Charting the Course of Socioeconomic Evolution – Part II: Don’t Be Evil

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We love denouncing evil corporations.  So much so that one – now all-knowing – corporation made it their tongue-in-cheek mission to avoid being evil.  That little cultural nugget implies certain inevitable temptations that stand in the way of any successful corporation.

What are these temptations?  We are all familiar with the phrase ‘power corrupts’, but to what sorts of power does this phrase refer?  What do we mean by ‘corruption’?  Can we be no better than supreme court justice Potter Stewart?

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.

—Justice Potter Stewart, concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio 378 U.S. 184 (1964)

I think we can do better by understanding the lifecycle of productive ventures in the context of their environment.  In part I of this series I proposed that there is a consistent pattern in the evolving structure of human societies.  That argument described the overall human created environment – the accumulated stack of social ‘technologies’, that forms the background for all economic activity.   That stack has been developed through four economic paradigms:

  • early hunter-gatherer tribes employed relational economies
  • stationary agrarian civilizations added a layer of hierarchical political structure
  • industrial societies fully embraced an additional layer consisting of transactional mechanisms (markets, money, prices, etc)
  • we are now currently building a fourth layer that I have been referring to as the attention economy

[As an aside, my current speculation is that beyond the attention economy, additional layers of technology will form something like relationship economy 2.0.  I may write more on that at some point, but given our current vantage point any such extrapolations are more science fiction than informed forecast.]

Does this framework help us differentiate between the evil corporations and the good citizens?

I think it does.  The key insight comes from recognizing that while the socioeconomic environment develops in one direction through those stages, individual ventures tend to develop in the opposite direction.  Individual ventures take shape at the contemporary edge and, as they grow, are gradually caught in an undertow that pulls them from the edge and into the depths of the dominant paradigm.

The prevailing wisdom in the start-up community illustrates this pattern beautifully…

A Cynical Take on The Start-Up Lifecycle

The seed of a the modern consumer internet start-up – let’s call our hypothetical example, Undertow Inc. – takes shape when a few collaborators (a relational group) get together to hack up an idea.  If all goes well they produce a beta product for release to a select subset of the public (an attention economy).  The attention economy is where they will remain for some time, gradually building up their credentials (registered users, pageviews, etc).

As their achievements compound they eventually encounter the boundaries of the attention economy in its current stage of development.  Users and eyeballs are great but in order to pay the bills – and more importantly for our ambitious little sociopaths, to scale - they will need more than attention.  They will need money.  Preferably lots of it…a war chest so to speak (a now doubly anachronistic euphemism derived from political conflict).

Once Undertow Inc accepts outside investment the transactional economy has its hooks in.  Our fledgling start-up is now the steward of scarce transactional assets, and will need to establish formal structures to manage and account for those assets.  Even so, these are still early days.  The VC investors would rather hit a home run than pinch pennies so the focus remains on growing the attention asset.

It is only after ‘product-market fit’ is firmly established that the transactional economy hooks begin skewing incentives.  It is at this point that advertising begins colonizing all corners of the user interface.  Carefully tested eye-candy is introduced to draw attention to anything monetizable.  What was once an innovative product becomes the gaping mouth of a conversion funnel.  Initial success (hype) create a snowball effect, as the herd of VC sheep begin carpet bombing offer sheets with increasingly unreasonable return expectations.  [Remember, this is the cynical version of the story ;) ]

If/when Undertow Inc “successfully” reaches IPO scale it is thoroughly bound to the transactional economy.  Non-financial goals take a backseat to maximizing profits.  Moreover, the profit seekers in question are more fickle than ever.  The long-term VC is replaced by a faceless mob of institutional investors and day-trading CNBC junkies. [This last part is generally left out of the silicon valley version of the script]

The most successful institutions eventually arrive in territory more commonly populated by the industrial icons of an earlier generation – the political economy.  As Undertow Inc assumes a dominant position relative to its competitors, the temptation to fortify that position via political finagling becomes almost irresistible.  The first tentative steps into this territory are likely defensive in nature – protecting IP from patent trolls, or perhaps a reluctant lobbying effort to fend off a predatory incumbent.

