Dakota State University -- NDSU Agriculture
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Plains Folk: The Dream Society
Tom Isern, Professor of History
During a chance meeting at a metropolitan airport, a well-known CEO told me I should read the recent book by Rolf Jensen, "The Dream Society." Because Jensen is a management consultant, the book carries the subtitle, "How the Coming Shift from Information to Imagination Will Transform Your Business." The chap said the book would tell me that as a storyteller, I am marketable. Iím not sure yet about that, but Iím pretty sure that the arguments in "Dream Society" have import for people on the plains.
The surprising thesis of the futurist Jensen is that we are nearing the end of the Information Age. Before you react to that, think first about the age preceding, the Industrial Age. The Industrial Age produced wealth, creating demand, and then leisure, through automation. In fact automation, as anyone from Michigan knows, brought the Industrial Age to its close.
The same thing is happening with the Information Age, only faster. For the past generation we have been led around by computer scientists and the other priests of the digital world. They have been half again too smart, however, because by ushering us into the era of plug-and-play, they have automated themselves out of authority. Heck, if I can write hypertext and pull down the Internet from a satellite, any fool can.
Iíll put this in terms Lutherans will understand. Remember, it was literacy and the printing press that made possible the priesthood of all believers.
The handling of information is about to become a clerical matter to be taken for granted. So what is, as the management guys love to say, the next big thing?
Stories. Jensen says now that we take material abundance for granted, and we take information management for granted, we are looking for something else, something real but also mythic. The great opportunity of the moment, he says, is "the market for stories and storytellers."
Work is becoming tribal and is most productive, Jensen observes, when it is "hard fun." (It does seem odd to me that commentators on the changing nature of work donít recognize that what they are describing sounds a lot like a good family farm, but I suppose none of them ever bucked bales.) In the balance of their lives, the new workers will be the consumers in a number of mythic markets, including the markets for adventure, community, identity, and convictions, all needs served by storytellers.
So perhaps I am marketable, but what seems more obvious to me is that by these standards, the northern plains are marketable, too. Adventure, community, identity, convictionsĖthose are just the sort of things that newcomers to the region tell me they crave. We need to hold on to these things, and cultivate them.
This summer Iíve spent a couple of hard but satisfying days digging footings and running concrete under the Ladbury Church, a country church in the Sheyenne River valley. The work crew has comprised local citizens, volunteers from nearby towns, and a leavening of North Dakota State University students to provide some muscle.
This church has no congregation. In fact, itís not really clear what the use of the building will be once we have restored it. Many of us are on a sentimental journey, I suppose. Sentiment is hard to justify to critical people who think we need to keep dismantling civilization on the plains and get out when we can.
"The Dream Society" helps me to understand the concrete (accidental pun) utility of salvaging the Ladbury Church and a thousand other landmarks studding the prairie landscape but deteriorating because of the lack of immediate and obvious utility. These material markers are the anchors of our prairie stories. They are the mooring stones to which the coming prairie generation will tie up.
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