April 2012 Archives

A Rose By Any Other Name . . .

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Once again, my thoughts are triggered by a David Brooks oped column. He writes in today’s NYTimes (4/27/12) about learning in a big way. The headline, “Is Our Adults Learning?” is strange. I can’t figure out if it means something important or is simply the output of a headline writer that didn’t learn enough in school. I think it is the latter. Irony at work in the real world.

Brooks is laying down a case for what some call small-scale social experiments or, maybe in this context, large-scale experiments. Arguing that the models that experts use to predict the future under various scenarios are not up to the job, he offers up the possibility of real learning by trying out (experimenting with) policies or strategies and seeing what they actually produce in the messy world out there instead of in the pristine inner guts of some supercomputer. He thinks this way can avoid the arguments among experts, macro-economists in his example, about the effectiveness of some proposed “answer” to a big problem like the financial meltdown and also the postmortems that are usually nothing more than I-told-you--so exercises.

What you really need to achieve sustained learning, Manzi [author of the recent book, Uncontrolled] argues, is controlled experiments. Try something out. Compare the results against a control group. Build up an information feedback loop. This is how businesses learn. By 2000, the credit card company Capital One was running 60,000 randomized tests a year — trying out different innovations and strategies. Google ran about 12,000 randomized experiments in 2009 alone.

These randomized tests actually do vindicate or disprove theories. For example, a few years ago, one experiment suggested that if you give people too many choices they get overwhelmed and experience less satisfaction. But researchers conducted dozens more experiments, trying to replicate the phenomenon. They couldn’t.

Brooks talks about randomized experiments that Visa and Google used to test theories that were supposed to provide bigger profits. Drug companies are required to show the effectiveness and safety of their drugs in real trials. What’s missing in this excellent article is the magic word, pragmatism. These companies were being pragmatic, learning from experience, not computer modeling trials. Pragmatism, is both a philosophy about how we think, and a practical framework for getting what we want out of life. The latter feature applies both to individuals and to organizations.

Pragmatism is a dirty word even though it is practiced everywhere. Some say that being pragmatic is a cop out. Rationalism, the only way to truths one can trust and apply, is based on the positive knowledge we have collected over time through rigorous applications of method. Anything else is suspect and subject to distortion and abuse. Pragmatic is a pejorative term when directed at politicians. In the popular media, it connotes weakness and uncertainly. To avoid being tarred with this image, political leaders fall back on the advise of experts and their computer models, whether the computer is a big mainframe kludge or some inner machine in their brains.

It is true that sometimes these models produce the desired outputs, but not most of the time. Far-reaching policies and strategies put in play by both governments and businesses often become croppers. Brooks argues, as many do including myself, that the models being used cannot capture the realities of our complex, messy, ever-changing world: “…no model can capture enough of the world’s complexity to yield definitive conclusions or make nonobvious predictions.”

Pragmatism, as a philosophy, is a different way of thinking and acquiring knowledge about the world. It holds experience, itself, not the theories and conclusions we derive from experience, as the primary source of understanding the world. The contentious feature of pragmatism is that the truths produced by experience are always contingent. A new experience may negate an old truth. Surprise--this is the way that even science proceeds, except that “experience” is confined to rigorous, controlled experiments and a priori hypothesis testing. Pragmatism relaxes this rule and accepts observations from life itself.

Pragmatism is also a way of life, a philosophy based on practice and applied in practice, an interesting virtuous circle. Unlike the objective, floating-in-air contextless aura of positivism, pragmatism is grounded in life; the truths it seeks are always directed toward some tangible end. John Dewey, one of our great thinkers, called it “the comprehensive art of the wise conduct of life itself,”

Pragmatism cannot be put into play without keen observation powers available. After all, it is a form of continuous inquiry, learning as you go. I often use the metaphor of gardening to describe pragmatism in action. Gardeners can and do learn their skill, mostly in the course of tending to their fields. Organizations, especially government agencies, are not set up to operate in this way. Careful, continuous observation and learning take money, patience, and a different kind of competence, more akin to wisdom than intellectual power, all of which are lacking in the structures of our institutions today.

The presumption that the world will turn out the way models forecast diverts attention away from the need to carefully watch the process as it unfolds. The present primary framing of problems is to deal with the symptoms, wait for a while (usually until the leadership of the firm or the government has changed) and put a new theory-based regimen into play. Carl Lindblom, in a classic article described the process of public administration as “muddling through.”

Why then bother to describe the method in all the above detail? Because it is in fact a common method of policy formulation, and is, for complex problems, the principal reliance of administrators as well as of other policy analysts. And because it will be superior to any other decision-making method available for complex problems in many circumstances, certainly superior to a futile attempt at superhuman comprehensiveness. The reaction of the public administrator to the exposition of method doubtless will be less a discovery of a new method than a better acquaintance with an old. But by becoming more conscious of their practice of this method, administrators might practice it with more skill and know when to extend or constrict its use. (That they sometimes practice it effectively and sometimes not may explain the extremes of opinion on "muddling through," which is both praised as a highly sophisticated form of problem-solving and denounced as no method at all. For I suspect that in so far as there is a system in what is known as "muddling through," this method is it.)