Those same defensive capabilities are easily redeployed offensively…and the once disruptive upstart assumes the role of the politically connected incumbent

The Generous Version

Ok, that was the cynical version.  I present it first A) because it was more fun to write with a touch of humor, and B) because sadly that is the script we encounter in the popular media most often.  The temptation of ‘growth for its own sake’ is difficult to resist and those organizations that embrace the temptation enthusiastically are celebrated most visibly.

Fortunately, there is a more generous perspective on the above story.  I argued in part I that each successive paradigm is spawned by, and founded upon, the social technology established during the preceding paradigm (i.e. markets are created by governments, etc).  Nevertheless, those foundations are far from perfect.  They are full of flaws and extraneous material, just as our bodies are full of hidden genetic defects and vestigial organs.

The value of the process described above becomes clear when we acknowledge that the impetus for foundational reform rarely comes from within.  The government is about as likely to reform itself as the human appendix is to decide it has outlived its usefulness and spontaneously disappear.  The same can be said for the systematic distortions in the financial markets as currently constituted.  

Innovation comes from the edge.  Some innovations can spark positive change while remaining at the edge…pulling the action away from obsolete social technology.  In other cases the existing foundations still provide irreplaceable supporting functions.  In these cases reform must be carried to the core, which occurs only when foundations are built to support the necessary reforming innovations.

What does that mean?

It would be nice to think that government responds to the people, but for the most part it doesn’t…at least not anymore.  The political economy serves and is sustained by the transactional economy.  The government is an enormous bureaucratic Leviathan and, for the most part, it accepts input only through other bureaucratic channels.

Institutionalized lobbying is one of the few effective ways of introducing new ideas into the bureaucracy.  Admittedly, this dynamic is difficult to see in the current environment, wherein lobbying takes a predominantly abusive form.  If we were to consider earlier eras, in which the shift from political economy to transactional economy was closer to the frontier, this dynamic would be more pronounced.

We can see shades of that prior dynamic today in emerging economies like China where there exists a constant tension between the need for rapid growth and the need for policies that restrain the worst abuses of a growth-at-any-cost attitude.  In that sort of environment there is much greater potential for productive friction at the interface of government and market.

In the developed world there is a similar opportunity for productive friction at the interface of transactional economy and the attention economy.  Assets produced by transactional economy players are actively spurring the growth of the attention economy.  At the same time, the undertow from the transactional economy (return expectations), reigns in the self-destructive potentialities that might follow from an unconstrained attention bubble.

In both cases, some degree of backtracking is justifiable and generative.  Obviously, the further a given institution backtracks the more circumspect its motives become.  We are right to denounce the government when it attempts to prescribe cultural norms – matters that are rightly decided by relational groups.  The freedom to ignore such manipulations is the founding principle of modern government.  Likewise, our attention economy innovator comes off as increasingly suspicious the further it backtracks.

The Evil Corporation

So what makes a company evil?

The answer should not be difficult to discern.  The evil corporation is the one that succumbs to the temptation of growth for its own sake, becomes cancerous or parasitic, artificially fortifies its dominant position, or undermines progress to reinforce its own necessity.  It is the corporation that backtracks, not to build generative foundations, but to feed at the teet of powerful incumbents.

The evil corporation is the immortality project, both literally and figuratively.  It is both the corporation that attempts to avert its own natural life cycle and the corporation founded for no reason other than to facilitate the founders own denial of death.

How does a growing company avoid becoming evil?

This one is not terribly complicated either.  It starts (and ends?) with adherence to basic economic principles – investing resources such that marginal benefits exceed marginal costs – inclusive of all economic domains in which the organization participates.  Non-evil ventures build foundations as necessary to support their core value-producing activities.  They do not harvest one market in order to produce illusory growth in another.  They do not consume attention assets in order to generate financial returns.  They do not ride the undertow into the deep water hoping to become one of the sharks.

