The Imagined Order and Innovation: DeMarco Banter

“There is no way out of the imagined order. When we break our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison.” –Yuval Noah Harari

Innovation is not about tech and it’s not about tools–sorry business model canvas (mission model canvas), design thinking, continuous process improvement, Six Sigma, etc. Like a cue ball ripping across a billiards table for the opening break–it is all about a creative, strategic mindset and shattering the imagined order of things.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Human Kind by Yuval Noah Harari–is packed with heretical thinking and surprising (and at times–highly arguable) facts. If you are open to having ideas challenged, this riveting book cannot be summarised in any detail; you will simply have to read it.

I am intrigued with Harari’s take on what he calls the ‘imagined order’ and what does it mean to organizations like the military–specifically the USAF. Taking that thought just a bit further–if we try to mentally deconstruct this imagined order–imagine what it can do for innovation?

Work with me here–Harari posits–what makes humans different from other animals is not reasoning, toolmaking or a capacity for morality, all of which are found to some degree among our animal kin. Humans are different because they inhabit an imagined world, created from our own ideas, myths and fantasies, which we take as real.

Consumerism and modern settings are orders that are made to enable and enhance cooperation among humans by humans. People rarely question this order. Instead, they try hard to fit in and gather enough status and influence in the social chain to be able to modify the order (but never eliminate it). If we ask ourselves what is the imagined order we live in every day and then begin and insurgency against it–what could that do for our creating thinking?

All these cooperation networks – from the cities of ancient Mesopotamia to the Qin and Roman empires – were ‘imagined orders’. The social norms that sustained them were based neither on ingrained instincts nor on personal acquaintances, but rather on belief in shared myths.

In Yuval’s Words:

“Most people do not wish to accept that the order governing their lives is imaginary, but in fact every person is born into a pre-existing imagined order, and his or her desires are shaped from birth by its dominant myths. Our personal desires thereby become the imagined order’s most important defences.

For instance, the most cherished desires of present-day Westerners are shaped by romantic, nationalist, capitalist and humanist myths that have been around for centuries.

Even what people take to be their most personal desires are usually programmed by the imagined order. Let’s consider, for example, the popular desire to take a holiday abroad. There is nothing natural or obvious about this. A chimpanzee alpha male would never think of using his power in order to go on holiday into the territory of a neighboring chimpanzee band. The elite of ancient Egypt spent their fortunes building pyramids and having their corpses mummified, but none of them thought of going shopping in Babylon or taking a skiing holiday in Phoenicia. People today spend a great deal of money on holidays abroad because they are true believers in the myths of romantic consumerism.

Romanticism tells us that in order to make the most of our human potential we must have as many different experiences as we can. We must open ourselves to a wide spectrum of emotions; we must sample various kinds of relationships; we must try different cuisines; we must learn to appreciate different styles of music.

In Harari’s list of imagined orders he includes this concept of tourism, but also corporations, nations, and the best and most successful story of all, money. Every one of these constructs can be broken down to represent a simple network of people who share a common goal — yet these constructs are so burned into our minds, that it’s hard to fathom they’re not tangibly real.

According to Dr. Harari, there are three main factors that prevent people from realizing that the order organizing their lives exists only in their imagination:

  1. The imagined order is embedded in the material world (e.g. individualism, social hierarchies)
  2. The imagined order shapes our desires (e.g. traveling, consumerism)
  3. The imagined order is inter-subjective (i.e. existing in the shared imagination of millions of people)

…but if we can begin to push against the imagined order–what does that do to our creative and innovative thinking? Just like life in the “Matrix” do we chose the red pill or the blue pill–the average person always chooses the Blue Pill (the blissful ignorance of illusion).

This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more. –Morpheus

The Red Pill represents knowledge, freedom, uncertainty , and the brutal truths of reality. Regardless as to if the idea came from the 1865 Lewis Carroll novel Alice in Wonderland, in which the central character has to choose between potions to enable her adventure to continue.

In the Matrix, the main character Neo is offered the choice between a red pill and a blue pill by rebel leader Morpheus. The red pill represented an uncertain future—it would free him from the enslaving control of the machine-generated dream world and allow him to escape into the real world, but living the “truth of reality” is harsher and more difficult. On the other hand, the blue pill represented a beautiful prison—it would lead him back to ignorance, living in confined comfort without want or fear within the simulated reality of the Matrix.

The benefits of imagined orders are obviously immense, and are what make being human so special — because the power of belief itself is so powerful.

If we don’t push on the “imagined order” we simply agree to the blue pill and things just go on for us–status quo, no change, no true innovation. But if we dig deeper into our perception of the “imagined order” and we agree to the red pill–we begin to think and believe differently and creativity are truly unlocked.


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