The Fragmented Present

John Rogers - Founder RL Leaders


Post-Cold War Societal Drift Compounded by Technology

U.S. Representative Les Aspin was more than a boss, he was a great mentor that I had the privilege to work with early in my career. And when a Secretary of Defense molded by the decades-long Cold War challenged you to imagine what the world would look like once that conflict was over, you pulled on that intellectual string until you thought your head would explode. So I tried to do just that. It should come as no surprise that Les had more insight than just about all of us into the matter shortly after the wall had come down. As we talked, one hypothesis he made was that the lack of a common enemy would eventually fragment American society. Here we are nearly 30 years later and it’s pretty clear that Les was onto something.

Not that anybody wants an enemy or an unstable world reliant on mutually assured destruction to co-exist, but one consequence of the end of the Cold War was the loss of a unifying “us vs. them” mentality that permeated American society. What Les didn’t foresee was that this problem would be exacerbated by an explosion of technology.

Ironically enough, many of the very technologies originally conceived to ensure the U.S. survived and/or won the Cold War turbocharged the fragmentation of society he predicted. 30 years after the end of the Cold War, the problem is more prescient than ever and begs for deep, solutions-oriented thinking that can create a new reality for our future.  

Consider the ways in which the Cold War united Americans. Wherever you lived, your radio picked up the beeps of Sputnik on the radio. Whatever your station in life, you knew someone who served in Korea or Vietnam. Whether you had a fallout shelter stocked with supplies in your basement or not, you knew whether your community had a public shelter at the neighborhood school or public library. These shared experiences and realities were all pieces of a common conflict. The nation lived the moments of the Cold War together. The mediums didn’t change all that much between Kennedy’s address to the nation in the midst of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and the wall physically coming down in 1989. Americans watched both on broadcast TV.

Lesser known to the public, decades of continuity of government and operations planning to ensure the survival of American democracy harnessed the technologies that would boom in the post-Cold War world. Secret government installations communicated via a rudimentary internet. The “hotline” between the U.S. and Moscow was a precursor to text messaging long before mobile phones became ubiquitous.

Today, those mobile devices and constant connectivity have led to individuals being hyper-focused on a swath of issues (environmentalists focus on the environment, pro-life advocates focus on anti-abortion efforts and so on). Lost is the common, unified focus, which has contributed to the lack of collaboration required to solve the many problems and conflicts we face.  

Now, it is worth noting that the technology itself is not to blame here. The tech is how we access information. The changes in how that information itself is created prior to its distribution, however, has played a large role in our fragmentation. Over the past  20 years, news and information went from “top-down” to “bottom up.” From grassroots movements like #metoo to a 21st-century form of populism that has emerged in this country, people are touched by something, moved by it, and with the attention span of gnats, we too quickly move on to the next big story.

Compounding the challenge further is that one, all-consuming challenge (The Soviet Union and the specter of atomic war) has been replaced by a myriad of challenges that are all as potentially serious as another war between global superpowers. Take just three examples; global climate change, violent extremism, and cyber warfare striking at the very heart of democracy. 

Each threat has global implications that also directly impact every single community in the United States. Whether you live in an urban center, an exurban development or rural community, each of these 21st Century challenges is a very big deal. 

We are distracted by technology which makes it easier to hyper-focus on our individual hierarchy of needs and pay less mind to potentially existential challenges. The fragmented present we live in is inviting a new proliferation of propaganda (foreign and domestic) and in some cases, a tilt towards authoritarian tendencies that we must be mindful of as a society.

What Les hypothesized appears to have come to fruition, there is clearly fragmentation in our society. The technology we could use to address the challenges is instead making it more difficult to unite as a society. Our access to information catered specifically to our own private eco-chambers has hyper-focused all of us on what we find most important in-the-moment-right-now-this-very-second, further fragmenting our communities and making it even more difficult to solve big problems.

With that said, it’s time to pull on the intellectual string again. Imagine what the world will look like once we address this stew of inter-connected problems, and get to work on reaching that new reality. At the individual level, I believe that has to start with a greater commitment to serving others. The number of causes and organizations one can give their time and energy to is limitless, as is the impact one can have. More importantly, greater commitment to service by individuals can rebuild the connective tissue and fabric of our society required to solve big challenges even if they are many instead of one.

At the national level, we could do worse than codifying apolitical and decennial planning of national priorities. And while you may have given up on the possibility that our elected leaders can put politics aside for anything, I still believe that great leaders can figure out a way to come together and define the markers of the next great challenge we must tackle. Naming that which we choose to unify around as a society itself is essential to creating a new reality in our fragmented world.

Agree? Disagree? Would love to hear your thoughts and keep the conversation going…

RL Leaders