Rethinking the Industrial Mindset: An Interview with No Straight Lines’ Alan Moore (Part One)

In early 2007, I featured an interview on my blog with Alan Moore, then the CEO of SMLXL, the Cambridge based “engagement marketing” firm, and the co-author ofCommunities Dominate Brands: Business and Marketing Challenges for the 21st Century. At the time he explained, “Engagement marketing is a very broad term, and purposefully so. At its heart, is the insight that human beings are highly social animals, and have an innate need to communicate and interact. Therefore, any engagement marketing initiative must allow for two-way flows of information and communication. We believe, people embrace what they create.”

Through the years, we have remained in touch. Moore remains one of the most thoughtful people I have met in the contemporary marketing world — someone who reads broadly, who asks challenging questions, who is willing to explore alternative perspectives, and who is trying to construct his own theoretical model for the changes that are impacting our contemporary society.

All of that probing and reading comes together in his new book, No Straight Lines: Making Sense of Our Nonlinear World. No Straight Lines offers a fascinating perspective who roams far and wide across the worlds of business, media and entertainment, politics, education, even healthcare, suggesting a new framework for understanding the way the world is changing in the 21st century. And Moore has been putting his money where his mouth is experimenting with new kinds of relationship with his readers. The above video tells you how you can access a copy of the book at the price of a tweet, and below, he describes some of the ways that readers can participate within what he calls a “read/write” version of the book.

In the conversation which follows, Moore explores a few of the many dimensions of the book, talking about how he can function as both a cultural critic and an industry leader, his critiques of Web 2.0, and his thoughts on core concepts such as participation, information, networks, and democracy.

You begin No Straight Lines with a provocative statement, “the purpose of this book is to highlight the corrosive effect that an industrial mindset and free market economy has ultimately inflicted upon humanity. My hypothesis is that we have got to the point where our industrial economy, projected onto society, can no longer support humanity.” These are strong and somewhat unexpected words coming from someone who has worked as the CEO of an branding company. How do you reconcile your positions as a cultural critic and as an industry leader? Does advertising have a constructive role to play in dismantling the industrial mindset which you claim has robbed us of aspects of our basic humanity? Or is advertising a key force promoting the old industrial model?

Craft

My early career originates in design, and design thinking. Deep is the connection between designers and their work as socially relevant to the world, so there is DNA in there.

I have often speculated that this is umbilically connected to craft – the craftsman works for the collective good. The creative marks yielded by my tools must have some form of satisfaction. Good work, good craft – yes, but also good for who else other than myself?

The shoemaker, the baker, the master craftsman used their skills and expertise to give something to society. And even the early industrial revolution through wrenching was geared towards giving light, heat mobility, communication, education etc., to a wider humanity.

Journey

My journey has been profound – I have worked for some of the biggest businesses in the world, but in my professional experience, and in the work I have undertaken initially for Communities Dominate Brands and now No Straight Lines I could see there was a systems problem.

I witnessed many organizations had lost their role and purpose for the wider society that a world defined purely by a commercial material culture had no value. Either through the products and services they were trying to sell, and or indeed the internal culture of these organizations.

The role of commerce in a networked world

These organizations were not asking – is what we create for the collective good?

I could see marketing had become harvesting cash flow for the quarterly numbers and shareholder returns. In many ways your book Convergence Culture demonstrated, to me anyway, humanities extraordinary need to create meaningful connection, to create culture and identity. Whereas you point to the cultural industries resisting any notion the idea that consumers had any right to participate in cultural production. Their job was to be good consumers.

So I asked myself do I need to help these organizations sell more or can I try to find a better use of my intent, my craft, creativity and skills? And that question led me to write No Straight Lines. Today my work is about helping large organizations see and create a better future.

Is advertising bad?

To your specific point advertising per se is not inherently bad – but its context on the whole is geared towards “I” and not “we”. With these jeans “I” will look cooler, more attractive, with this car “I” will feel more free, more important, with this black credit card it says “I” am important. Advertising represents the sharp end of the commercial intent of the organizations that define our world, its dominant logic is consumer culture is our salvation and I am afraid I have to disagree.

To demonstrate that lets briefly survey our commercial landscape – the bank HSBC has been laundering billions of drug cartel money in effect supporting murder, rape and torture; Barclays bank with others was fixing the interbank lending rate and undertaking massive tax fraud as we went into financial meltdown;  the subprime mortgage scandal in the US unleashed the global banking crisis which is still having significant implications for sovereign states today. Whilst they all advertise a better life through consumerism and debt.

Or in the UK the newspaper The News of the World that thought it was OK to hack into the voicemail of murdered school girls to sell tabloid newspapers and generate revenue through advertising. I would argue in pursuit of financial gain we have crossed a moral rubicon.

I was very happy to be in service of an industry which I believed to be inherently good – where commerce and society lived in mutual co-existence – but this is sadly no longer the case.

Part of your critique of the industrial era is that it forced humans to think and act in a very linear fashion, where-as you advocate a world where there are few if any “straight lines.” What do you see as some of the defining characteristics of the world you are advocating? What signs do you see that a post-industrial society is already moving us in that direction?

Firstly the defining characteristics I see are encapsulated in what I term the Human-OS (operating system).

This OS wants greater opportunity, greater freedom, greater empowerment, a revitalized sense of justice, a world where mutualism and participatory cultures are the default setting, where openness is seen as resilience and diversity is understood as a good thing, where we have greater autonomy and that seeks a greater aesthetic in everything we do: beautiful buildings, civic spaces, organizational design, it is as easy to make something beautiful as it is to make it ugly. So why choose the latter over the former? That question has always baffled me other than knowing ugly thoughts realize ugly realities.

This OS is the key driver to the systems change we are witnessing. I see this Human-OS in the transformational change of all the examples cited in No Straight Lines: from agriculture, hospital design, and healthcare service design, educational programmes, the response to complex civic challenges, manufacturing, NGO’s, the nature of finance, innovation and commerce itself. This OS is the story of why our networked world with its new Human OS is directing the shape of our post industrial future, which is why on the floors of our factories, in the waiting rooms of our hospitals, the classrooms of our schools, people are asking not what if – but how. How can we create a world designed around the wider needs of humanity, and that serves that humanity in ways in which our industrial society no longer can.
As others have observed, when you get institutional failure you lose the right to lead and people learn to get what they need from each other – that is essentially what is happening.

There is also the well-documented insight that technology only succeeds when it meets fundamental human needs – if we are currently wrapping an interactive socially orientated communications membrane around the world we have to understand this is what the Human OS wants.

It demands we rethink a few things; how we educate our young, how we teach business, our sense of ourselves in relation to our communities and civic spaces the nature of the organisation and political institutions, legal frameworks, the nature of work, happiness and play.

And in fact there is not a single industry on this planet where people are not investigating ways in which these things can be achieved. And of course the old industrial order politically, socially, organizationally is resisting.

Alan  Moore sits on the “board of inspiration” at the Dutch Think Tank Freedom Lab. He acts as “Head of Vision” for the Grow Venture Community, is a board director of the crisis management NGO Ushahidi and is as a special advisor to a number of innovative companies and organizations including publishing, mobile, the theatre and finance.