Pragmatic sounds to me less pejorative than Lindblom’s phrase, “mudding-through.” The essence is the same. Language shapes the actions we take. Tiptoeing around a word or phrase means that we will not step firmly into the plot that needs weeding, and rest satisfied with applications of some magic weedkiller we can spray from afar. Solutions that come from the lab are no different than those those coming out of a computer.

The time has more than come when we need to embrace pragmatism as the better way to move along the paths we choose. It is the only way to become wise about the complexities of the world. Wisdom, not smarts, is the critical operative word for governance. Attaining flourishing, the essence of sustainability, absolutely demands pragmatism. Even Brooks infers to its potential, ending his column with:

Still, things don’t have to be this bad. The first step to wisdom is admitting how little we know and constructing a trial-and-error process on the basis of our own ignorance. Inject controlled experiments throughout government. Feel your way forward. Fail less badly every day.

Lost in Transmission



Sherry Turkle wrote the front page cover story in the NYTimes Sunday review on April 22. The title, “The Flight from Conversation,” is about the negative effects of all the digital devices and programs that have come to dominate our lives everywhere. Turkle, an MIT scholar, has studied the impacts of technology on the workplace and other familiar arenas of life. Her latest book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, spawned the Times article.

The gist of the story and her book is that recent developments in social media and the devices that support it are denuding the richness from our major means of relating, speaking to one another.

Human relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology. And the move from conversation to connection is part of this. But it’s a process in which we shortchange ourselves. Worse, it seems that over time we stop caring, we forget that there is a difference.

We are tempted to think that our little “sips” of online connection add up to a big gulp of real conversation. But they don’t. E-mail, Twitter, Facebook, all of these have their places — in politics, commerce, romance and friendship. But no matter how valuable, they do not substitute for conversation.

Connecting in sips may work for gathering discrete bits of information or for saying, “I am thinking about you.” Or even for saying, “I love you.” But connecting in sips doesn’t work as well when it comes to understanding and knowing one another. In conversation we tend to one another. (The word itself is kinetic; it’s derived from words that mean to move, together.) We can attend to tone and nuance. In conversation, we are called upon to see things from another's point of view.

This concern is not foreign to this blog and my work. It is not only this particular genre of technology that reduces our capacity to be; it is all modern technology that stands between us and our intrinsic way to be human. It is not only other people that are messy. It is the world itself. Technology rests of a foundation of scientific knowledge about the world obtained by taking on little parts of that world at a time. The result is that we know lots about little pieces of the world, but little about the whole system.

A little thought will lead you to the realization that every time you use a technological device, your smartphone or a light switch, your action is confined by the designer’s or engineer’s limited model of the world used to create the device. Given the inevitable reductionist context for that model, the world that you, the user, are thrown into is but a shadow of reality. The richness that always is present when you are, gets diminished, if not lost entirely.

That’s why conversations become simply the transmission of words without the clothing they wear in face-to-face interactions. The designers of these tools for conversing start with a fundamental error about the nature of talk or messaging in any form. The message is not in the medium, it is shaped by the interpretation of the receiver. Listening is simply another way of interacting with the world. The better choice for describing that interaction and, consequently, the way to design humanizing tools to intervene in that process is the cognitive model of Humberto Maturana.

Maturana claims that the structure of the cognitive system, usually collapsed into the brain, at any moment determines the body’s response to incoming signals. The meaning of incoming messages is created by the history of the receiver, captured in the massively interconnected system that produces memory--a record of all life’s experiences. It’s what the memory does that determines how a message is interpreted. Further, the memory is modified by the interaction, itself, to embody this latest experience. Like the aphorism that one cannot step into the same river twice, one does not “hear” the same message twice, even if the words are the same.

Turkle points out that messaging always takes place in a context, a messy one, in her words. Messy gives a negative sense that I think is a bit misleading. I would rather describe it as I did above as rich. The spoken words flow into the body along with all sorts of other signals coming from other features of the world present to the listener. The richness of those signals depends on the depth of his or her presencing; the more present, the richer. With a device in between the speaker and the hearer, there is no presence at all. The nuances that Turkle refers to are all gone.

Relationship is not some thing or feeling; it is the name for actions between two actors. That is it described as something to have comes from our misuse of language that, in turn, comes from our existential belief that we live in a having, not being, mode. Like the saying that if all one has is a hammer the world becomes nothing but a bunch of nails, the world becomes nothing but a lot of things to possess. Actions become reified and become things. In the Being mode, that I claim is essential to flourishing and thence to sustainability, the manner by and the context in which the interactions take place is what is important.

