The 50-cent and 2-second immortality syndrom


I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, I want it NOW!
Old-timer Queen (of England, but not the monarch, the band) was already onto it: We want things to happen too quickly, in life and at work…

‘Make that website work by next week’, ‘Get our social media strategy functional by next month’, ‘get our team to influence policy by next quarter’, ‘make sure that multi-stakeholder platform is fully operational in 10 months’, ‘show me impact on 50 million lives in 5 years’.

It’s insane!

The dictatorship of pace goes even up to the 30-second elevator pitch and the 2-second attention span that affects us when browsing our tweets…

But our collective delusion doesn’t stop there.

We also want to leave an immortal impression of our passage on Earth. We go for the 50 Cent ‘bling bling’ approach, with the information systems that have the most complete panoply of whistles and bells, the KM strategy that everyone around or yet to born always awaited, the research agenda that will change the face of the planet, the network that will solve everyone’s problems, the development project that will be scaled up ‘till the end of times…

Should we not slow down and take a bit of perspective? (Credits: Jsome1 / FlickR)

Should we not slow down and take a bit of perspective? (Credits: Jsome1 / FlickR)

Woooow, hold on a sec here!

I can understand the conscious or unconscious quest for immortality and leaving traces behind, which Milan Kundera described so well in the eponymous novel.

I can also understand that people want to move fast – I’m not the most patient of earthlings myself. But combining eternal glory and glitz with light speed is just about as mature as a five year-old thinking the world is his/her royal court.

And yet, fast bling bling impact drives the reality of much knowledge management in development.
The tyranny of development ‘projects’ and their limited lifeline pushes us to promise unrealistic impacts; the crowning of complexity has stirred up a cohort of concertation networks and multi-stakeholder processes (great idea) that should all work out at soonest and remain sustainable for ever (oh oh, unrealistic thinking and not even justified); the big-bang KM strategies of development organisations hold all the promises that information filtering and the reinvention of the wheel (which is not always bad) will be erased once and for all; the increasing pace of our social media world seems to condemn slow work, and partnerships should deliver now, regardless of whether or not they are based on solid foundations…

Yet the best development success stories among us are slow, organic, civic-driven developments, from the Grameen Bank to Ushahidi, from Paulo Freire’s popular education to the biggest NGO in the world – Bangladeshi giant BRAC – from Digital Green’s participatory video work to communities of practice like KM4Dev.

Immortality is perhaps not best achieved through fast bling bling, not even through slow shine, but through the seeds of change we plant in each other all the time, carrying, reshaping and expanding the collective wisdom that has brought us up to where we are now (remember the shoulders of giants?)…

So…

  • No, that website won’t work by next week. Even if I killed myself setting it up, it would take time to train people, it should have taken time to consult them in the first place, and it will take time to generate and content and keep pumping more of it into the site, around a solid content strategy;
  • No our social media strategy will not be functional by next month, because it takes weeks  to try out social media, months to find the right people at the edges of your network and years to develop great content and strong engagement around it;
  • No, our team will not influence policy by next quarter because policy-makers have to deal with many different items at a time (of which research evidence is only one by the way), and it will take our team a couple of years to have built a good rapport with policy makers and to be able to start influencing policies;
  • No our multi-stakeholder platform will not be fully operational in 10 months because it will take everyone two to three years to understand each other’s language, perspective, agenda, to grapple with it, agree with a common direction and start effectively building  something together (and we’re not talking about funding the platform beyond project funding if that’s the set-up, which takes additional time);
  • And finally, no, we won’t be able to show impact on 50 million lives in 5 years because impact is very difficult to trace, we cannot really anticipate tradeoffs of our initiative just now and because quick demonstrable, quantifiable indicators have nothing to do with the real quality of life, happiness, connectedness, empowerment and freedom that people enjoy, they’re only crass over-simplified proxies that hint towards that.

And so to the people that Freddie and his Queen fellows addressed in their tune, here’s what my mates from Radiohead have to tell you now: Hey man, slow down!

And please forget about that cheap rap joke… Even if you go for bling bling, remember: speech is silver, silence in golden. Rub it in 50c.

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2 thoughts on “The 50-cent and 2-second immortality syndrom

  1. Thank you Jaap – also for the add-on on the ‘New words’ post ;)
    If anything, the monitoring-heavy approach to development that you loathe should help reduce or manage these silly expectations…
    Thanks for the engagement, as ever…

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