Recently I spent several hours sitting under a tree in my garden with the social anthropologist William Ury, a Harvard University professor who specializes in the art of negotiation and wrote the bestselling book, Getting to Yes. He captivated me with his theory that tribalism protects people from their fear of rapid change. He explained that the pillars of tribalism that humans rely on for security would always counter any significant cultural or social change. In this way, he said, change is never allowed to happen too fast. Technology, for example, is a pillar of society. Ury believes that every time technology moves in a new or radical direction, another pillar such as religion or nationalism will grow stronger – in effect, the traditional and familiar will assume greater importance to compensate for the new and untested. In this manner, human tribes avoid rapid change that leaves people insecure and frightened.
But we have all heard that nothing is as permanent as change. Nothing is guaranteed. Pithy expressions, to be sure, but no more than clichÃ©s. As Ury says, people donâ€™t live that way from day-to-day. On the contrary, they actively seek certainty and stability. They want to know they will be safe.
Evert so, we scare ourselves constantly with the idea of change. An IBM CEO once said: â€˜We only re-structure for a good reason, and if we havenâ€™t re-structured in a while, thatâ€™s a good reason.â€™ We are scared that competitors, technology and the consumer will put us out of business â€“ so we have to change all the time just to stay alive. But if we asked our fathers and grandfathers, would they have said that they lived in a period of little change? Structure may not have changed much. It may just be the speed with which we do things.
Change is over-rated, anyway. Consider the automobile. Itâ€™s an especially valuable example, because the auto industry has spent tens of billions of dollars on research and product development in the last 100 years. Henry Fordâ€™s first car had a metal chassis with an internal combustion, gasoline-powered engine, four wheels with rubber tyres, a foot operated clutch assembly and brake system, a steering wheel, and four seats, and it could safely do 18 miles per hour. A hundred years and tens of thousands of research hours later, we drive cars with a metal chassis with an internal combustion, gasoline-powered engine, four wheels with rubber tyres, a foot operated clutch assembly and brake system, a steering wheel, four seats â€“ and the average speed in London in 2001 was 17.5 miles per hour!
Thatâ€™s not a hell of a lot of return for the money. Ford evidently doesnâ€™t have much to teach us about change. The fact that theyâ€™re still manufacturing cars is not proof that Ford Motor Co. is a sound organization, just proof that it takes very large companies to make cars in great quantities â€“ making for an almost impregnable entry barrier. Fifty years after the development of the jet engine, planes are also little changed. They’ve grown bigger, wider and can carry more people. But those are incremental, largely cosmetic changes.
Taken together, this lack of real change has come to mean that in travel â€“ whether driving or flying â€“ time and technology have not combined to make things much better. The safety and design have of course accompanied the times and the new volume of cars and flights, but nothing of any significance has changed in the basic assumptions of the final product.
At the same time, moving around in cars or aeroplanes becomes less and less efficient all the time. Not only has there been no great change, but also both forms of transport have deteriorated as more people clamour to use them. The same is true for telephones, which took over hundred years to become mobile, or photographic film, which also required an entire century to change.
The only explanation for this is anthropological. Once established in calcified organizations, humans do two things: sabotage changes that might render people dispensable, and ensure industry-wide emulation. In the 1960s, German auto companies developed plans to scrap the entire combustion engine for an electrical design. (The same existed in the 1970s in Japan, and in the 1980s in France.) So for 40 years we might have been free of the wasteful and ludicrous dependence on fossil fuels. Why didn’t it go anywhere? Because auto executives understood pistons and carburettors, and would be loath to cannibalize their expertise, along with most of their factories.
According to the passage, which of the following statements is true?