Relationship implies some context of caring, not in the psychological sense of a feeling for each other, but in attending to ends of mutual concern. The concern could be about some action to be done. That’s the dominant use of words; to coordinate action among people. The words are more likely to fit when the speaker understands the context in which both actors are embedded. The words could also be uttered out of concern about the other’s situation, in which case the words ought to reflect the speakers assessment of that condition. Without presence, it is exceedingly difficult to know where the other is, to use the vernacular for someone’s state of being at the moment.

Like all forms of technology, the devices and programs Turkle writes about take root only when they provide some service. They must have some measure of utility, but all, as I note, have a potential to produce unintended consequences due to the inherent nature of technological artifacts. Unfortunately the potential for such outcomes is rarely understood or is simply ignored during the process by which they are born and appear in the marketplace. Big impacts, like global climate change capture headlines. The more insidious ones that fritter away our humanness show up in the often arcane work of scholars and appear only occasionally in public media. I fear that the “Flight from Conversation” will accelerate the impoverishing of the meaning of relationship that is already in poor health.

Earth Day 2012


maldive erosion

I’m watching the rain replenish the Earth today. It needs it in Massachusetts which is many inches below normal at this time of the year. I don’t keep weather records of my own, but there is little normal about what I have been observing locally and on the national news. Anyway, the rain which may present us also with flash floods later today is most welcome.

I began this day at our Cinema Club, which presents an about-to-be-released indie film, but unannounced until we show up. We have seen some winners lately, including Separation and Monsieur Lazhar, both of which were terrific. But today, probably in honor of Earth Day, we watched a documentary, The Island President, a real-life story about the Maldive Islands, an archipelago of several thousand islands in the Indian Ocean. Two stories are entwined: one about the establishment of democracy, the other about the plight of the Nation at the hands of global warming, creating the inundation of the many Maldive islands.

A new President, Mohamed Nasheed, was elected in 2008, ousting a dictator who had ruled for 30 years. Nasheed had been imprisoned several times, but kept alive a freedom movement that finally won the first real election in those 30 years. Nasheed and his inexperienced Cabinet had many issues to handle, but none as daunting as the existential threat to their nation at the hands of the rising ocean. The Maldives are the lowest lying nation in all the world. By the time Nasheed took office, great damages had already occurred with the shorelines becoming badly eroded.

The new President took on this issue in anticipation of the 2010 Copenhagen Conference, which was to move the international climate change action agenda forward. Those who follow the climate change issue know that the Conference produced essentially no action. But for Nasheed and the Maldives it was a major event. In the lead-up to the Conference, Nasheed and others formed an alliance of low-lying nations, and developed a cohesive bloc to support their peculiar and urgent needs for action to halt the increasing levels of greenhouse gases. At the Copenhagen Conference, his persistence and leadership led to the issuance of a report which all the attending nations signed onto. It was small feat to get this result since China and other major powers wanted to prevent any agreements to be officially recorded. The cost of getting through the political morass was a toothless agreement with no required follow-up. The 350 ppm level of greenhouse gases, generally agreed upon as a “safe” level was not included.

The lessons I tool home are several:

  1. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. It didn’t yet, but the film showed what a single individual could do against tough odds.

  2. Climate change is real and already with us. It may be too late to stop the temperature rise and its consequences at a tolerable point, if one deems that tolerable is morally acceptable, and adaptation, the strategy being forced on these low-lying countries, is economically and technologically very challenging. Most are poor and have little infrastructure in place on which to built the seawalls necessary to buffer the rising seas. The is no high ground to which they can retreat to get out of harm’s way.

  3. Garett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” is an all too accurate portrayal of the destructive power of self-interests aimed at using a scarce natural resource. Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel prize in Economics in part for her work in refuting Hardin’s harsh conclusions, the need for coercive intervention, and showing that excessive use could be curbed by collective action by the interested parties. I am afraid that Hardin is right in this case, with one unfortunate variation. The parties, as the Copenhagen Conference illustrated (The movie gave us a candid camera view of the proceedings.) that there is little likelihood that the great powers of the East and the West will voluntarily agreed to act to reduce the level of greenhouse gas emission. No magic bullet exists, and in my opinion none will emerge in the window we have, so countries would have to stop growing the way we have been. We are not going to make sacrifices to enable China and India to “catch up” with us. So the Planet will suffer along with all of us.

I thought for a moment that we are committing suicide by our refusal to see the tragedy working itself out, but it is more accurate to say we are committing homicide because it is future generations of humans who will suffer. Even Hardin’s solution of some coercive institution intervening and setting limits won’t work simply because there are no such institutions around. The United Nations, designed, in theory, for conflict resolution and enforcement of some basic moral ends, is toothless here. It can only intervene, in limited ways with conflicts among Nations, but has no means at all to intervene with a war against the Earth itself.

