Category Archives: Rethinking Complexity

“Government” Isn’t a Technology and Can’t be Developed Like One

It’s been a bad week for government and technology.

It was revealed this week that the medical records of over 300,000 Californians sat on unsecured servers … leaving everything from insurance claims to social security numbers available to anyone who wanted to Google it.

On the other side of the spectrum, Florida Governor Rick Scott admitted that months key emails from his transition team were deleted  … in violation of open records laws.

These are some pretty big “oopses,” although arguable no bigger than many of the technology glitches most of us encounter day-in and day-out.  In fact, a credible case can be made that government crashes a lot less than computers.

Still, would it help if government were run more like a technology company? Continue reading “Government” Isn’t a Technology and Can’t be Developed Like One

No Shortcuts to Social Justice

Are you old enough to remember when “the Internet” was just getting big?  Do you remember what people thought it was going to be?

It was going to revolutionize democracy and do away with racism (because we’re all one color behind the screen);  it was going to level the playing field between rich and poor because we’d all have access to the same information superhighway.

Now that we’ve got Facebook, Twitter, and the Huffington Post, how’s the future working out?

Not as predicted, except perhaps by the cynics.  According to a recent survey by UC Berkeley professor Jen Schradie, less than 10 percent of the population is participating in most “online production activities,” and as a result the internet has become a playground for the upper classes, representing their concerns and fixations and ignoring the issues of those on society’s bottom rungs.  Continue reading No Shortcuts to Social Justice

Unemployment: A Sign of “Uncertainty” or the Need for a New Set of Assumptions?

As America’s countdown towards default continues, we keep hearing that it’s “uncertainty” about the economy that is keeping companies with big bank on hand from hiring new employees.

That seems reasonable on its face.  After all, the news reports say we’re headed towards financial Armageddon … and honestly they have for some time.  Sure, the “countdown towards default” is an especially noticeable cliff we’re running towards, but America has never really addressed the economic fault lines that nearly cracked apart in 2008, and the European Union is teetering from one crisis to another …

“Uncertainty” seems about right.

But as Andrew Leonard of Salon.com points out, the idea that companies aren’t hiring because of uncertainty about the economic future doesn’t actually account for all the facts.  Business hiring is weak … but business spending on equipment and facilities and buildings is “robust.” Continue reading Unemployment: A Sign of “Uncertainty” or the Need for a New Set of Assumptions?

Is the World Going to Become Sustainable on Its Own?

Leading thinkers in sustainability have known for some time now that a sustainable society can’t be based on continuous consumption.  The question was always:  how do we get there?

A recent column in the New York Times suggests that it’s happening on its own, without any help from us.

In “We’re Spent,” journalist David Leonhardt suggests that the drying up of credit and access to easy debt is functioning the same way as environmentalists have suggested that running out of natural resources eventually will.  It’s causing a system that is powered by a disposable consumer mentality to run down.

“The economic version of the law of gravity is reasserting itself,” he writes.  “We are feeling the deferred pain from 25 years of excess, as people try to rebuild their depleted savings … The old consumer economy is gone, and it’s not coming back.”

Could it be that easy?  Are economic realities going to do what decades of environmental awareness-raising and activism couldn’t?

Maybe up to a point.  But the trouble with Leonhardt’s vision is that it isn’t a vision at all.  He suggests steps (and good ones) that we could take to easy our transition into this new world, without suggesting what this new sustainable economy will actually be.  What will it be like?  What will people do there?  What will it have to offer them?

These aren’t incidental questions.  Until they’re answered – until people are offered a positive vision of what a sustainable economy looks like and what’s in it for them – many well-meaning people at all levels of society will drag their feet, or even put up a fight.  Until a meaningful outline of “how this will work” and “what my place in it will be” gets offered up, a great deal of human energy will be spent putting our back against the wall instead of building a new society.

But if Leonhardt’s essay isn’t sufficient, it does raise a compelling point for advocates of sustainability. Maybe we’re asking the wrong questions.  Maybe instead of spending so much energy trying to figure out how we get there, we need to start mapping just what “there” is.

The Common Good is Irrational

Why don’t we work together for the common good?

It’s a question that plagues every good intention, and every activist group. We know that corporate America is paying its executives outlandishly and its workers poorly – and that if we just banded together, we could do something about that.

But we don’t.

We know that the global environment needs our stewardship:  that it’s crucial we find renewable power and resources, and organize our cities around sustainable growth policies.  And if we just banded together, we could make that happen.

But we don’t.

Time after time, cause after cause, getting people to devote their time to causes that benefit them in the long run seems next to impossible.

Why is that?  Why don’t we come together for the common good?  After all, we want a sustainable environment … we want a healthier economy.  So what’s stopping us?

An often overlooked classic of economics holds the answer.  It’s because we’re rational.

In 1965 Mancur Olson published “The Logic of Collective Action,” which was his Harvard dissertation in economics.  In it, Olson took aim at the notion that rational people will band together to support the collective good.

That does happen in small and intermediate sized groups, he noted, but almost never in large ones.

