The New “Nine Shift”

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By Mark Lundegren

I’d like to recommend a provocative and fairly new book, one offering important perspectives and ideas on the coming Internet-based age.  It’s called Nine Shift: Work, Life and Education in the 21st Century.

Nine Shift was written with obvious care by William Draves and Julie Coates of www.lern.org, a virtual organization involved in online learning and training.  Their book is broad and thought-provoking, practical as much as visionary, and, as I said, full of important ideas and perspectives about the coming decades -that may well challenge you to think and act differently today.

Nine Shift is for anyone wanting to better understand and navigate the rapidly changing world around us, or a clearer or alternative picture of the many emerging possibilities now before us.  I would specifically extend this recommendation to natural health practitioners working today toward more cooperative, wellness-centered, and economically-viable modes of living for themselves and others.

Draves and Coates begin Nine Shift with a summary of key technological and social trends they view as unfolding today already.  These trends include the move to virtual and flexible work, a resurgent desire for tangible community (a consequence of virtual work), and even the withdrawal of young men from traditional educational programs.  These and other contemporary developments are put into a larger framework suggesting systemic change, and combined to form a comprehensive and surprising portrait of how life might be quite different, even in just a decade or two. 

Nine Shift is for the reader thus a guidebook of sorts to the twenty-first century, offering a number of  interesting proposals and suggestions – some intuitive, others much less so – about the new and tangibly different world we are beginning to find around in the new century.  The book’s ideas and insights will be thought provoking, even inspiring and hopeful, for anyone eager to explore and prepare for what may be nothing less than post-industrial life and a new human era.

The title, Nine Shift, is derived from one of the book’s main conclusions: that nine of our twenty-four hours each day will shift completely as we move from industrial to Internet-based living between 2000 and 2020.  Draves and Coates base this conclusion on their study of trends today, as well as comparisons with the transitional period of 1900-1920.  In this approach, they draw uncanny parallels between our time and this other “nine shift” that plainly occurred roughly one hundred years ago.  Then, we moved quickly from the agrarian to the industrial age, in a relatively sudden phase shift that was revolutionary but only scarcely perceived and understood by people living amidst this earlier time.

Draves and Coates point out that that twelve hours of our lives each day are locked up in our biology: sleeping, eating, bathing, etc. Because of this, both nine shifts represent profound changes in the way people live and how society is structured.  They are shifts of roughly 75% of our discretionary time and activities into a new paradigm.  Draves and Coates argue that, just as such a paradigm shift happened one hundred years ago, another shift is happening again now in a new and equally pervasive nine shift.

What is entirely different this time, and in many ways antithetical to the earlier shift, is that our nine shift is driven by the Internet, a technology created by late twentieth century knowledge workers to collaborate and share information.  The essentially collaborative nature of this technology, underlying the new shift, is very likely to produce a fundamentally different and even reversed social environment than the one of our industrial age, say Draves and Coates.  They point out that the earlier nine shift was the product of a different and far more atomistic new technology – the internal combustion engine, and its two principal and economically and socially disruptive progeny: mechanized tractors and automobiles.

If the twentieth century was based on combustion, and drove us outward into factories and highways, and into the relative isolation of low-density suburbs and mass culture and standardization, our new and shifting century promises to be about connection and inward expansion, including a return to dense communities, home-life and home-work, and far greater individuality, idiosyncrasy, and specialization.

Consider some of the life- and work-changing developments that Draves and Coates say are underway already, in our time, some of them representing a great leap “back to the future” and far more fitting in agrarian than industrial society:

  • A return to home-based work, using intranets this time instead of plows
  • Network-based social and economic structures, reflecting the more natural, decentralized patterns of human and Internet interaction
  • New-old values emphasizing collaboration, sharing, interdependence, quality of outcome, and self-discipline
  • Community revitalization, eventually leading to abandonment of outlying buildings that cannot be used at least eighteen hours a day
  • The decline of the traditional automobile and highway systems, and a return to (web-wired) trains and pedestrian neighborhoods
  • Lifelong, Internet-based learning, with teachers as course designers and working virtually to reach similar but dispersed student groups

These and other changes, intelligently explored by Draves and Coates, unite to form a vivid, tangible, and remarkably complete vision of our future, and I expect many of their provocative forecasts are apt to find a place in the coming reality of 2020. Of particular note is the fact that their envisioned future is a decidedly more humane and personalized one than our still semi-industrial, and thus transitional and especially harried, present.  Their postulated future is also more environment- and family-friendly, and even more satisfying than the age we are likely leaving now. And it is a future, the authors argue, that is already coalescing and nearly here in the new century’s first decade. Many of us have and can step into it already.

In truth, even if only of a portion of their forecasts come to fruition, large and quite pervasive changes are clearly upon us already, and they may be both far more pervasive and focused than we realize in our time. Just as in the 1900-1920 nine shift, people today struggle to see and adapt to our nine shift as it occurs. We know or suspect we live amidst a period of massive and unprecedented change, with myriad new and old opportunities and demands on our time and attention. 

The outcome of this shift will seem obvious to people in retrospect, but for now its true course and scope is unappreciated by and shapeless to most of us.  Draves and Coates give us much to consider amidst our current uncertainty and ambivalence – what people of the earlier shift failed to grasp, what the world of 2020 and beyond may be like, and even what processes of change are at work and can be employed in our lives already.

Reading Nine Shift, it occurred to me that the future doesn’t begin today, as we are so often apt or led to think. The future always begins yesterday, well in the past, and each tomorrow is already nearly here and formed today. Draves and Coates bring our twentieth century past to the present, explaining a recent time of rapid change that occurred just before our time, as well as highlighting important trends, long underway in our time, which can make sense of change today and might anticipate our future, as its continually forms in and around our daily lives.

With this idea in mind, perhaps it is already time for us each to step out of the lives, lines, and lanes we are in today, much of it the legacy of a twentieth century that is now fading from reach, and to consider the nature of the changes sweeping over us as we live into the full reality of the twenty-first.  If we choose to step out ahead into the future, we may well find opportunities already of what Draves and Coates predict and describe – new potential for connection and community, and for freer and more satisfying life. Draves and Coates certainly do an admirable job to help us in this process of exploration, with their excellent and intriguing book.

If Draves and Coates are roughly right, perhaps the coming future will be one that is not only more global, but more intimate too, with smaller and less innocuous machines and organizations that make room once again for larger and more individualized people. Perhaps our future will require and place new value on learning and sharing, on relationships, community, and accountability – perhaps ours will be a future of moving closer to the speed of light, but also one much closer to the steady hub of the human heart.

Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.

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