediscover human feelings, recapture spirituality, and find ‘ourselves.’ New times, new thinking. – Don Beck and Christopher Cowan, from Spiral Dynamics
New times, new thinking. I’m just getting the hang of the rhythm, and whoa - we’ve come to an abrupt halt in history. It’s now 1996 – the year Spiral Dynamics was published. Beck and Cowan probably submitted their final manuscript before Netscape went public on August 9, 1995. And certainly before the November 1995 launch of Fast Company magazine. The blogosphere wasn’t even an apple in our eye yet. SoMa had cheap rent space and my mom hadn’t heard of Sand Hill Road yet. The twin towers were intact and media was the bailiwick of hip New Yorkers (or is that Silicon Alley) not scraggly “citizen journalists." I hadn’t joined the Internet revolution, er, I mean industry as yet - unless you count being addicted to online communities. Nor had I yet been married… or divorced. Ah, 1996. That's the same year that Cindy Olsen joined as VP of Corporate Affairs in charge of Enron’s 401K program - oh so many light-years before she would “diversify” her own personal holdings and withdraw millions. Geez, perhaps everything happened after 1996.