Thinking the unthinkable with the Social Business Patchwork Elephant

I helped host the Social Business Patchwork Elephant Revisited last Friday. The first one was hosted 3 years ago when the term ‘Social Business’ was barely known and certainly didn’t have its very own industry as it pretty much does now. This just shows how things can change so rapidly. Yet when you’re in the industry itself it can feel sometimes as if things aren’t moving fast at all and it’s not until things are put into their proper perspective that you realise just how far things have progressed.

With this in mind I gave a small introduction about the possible future of social and business and how if you take an idea that can seem totally unthinkable and unacceptable it can become thinkable given the right ‘window’ of time. This is based on the Overton Window theory that there is a narrow ‘window’ when a range of ideas will be accepted by the public.  If you take a ‘way out there’ idea which appears completely unthinkable, then push it as far as you possibly can then sometimes, given the right ‘window’, that idea eventually becomes thinkable and acceptable.

Here are 2 concepts which could be possible in 40 years time. They may seem pretty unthinkable – but can they become truly thinkable if pushed to their extremes?

What if businesses became nothing more than a social object – that’s to say that social networks would be used simply to coordinate all the activities that businesses used to do?”

“Nanotechnology will destroy the present social and economic system – because it will become pointless” (James Burke on Radio 4 PM, August 2013)

James Burke’s Predictions

Let’s consider James Burke’s prediction for a minute. He was a famous BBC reporter on Tomorrow’s World in the 1970’s and chief presenter for the BBC’s coverage of the first moon landing in 1969.  In 1973 he was asked to predict what life would be like in 20 years time – that’s 1993. You have to remember that back in 1973 the only computers around filled floors, there were very few. There was no internet, no email, no mobile phones.

He predicted that:

• Storage of personal information in databanks would be accepted – at least by the young
• People would realise that the sharing of information would help organise society better
• Computer aided learning systems would provide children with their own plug in superteacher
• 300,000 computer terminals would be in use by the year 2000 providing forecasts on the effects of management decision making

There were in fact 146 million computers by 2000! His timescales were a bit inaccurate but he did well. In 1973 most people would have viewed these predictions as completely unthinkable.

So when Burke suggests that “Nanotechnology will destroy the present social and economic system – because it will become pointless” it may sound unthinkable now – but let’s think about it…
Burke believes that it may be possible that in 40 years time we could all own personal nanofactories which could reproduce stuff on a molecular level. It should be possible to make virtually anything – for virtually nothing.  All we would need, he says, is
air, water, dirt and acetylene gas (for carbon) and we could manufacture virtually everything – from gold, food, our utilities, or even a house.

We could, he suggests, become entirely autonomous!

This does sound really unthinkable – but perhaps this isn’t quite so far out there as it sounds. Take the current trends of everything being smaller, cheaper and networked – like 3d printing and internet of things and push this out over 40 years… Machines are already working at a molecular level – the University of Manchester has recently built one which they’re planning to modify to build penicillin.

The Endgame: Radical Abundance

So what’s the endgame with all this? Radical Abundance! The latest new new thing that’s just about to hit us and is being pushed not just by Burke but by others like Eric Drexler too.

So assuming that we could produce everything we needed, what could this mean for business? Here’s a possible snap shot:

Production: whether goods were made at home or locally on demand it could mean that large scale manufacturing would be knocked out.
Transport: if there were no goods to be moved around the transport industry would be under threat
Consumer facing businesses selling goods: would have serious problems
Sales & marketing: what for if there were no goods to flog
Business support services: would dwindle
Finance: a lot of the current financial system is based on betting on firms

Cities: What For?

Every major technology shift has made huge impacts to the way we live. Cities were after all only created for people to come together to trade goods and, as Burke points out, for workers to live close to factories. So could we, as Burke suggests, really end up living in smaller communities if we prefer? After all, contact at distance could easily be covered by 3d holography – made possible with nanotechnology…

Is this all becoming thinkable to you yet?

Governments: Why bother?

Burke though continues to push the unthinkable to it’s extreme suggesting that there would be no need for governments because they are only there to protect you and redistribute wealth in society. It could be, he says, that we would have no more need for social institutions as it’s all based on the scarcity of things. If we were able to produce everything ourselves why would you need them? For me this is taking the unthinkable to extremes – way out of the ‘window’ of the acceptable in my head!

But when looking at the original unthinkable concept:

Will business become a social object – that’s to say that social networks would be there to coordinate all the activities businesses used to do

perhaps now this thought has become a bit more thinkable than unthinkable to you!


About Janet

Hello these are words about myself
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2 Responses to Thinking the unthinkable with the Social Business Patchwork Elephant

  1. Pingback: Business as a Social Object, the Shadow Economy and WOMnets |

  2. Pingback: What next for Social Business? Patchwork Elephant Event Report : Enterprise Irregulars

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