A large group dedicated to solving a large common problem (like stopping a war or changing a nation’s environmental policies) has a unique set of challenges.  Specifically:

  • The collective good, by definition, goes to anybody – even to people who didn’t contribute to make it happen.  If activists manage to convince the U.S. to make a massive conversion to solar power, for example, then everyone will share the benefits of a better environment, including the people who decided not to be activists.
  • Because the organizations involved are so large, no one person’s cooperation can reasonably be said to make the difference between success and failure.  If it were clear that David Trummel of Iowa’s joining the Sierra club would make the difference between saving the whales and their extinction, then David would probably join.  But as it is, no one can reasonably say that David – or any other given individual – will make the difference between David living in a world with whales or a world without.

As a result, a “rational actor” (in economic terms) will not participate in large organizations to support the common good:  why spend time and money on something that you’ll get anyway, if your contribution can’t be seen as important?

This doesn’t happen in small and mid-sized organizations because other factors – especially social pressure – can be brought to bear.  Everybody knows if someone isn’t participating, and can tell them directly that it matters.  Likewise, small and mid-sized organizations generally tackle smaller and more manageable issues, and so one or two people are more likely to shoulder the entire burden because they’d rather do that than not receive the common good at all.  (If, for example, and organization is dedicated to running a neighborhood recycling center, it’s quite likely that a few members of the organization will end up shouldering most of the burden because they’d rather that happen then not have the recycling center at all.  But that kind of sacrifice doesn’t scale to national or global problems.)

Some large organizations that fight for the common good certainly do exist – but they tend to get their members because they offer “selective incentives.”  That is to say, they entice prospective members with something besides just saving the environment.

What this means is that if you want people to fight for the common good on the large scale, you need to entice them with something other than the common good … something that they won’t get if the organization succeeds and they didn’t participate.  It can be a material good (an NPR tote bag) or an organizational benefit (access to an insurance policy for members), or an appeal to other values beyond the common good … but the point is clear:  on the large scale, most people won’t contribute to the common good for its own sake because their participation doesn’t seem crucial and they get the benefit of success anyway.

Olson’s conclusions are crucial to theoreticians and practical activists alike:  if we want to redesign our systems and our world, we might not be able to do it by getting people to just cooperate on large issues for the common good.  The incentives that the common good has to offer are all wrong.

Or, alternatively, it may be that the problem is we keep making rational appeals.  In the end, joining a larger cause, being part of a necessary movement so big that you can’t see where it begins or ends, may not be a rational act at all.  It may require a leap of faith.

Performance Evaluations That Can’t Deal with Ambiguity, Can’t Deal with Reality

Don’t think you can’t be fired for doing the right thing.  This week, San Francisco Weeklyreported on the case of Frank Lee, a San Francisco cop who may lose his job because he didn’t execute a search warrant fast enough.

The catch?  The search warrant turned out to be illegal and Lee, a homicide investigator, delayed implementing it because he was trying to explain to his superiors that it was illegal.

According to article, Lee was told:  “You’re in homicide. This is the way we do things. I want that evidence.”

Now, a good cop may be tossed out of the force for knowing and trying to obey the law.  Meanwhile hundreds of cases are being tossed out in San Francisco because police have made illegal searches—and not a single officer is being disciplined for it.

If only this were an unusual circumstance.

Continue reading Performance Evaluations That Can’t Deal with Ambiguity, Can’t Deal with Reality

A Sustainable Earth Needs Lobbyists More Than It Needs Visionaries

In a recent column, Thomas Friedman proclaimed that “the Earth is full.” We’ve reached the point where we have too many people using too few resources, and trying to keep on keeping on this way will only lead to more trouble.

The good news, he suggests, is that this makes fundamental transformation inevitable.  Friedman quotes environmentalist and entrepreneur Paul Gilding: “Our response will be proportionally dramatic, mobilizing as we do in war. We will change at a scale and speed we can barely imagine today, completely transforming our economy, including our energy and transport industries, in just a few short decades.”

We will move from a production and consumption based economy to a satisfaction and happiness based economy, which is great. I’m sure most everybody reading this post is in favor of that, but Friedman skips a few crucial steps and fails to answer a simple question: How do we get there? Continue reading A Sustainable Earth Needs Lobbyists More Than It Needs Visionaries

Hate is Supported by Many Systems

Are you a hateful person?

The answer may depend on where you live.

Culturally, we think of emotions as individual things: If you “love,” it is “you” loving. Jealousy, anger, and fear are also all matters of the individual psyche.

But believing that emotions are this particular is only a partial truth. There is increasing recognition that the systems we live in can predispose us to some emotions.

Previous articles on Rethinking Complexity have suggested that the workplaces we spend much of our lives in in can be dehumanizing, which is another way of saying that they predispose us to emotions like resentment and despair. Some of the most recent research, from demographer Richard Florida, suggests that many of the systems we live in can do that one worse: predisposing too many of us to hate.

Continue reading Hate is Supported by Many Systems