Of course, “don’t be evil” is a cute slogan but ultimately it is external pressure from upstarts – particularly from those that don’t sabotage themselves – that keeps the system balanced.  Attention economy stalwarts like Wikipedia and Craigslist have dramatically exceeded all expectations by embracing their niche.  The value propositions they offer are fundamentally products of the attention economy.  Recognizing this, they have primarily invested their resources into efforts that further those attention markets.

Such strategies do not necessarily imply any sort of purity.  Both organizations still need to pay the bills and employ reasonable staffs.  They both engage transactional economies as appropriate – Wikipedia through its donation drives and Craigslist by charging for certain listings.  What they have avoided are the types of hooks that would corrupt their incentives…that would turn their focus away from maximizing attention and towards maximizing financial profits.

Now obviously that example does not apply universally…every venture will not necessarily look like Wikipedia.  This analysis is not intended to imply that every organization should migrate to some idealized location on the socioeconomic map.  Some value propositions inherently belong in the transactional economy…

Smartphones, for example, are designed by massive teams of highly educated engineers who are co-located in lavish all-inclusive facilities.  Smartphones are manufactured on massively expensive capital equipment with the help of a small army of Chinese laborers.  It would be naive to argue that such highly refined production processes should somehow shift towards the attention economy.  Likewise, full time bloggers need to pay the rent, artists need to eat, and some products that initially serve attention markets are improved by embracing the scale and refinement possible in the transactional economy.

I am arguing instead that the pitfalls inherent in any foundation building exercise should be carefully considered.  Just because it is fun to dip your toes in the undertow doesn’t mean you should allow yourself to be pulled out to sea.  Bigger is not always better.

Though it may be difficult today to see that financial returns are not unequivocally preferable to attentional returns, people would have once said the same about money.  There was a time when most necessities were produced in relationship economies and money was primarily a tool in the pursuit of political status.  When organizations (or individuals) lose sight of this perspective they flirt with the worst possible outcome…

Unintentionally Evil

The unintentionally evil organization becomes addicted to the temptations offered by the incumbent paradigm (money, political influence, etc).  It becomes a slave to inertia.  Once it sets its transmission in reverse it cannot reengage forward momentum.  A foundation building exercise becomes a permanent course reversal.  The organization the rose to prominence on the edge unwittingly morphs into an evil empire.

[Facebook seems to be on this path, positioning itself at once as a disruptor of political ossification while at the same time embracing the profit motive in the most depressingly ill conceived manner.]

Avoiding this fate is easier said than done.   Every successful venture eventually faces the innovator’s dilemma.  The unintentionally evil corporation compounds the challenge by misunderstanding its inherent fit with its environment.

The prevailing wisdom in entrepreneurial communities obscures this challenge through its treatment of ‘product-market fit‘…presuming from the start that the only worthwhile goal is to migrate into the transactional economy as rapidly as possible.  That approach will prove appropriate for only a small minority of entrepreneurial ventures.  A more honest approach would first consider how a particular venture should be positioned relative to the intersection of attention economy economy and transactional economy.

 

photo courtesy of aeroSoul

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  • XOXO

    All round thought provoking this blog in general and interesting piece. I stumbled upon it…but these essential questions that you consistently propose throughout your writing pieces to me are boxed in by default of this very system of capitalism that is inherently parasitic. 

    I don’t think there is one consideration you have posed that didn’t make practical sense, a means by which the world can be rescued from this obsession with “bigness”

    …this first world/developedworld/global North whatever it is referred to right now, I’d prefer to call ‘the greedy, imperialist cluster’…have created a monster… and unfortunately whether it be on the individual or societal level, all involved would find it strange or in error  being  a spoke on the wheel— just doing what’s perceived as necessarily practical to survive. 

    … that roller coaster (be it intentionally or unintentionally ridden) is as a consequence of what this system demands. It’s not that free will has been abdicated, we’re just boxed in and it would  take an all out revolution for such wonderful questions that you pose to germinate in a real sense. Reform is no answer to me, just another version of “anachronistic progress.”

