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2024: A Pivotal Year

2024 January 7
by Greg Satell

There was big news in Somalia a few weeks ago. The country’s President, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, had passed enough reforms to qualify for debt forgiveness by the IMF and the World Bank, re-enter the global financial system and join into the East African Community, an important regional block.

Yet few noticed. With war raging in Ukraine and Gaza, as well as complete disarray in the US Congress, progress in a troubled country in the Global South doesn’t warrant much attention. While the global economy—especially in the US—seems to have recovered from the shock of the pandemic, I can’t remember when there has been so much chaos.

Last year I wrote that we would see a shift of focus from disruption to resilience and that’s largely been true. It’s hard to imagine anyone would argue for shaking things up more than they are now. The question for 2024 is what comes after? It’s fairly clear that a new world order is emerging, but not at all clear what it will look like. Our future lies in the balance.

A Historic Convergence Of Forces

A few years back, I wrote that there are eerie parallels between the 1920s and today. Some are obvious, such as a global pandemic and the emergence of a great power rivalry. Others, like a surge in immigration (and the ensuing backlash) and significant technological disruption, are less so, but are every bit as significant.

That’s cause for concern because the 1920s did not turn out well. They ended with a stock market crash and a global depression, which then led to the deadliest conflict in world history, World War II. Those are obviously things we want to avoid.

Today, we are facing four profound shifts that include changing patterns of demographics, migration, resources and technology. The stress lines are already beginning to show, with increasing tensions over race and class as well as questions about the influence technology and institutions have over our lives.

Nothing about this is inevitable. Hopefully we’ve learned something over the past hundred years and there are signs that we are making progress. Serious work towards regulating technologies such as AI are underway. Advances in synthetic biology have led to not only Covid vaccines, but cures for deadly diseases such as cancer and sickle cell anemia.

Still, the dangers are undeniable. The damage from climate change appears to be, at this point, unavoidable, which will lead to millions (perhaps billions) of displaced people. That will lead to more conflicts, more stress on the global system and more potential for things to spin widely out of control.

Technological and market forces won’t save us. We need to make better choices.

Moral Ranking, Antisemitism And The Failure To Survive Victory

In my book Cascades, I emphasized the need for every change effort to focus on surviving victory from the start by focusing on shared values, rather than differentiating values. Every revolution inspires its own counterrevolution. So even as you’re gaining traction and building steam, forces are mustering to oppose what you’re trying to achieve and an unforeseen event is likely to trigger a backlash.

“Modern communications technology and social media cuts both ways,” I wrote. “They can help mobilize support, but also may awaken  opposition and spur a countermovement. That’s essentially the trap that modern day movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter fell into. The phenomenon is so consistent you can almost set your watch by it.

That’s exactly what happened following the October 6th attacks in Israel. The most extreme voices on the far left, which were long protected from harsh judgment on college campuses, felt empowered to speak out. A Cornell professor raved that he was exhilarated by the attacks. Terrified Jewish students at Cooper Union had to barricade themselves in a library to escape from a mob. Across the country, anti-semitic behavior erupted.

Now the backlash is in full force and DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) programs are being targeted for destruction. Duke professor Timur Kuran tweeted that DEI programs often engage in “moral ranking,” coddling some students and vilifying the rest. Billionaire donors and politicians are putting pressure to curtail, or even eliminate, diversity programs. The Presidents of Penn and Harvard were forced to resign.

When we feel passionately about an idea, we want to talk about how it’s different, because that’s what made us passionate in the first place. So a desire for social justice and basic fairness can easily drift to a belief in a hierarchy of oppression. Then group polarization kicks in, “moral outbidding” begins, a purity spiral ensues and the most extreme views are proudly signaled as matters of identity. That’s how change fails.

Populist Authoritarianism vs Democracy 

Marshall McLuhan, one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century, described media as “extensions of man” and predicted that electronic media would eventually lead to a global village. Communities, he predicted, would no longer be tied to a single, isolated physical space but connect and interact with others on a world stage.

What often goes untold is that McLuhan did not see the global village as a peaceful place. In fact, he predicted it would lead to a new form of tribalism and result in a “release of human power and aggressive violence” greater than ever in human history, as long separated —and emotionally charged— cultural norms would constantly intermingle, clash and explode.

That does appear to have happened. The stresses caused by the four shifts of demographics, migration resources and technology are creating a desire among many for simple answers to complex, interconnected problems. Throughout history, demagogues have risen to meet the demand, asserting the victimhood of their constituents, dehumanizing a designated enemy and calling for retribution.

Beginning around 2014, activists such as Maria Ressa started to notice that nation states were weaponizing social media in order to amplify these voices. The global village dynamic, along with the economics of disinformation and the business models of the social media companies combined to create a far right version of the same process of group polarization and purity spirals that fed the far left.

Today the world teeters on the edge of democracy and popular authoritarianism. Pro-democracy forces have won some victories, most notably in Poland, but far right authoritarians, such as Viktor Orbán, Giorgia Meloni and Robert Fico continue to gain traction. Vladimir Putin wages war in Ukraine and Donald Trump calls to terminate the Constitution in the US.

The Only Way You Lose Is When You Quit

In 2009, it felt like the world was ending. I was still living in Ukraine then and the financial crisis hit there especially hard. GDP would fall by 14% and the ad market, which fueled the media business I ran, fell by 85%. I remember walking past the kiosks that traded currency everyday, tracking Ukraine’s Hryvnia fall heralding an even more uncertain future.

Then things got worse.

The next year, Viktor Yanukovych, the corrupt thug whose attempt to steal a presidential election sparked the Orange Revolution in 2004, was voted into power in a legitimate election. He turned out to be even worse than most had feared and Ukraine descended into a bacchanalia of corruption and lawlessness, which led to the Euromaidan protests that brought down his regime.

Yet that wasn’t the end of the story. In 2009 I started my blog, Digital Tonto, which turned my life in a new direction. The incredible cynicism and incompetence of Yanukovych’s rule stoked a desire to change direction. Activist attorneys created the Anti-Corruption Action Center which would form the basis for reforms. A video by Ukrainian journalists during the height of the protests captured the mood, calling for a shift in values.

I get the sense that we’re in a similar time now and things are heading to a critical juncture. We have wars raging, authoritarian regimes on the rise, deep challenges posed by climate change, and the need to regulate our technology, especially, but not only, artificial intelligence. Even anti-semitism is making a comeback.

Yet there are also great opportunities. The war in Ukraine raises the possibility that the country will be finally free from Russia, something its people have sought for over a century. New technologies like artificial intelligence and synthetic biology are leading to not only life-saving cures, but potential solutions to climate change. After a decade of a populist authoritarian rule, Poland chose democracy. We can too.

The truth is that you only lose when you quit. I have no idea how this year will turn out. I do know that, whatever happens, it will not be the end of the story.


Greg Satell is Co-Founder of ChangeOS, a transformation & change advisory, an international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto and on LinkedIn.

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