The avoidance of the tragedy is possible only if Nasheed’s commitments to democracy and to the preservation of the Earth spread to other leaders, big and small. The film clearly shows that the time is now; maybe its images and story will get people moving. I doubt if enough people will take time to see it, however. We are lured into theaters by the Angelina Jolie’s and Brad Pitt’s of the celebrity world. No actor could, however, portray the grit and commitment shown by this film’s real-life hero to his people and the Globe.

ps. Nasheed was ousted by a coup, fomented by forces loyal to the previous regime just two months ago in February, 2012. Another tragedy.

It's A Puzzlement


puzzling mind

When I was a boy
World was better spot.
What was so was so,
What was not was not.
Now I am a man;
World have changed a lot.
Some things nearly so,
Others nearly not.

There are times I almost think
I am not sure of what I absolutely know.
Very often find confusion
In conclusion I concluded long ago
In my head are many facts
That, as a student, I have studied to procure,
In my head are many facts..
Of which I wish I was more certain I was sure!

There are times I almost think
Nobody sure of what he absolutely know.
Everybody find confusion
In conclusion he concluded long ago
And it puzzle me to learn
That tho' a man may be in doubt of what he know,
Very quickly he will fight...
He'll fight to prove that what he does not know is so!
Oh-h-h-h-h-h Sometimes I think that people going mad!
Ah-h-h-h-h-h! Sometimes I think that people not so bad!
But not matter what I think I must go on living life.
(Credit to Oscar Hammerstein from The King and I)

I am, as I think I have said, writing a book with my former student, Andy Hoffman. It is going to be set as a conversation between Andy and me. In getting going, I have been thinking about how I want my persona to show up. Of course, I will show up exactly as how each reader creates an image, no matter what I intend. Anyway, I got thinking about problem-solving as a possible way to frame what keeps me going. I am a pretty good problem solver, but, with a little reflection, I realized that this is not what I really love to do, and that is solving puzzles. These two mental exercises are not the same and the difference is important to my/our pursuit of sustainability.

Let me start with a conventional statement about problem-solving.

When a problem comes along, study it until you are completely knowledgeable. Then find that weak spot, break the problem apart, and the rest will be easy. - Norman Vincent Peale
Peale’s quote reflects our cultural proclivity, well-honed ever since RenĂ© Descartes developed his early version of what has become the scientific method. I am quite good at following Peale’s advice. After all, I have spent more than a third of my adult life at MIT as a student and then as a researcher. But it’s not the problems, big or small, that need to be addressed; it’s the puzzles that need solving, but these two kind of solving are quite different. I think I have been attracted to puzzles, not problems, for quite a while. Puzzles are easily trivialized as games or diversions. Sudoku, KenKen, crossword puzzles, and a myriad of puzzle apps for mobile devices. I do Sudoku and Kenken and the New York Time puzzles faithfully (in ink), and maybe this love for puzzles has spilled over into bigger things for me.

Sustainability is a big puzzle. It’s not just a complicated problem to solve. I looked up a few definition, hoping to get a clear sense of the difference between problems and puzzles. Puzzles have a few defining characteristics. They are enigmatic, baffling, bewildering, or perplexing. They test one’s thinking. Dealing with them requires ingenuity and persistence. “Solving” them may require an ability to recognize patterns and other higher-order properties of the puzzle. They cannot be simply defined and broken into small chunks.

Problems are questions we have to answer before proceeding on a predetermined path, perhaps in life or just in a math quiz. Problems arise without warning when our actions are stopped for any reason at all. In every case, problems have a fairly well-defined context out of which they emerge. Puzzles, other than diversionary things like jigsaw puzzles, emerge when a whole mess of troubling perceptions confront us, and all the paths we had thought were open become hidden by a cloud of bewilderment, to pick one of the several possible words to describe the loss of clarity and coherence.

Puzzle solving requires a different approach. The belief that there is an “answer” doesn’t fit, obviating all standard methodologies for problem solving. I am quite fond of the work of Rittel and Webber who coined the phrase “wicked problems.” On reading their paper closely, I would say that they are really talking about puzzles, not problems. And their 10 points about recognizing and dealing with wicked problems is really about taking on puzzles. Complexity creates puzzles to solve. I use “solve” with an implicit sense that one never solves puzzles in life, only in games. Unscramble maybe, or any other word that connotes removing the bafflement so that the puzzle can now be deconstructed and broken into problems that are solvable in the ordinary sense of the word.

The challenge in matters of sustainability or any other significant societal set of concerns is that bewilderment is a no-no in public life and in virtually every position of power. Hesitancy which will always accompany confronting on a puzzle shows “weakness.” Mencken might have been talking about puzzles, not problems, in his famous quote: “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.”

