We've Entered The Volatile Postnormal Stage Of History

By looking at the past, we can judge what this new era might bring: a lot of chaos, populist movements fighting off the old economic order, and a 3-D printing fueled return to a more local economy.

Mark Twain once wisecracked, "History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes." In retrospect, we can occasionally hear an echo of some past juncture while listening to the news, or see the silhouette of earlier events superimposed on what is happening before our eyes. Perhaps that metaphorical understanding of the self-similarity of human events is part of the work—or tools—that futurists find useful.

There are some things happening in our present that "rhyme" with major disruptions of the past, several of which are widely under appreciated in the U.S., and which have led some people, like myself, to believe we have slipped inexorably out of the late industrial, postmodern era that started soon after the end of World War II. I refer to this period as the postnormal. I did so partly to avoid the unwieldy "post-postmodern," but also to indicate the nature of the break: the old rules don’t apply any more, but there may still be some rhymes we can use to pierce the postnormal fog.

It’s worth noting that I lifted an adjective originally coined for another purpose by Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz—"postnormal science"—in distinction to Thomas Kuhn’s "normal science." Their notion was that when "facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent," that normal scientific methods of inquiry won’t work. So, I turned the adjective into a noun to characterize our new era: a time when volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (known together by the acronym VUCA) are at an all-time high, and where established approaches to analysis and planning are increasingly ineffective. In a nutshell, the world economy has become massively unstable and complex, far too interconnected to understand in any real sense. Uncertainty about the future is at an all time high: so much so that the world’s most successful investors are unable to find low-risk investments, and trillions of dollars are sitting on the sidelines.

Instead of characterizing the entirety of the postmodern or postnormal eras, let me pull out some points that echo:

A key example—and one that is generally not discussed much in the U.S.—is what happened in the developing world following the end of World War II. The colonial empires through which European governments had dominated much of the world’s land, trade, resources, and people, rapidly disintegrated. For example, over 700 million souls were under the control of the British Empire outside the UK in 1945, falling to 5 million by 1965, 3 million of whom were in Hong Kong. The Japanese (not European, officially, but in form), French, Belgian, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish governments also had one or more colonies overseas prior to or after World War II. By the 1980s, most of the world’s former European colonies were no longer under the direct control of European governments, and over a billion former subjects of colonial systems were becoming citizens of new nations whose borders had been decided by treaties or earlier wars of occupation.

The echo of colonialism in the postnormal is subtle. We don’t have colonialism any longer, but the neoliberal capitalist economic system is global, and largely grew out of the same countries that were colonial powers. Even the former communist holdouts—China and Russia—have become state-controlled players in the new world order. We’ve created a global financial and manufacturing system that has come to control and concentrate the world wealth and power into the hands of a small elite. The only difference it that it is no longer the crowned heads of Europe setting policy, but the technocrat managers of large corporations, financial institutions, and the political class.

The rising concerns about inequity—shown in Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, and the rewriting of the constitution in Iceland—are an echo of the early rise of anticolonial insurgents. Populist groups will argue against the entrenched power of the the global financial order, and will ultimately elect governments that take control back, and decrease the sway of global neoliberalism.

If the past is prologue, we might see the fall of the European Union, the defection of regions like Catalonia and Scotland from their nation states, and the rising of trade barriers as a means to protect local workers and industries. These are echoes, refactored variants of anti-colonial movements of the past.

In postmodern times, we also witnessed the rise and fall of the number of people working in manufacturing in parallel with the transition from industrial manufacturing to computer-controlled automation. That, in combination with neoliberal "flat world" business theory, led to a wholesale transfer of skilled and semi-skilled labor from the U.S. and other advanced economies out to the developing world. In the postnormal, we will see the echo of that rise and fall in the coming "artisanal manufacturing" era, ushered in by the 3-D printer revolution. Among other things, 3-D printers decrease assembly—a large factor in manufacturing costs—by allowing complex shapes to be printed in fewer pieces: for example, an automobile dashboard can be produced as one piece instead of 17.

We can imagine the explosion of a new generation of manufacturing, one that doesn’t rely on either armies of semi-skilled laborers or industrial regions dominated by computer-controlled factories and their supply chains and logistics networks. Instead, a new caste of millions of artisanal product designers will be building small runs of 3-D printed products, sharing designs and selling through a social web, using low-cost machinery, and sidestepping the control of large corporations. Such an advance has the opportunity to destabilize the world’s patterns as much as the rise of industrialism did. Will the 3-D printer end China’s role as the world’s factory? Could it lead to that empire-sized country falling apart? I can hear that echo, can you?