The folly of culture (according to science... fiction)


Disclaimer: Friends, this is quite the odd one. A funny old rambling piece, one part literary rant, one part cultural debate, two parts possibility and no parts practical takeaway. Still, I swear there’s a good idea in it, somewhere. A notion that challenges assumptions about culture. An inkling there might be another approach. I hope there’s something in it that resonates. Or at the very least, intrigues. 🖖Dougs


"The saddest aspect of life right now is that science fiction gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom." — Isaac Asimov

A hefty portion of my bookshelf is filled with science fiction, and I feel no shame admitting it. Give me a choice between old mate’s fifty-year cricket career and a tale that traverses time and space, I’ll choose the stars every time.

For some reason, though, when one publicly declares their love for science fiction, one tends to be looked at as if one were the type to dress up as Captain Kirk at Comic-Con (which one has never, for the record). Words like ‘ridiculous’, ‘far-fetched’ and ‘irrelevant’ are often used to describe the genre, along with the enduring and conversation-ending, ‘yeah, well, I don’t like it because it isn’t real’.

Ahh, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Look past the flamboyant exposition and tin-foil fashion predictions, and every good piece of science fiction is deeply grounded in fact. Mathematics and logic, biology, botany, geology, anthropology, sociology, economics, physics, chemistry, astronomy, and philosophy — these are often incredibly accurate.

Jonathan Nolan, writer of Interstellar, studied relativity at Caltech. The Arrival is based on linguistic relativity, a proven notion that language can alter perception (albeit not to the same extent). The Matrix is based on philosopher and mathematician René Descartes’ dream argument. And Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a dystopian future that draws entirely from actual events.

If you want a better understanding of human behaviour and the way the world works, leave the non-fiction shelved and reach straight for the science fiction. Moreover, by understanding our drivers and the fundamental laws that govern everything, then seeing it through a lens of creative possibility, science fiction writers have consistently proven uncanny at predicting the future.

George Orwell’s 1984 was a prescient vision of Big Brother; media control and fake news used to disseminate a political message, and issues around privacy and surveillance that are only just emerging.

Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon predicted said journey over a century before the actual event occurred. His fictional account accurately detailed aspects of the shuttle, the month and location it would launch, and the number of astronauts on board.

Credit cards [1], genetic engineering [2], tablets and smart watches [3], self-driving cars [4], the internet [5], mobile phones and voicemail [6], augmented and virtual reality [7], satellites [8], AI and robotics — all predicted by science fiction decades and centuries prior.

No, it isn’t that science fiction isn’t real. It just isn’t real now.

Lately, I’ve been indulging my sci-fi vice through The Expanse on Netflix. There’s a lot to like, but one of the real joys is being immersed in a world where multiculturalism and diversity have become a reality.

It’s a welcome view of the future, one where we’ve moved beyond the ridiculous notions of a superior race or gender. And it sure seems possible. Just as people once believed the Earth was flat and all single, middle-aged women were witches, no doubt future generations will look back on this point in time and feel suitably embarrassed for their small-minded ancestors.

This isn’t to say there isn’t division in The Expanse, though. No, sadly humanity is now split not by ethnicity or gender, but between people who live on Earth; people who’ve colonised Mars; and people who live on the fringes, known as Belters.

Bear with me — I swear this is going somewhere.

One of the business tropes we hear time and time again is the importance of strong cultures. The stronger the better, in fact. And if it’s divisive, even better, right? Appeal to everyone and you’ll appeal to no one. Etcetera, etcetera.

Now, I’m no anthropologist, but one of the arguments perpetuating the shitshow that is Brexit, is the importance of ‘protecting’ British culture. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, literal walls are being built in the name of making a certain culture great again. Both perspectives place one culture before humanity as a whole.

It’s interesting — and frightening — to see these tribal tendencies persist in The Expanse, in a medium that so often depicts an unnervingly accurate vision of the future.

It’s easy to agree in theory, then go to a game and scream bloody murder at the opposite team. It’s only natural. It feels good to be part of a tribe, to belong to a culture. But isn’t that exactly the problem? There are so many seemingly harmless and compelling reasons for division that insidiously perpetuate the culture-above-all-else mindset.

It doesn’t matter where we draw a line. Any demarcation between nationality, ethnicity, age, religion, socio-economic background, profession, gender, or orientation is just another division between humans. And history tells us those divisions are rarely positive in hindsight.

So, what does all this mean for work?

How do we balance a responsibility to the organisation, employees, and customers, but also to humanity. How do we build organisational and departmental culture without causing division? Because despite the jabs at culture, I’m not looking for a KO. There’s no denying it serves both organisations and employees.

Perhaps, though, it comes down to obsessing less about culture, and focusing more on connection.

Beyond our conflicting beliefs and opinions, quirks and peccadillos, we all share the same basic needs. Air, food, sleep and shelter; but almost as fundamental — a craving for connection. A yearning to be loved and to feel like we belong. Our relationships with others can make even the most unbearable hardships tolerable.

Rather than satisfying these needs through culture, what if we improved people’s experience of work through human connection — the connection between leaders and their teams, people and initiatives, people and knowledge, people and the organisation, with each other and the wider world.

From communication to learning experiences to leadership development to business strategy — strengthening the everyday connections is a catalyst for massive transformation. And as we move into a future where technology compounds the issue of social isolation, these connections are more important than ever before.

We can but shoot for the stars, friends.

"Let us think the unthinkable, let us do the undoable, let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all." — Douglas Adams

Actual footage of the author

Actual footage of the author


1. Edward Bellamy in Looking Backward
2. Aldus Huxley in A Brave New World
3. Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Arthur C. Clarke in 2001: A Space Odyssey
4. Ray Bradbury in The Pedestrian
5. Mark Twain in From The 'London Times' in 1904
6. H.G. Wells in Men Like Gods and The Shape of Things to Come
7. Phillip K. Dick in multiple works
8. Arthur C. Clarke in The Space Station: Its Radio Applications

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