Friday Rant: Are people self-interested?

Nick Carr picks up on an article called The cold, cold heart of Web 2.0 by William Davies in which Davies builds upon the economic theory of Gary Becker:

“Along with many colleagues at the legendary Chicago School of Economics, Becker’s achievement was to see that economics needn’t confine itself to studying markets. Economics, for Becker, was simply a particular way of understanding any social behaviour. What distinguished it from other social sciences was not its domain of study, but its guiding assumption that individuals will always act rationally to maximise their own satisfaction.

The implications of this are stark. All altruistic, moral, cultural or emotional behaviour becomes reconceived as the outcome of individual calculation. It is no longer just businessmen and traders whose behaviour can be understood in terms of rational self-interest, but that of politicians, parents and neighbours.

This is a novel and unsettling way of viewing society.”

Nick Carr picks up on an article called The cold, cold heart of Web 2.0 by William Davies in which Davies builds upon the economic theory of Gary Becker:

“Along with many colleagues at the legendary Chicago School of Economics, Becker’s achievement was to see that economics needn’t confine itself to studying markets. Economics, for Becker, was simply a particular way of understanding any social behaviour. What distinguished it from other social sciences was not its domain of study, but its guiding assumption that individuals will always act rationally to maximise their own satisfaction.

The implications of this are stark. All altruistic, moral, cultural or emotional behaviour becomes reconceived as the outcome of individual calculation. It is no longer just businessmen and traders whose behaviour can be understood in terms of rational self-interest, but that of politicians, parents and neighbours.

This is a novel and unsettling way of viewing society.”

Carr pushes further on this thought and suggests the social software in the world (social networking sites, etc) are simply another attempt at reworking our knowledge of manufacturing efficiency toward another goal: bringing efficiency to our social lives. Carr sees this as wrong-headed:

“The problem – and the danger – is that while efficiency may be an intrinsic good in the marketplace of products, it is not an intrinsic good in the realm of society and culture. We do not, and should not, judge the quality of our social and cultural life by its efficiency.”

Both Carr and Davies’ arguments are seriously misguided.

First of all, the idea that we act in self-interest is not in any way novel as Davies suggests. In fact, it is patently obvious if you’ve ever spent any amount of time observing other people. The most interesting thing about this argument is that we’re having it at all…there is no question whatever that people act in their own self-interest. It is observable in all humans. Also, it is explicable in theory. One outcome of the Theory of Evolution is that those species that survive are the ones programmed to keep themselves and their close families safe. Self-interest is this survival instinct manifested. It is how we are programmed at a deep, deep level.

And, to that end, Davies should not have used the word “calculation” in reference to parents. Most parent’s behavior is not calculated, but instinctive. There’s a big difference. It may be in self-interest, but that doesn’t mean we think about it beforehand (it is not premeditated). Ask any parent and they’ll tell you “I would do anything for my child”. This instinct is just there…we wouldn’t think twice or even once about it.

However, I do see what Davies is saying in relation to business and politics. There’s a tremendous amount of fake behavior there, most of which is premeditated. And I think that Davies is right in that this kind of behavior is deplorable. Anytime we are not true to ourselves we make the world a worse place.

Second, Carr’s dichotomy (the one between “markets” and our “social lives”) is vaporware. To even think that efficiency in the marketplace is an intrinsic good is not only astounding, but offensive given the behavior of many companies in the world. Does not Carr see that markets affect the lives of people in the same way that any other social interaction would? Is it not clear that business is society, and society business?

What these two fearmongers need to do is to go read Treehugger for a while. There, on a daily basis, you see the overlapping world of business and society. Here’s a spoiler: It’s all connected, guys.

Here’s another great read: Gong Szeto’s Subprime rant. The problem with business is that too many business people see it as somehow outside their moral lives. This is the real danger…not what Davies of Carr suggests. Technology rarely makes people more or less evil. It mostly enables their already-formed constitution.

This is what designers (like Gong) have understood for years and is just now making its way to public discourse: for every efficiency gained by manufacturers a little society is lost. For every new Wal-mart that sprouts up like a bad weed, several Mom and Pop operations go out of business. Instead of dealing with someone you know, you get to deal with the world’s biggest company who doesn’t give a shit about you or anything except their shareholders. They sell you product at a price their competitors cannot buy wholesale for. I know a guy who ran a store and actually bought his soda at Wal-mart because they were selling it cheaper than he could buy in bulk. He was a store-owner!

There was once a time when the shareholders of a company were its customers…and making those customers happy was job #1. Not anymore. Efficiency has killed off that notion because efficiency distances the business people from the people they do business with.

So this holistic view that we really need to return to has been hastened by the limitless greed of the oil companies (GO EFFICIENCY GO!) and the impending crisis of global warming. We cannot continue to justify the actions of businesses on efficiency or even profits alone. The implications are just too great, as the lives of real people are in the balance. Every business decision must be weighed against the overall impact on the lives of the people involved.

Carr sees a black and white playing field where there is only grey. He warns against social software being efficient (it may on some level be about efficiency, but isn’t the telephone about efficiency, too?). The problem with efficiency is that when companies achieve efficiency it’s usually not holistic. They may be able to produce more plastic widgets for cheaper cost, but are they providing more sustainable value to their customers, the town where they live, the Earth?

Davies makes another interesting point:

“Technologies such as recommendation systems, used most prominently by Amazon.com to help people find books and music they may like, can erode valuable processes by which people discover new authors or artists.”

What are these valuable processes by which people discover new authors and artists? Why talking to people, of course. And its here where I sympathize with Davies’ and Carr’s arguments…we do risk becoming too attached to technology when it does certain things more efficiently. It is plausible that some people will stay inside all day long and play video games. In fact, I know people who do. My question is, if they didn’t have technology could we be so sure that they would be out interacting in a positive way? That’s not clear. But there’s also another side of the coin that Davies doesn’t mention…that people are using technology to make face-to-face meetings more common as well.

Take Meetup.com, for example. Meetup is social software that enables people with similar interests to meet up in public places on a regular basis. It is making an activity more efficient, but it’s not a cold, computer-mediated activity. It’s a face-to-face activity.

And my wife uses social software to plan get-togethers with other mothers in the area. This is a great benefit to her. She’s meeting people (face to face) who she wouldn’t not have met otherwise. She is quickly finding those folks who are like her, and who share the same values as she does.

But my big issue with all this isn’t the social software part. It’s in seeing business as automation, as Carr does:

“The real question, to me, is this: Why in the world would anyone believe that the cultural effects of the internet would be beneficial simply because the internet’s effects on business are beneficial? And yet Shirky is far from alone in making this bizarre association – it runs like a vein of fool’s gold through the writing of the Net’s rose-tinted-glasses set. They want to believe that the processes of culture-making and society-building can be automated and re-engineered as if they were the processes of widget-manufacturing.”

Well, I’m a big Shirky fan but I have never read him as saying that culture-making could be automated. In fact, I bet he would argue the opposite…

Anyway, thank goodness for widget makers. We now have more plastic widgets filling our landfills than anybody could possibly count. While Wal-mart may be as efficient a company as was ever seen on Earth (Carr must love them), they’re also exploiting the hell out of their workers and replacing woodlands with gigantic piles of garbage. Business efficiency an intrinsic good? This may be the world that Carr and Davies fancy, but it sure as hell isn’t the one I want for me and my kid.

Call me self-interested if you must.

Published: August 10th, 2007

The What to Wear Daily Report. A simple daily email with clothing recommendations and other info based on the weather. Remarkably useful. It's free to sign up.