Our society will need to learn the difference between puzzles and problems if we are to begin to address our big and baffling concerns, like sustainability. First, we need to be clear about the two words and their differences. Then we have to stop equating problem-solving skills with leadership. We need to attack our incapacity for dealing with puzzles from the top and from the bottom. Our schools are moving farther and farther from teaching the appreciation of puzzles and the critical skills that are needed for dealing with them. Teaching our children better math and science may expand their economic horizons, but it will surely limit their ability to work with the big puzzles facing us, today, and the even bigger ones that will face them as adults.

David Brooks, writing in today’s NYTimes, pointed to just the opposite: how our educational system is failing in this area.

Colleges are supposed to produce learning. But, in their landmark study, “Academically Adrift,” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that, on average, students experienced a pathetic seven percentile point gain in skills during their first two years in college and a marginal gain in the two years after that. The exact numbers are disputed, but the study suggests that nearly half the students showed no significant gain in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills during their first two years in college.
Maybe our centers of learning should scrap the present pedagogy, and let the students spend more time solving puzzles on their ubiquitous devices. The results he writes about may be related to the myriad of apps available to distract the students from their studies. Could it be that this so-called wasted time could actually produce some real puzzle-solving skills if properly harnessed?

Share/Rent or Own?



I have just finished reading the final essays from my classes at the Marlboro College Graduate School MBA in Managing for Sustainability. One about providing services instead of products, per se, struck a chord. I have been studying, for a while, this alternative to the more common direct purchasing offers made by companies catering to consumer market. The subject of the potential eco-efficiency of services compared to product markets has been around for a couple of decades, at least. For a time, it was a serious topic in my old field of industrial ecology. The provision of automobile sharing, as in Zipcars, is one of the few cases where this idea has taken root.

The interest in services, as opposed to owning after purchase, lies in the lowering of environmental impacts potentially available by reducing the number of cars or vacuum cleaners, etc. Sharing can produce numbers of lifetime uses of shared devices far greater than are available from single-owner devices that spends most of their lives in the closet or garage. The potential savings depends on the contributions to impacts from the manufacturing and disposal phases of the life cycle relative to those coming from its use. For cars driven by a single owner everyday, the use phase tends to dominate, but for the stereotypical “little old lady,” the opposite may be true. in this case, it would be better for the environment to share the use of a single vehicle. In addition to the environmental benefits, sharing systems can provide social benefits by enabling those who cannot afford to purchase the device to use it on demand.

The concept is also consistent with the need to rebuild community as a precursor for sustainability. Single purchases rarely create connections to the nameless, faceless salespersons in the hygienic surroundings of bigbox stores. I did, however, recently have an experience at Sears that runs counter to this. In the past 3 or 4 years, several of our major appliances have needed to be replaced. These were installed 30 or 40 years ago when appliances were built to last and they certainly did. When the refrigerator failed a few weeks ago, we went to Sears again, and as we walked into the appliance section, one of the salesmen approached and said, “I see you are back again.” Pretty remarkable these days in the commodified atmosphere of shopping.

I hauled out the manuscript of a talk on so-called, product-service systems (PSS), I delivered at a conference of the European Roundtable on Cleaner Production at least 10 years ago. The paper was directed more to introducing the basic concepts of sustainability that I now routinely discuss and teach, but then these ideas were a little foreign both to me and my audiences. Unlike the position taken at that conference, I now think that PSS can contribute to sustainability in a categorical different manner than eco-efficiency. The use of a device taken out of the closet is existentially distinct from one borrowed or rented for a specific use.

In the first case, once the user has gotten over the initial learning phase, each successive use will be transparent, as the device becomes, in Heidegger’s language, ready-to-hand. This means that it will be used without consciously thinking about it. It becomes a piece of equipment that is always waiting to be picked up and used whenever the actor starts to act to satisfy some intentional objective requiring its services. The device may have been purchased without much thought, under the the persuasive power of advertising or some other social context. So many devices are omnipresent in almost every setting today that people seem to go through each day picking up one device after another. The automaticity that surrounds this scenario strongly suggests that the actors are operating in an inauthentic mode, and are not mindful of whatever domains are being taken care of. The mindlessness inhibits the actor from making any conscious, reflective assessment of satisfaction amidst the continuous flow of activities, and may shape repetitive, additive-like behaviors.

The use of shared or rented devices produces an entirely different existential experience. Whenever an actor intends to do something requiring a device that is not ready-to-hand, a breakdown occurs in the mindlessness of the flow that has brought the actor to that moment. The actor becomes conscious of whatever was the intention, and must stop before continuing toward its completion. The missing presence of the needed device or service becomes obtrusive, that is, it takes over the moment and forces the actor to reflect on the situation. Voila, the actor can now examine (reflect on) what has been going on, and continue or not, but whatever decision is made, the choice will be authentic. Further, the actor can examine the intention itself and recognize what domain of care was to be addressed. The veil of need that is so present in ordinary mindless activities becomes transparent and the actor can proceed towards genuine satisfaction.