    It is inevitable though that the exploited peoples of the world, those whom you cursorily acknowledge, those whom are not in any first world analysis given the time of day, those that are the real reasons for the existence of a transactional economy and a sated attention economy, will actually be the ones to bring about a paradigm shift that could sustain those important questions you pose in this blog. 

    …these are the exploited…a massive group of the world’s population that will in time and thankfully by assistance of this technological age be included in the discussion…I am not just talking about the cheap labor assemblers, I’m articulating further the responsibility to question these same bureaucratic institutions (imperialist governments) that facilitate corporations good and evil to exploit the resources of world minerals and resources that allow for technology to be even peddled to the masses of the “attention economy”  to begin with. No one is exonerated in this process. We have to pose these value questions at all levels. 

    The discussion must be waged on all ends of the spectrums you pose. This idea of “bigness” is intricately linked to the capitalist model and by all means, if no one wants to really attend to the responsibility of rooting out such a parasitic model, the innovators themselves must at minimum be true to the explore/exploit balance in their creative work, that does not include in its process or to any conclusive ends, the exploitation of ideas or people at the parasitic expense of another.

    You have a reader. 

    • http://OnTheSpiral.com/ GregoryJRader

      As you seem to have picked up on, my perspective is generally motivated by a desire to understand and describe the patterns inherent in “what is”.  I am happy to leave questions about “what should be” to others.  I don’t mean to dismiss questions about “what should be” doesn’t matter, it is just not the angle my brain was designed to contemplate (within reasonable limits of course).  

      That said, I don’t know that I can respond to most of your comments because I don’t see “the capitalist system” as a choice or decision per se.  I see it as a natural outgrowth of what came before (which, to reiterate, is not meant to imply that it is particularly “just” or “moral”).  I also don’t see the so-called capitalist model as something we will choose to maintain or dismiss as a matter of binary choice.  The pattern I am trying to describe in this series of posts suggests that what we currently think of as capitalism will be superseded by something new (what I am calling attention economics), but that market-like mechanisms will persist both as a foundation to that system and filling the gaps within it.  

      Again, just trying to describe what I see…not making moral arguments.  Thanks for reading.  

      • http://twitter.com/IsaacWyatt Isaac Wyatt

        Hi Greg – if you *did* have to take a stab about “what should be”, then what would a balanced score card for a company (can we use the term ‘company’ instead of ‘corporation’ since it is less negatively charged?) to use that aligns its goals with advancing the goals of society and civilization rather than strictly the shareholders, what would it look like?

        Michael Porter has touched on this on the HBR blog under the banner of “Capitalism 2.0″, but I wondered if I could tease your thoughts out.

        Best,Isaac

        • http://OnTheSpiral.com/ GregoryJRader

          I have read Porter’s piece and for the most part he and his ilk are thinking too simplistically.  For one thing, “society” exists at many scales as do “companies”.  Grouping a 50 person company and a 50k person company together and analyzing them the same way under the same label is like grouping mammals and jellyfish together under the label “life”.  Sure, they do share some common characteristics but restricting our analysis to such generalities ensures that we will end up with blunt and ultimately useless conclusions.

          Porter just dismisses this reality, assuming from the outset that with a bit of idealism and a dash elbow grease we can somehow perfectly align the interests of individuals, companies and societies.  And that simplicity allows him to think in terms of “shoulds”.

          The reality is that, like any other organizational unit, companies are constantly balancing numerous conflicting drives.  Most notably: 

          1) the will to survive in their present form (inertia)
          2) the (bottom-up) competing desires of their constituent parts – i.e. people in their various roles as investors, customers, employees, etc.
          3) the (top-down) pressures from their competitive environment

          Whenever we speak in terms of “shoulds” we are either conflating these (often-opposed) pressures or simply dismissing the ones we don’t care to address.  

          So the best way I can answer your question in the abstract is to say that we (at all levels of organization) should try to optimize the dynamics across various scales in ways that minimize conflicts of interest and maximize positive-sum outcomes.  

