Almost always, “save the world” initiatives are aimed somewhere far from the developed world. Whatever you want to call it: the third world, or some developing nation; we regard it as THE area that needs saving: warring factions in Syria, censorship in China, extortion in Mexico, hunger in Ghana, rape in India, and corruption in Russia. These are real and serious problems in the world and we’re right to seek ways to improve the greater good of people there.
But the developed world is full of many of its own problems, often orthogonal to those of the less developed world:
Diabetes and cancer are the diseases of developed world, and throw us into an inefficient healthcare system that’s incentivised to be expensive and bankrupt patients.
Our food system isn’t helping – the most convenient and least expensive food tends to very processed. Moreover, information on healthful eating is muddled by vested interests.
Many people find themselves in unnatural settings for daily work, where they spend most of their waking hours: long and stressful commutes, uninspiring work, hierarchical and restrictive work structures that cause the same angst and disorders as hierarchical regimes, and a lack of sunlight, fresh air, and movement. This “life” causes many physical and mental ailments including obesity and a widespread reduction in well being.
A consumerist mindset occupies our minds, ceaselessly telling us we need more to be happy, adding clutter to our lives and waste in our landfills.
We find ourselves endlessly busy and distant (physically and mentally) from things that bring true happiness: sleep, family, friends, love, community, and general relaxing and reflection.
The crux of this is that people in the developed world might not be very happy in their day to day lives. By some measures we might be less happy than those living in the developing world
These problems are nothing compared to warfare and hunger, but it’s critical that we make strides to address these issues. For one, most of world is becoming more developed. They crave to be more modern. They want to be more technologically advanced and be a part of the greater world economy. They want success and prosperity and growth. And they rightfully should. But as the developing world inherits our advancement, they inherit our problems. And these would be new problems for them – the next five billion – and big problems for the planet as a whole. So if we’re to “save the world”, let’s go after the problems in front of us, and not just the ones half a world away.
Human social and societal behavior
A strong personal and professional research interest
I’ve worked with faculty at Stony Brook University in developing a theory of evolution of religion, which reached into in-group / out-group behavior and a theory of culture. While this work is yet to be published, it is referenced in the book “Death from a Distance and the Birth of a Humane Universe: Human Evolution, Behavior, History, and Your Future”.
I was a teaching assistant for the undergraduate and graduate (classroom and online) course on Social Coercion Theory
I’m a former practitioner of Kyokushin karate and served as an instructor for 5 years
I presently practice capoeira, an afro-brazilian martial art and have done so for the past 7 years
I’m an avid roller blader, as a daily commuter and as a safety marshall (5 years) for the inline skating community
I enjoy many outdoor activities including hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, and skiing
I’ve volunteered at St. Francis and Bellevue Hospitals
I was trained and certified as a NYS EMT and briefly volunteered with the Glen Oaks Volunteer Ambulance Corps
I was a pre-med student in a college and applied to medical schools, but decided against the career
A strong personal interest and I do a lot of reading, research, and personal experimenting
This past weekend, I attended the Rally to Restore Sanity (and/or Fear), hosted by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. It was an incredible experience, and perhaps one monumental to the direction of this country as over 200,000 individuals attended to support a cause not [directly] related to politics. The crowd in attendence was diverse – I was expecting a fairly young bunch but was pleasantly surprised to see much more than the 18-35 age demographic. There were plenty of folks older than 35 and many had brought their children with them. While this astounding rally was not a political one, it did relate strongly to the foundations of our democratic government, particularly to free speech.
The First Amendment of the US Constitution ensures the freedom of press. This is important in ensuring transparency in government and industry affairs. In essence, this permits anyone to call out these institutions on any fishy matters. Unlike in countries such as China or North Korea, you can bad mouth the government and not end up being taken away by the police. Instead, such coversation is actually encouraged in the US and we have a well paid [and listened to] media that is assigned the role of doing this. The very purpose of the media is to inform the citizenry, covering organizations and institutions such as government and business.
Despite fitting this definition, our present media machine is barely useful and perhaps even dangerous. It is full of noise – instead of providing useful information that we Americans can act upon, it tells us all the things to be afraid of, often unnecessarily so. It tells us the extreme points of view and that the country is divided among issues. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, pun intended, where most Americans are simply busy people that want a better country for everyone and are willing to compromise on issues to foster progress.
