So, we’ve got two trends that are all, at their core, about dehumanization.
Work like you’re a multi-person business, even if you’re just one person.
Use human values to extract resources from others.
And the societal and corporate waters in which we’re swimming aren’t helping.
You don’t need me to recap the ongoing litany of horrors that pops up on your Instagram feed every morning, we’re living this stuff. Catastrophes are experienced, reported and livestreamed, competing narratives emerge and are fought over, then they’re memefied, commodified, and by the time people put on their “I Survived the Murder Hornets!” T-shirt we’ve all moved onto the next thing. Outrages are occurring (have always occurred, will always occur), and are being used to keep us all in a spun-out cycle of adrenaline and outrage (again, this is nothing new), but the addition of commerce into the mix is a new and uniquely late-capitalism twist on this very old story of abuse and re-abuse.
The cultural conversation is growing ever-more complex, and this is reflected in the online conversation too. We’re wrestling with really big, systemic stuff, stuff. 10 years ago it would have been kind of weird and kitcsch to wear your values on your sleeve, you did it when you really wanted to stand for something, like Burt’s Bees or Ben and Jerry’s.
Now activism in the online space is opt-out, rather than opt-in.
If you don’t post about how #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo and #StopAsianHate and all of the other things that are 100% important and 10,000% true on your feed, if you don’t join the conversation at the right time in the right way and say the right things to the right people, then you don’t care. In fact, you’re probably a racist, homophobic, bigot who hates everyone who doesn’t look like you and shouldn’t be allowed to be on the internet at all, much less have a business.
The very values that so many espouse, and are proud of, are being lost and co-opted as weapons of abuse and control in the very conversations that are meant to be about sovereignty, care, and freedom. Sometimes by people who are doing this on purpose. Often by people who are just so fucking afraid that they’re going to be the next one to wear the Scarlet Letter that they’ll throw anyone and everyone under the bus because as long as it’s not me being cancelled then that means I’m OK, that I’m safe. If I conform to the norms of the crowd, if I exchange my sovereignty for safety, they have to take care of me, right? (<– This idea and phrasing did not originate with me, it’s Dr. Jenn McCabe’s.)
Well sure. As long as you’re willing to follow the party line and keep up with the very latest nuances of all these extremely high-context conversations that are happening in all kinds of different places and never ever have a thought of your own, or advocate in non-visible ways, or in ways that the group’s leader deems to be bad.
I grew up in a micro-culture where thought crimes and “sins of the heart” were real violations with tangible consequences. I know this tendency of humans right down into my solar plexus, I can feel a crowd moving that way in my bones. And it scares the fuck out of me how much I’m seeing this in the online space.
Another brick in the … Google sheet?
So we’re outraged at the world and scared of each other. Then we have big, corporate super-organisms come in and add in a layer of dehumanization on top of it all. In a series of years where we’re all being painfully and intensely reminded of our humanity and its fragility, the response from bigger organizations is to move towards ever-greater dehumanisation, and seeing their customers as externalities.
“Externalities” is the fancy economist word for the consequences of an industrial or commercial activity (aka doing business) that affects other parties without coming back on the business itself.
It’s basically the consequences that occur as a result of a business doing something, but that only affect other people and not you.
I got all fired up when I came across this term, because it put a name to something I’ve been noticing for the past couple of years, which is the increasing externalization of the consumer from a corporate standpoint.
Without fail, every single interaction I’ve had with a big business in the past year has ended in a giant “go fuck yourself” to me. I’m hearing the same from lots of other people. And, because the plural of anecdote is not data, here are the citations that back up what I and so many other people have felt: many big businesses do not give a fuck.
This is, of course, nothing particularly new.
It’s the fallout of 40 years’ worth of shareholder economics, taken to the ludicrously inevitable extremes that apparently nobody bothered to think about when coming up with the idea.
But it became particularly apparent just how hard most people fall into the “externality” category for most businesses this year, because it came against the contrast of small businesses absolutely breaking their backs to survive and work with people.
And the fact that everyone I know is working SO FUCKING HARD to deliver on their promises, and work with their buyers like the humans they are, often in the face of really fucking awful things going on for them, all while being dramatically under-resourced in general, and especially in relation to the resources larger corporations command, that makes it extra hard when you’re trying to work with a company that makes it clear from minute one that they neither see you as human nor actually care whether they follow through on their end of the “you’ve given me money, here is your product or service” bargain.