          If we are going to address the question specifically from the societal level I would say something like:

          Societies face environmental pressures imposed by the natural world in the form of resource constraints and limited capacity to absorb various societal waste products.  If societies do not respect those limits then they will ultimately collapse.  At the same time, societies (nations-states, to whatever extent such units are still meaningful) face competition from each other.  Other societies might outcompete them for resources and/or siphon away their productive companies and talented individuals.  Therefore, societies should structure incentives to balance these opposed constraints.

          But of course, when we use phrases like “advancing the goals of society and civilization”, what we actually mean in most cases is 
          “advancing the goals of the people in a society”.  Unfortunately, the goals of the people are not necessarily aligned with the goals of the society.  Individual people do not care much about abstractions like “global carbon dioxide levels” until such things threaten the existence of *people*.  And this is why public policy is so contentious, because the correct answer to the problem changes depending on your presumed scale and scope.  In other words, the opposed ideological factions are all offering correct answers to subtly different questions.  

          So now I am talking in circles and completely punting on your question.  Sorry, I’ll do better next time….

          • http://twitter.com/IsaacWyatt Isaac Wyatt

            Discqus brought this back to the top of my notifications recetly and I thought I’d give a proper reply for your effort:

            The scale problem does change the discussion of the problem.
            I was imagining that a company’s balanced scorecard should be thought of more as a modified Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, except for a company instead of a person.

            I won’t detail what I’ve come up with for each tier, but it is something I’ve been thinking about for awhile.

            Also, your point about people not choosing broad-scope problems in favor of near-term problems is sadly true. Our desire for competing for ever-higher standard of living is in conflict with our long term survival. Homogeneous societies are more likely able to create policy that achieves goals because their goals tend to be more aligned (as you stated). Diversified societies aren’t aligned on goals and therefore have a more difficult time optimizing resources to achieve those goals.I wrote on this here: https://plus.google.com/108320878207963730980/posts/NnVcP9by1MM

  • alex ragus

    You can’t talk about a company submitting to temptation!  Ascribing human values and morals to institutions simply doesn’t make sense.  Companies obey rules of morality only when individual humans (who do have morality) directly control them.  Once they leave that scale, especially once they’ve had an IPO, they’re not immoral, they simply become amoral.  They are large, uncontrollable structures that have their own laws of operation, and those laws revolve around profit (or perhaps self-perpetuation), but don’t relate to human morality whatsoever.

    I’m sorry I didn’t get back to your email, but I’ll recommend again that you read some of Ran Prieur’s essays.  I think he has a better understanding of institutions and technology than you do.  Try these in particular:

    defining evil:
    http://ranprieur.com/essays/habit.html

    #4 on this page:
    http://ranprieur.com/essays/7lies.html

    and try this one.  I know it sounds radical, but these are exactly the themes you’re writing about here:
    http://ranprieur.com/essays/syswork.html

    Don’t mean to be too critical, I admire what you’re doing…
     

    • http://OnTheSpiral.com/ GregoryJRader

      The language is difficult and clumsy on these topics.  I know you are a ribbonfarm reader so I will point to one of Venkat’s recent essays on the challenge of developing a dense language facilitating communication that is both precise and concise - 
      http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2012/01/11/seeking-density-in-the-gonzo-theater/

      The talk of a company giving in to temptation is of course a euphemism for organizational behaviors that we don’t have a good language to describe.  I agree with most of your points there, though I would point out human beings are not unified beings either.  Bio/physiologically, there is no “you” in the sense of there being a moral center to your mind, or there being some unifying zipper in the genetic code or anywhere else.  In the context of individual human beings we simply have a well developed language within which we (for the most) mutually understand the categorical groupings implied by phrases like “moral agent”.  

      Just as philosophers can debate what it means to be more moral, and cognitive neurologists and evolutionary psychologists can debate the drivers of observed moral behavior, we can observe similar patterns of behavior in organizations.  Surely, using moral language to describe those patterns is anthropomorphizing the organization, but to some degree that is the point of the post:

      What sorts of organizational behaviors do humans perceive as evil?  
      Why might we anthropomorphize them as such?  
      What is the underlying pattern we are observing when using such language?

