I’m an American, for whatever that represents in the world, and in the spirit of the quote sometimes attributed to Thackeray: whatever I am, I’d like to be a good one.
I’m also a strategy speaker and consultant, helping companies and organizations think through the human experience of interacting with them in online and offline environments particularly through technology and data.
In other words, I’m well versed in the disconnects between ideas and experiences, and I’ve given a lot of thought to how to better connect them.
As ideas go, the American idea — that aggregate of democracy, freedom, equal representation, equal opportunity, equality overall, fairness, justice, all kinds of liberties—is a beautiful one; I just think that more often in our history than not, it hasn’t worked out so well in execution. The experiences people have had haven’t aligned.
Certainly it didn’t work out that way for the many nations of peoples who lived here when the colonialist settlers came.
And it certainly did not work that way for the Africans who were brought here as slaves and for their descendants who gained nominal freedom but were relegated to formal and then informal second-class citizen standing.
And it’s not working out that way for anyone who hasn’t kept up what can only be called competitive skills.
Because the elegant ideas of America — opportunity, freedom—are tightly enmeshed with a less elegant idea: competition. Because capitalism is about competing, fundamentally. Competing for money, for attention, etc.
(I appreciate the potential of capitalism, but I’ve always been iffy about competition. I don’t mind competing with myself, but I dislike feeling that I’m competing with anyone else. I have this terrible habit of wanting us all to win.)
Unfortunately a lot of people seem to think that they have to compete for status at a human level—that if they’re not the dominant social class, then someone else will be, because there’s got to be a hierarchy.
(I’ve always been iffy about hierarchy, too.)
I always wonder what would it look like to live in a society that embraced opportunity and the expansive possibility of unconstrained progress for all.
See, I think “freedom” is a funny word. Not funny-ha-ha, but funny-strange; it’s loaded with nuance. There’s a lot of ways you could look at what freedom entails. You could see it as being free of obligations to state, to deities, to human authorities, or even to fellow humans.
Some of those interpretations of freedom are super-important, to be sure. But in terms of human experience, the kind of freedom I sense at the root of the American idea that is most democratic, most actionable, and which I believe in with all my heart is this: we can only secure our own freedom by ensuring that no one is enslaved to or oppressed by anyone else. In practice, it’s almost paradoxical. It means we all are bound, in a sense, to each other.
In a similar way, I notice a tendency where the rubber of “equality” meets the road of experience that people start to adopt an every-man-for-himself, I’m-as-equal-as-you kind of survivorship.
But here again what seems to draw the idea out more consistently with the core of its meaning is a more universal approach: equality as a form of obligation to examine our lives for privilege and refuse or at least acknowledge it, and actively seek to create balance and fairness.
And look, I know how it is. On the Fourth of July, with hot dogs on the grill, would you rather sing songs about freedom or about living out a responsibility to one another? The more nuanced version doesn’t sound as good with a side of ketchup.
Speaking of songs with complex meanings, my friend Gretchen Peters wrote the country mega-hit Independence Day, made famous with Martina McBride’s recording, about a child whose battered mother sets her home ablaze against the backdrop of a small-town Independence Day celebration, killing her abuser (and potentially herself). It’s a brutal story with a huge “let freedom ring” chorus that sounds triumphant for tragically ironic effect — superb songwriting. And, of course, it’s misused as a merely patriotic song every Fourth of July. (Sarah Palin even walked out on stage during the 2012 campaign with that song as her intro music, and Gretchen responded by publicly donating all of that song’s royalties for a while to Planned Parenthood.) And this is what I’m saying: these big ideas of independence and freedom are inextricable from lived experiences that will never play out like the ideal.
Ideas are indeed the very basis of strategy, but the reality of execution is messy every single time. Human experiences are layered on individual histories and cultural associations and biases and quirks and so many other forms of context. We can’t cling desperately to the purity of our ideas when the data shows us we need to bring them to life for people in deeper ways.
Ideas are good, but it’s experiences that matter. Or as another friend, Kat Tanaka Okopnik, puts it, impact is more important than intent. That’s the truer truth, and it does us good to remember it.
The words we often cite as American values are attached to nuanced, complex ideas, and it matters that we look closely at what they mean. Because if we know what they mean, they can inform our actions.
And here’s the thing: despite our divisions (or perhaps as validated by them, in the sense that this truth is perhaps in the pseudo-Schopenhauer-esque ‘violent opposition’ stage), I really think we may be inching closer to a chance at a more enlightened, more democratic, more equal America, and I genuinely think we can do it.
Here’s hoping, America.
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Kate O’Neill, founder of KO Insights, is a speaker, author, and “tech humanist” making technology better for business and better for humans, addressing strategic opportunities for data and technology to shape more meaningful human experiences. Her most recent books are Tech Humanist and Pixels and Place.