(This, by the way, is why we got all super skin-crawly about that spate of commercials that came out being all like, “In these trying times, Big Business XYZ cares about YOU. Now buy our shit. Love you!! xoxo”)
Sometimes this is done intentionally — see the deliberate hoop-jumping built into, say, customer service to discourage customers from trying to get the help they need.
But is more often occurs as a result of organizational failures that are largely operational in nature, and not intentional, but still lead to the kinds of dehumanization and abuses that mean that it doesn’t really matter what the intent was, because people are still getting hurt just as badly.
It doesn’t matter that you didn’t intentionally set up your system to hurt people, because it’s still your fault as the leader and as the board that you’ve created incentives and bowed to societal and cultural norms that see workers as assets and prioritize shareholder profits over customer needs. The bigger the degree of potential impact your organization has, the more responsibility you should take for the outcome of your system and your organization’s actions. You have the potential to hurt more, so you should be more careful.
And yet, by and large, the response is ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
And of course, everything’s changing. It’s not just you. The pace of change is real, and terrifying.
If things feel like they’re moving faster, it’s because they are. Ray Kurzweil predicted in 2001 that in the next 100 years, we’re going to experience the equivalent of 20,000 years of change. Just think about that for a second. Think about the pace of change in the last century, going from no electricity to having the Internet in your lifetime. That’s the kind of change that we’re talking about experiencing every decade for the next century.
But living through the growing pains is taking its toll on us, mentally, physically, and societally.
This incredible and unprecedented mix of world being on fire, the online conversation growing ever-more-complex as we wrestle with the really big systemic stuff and navigate “cancel culture”, the degree to which we are out-resourced in the face of large corporate super-systems that see us and our lives as externalities, and the increasing pace of change, is a perfect recipe for a whole bunch of mono-thinking, beat-down humans.
We’re afraid to say anything, because we might say the wrong thing and get run out of town on a pole.
We’re exhausted by all the circumstances going on around us, and feel like there’s nothing we can do about it, because as larger entities close ranks and strip back the curtain on how little they care about humans, we become demoralized.
And, as the pace of change keeps flying up the exponential curve it started hitting really with the start of WW1 but even more so in the 90s, it’s impossible to “get ahead” of trends and plan your actions accordingly.
10, 15 years ago, you could show up online largely as an avatar. You could keep your work and your life separate, you could build a brand that really had very little to do with your actual life, and you could craft the perfect persona to get people to react to you how you wanted them to react to you.
Then things started getting sticky, and narratives started getting ever-more-complex. Entrepreneur Barbie suddenly had to become environmentally-friendly performatively-woke Barbie, and while that takes a lot more work, it’s OK because people still liked you, and still bought your things, and you knew how to say the right things.
But the hacks, the plans, the perfectly-crafted personas and “safe” ways interacting that guarantee people won’t get mad at you just. aren’t. possible. anymore.
See: the never-ending line of very visible humans eating shit over and over and over again as they try to only show up as their persona.
So what can you do?
When it is no longer possible to hack the relationship, beat the system, or predict the future, the only thing we can do is show up whole, human, fallible, and willing to relate. Perfection and personas are no longer on the table. We’re sick of “brands” and “businesses”.
We crave humans.
And in the face of increasing dehumanization, showing up as radically human is the only move left.
What does that mean and how do you do it?
See here’s the thing. I can’t tell you how to human. Not because I don’t want to. But because to human is a collective congruence, which is a fancy pants way of saying that we can’t do it on our own.
We’re inherently social creatures.
And I’m not just talking about the whole “babies die if they don’t get cuddled” thing, I’m talking about how the things that make us human are inherently collective.
Bear with me while we take a hard left into evolutionary biology (hooray!)
So, what makes humans, humans?
I got super interested in this question, and have been doing a research deep-dive into it for the past year or so. (As one does.)
It’s definitely not our smarts — just look at anything octopi do and you’ll be disillusioned of that view ASAP. (And probably a little creeped out too).
Is it our society? Loads of other species have societies, hell, dolphins have been known to create capitalistic structures. (And gangs, FYI.)
Is it our emotions, our ability to feel? Survey says a decisive “no”, animals feel joy and grief and all the other things we do. Crows are particularly fun, they hold inter-generational grudges and murder investigations.