This integral scene in the playbook of sharing can be made more powerful if the process of procuring the services involves an further explicit step: revealing the underlying domain of care. A rental or sharing agency could routinely ask the customer/client for what purpose, or more precisely, what domain of care is the target of the object being sought. The question further deepens the reflection process and can explicate the specific domain and the whole concept of care. This process would, of course, require the cooperation of the source agency and the procurer who might object to the incursion on privacy. If sustainability were high on the values of both parties, this potential obstacle would disappear. Zipcar could ask each user to think about a question like, “What cares will renting this vehicle satisfy?” Taylor Rental might ask a similar question to a customer looking to rent a log-splitter. The answers are not as important as the raising of consciousness of care, not of need, as the parent of intention and action. I have often written that we will have a real shot at sustainability when the greeter at the entrance of every WalMart’s asks everyone walking in, “Do you really need the things on your list?’ or “What cares brought into the store today?”

Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?


We are all so much together, but we are all dying of loneliness. Albert Schweitzer


Schweitzer’s aphorism came decades earlier than Facebook, Twitter and all the social media that have become a constant of our high-tech society. If what he said was true then, it is much more so today. My copy of The Atlantic arrived today. (I still get my magazines via snail mail.) This is supposed to be “The Culture Issue,” but I failed to see much of what I would call culture inside. One of the main feature did hit on a theme I have often written about in this blog: the negative side of social media technology. Neither Kanye West or Jay-Z (both also featured in another main story) are my idea of “culture.”

In a long, well researched article, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?,” Stephen Marche weighs in mostly on the affirmative side. That’s where I have been all along without the benefit of access to the research Marche draws on. Social science data shows a rather sharp increase of the numbers of people who say they feel lonely much of the time. Marche quotes results of an AARP survey that “found that 35 percent of adults older than 45 were chronically lonely, as opposed to 20 percent of a similar group only a decade earlier.

Loneliness is just one symptom of a general breakdown in the state of the human condition in the US. The article continues with some astounding statistics about the explosive numbers of health care professionals dealing with what is broadly classed as some form of mental health or better mental un-health. In the late 1940’s, some 2,500 clinical psychologists, 30,000 social workers, and less than 500 marriage therapists comprised the mental health treatment corps. As of 2010, Ronald Dworkin reported that the numbers had jumped to 77,000 clinical psychologists, 192,000 clinical social workers, 400,000 non-clinical social workers, 50,000 marriage and family therapists, 105,000 mental health counselors, 220,00 substance-abuse counselors, 17,000 nurse psychotherapists, and 30,000 life coaches.

Not all of this can be attributed to the need to treat growing loneliness, but is gives stark evidence of a major social breakdown. I find it interesting that we need so much more help and input from professional “others” these days to enable us to be autonomous and self-satisfied than 50 years ago? Loneliness is negatively correlated with other measures of health, for example obesity, cognitive decline, and earlier entry into nursing facilities. Medical research by John Cacioppo, Director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, reported in the article, ties loneliness biochemically to basic physiological functions down even to the level of gene expression.

Marche is careful not to blame the social media alone for the rise of loneliness. He points out that affluence has led to more sprawl and physical separation. Individualism has always been a characteristic feature of the American culture. Americans, Marche says, “are lonely because we want to be lonely.” I don’t fully agree with his statement. I think he has mistakenly conflated a desire to be free from outside domination with a sort of existential isolationism. These two are connected via the structure of the culture that evolves over time. If the technological systems and the institutional practices promote individualistic behavior, then individual beliefs will also evolve towards a sense of autonomy and disconnection.

My sense is that we a trapped by the culture into believing that we are simply autonomous nodes in a social world. We exhibit care mostly about ourselves and minimize concerns about others and the world. Even care about the transcendent centers on our concerns for our own afterlife. Since I belief that flourishing, the quality that sustainability is all about, rests on a balance among all major domains of care, this inwardly focused development is not good for us or the world. It fails to produce flourishing and worse it is producing the pathological outcomes Marche ticks off.

He also refers to data showing that we are increasingly narcissistic, a recognized personality disorder. The results of a 2008 survey showed levels of narcissism were 3 times greater in people older than 65 than people in their 20’s. There’s no firm proof that this is due to the “generation gap” in the use of smartphones or tablets, but it is consistent with the much larger use by the young of these devices and the social media that are a major function of their use.

But what about the way these media are used? Don’t they increase, not decrease, the connectedness of people? Numerically, for sure. Celebrities claim Twitter followers in the 100,000’s. People routinely have 100’s of friends on Facebook. They do not, however, improve the quality of these relationships; just the opposite. The article quotes Sherry Turkle, an MIT researcher, as saying “The ties we form through the Internet are not, in the end, the ties that bind. But they are the ties that preoccupy.” The intimacy provided by face-to-face relationships is a critical factor in the embodiment of connectedness. Marche notes that social media offer an escape from the challenges of face-to-face interaction (embarrassment, gaffes, awkwardness), but at the expense of authenticity.