Although a significant part of our mass media is broken, there is much hope for it. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are not merely political satirists – they are also the most influential journalists of this generation. Yes, journalists. They have stepped up to do the job that the rest of broadcast media has blatantly failed at doing. The hundreds of thousands of rally attendees understand this on some level, many unconsciously. And plenty clearly know what this is all about, as one rally member’s sign cleverly stated, “I get my news from Comedy Central and my comedy from Fox News.” Equally interesting is that the mainstream media didn’t understand that the Rally to Restore Sanity (and/Fear) was in fact about them, as this article [and the laughable videos of CNN, NBC, and Fox embedded] articulates.
Aside from Stewart and Colbert, the internet itself has proved to be a fantastic tool in reinforcing the First Amendment. Blogs provide a world of information in a globally accessible domain. The thoughts I share in this very post will reach more people than ever possible just a few years ago.
Transparency is not only important for the American people, but also for politicians. I believe that most government officials truly want to stand up for their official constituents (as in people, not corporations) and make the country a better place for everyone. But there are plenty of politicians that use the lack of transparency to push their own agendas forward at the cost of the American people. Likewise, insidious corporations will push for their interests when their actions can’t be unveiled. However, we’re at a transition point, and one that’s for the better. We are reversing the consolidation of media. We have better tools than ever before to allow for transparency. A better world for Americans will prevail so long as we let useful media restore our sanity and prevent overblown media from keeping the fear alive.
Your stuff sucks! You suck! How can you be happy with that? What you need is new stuff. This is the message we’re blasted with all day and every day to propel the golden arrow of consumerism. Our American society is built around its citizens consuming more and more. Likewise, we’re distracted from all the consequences of our consumer habits – from the environmental damage, the slave-like livelihoods of those making our stuff (more on these in a future post), and the government catering more to corporations than to its citizens.
All of these points are illustrated well in The Story of Stuff (embedded above). Although this video seems geared toward kids, it provides a thoroughly important message for everyone. It shows how we’re under constant barrage of messages telling us to get new things, and how much happier we’d be to have them. Consider your daily life – how often are you exposed to advertising? On the TV. On websites. On billboards while driving. In the news. In people talking about and showing off the latest and greatest new product. We’re swimming in it!
Consumer product companies have also developed strategies to keep us buying stuff. Consider planned obsolescence, where products are designed to break (or become obsolete) as quickly as possible but lasting long enough to maintain customer loyalty. Our technological advancement is also slowed down – companies are better off holding off on features so that they have something to add in the next version of the product and so on. (It’s an unfortunate situation that most every company must adhere to this if it intends on being successful.) Also consider the more powerful forces of perceived obsolescence, where consumers are convinced that they need to buy the latest and greatest despite already owning something that is fully adequate.
All this has much to do with our daily lives and our happiness. As the video states, “What’s the point of an ad except to make us unhappy with what we have?” We’re fooled into thinking we need more stuff and newer stuff. Consequently, we have to work longer and harder to have more money to buy more stuff. The cost of this on happiness is staggering because it takes away time – something money can’t buy. This lifestyle leaves little time to spend with family and friends. It leaves little time for learning and adventure. It leaves little time to take care of our wellbeing. All of these things are core to our happiness and yet we’re doing ourselves a disservice by living the consumer lifestyle.
So what can we do about this to make our lives better? The first thing is to be aware of all these forces and how they act on us. The next step is to be mindful of any consumer product and ask important questions: Is this something I really need? Do I already own something that is sufficient? Will owning this product really make me happy and for how long? Are there great opportunity costs to get this product? Would the hours I spend working to pay for it be worth it? Or am I better off spending my time on something else?
I’ll admit that I used to buy things without really thinking about it. Watching The Story of Stuff really opened up my eyes to the mindlessness of the whole thing and how I was a slave to false desire. Since then, I’ve cut back on buying things. I’m understanding that it’s not necessary to own things. Through a more pragmatic approach, I’m living a happier life. You can too.
A central theme of this blog is on using technology mindfully. But what does it mean to be mindful? is there a concrete process to this? In fact, there is: it’s the scientific process – the act of questioning things, in this case: technology. We should ask the following questions with any new technology, be it a gadget, a piece of software, or a technique.
What do we gain from using this technology? Is it something that makes getting things done easier? Does it bring enjoyment? Is it a precursor to something bigger and better? We should be careful not to dismiss technology simply because it seems useless or trivial. Or, if anything, does it serve as a mental training exercise to a new way to think? Most of the time, technology does bring advancement, but this isn’t always the case.
