Interview: Jerry Michalski on the Relationship Economy

Feb 17, 2015

Jerry Michalski

The University of Alabama’s College of Communication and Information is hosting a series of speakers to start a strategic planning process for the future of the University.

The first of those speakers, Jerry Michalski, joined us for an interview. He’s a technology expert and the founder of REX, the Relationship Economy Expedition. He’s advised several large companies, tech startups and nonprofits about how to take advantage of the rapidly increasing connectivity in today’s world.

Jerry Michalski: “I’m very interested in the future, but I think everybody is. I think we all care about what our kids are going to inherit, what our jobs are going to be, who’s going to love us and all that kind of stuff. But I’ve always been influenced by how technology influences society and business -- that’s kind of my background. I spent a dozen years as a technology industry analyst, kind of a trends analyst: 'Ok, so here comes these pen computers; what are pen computers going to do? What is the Internet going to do?' I’m also an amateur historian. I care a lot about history and I find that we don’t know much history, we’re kind of amnesiacs. What I do in my day job is I run REX, the Relationship Economy Expedition, which is a small think-and-do tank where we think about these things. So, in that sense, I guess I’m a futurist. But, it's sort of like the word innovation: The second you talk to an innovation center, talk to an official futurist or go to the futurist society – you’re not likely to see innovation or the future.”

Alex AuBuchon: “Mr. Michalski, you gave a lecture last week at Reese Phifer here at the university, and I was wondering if you could kind of give us the Cliff's Notes version of what that talk entailed?”

JM: “Sure. So, the world – right this minute – is in this consumerized state. There’s a couple paths out: one is that consumerization sort of continues and just keeps sort of eating the world. Another one is what I call ‘techno-utopianism’ or ‘techno-optimism,’ which I’ll describe as well. The third is this relationship economy notion. I want to present how those things are different, how they’re interacting, and offer a view of what a university could do to take us into the relationship economy better, to be a star in that world.”

AA: “Could you define some of those terms for us, like what exactly a techno-utopia would look like and what a relationship economy is exactly?”

JM: “Well, the techno-utopian world, for example, is kind of a world where technology is value-neutral or usually good, and that technology will in fact solve our problems. So, we’re polluting the atmosphere. You know what, somebody’s going to invent a technology to catalyze all of that bad stuff out of the atmosphere; or, you know what, if we’ve spoiled this rock, we’ll just fly out and colonize other planets. Techno-utopianism is sort of blind to the ethics of what’s happening as technology walks into our world in different ways. The relationship economy is more of this notion that we are re-weaving a fabric of society that, in fact, in many places existed before. One of my favorite books is The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi that describes a shift into the industrial economy. He talks about ways we used to live together and I’ve hunted down many more things like that, which are fascinating. We don’t have any notions of history, of what life was like before.”

AA: “I know a lot of the focus is sort of on creating this relationship economy. Can you tell us a little bit more about what that’s in opposition to and how we can get to that relationship economy state?”

JM: “So, I think we’re already entering a relationship economy which is bringing us back into relationships that were severed over time. Partly because we built everything in terms of efficiency and scale. In so doing, we consumerized every sector of society -- not just consumer goods, but entertainment, sports, health, voting, education all got consumerized. As a result, we got separated from each other, because when you consumerize, you create your identity by wearing Polo and I wear Nike, you drive a Ford and I drive something else. We also cut ourselves away from the responsibility of the thing at hand.”

AA: “Tell me a little bit more about that, what specifically are we cutting ourselves away from?”

JM: “We’ve basically been cut away from the responsibility of just about everything in our lives. If we want to move forward, we actually need to reconnect. And a lot of this is not about technology at all, it’s about policies, it’s about human interactions, and it’s really a lot about worldview. I think that we’re all kind of looking at the same set of facts on the ground. Now there’s not just three news stations, there’s a million news sources. But how you interpret those, what you filter out and what your framework is really, really matters here. I think having a kind of humanist framework looking forward is maybe the best way to be.

AA: “Is there anything else you would like to add?”

JM: “A lot of my work focuses on is trust. A question I keep asking myself, which I’ll just ask our listeners to put in their heads is ‘What if we trusted you?’ It’s a question that implies that maybe we don’t right now, and I do that intentionally because the systems that we live inside of -- the institutions -- don’t trust us. They’re designed for mistrust of the average person. So, what if we trusted you?”