Facebook and the others are quickly addictive (my assessment, not the article’s). Every moment between what would be normal and healthy pauses in the flow of daily life is occupied by these devices and the isolating programs that are being used at an alarming rate. There is no time for taking care of one of the essential domains of care, idleness or solitude. Solitude is a very important condition. Thoreau said, “I have never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.” Solitude enables connection to the world, not isolation from it as does technology.

Technology always stands between the actor and the world; that’s one of its inherent features. It enables the user to affect the world at the other end of the technological thing. And in the separation from the world, something is almost always lost. Unintended consequences occur because we are unconscious of the full impact of the use of technology, both on the world outside and on ourselves. In the case at hand, the richness and critical functions of friends gets lost through the mindless, unreflective use of Facebook. The nature of friendship becomes just another thing we come to “have.” Its contribution to our Being and, subsequently, our ability to flourish gets lost.

The article ends on a sad (for me) note:

Solitude used to be good for self-reflection and self-reinvention. But now we are left thinking about who we are all the time, without ever really thinking about who we are. Facebook denies us a pleasure whose profundity we had underestimated: the chance to forget about ourselves for a while, the chance to disconnect.

In the system of thinking I use in thinking and writing about sustainability, I would slightly modify what Marche has written. For me, the real chance that is lost is the possibility to connect, not disconnect. Connection to the web of life, which is always present, even if we fail to recognize that presence, is at the heart of Being and the way we take care of important chunks of the world, like our friends. Facebook can’t do that job for us.

Don’t Take That Bet



The Yale-based Environment 360, an excellent, careful and well edited on-line magazine, ran a story recently on GoodGuide and related efforts to guide consumer behavior by providing information of every item in the stores. Written by Marc Gunther and headlined, “Betting on Technology to Help Turn Consumers Green,” the article tells this story:

U.S. consumers tell researchers they want to buy environmentally friendly products, but so far they haven’t been doing that on a large scale. Now a host of companies and nonprofits are trying to use new technology — from smartphones to social networking — to make it easier for buyers to make the green choice.

The theory is quite simple: tell the customer everything know the product’s ingredients, and they will follow by making the rational choice and buy the least harmful or most beneficial item. Standard market economics depends on something like this, as it is based on decisions made with “perfect’ knowledge. Otherwise, each transaction creates an externality: some outcome not present in the buyer’s calculating machine, situated in his or her mind. I have written that unsustainability is one giant externality--an unintended consequence--of acting in ignorance of the harms buried in every cultural act.

Standard regulatory economics uses this theory in designing specific instruments to shift consumption to products with the least impacts on people and the planet. The shifts in behavior may be direct, at the point of purchase, or indirect, back at the point of manufacture, for example the publication of a plant’s emissions of all the hazardous substances in the Toxic Release Inventory listings. The theory in this case is that the publication of such data, a putative measure of a company’s environmental performance, will motivate managers to voluntarily install measures to reduce the numbers and the potential for some kind of stigma. Two of my former graduate students, Andy King and Mike Lenox, found only a weak connection. They argued that, if some form of reductions were needed or desirable, voluntary efforts based on publication of performance data are uncertain and variable. More official forms of sanctions (standards and penalties) would be more effective. Other work done at my former research group at MIT showed similar results for other self-regulatory (free market) approaches.

GoodGuide is based on the same theory; knowledge of good and bad characteristics of any item will guide the purchaser to the right or rational choice. Rational, here, means some balance of the properties sought in the item and the undesirable content indicated by the information provided. The values of the agent, the actor standing in front of the crowded shelves of products in a market, frame the balance, again, in theory. Here the information is presumed to have an immediate and direct influence on the purchasing decision. More about this in a moment.

The developer of GoodGuide, Dara O’Rourke, also believes the information will have a similar indirect effect.

“There definitely is a growing percentage of consumers who are aware and who care and who are seeking out products that have better environmental, social, and health attributes,” O’Rourke says. “We view those consumers who care as point of leverage over these big, big systems.” These “conscious consumers,” as they’re sometimes called, are important to the work of activist groups who bring pressure on corporations to reform their environmental or social practices; companies feel compelled to respond because they don’t want to alienate even a small share of their customers or potential customers.