      Hopefully that clarifies some of the language…though you are certainly free to persist in your disagreement ;).  Thanks for the links, will check them out.

      • alex ragus

        Yeah human beings aren’t unified either.  So look at everything from a systems theory perspective.  Humans are one scale of systems, with certain universal traits like self-preservation, reproduction, and morality that evolved in the context of tribes. 

        Institutions are a different scale of systems, and they must have had the property of self-perpetuation in order to have gotten this far, but otherwise, they’re indifferent to human notions of good and bad–humans are only useful to institutions insofar as they keep sustaining and comprising them.  (you might call this the cynical gollumizer model)

        Philosophers, neurologists, and psychologists are all basically introspecting.  They’re taking human moral behavior (which is very familiar and arises without those questions being asked verbally) and then trying to describe it with rational language.  We’re both trying to understand institutions’ rules of operation.  But institutions (as cognitive systems composed of humans) are so foreign that thinking in moral terms causes more confusion than it resolves. 

        In response to your questions:

        1. Behaviors that aren’t aligned with human interests.

        2. Because we have deep instincts about human tribal morality.

        3. The pattern we’re seeing is immorality of entities that we identify with.  Anytime that happens our instinct is to moral outrage.  The action that arises from this instinct is to shame the other entity.  This works in interpersonal interactions with humans.  It fails completely interactions between humans and institutions.  

        • http://OnTheSpiral.com/ GregoryJRader

          Ok, again I think we are essentially in agreement so I’ll just try to clarify a bit.  I agree that institutional behavior cannot be judged based on human moral/cultural standards.  To simply label a company as evil surely does nothing to advance our thinking.  

          My goal is not to create an objective standard for the “evil” label.  That would be a pointless exercise.  I am taking as a given that many people do use the “evil” label (rightly or wrongly), and looking for a *meaningful* pattern underlying that usage.  As such, I am implicitly setting aside the most frivolous uses – for example, natural resource companies stripping natural landscapes or defense companies building weapons.  That stuff has nothing to do with institutional behavior; it is just distasteful (to some people) human behavior that happens to be funneled through a corporation.  

          But when, for example, people used to label Microsoft as evil, that had less to do with Microsoft’s human scale activities and more to do with their institutional scale behavior.  Again, I agree with you that the label is misplaced (I use it only euphemistically) given that corporations at the institutional scale have no capacity for moral introspection.  Nonetheless, I think it is coherent to ask what distinguishes the particular pattern of institutional behavior in question.  

          My proposed hypothesis above, is that such behavior is distinguished by a particular sort of course reversal driven by the presumption that corporations are fundamentally profit-making entities rather than fundamentally value-producing entities (often sustained through financial profit).  

          Granted, that is how we legally define a corporation, but I see that precedent coming under increasing stress…and to be clear, I don’t have any issue with the pursuit of profit per se, just with the rigidity (fragility) of that definition in the current environment.  

          • alex ragus

            Now we’re getting somewhere. 

            1. Natural resource extractors are good examples of corporations doing evil.   They do this in a different way than humans do, or at least on such a vaster scale that it qualifies as a different behavior.  Let’s not avoid using them as data points just because most of the popular debate about them is superficial and politicizing.

            2. Microsoft is seen as evil because it harms individual humans in order to profit.  This happens via a few different mechanisms which basically reduce to: microsoft is successful at extracting money from corporations, while making the software that their employees are forced to use more arcane.  And also: microsoft buys out small software companies: they extract their value (or prevent them from becoming competitors) by harming the human start-up founders who would make better, more human-friendly software.

            3. Well have you proposed a value definition yet?  I agree completely with the value/profit distinction.  But it’s hard to argue for convincingly until we’ve defined value. 

