The most dangerous phrase in the world right now is 'the new normal.' It is a seductive idea - that out of all the chaos and upheaval unleashed by the pandemic, a new stability might emerge. But what if the new normal isn't normal at all? It is a divisive question. For some, the current crisis is but a brief time out on 'business as usual.' But for others - the rapid adoption and spread of automation, robotics, data surveillance, virtualization, and machine intelligence - is neither temporary nor reversible. It is a one-way trip to an entirely new, Cyberpunk-themed reality. What will it take to survive and thrive in such a world?
Let's take a moment to consider our present situation. Did you ever imagine that you might see a day when the hottest jobs were thermal scanner technicians, decontamination specialists, and contact tracers? Or that your iPhone would require an update to unlock while you were wearing a face mask, and offer an 'exposure notification API' to track potential contacts with invisible biohazards? Did you think that VR devices would sell out as an escape from everyday reality, just like in 'Ready Player One?' What about pandemic ready clothing and accessories, including rave suits for music festivals? Or all the robots that have started appearing everywhere - flipping burgers in kitchens, packing make-up boxes in warehouses or patrolling parks in Singapore?
Until recently, 2020 was the date on which we imagined the future would arrive. Although countless organizations published idealistic white papers about their 2020 visions, it was filmmakers that got the closest to the truth. Ridley Scott's 'Bladerunner' was set in November 2019 as was the dystopian reality TV show, 'The Running Man' and the Japanese anime 'Akira'. William Gibson's 'Johnny Mnemonic' took place in 2021, while 'Soylent Green', with its bleak glimpse of global food shortages, lack of housing, and systematic inequality, was set in 2022.
Cyberpunk is a complex and fascinating genre, mixing high technology with low life hell. Ultimately the lesson of Cyberpunk is that there is no such thing as neutral technology or benevolent control. There is always a messy divide between human and machine, order and chaos, body and soul. Any sense of normalcy or peace is generally an illusion in Cyberpunk worlds and one that can be disrupted at any moment. As the movie marketing for Akira reads, Neo-Tokyo is about to explode.
In physics, an unstable equilibrium is a state in which even a small change or disturbance will produce a large and disproportionate impact. An unstable equilibrium may have the appearance of normality but it is, in actuality, on a hair-trigger, ready to react at the slightest shift. It could be an e-book falling into the wrong hands, a bad trip on a digital narcotic, or the murder of a rich socialite - the smallest event can lead to a dramatic transformation or even a total revolution.
What you might think of as 'the new normal' today, is also an unstable equilibrium. We are surrounded by forces that have the power to tip our supposed balance into a state of chaos and system shock. Take your pick: geopolitical tension between China and the US, the rise of nationalism in Europe, fragmenting supply chains, fake news and deep fakes, the virtualization of work and the rise of AI or the rise of vast, global mega-corporations more powerful than nation states.
In my view, surviving and thriving in this new world will require an upgraded set of cognitive skills, new analytical frameworks, and deep personal fortitude. Until now, we consumed the future as an idea - like disruption, innovation, or creativity. Write a list of all the management tropes, leadership cliches and cheesy business book titles that you can think of and add the words, 'after COVID-19', and you will see just how useless they now are. Even VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity), which was first coined by the US Army War College to describe the world after the Cold War, just became a euphemism for 'difficult situations' - without really forcing any kind of change in the way leaders think or analyze their circumstances.
It doesn't have to be complex, but in my view, to be an effective leader in this new unstable environment there are three basic things we have to get better at:
#1. Be Probabilistic
In times of high uncertainty, you cannot afford to be deterministic in your behavior or decisions. Your heuristics, biases and past experiences will only get in your way. As new information or data becomes available, update your beliefs, and adjust your position. As I explore in an article for the Harvard Business Review, rather than trying to be right, it is better to be less wrong with time.
#2. Be Opportunistic
Programmers are familiar with the algorithmic tradeoff between exploring and exploiting. To explore is to seek new opportunities, while to exploit is to focus on profiting from what you already know. When you live in a world where stability cannot be assured, it is wise to spend more time on the hunt for alternate sources of income and novel ways of working. For traditional organizations, another way of thinking about this is to create safe spaces for dangerous ideas.
#3. Be Optimistic
One of the most important qualities that leaders now need to develop is a high tolerance for ambiguity and risk. Pay attention to who in your team is doing their best to adapt to the current circumstances. Are they energized by the unknown? Those that find a way to thrive in these new, uncertain times, will be the people equipped to lead your organization in the post-pandemic world that follows.
I, too, am an optimist. I believe that there is a path for us to reinvent our organizations while avoiding the excesses of algorithmic management, data surveillance, and social inequality. That said, it is naive to hope that the emerging AI technocracy will resemble anything that we once called 'normal.'
As any Cyberpunk protagonist would tell you, not being prepared to face the truth of the world is to risk being deluded and controlled by it.