Is it our tendency to see something bigger than ourselves, our interest in worship? Again, no. Elephants have a moon worshipping religion, and hold funerals for their loved ones.
So what is it? What elements are uniquely human, what makes us more than anxious monkeys?
It’s the ability to share our intentions.
Shared intentionality sounds so incredibly basic when I explain it, but it’s completely mind-blowing. It’s the ability for me to have an idea in my mind about something I want to do, then communicate that to you in such a way that you get on board with my imagined possibility, and then we work together to make it happen.
As in, I say, “Hey, I’m feeling nachos” and you say, “Mmm, nachos, let’s go get some!” And nachos happen. When I start this whole thing, there are no nachos. They are only nachos of the mind. But in sharing that intention with you, together, we can get nachos.
As I said, sounds stupid simple. Is actually mind-shatteringly incredible.
Because we are, apparently, the only species that does it. The really great quote from Michelle Tomasello, who’s researched this to hell and gone, is “You’ll never see two monkeys carrying a stick together.”
And just think about that for a second. Because it’s the key to everything. It’s what allows us to build our world, instead of survive it.
If I can imagine something different, and then you can imagine that too, and then hell, we get more people in on it, and then poof, suddenly as a species we’ve got international trade and fiat monetary systems and oh look, the internet economy, all sorts of things that don’t actually exist except in all of our heads.
We’re the only species who can use this to become more than the sum of our parts — because on our own, as individual people, we’re inherently limited. I can only come up with so many ideas for things because I’ve only lived the one life. I’m just me.
But get your one life together with my one life, and we’ve instantly got an exponentially larger pool of possibilities on the table.
It’s not just my pool of ideas plus your pool of ideas, it’s those ideas plus all the new ones we can create together by combining those pools.
And that’s where our potential lies.
Now, let’s circle this back to showing up as radically human in business. Because geeking out over shared intentionality is all well and good, but also, like … what do we do now, today?
Well, since human is a collective congruence, and also because I’m not standing up on the mount with a direct line to the “here’s how to save the world” gods, I can’t tell you how to do it. And I don’t want to. Because how fucking arrogant would that be for me to tell you how to human?
But I can tell you this: given that shared intentionality is a thing, and it’s been our super-power so far, it’s what I’m putting my money on for moving forward.
And what that looks like practically is me, and you, and us all together saying, “This is what we believe, and what we want to happen. This is what I’m doing to make that happen. And this is how I want you to join me.”
In my case, I’m doing business based on three values:
- Fundamental regard: any work I do, anything we put out, any interaction we have, is based on a fundamental regard for the other human involved. We operate with what theologian Martin Buber called an “I-Thou” stance, one in which you see people as full-on, in-living-color humans.
- Fierce love for the environment we’re working in. I love what online business has done and can do. (See my now 7,000 word love-letter to the whole thing.) If you’re coming in as the pirhana who’s only in here to eat the rest of the fishtank, I don’t want you here. And I’ll do what I can to get rid of you.
- Decisive responsibility. Business doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The things I do, the things any of us do, have consequences. Sometimes good consequences. Sometimes bad consequences. But it matters to me that I think through what those possible consequences are for myself and for others when it comes to making decisions, giving advice, and doing work. It matters to me that my decisions don’t actively or carelessly make your life worse.
And I’d like everyone else to do the same. That’s my intention. And I’m sharing it with you. And it’s what informs all the other little mini, daily intentions I have and invite others to, too.
That’s part 1.
But that’s not enough. Because again, it’s not about creating a whole bunch of little mini-me’s. That would be the absolute fucking worst.
I want to know what we can do together. Because again, and again and a thousand times more, collective congruence.
That’s part 2.
That’s what I’m inviting you to now.
I’m hosting a community conversation about what it’s going to take to build the business world we want to work in.
And I want you in it.
Because the truth is, we can keep wringing our hands over this, talking about the many, many problems we’re seeing forever. But that’s not going to get us where we want to go.
If we want something different, we’re going to have to do something different.
And my something different is this conversation.
You can find out all about it here, but the TL;DR is that it’s me, you, and 25 of the most interesting people I know talking about what it’s going to take to save online business.
It’s free. No upsell. No funnel.
And I truly, truly want your voice there.