            I think that there’s a more fundamental distinction between economies that you don’t include in your new 2×2.  I would describe it as “extractive economies” vs. “productive economies.”  We can distinguish intuitively even without defining value in a strict way.  (In fact, that’s what people are doing when they call corporations evil, but sound naive trying to explain why.)  Extractive humans and businesses take valuable stuff that’s already out there, bring it into their possession, and sell it.  (Or they leverage that ownership and control into longer-term profits.)  That’s where the bulk of their efforts go.  Productive people and businesses create new value.  Of course, this always requires some inputs, and takes the form of synthesis,  so it’s hard to articulate precisely why they’re different.  But we should try!

          • http://OnTheSpiral.com/ GregoryJRader

            1. I need to elaborate on this point a bit.  I was disqualify these examples because most of the criticism – often, but not necessarily in the form simplistic ideology – is directed towards decisions made at the human scale.  I dismissed such criticisms as frivolous because they generally have nothing to do with the institutional nature of the venture.  For example, the criticisms of the naive environmentalist are primarily directed at the human scale motivation to clear a forest for profit.

            If we are going to consider these examples then we need to distinguish the institutionally motivated behaviors (that you allude to) from the human behaviors.  

            2/3. I don’t intend at this point to propose a specific definition of value.  As you note, the extractive standard is also difficult because all productive activity requires some “extracted” inputs.  

            However, the same intuition that you suggest is implied by the directions of the arrows in the graphic.  The older paradigms have reached their limits, the opportunities they offer have been more or less fully colonized.  Therefore, the further any venture backtracks the more it must engage in zero-sum competition (i.e. extractive competition).  

            The directive to engage in positive-sum activity has become so common as to be almost cliche, and yet ventures that initially produce enormous positive-sum benefits (by almost any qualitative assessment) almost always eventually revert to zero-sum (and even negative-sum) competition.  

            The explanation I am suggesting is that frontiers cannot fully sustain these growing positive-sum ventures.  Such ventures eventually need to draw support from existing paradigms, but in so doing they are corrupted by the incumbent paradigm’s standard of success.  They become like children who self-destructively strive all their lives to live up to a parent’s example, rather than acknowledging the parent’s support while charting their own course. 

  • alex ragus

    I’m sorry, I can’t resist one more.  I think you’re buying into a dangerous myth by saying these decisions happen on a human scale.

    The myth is: Evil CEO’s want to profit, and they choose to sacrifice the environment to do so.  Can you imagine if the CEO of exxon decided suddenly to prioritize the rain forests and quality of life for third world workers?  He’d be gone by the end of the day! 

    The myth is that the CEO has control of the organization, and he chooses to use it for evil.  Structurally, this is not the case.  The structure of the organization selects people for the role who choose profit for the company over human interests like preservation and generosity.  Paying the executives a lot is a relatively insignificant part of this mechanism. 

    “But no!”  You say.  “Personal profit is a universal human value!”  Maybe, but prioritizing your family, community, and homeland over people you don’t know is an even more basic human value.  Without giant organizations, it would not be possible for the humans in these (so-called) powerful roles to exert such far-reaching influence (for either harm or good). 

    Environmental exploitation patterns absolutely have to do with institutional nature.

    There’s also the time-horizon angle to support my view, but enough for now.  

    • http://OnTheSpiral.com/ GregoryJRader

      No, No No!  This is exactly what I am saying ;)

      I am saying that the common criticism (the criticism that I don’t want to respond to) is of behavior assumed to be occurring at the human scale.  Suppose, in the ideologically driven pop-debate, someone offers a criticism like – “Exxon is an evil corporation led by greedy 1%ers who feel no shame in raping the environment for personal gain.”  Well, I don’t want to consider that criticism because the basic premise is flawed (for the reasons you state).  That was my reason concluding:

      “If we are going to consider these examples then we need to distinguish the institutionally motivated behaviors (that you allude to) from the human behaviors.”

      In other words, if we are going to consider examples like Exxon then we need to distinguish the particular behaviors generated by institutional scale from the human-scale aversion to the thought of an individual walking into the rainforest with a chain saw for personal gain (which occurs irregardless of institutional structure).

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