The direct effect of GoodGuide is produced by the information contained in an index with values from 1 to 10 describing the relative “goodness” of the product on that scale. The website advertises its index, thus enabling purchasers to “Find safe, healthy, green & ethical products based on scientific ratings.” I have argued in this blog that there are several fundamental problems in this approach. (I need to disclose I am a former colleague of Dara O’Rourke.) The index is a composite of values in three categories: health, environment, and society. In the default setting, the three are weighted equally in calculating the single composite index. The system to compute the score now allows the user to select the categories most valued and override the default set. These items can be selected: Nutrition; Organic (Food); Scientifically proven hazards; Controversial ingredients; Fragrance-free; Animal Welfare Certifications; Energy Efficiency; Recycled Materials; Climate Change; Pollution; Resource Conservation; Fair Trade; Labor & Human Rights. (I could not find the details of the methodology on the website and may not be up to date here.)

I will freely admit that the ratings probably do guide purchases toward healthier products, but with far less accuracy than the index, which reports scores to one decimal place, implying far more precision than the system is capable of. As others and I have written, widely divergent scores, say 4.5 vs 9.3, illustrate significant differences and should lead to well informed decisions. Decisions based on two products with scores, say, of 8.7 and 9.3, are probably not justified, given the precision of the elements of the index.

My reservations about the effectiveness of this and similar systems, such as the one that the Sustainability Consortium, started by Walmart, is developing come from three sources: questions about the rationality of the agent, the disconnection of single transactions from the whole system; and the so-called moral hazard inherent treating the symptoms so as to ignore the roots.

First, rationality. It is becoming more and more apparent that agents do not act in a classic rational manner. We are creatures of habit and prejudice. We do not in most relatively familiar circumstances, like shopping, base our actions on some sort of maximizing or optimizing calculus. Current cognitive scientific research has produced much evidence to this end. Evolutionary ontogeny models describing the development of the cognitive system of individual humans, increasingly demonstrate that the neuronal networks of our brains from which action is directed are built through the experience of living itself. As, Humberto Maturana, whom I so often quote, says, “All doing is knowing, and all knowing is doing.

Our actions are largely conditioned by what patterns are already embedded and are in charge. The contribution of more information is limited. Maturana and his co-worker Francisco Varela argue against the conventional rational model connecting “knowledge” and action. Here knowledge refers to inputs such as the GoodGuide index. The role of prior acts, embedded in memory and influenced by other past inputs such as advertising, may overcome what is arguably the rational decision. If this science is correct, the actual functioning of this index and all others like it is not so clear. It is only a single input to a cognitive system that has already retained many other memories of past actions that may be dominant in determining the immediate act.

Next, the disconnect between single act and the systemic result. The health-related part of the index refers to potential health impacts of the user. These have a more or less one-to-one correspondence. Less harmful or more beneficial ingredients should, in theory, produce changes for the better. Promising safer products is not so direct. Safe is a relative standard, whose magnitude generally is context-sensitive. So advertising the index as producing safety is almost as misleading as the claims made by the companies GoodGuide hopes to expose as bad actors. The same concern applies to the claim of "ethical" made on the GoodGuide homepage. What is ethical cannot be collapsed into the factors used to generate the index.

Green and society are very different targets. Here the objective of GoodGuide is to improve the quality of the environment and of society as a system. Both are complex systems and do not respond linearly to changes in flows of materials entering or leaving, in the case of green, or labor policy, for example, in the case of society. It is extraordinarily unlikely that any buyer understands this connection, or, better, lack of connection. And this leads me to the third issue, the moral hazard embedded in this whole approach.

People using this system to make choices may and do come to believe that they are doing their part in combating unsustainability and increasing sustainability as a result of advertising and public relation efforts of GoodGuide and others like it, and of the companies whose products are listed. They may let lapse or ignore other activities essential to creating the conditions enabling sustainability to emerge. They may ignore the fact that their individual efforts, when buying detergent, can be overwhelmed by growth of the whole economy. Systems dynamicists have a phrase, shifting-the-burden, to describe this very common pattern. By continually focusing on the symptoms of a problem, attention is diverted from attacking the roots of the problem. In buying the safer product to protect one’s children, as was the case that motivated O’Rourke to create GoodGuide, parents may stray from asking questions about the need for the product, the nature of the economy, the predominance of relying on technology, or the indices that we use to measure our well-being.

I will be exaggerating here, but reliance on a single index, GDP, to guide our political economical actions is no different than relying on a single index to produce a healthy, green and socially just world. When the index is used for more than it can represent, it can and does lead to trouble. We know now how the use of GNP masks and distorts the condition of the social world. I have lumped the three categories, used in GoodGuide, and more into a single emergent systemic quality, flourishing. as the one we want the Planetary system to produce. When we learn, if we can, the rules by which this Planetary system works, then, and only then, will we be able to create a set of corresponding indicators that might (note the uncertainty here, indicative of the nature of complexity) be used to guide decisions. In the meantime, it is very important not to be lulled by the apparent precision and significance of indices that are said to have a direct relationship to a complex system. Use them. They have value, but don’t bet on them to turn the world into a green paradise.