“The United States Will Not Exist As A Nation” – And Other, Less Wild And Scary Thoughts About The Future

“We would rather be ruined than changed…”
W. H. Auden, quoted by Juan Enriquez, The Untied States of America


It really is breathtaking…just how fast we adapt to the new world, and how quickly we abandon, and forget, the old.

Think:  how could we live without our cell phones?  Yet, for the history of the telephone up until the new “now,” such convenience and multi-use function would have been unthinkable.

Do you have a DVR?  I do.  And I can barely remember life before I had it.   And, by the way, I’m old enough to remember when I had to stand up, walk across the room, and put my hand on the actual television set to change channels.  A remote control was a full size umbrella, and you could use the end of the umbrella to reach across the room and change the channel.  (Do you remember those days?)  (By the way, I think that there is a clear connection between size of the ever-growing waistline in the United States, and the arrival of the remote control!)

So, the changes come, and we adapt, embrace, and forget.  Before they come, we can’t quite conceive of the world that is to come.  After they arrive, we wonder at what life was like before.

Or, to put in another way – with modern life, we all live pretty much better than royalty just a few generations back.  (running water, hot water, air conditioning!, Starbucks! – what did they do, how did they survive?)

So…  with all of this in mind (have you got it in mind?  Think about it… – can you grasp that life truly has changed, over and over again?!)

Now, read this…

As you guys were talking, I felt my stomach flutter in terms of where America sits in all this.
Saffo: This will sound pessimistic, but I think it’s a better than even chance that the United States will not exist as a nation by midcentury.

This is the most provocative line in the terrific think piece on The Daily Beast: 3 Ways to Reinvent America by Randall Lane.  Here’s the intro:

What will drive innovation in the next decade? The Daily Beast’s Randall Lane brought together preeminent business thinkers John Kao, Paul Saffo, and Tim Brown for ideas—from “pro-sumers” to designing living organisms.
With President Obama set to unveil his blueprint to kickstart innovation in America, The Daily Beast’s Randall Lane brought together three of the country’s top business thinkers—John Kao, chairman of the Institute for Large Scale Innovation, Paul Saffo, managing director of Foresight at Discern Analytics, and Tim Brown, president of IDEO—together for a roundtable on how to reinvent the American economy.

The full article is worth reading, but it is the quote above that I keep going back to.  Think about the idea that the United States will not exist as a nation by mid-century.  It seems impossible; unthinkable; mad…  or does it?

I don’t know what tomorrow will hold.  Oh, I think I get the trajectory, in some ways:  with our DVRs and our cell/smart phones, I have the hunch that “we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”  But the changes that are tougher, a little more frightening, they too are probably coming at us.  Maybe faster, more dramatic, by the year/decade…

It sort of reminds me of the book The Untied States of America:  Polarization, Fracturing, and Our Future, by Juan Enriquez.  (Jim Young put me onto Enriquez years ago, with his earlier book As the Future Catches You).  The Untied States of America starts with these words:

Countries, like marriages, companies, and people, Oft reach a break point, and split or die.  We watch as it happens to others, but we rarely ask ourselves…
Could it ever happen here?  Because most of us truly love the country we live in.  Yet country after country disappears, splits, secedes.  Turns out, regardless of pledges, nations are divisible…

Maybe the USA will be just fine – but which company, that you have always counted on, will disappear.  Anybody remember these now defunct companies:  Bethlehem Steel; Circuit City; Penguins Frozen Yogurt?  (at least in Texas – it looks like it is still alive in California!)

But/and, what new things will come.

In the article/roundtable led by Randall Lane, the three experts say these things:

• (Kao):  the issue of how to orchestrate resources and how to be good at the process of innovation within the technology-enabled global environment is, I think, the secret sauce for our country.


• (Brown): It takes us from a world that’s clean to a world that’s messy, from a world that’s top-down, where we think about everything in its completeness, to a world of bottom-up, where ideas emerge, where new ideas and new practices emerge, and they are iterated to what is ultimately sort of their mature version. We only need to think about social networks—they’re not things, they’re behaviors.


• (Saffo):  There’s a transformation already under way, so this isn’t even a forecast, it’s a description. Nov. 17, 2008, was not just a very bad day and a very bad week, it was also the moment in which the last economy died and a new economy is emerging. That new economy—yeah, we all talked about it through the ’90s, with the Internet, a happy face notion of what would happen—turned out to be a lot more complicated but also a lot more interesting.
We’re now into the new economy and the new central actor is not the worker, the person who produces, nor the person who consumes, but a new economic actor who does both things at the same time. Now there are words like pro-sumer and everything else out there—my preferred term for it is ‘a creator economy.’

But it’s the line about the United States that I keep pondering the most…

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