What are the potential pitfalls of using this technology? Does it make things more complicated? Does it damage social relationships? Can it be dangerous? Does it just push evolutionary buttons. Is it used to mislead? Is it expensive? It’s often difficult to see problems right off the bat. And sometimes even “obvious” problems are of little significance.
Do we, as a society, come off better off as a whole?
Who benefits from using the technology? Who has something to lose? Who’s pushing forward the technology? Who’s trying to dismiss it? We can discern much about the consequences by noting whose interests are at stake.
Still, things aren’t always black and white. A technology might bring great efficiency in some applications but cause problems in other situations, as noted in the case of processing food or with mobile phones. So it’s especially important that we continue to apply the scientific process, as technology emerges and as we use it. A last point is to never accept new things blindly.
Have you noticed how deceptive advertising is? Breakfast cereal companies make health claims on their products – very misleading. Website ads purport weight-loss miracles – complete scams. Trickery appears to be all over our communication mediums. It’s so commonplace that we might accept it as a normal part of society. We seem to tune it out often enough. But there’s just so much manipulation, bringing us closer to non-human animals and turning back the the clock on our evolutionary progress.
Think, in all of the animal kingdom, humans are the only species to have an incredibly extensive communication system. Language (a technology built into us that we often take for granted) in humans greatly surpasses that of any other creature. There’s a simple answer as to why no other creature engages in this: manipulation. If any information can be spread, then false information can be spread. In non-human animals, spreading false information is a good strategy as there is always competition with others. This is why non-human animals don’t evolve strong communication (except in the case of closely related individuals where we do see some level of communication). Humans are unique in their ability to suppress these conflicts of interest and because of this, they assured that information communicated wasn’t malicious information, at the time elite communication evolved. (For a full detailing our our language history, see Chapter 9, Voices from the past: The evolution of ‘language’, in Death from a Distance)
Back to contemporary society, we see that manipulation is everywhere. The ancient condition that allowed elite communication to sprout is terribly disrespected. Today, we’re constantly exposed to deceptive information. A big problem is that much our mental mechanisms are too trusting and leave us open to manipulation. Another is that companies can get away with misleading people, and they’ll do it because it’s in their interest to do so. In the ancient condition, there were enforcement mechanisms to prevent the dissemination of bad information. We don’t have a very good system in place for that now. We need better enforcement on misleading advertising. We, as a whole, would be living much better lives with the absence of manipulative information.
We’re blessed with the incredible technology of elite communication. If it isn’t used mindfully, it will go to waste. It will be ignored. It has already happened to some degree. And where it hasn’t, often lie the victims of manipulation.
As the adjacent graph jokingly indicates, the whole “Going Green” thing has spiraled out to a trendy thing instead of a genuine concern for our environment. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The fact is, people are being more eco-conscious. And this in turn is affecting larger level organizations. All sorts of companies are now talking green. The government is also embracing green policies. Do each of these groups really believe in being environmentally friendly or are they catering to their interests? For individuals, there is the social influence factor. For companies, it’s the bottom line and something else to advertise. For government, it’s reelection. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The fact remains that individuals are cutting down electricity, companies are limiting toxic chemicals, and governments are investing in renewable energy.
This is a fantastic example of aligning private interests with public interests. By doing this, we neither run into the problem of uncooperative players due to a lack of enforcement nor do we need to create a system of enforcement. I’m not sure how long this green trend will last, but it has greatly helped lay down important seeds. This also provides a lesson on how social forces can harness selfish interest for a common good.
The American healthcare system is messy, inefficient, and expensive. The problem lies in the lack of the unified goal of providing good patient care. Rather, every party involved in our healthcare industry must act to allow themselves to survive, often to the detriment of this goal. This is apparent when we consider the interests of each party and compare them to that of the other parties:
Patients – want to maintain their health and make it affordable
they are marketed to constantly by other players in the healthcare system
they often want quick fixes and to want to minimize effort (making them reluctant to adopt lifestyle changes)
their insurance policies put little importance on promoting healthy lifestyle
they must deal with the difficulty in getting insurance and have treatments covered
Doctors and other Medical Personal – want to deliver the best care and be properly reimbursed for their work
they had to work very hard for many years and pay a lot of money to get to where they are
they have to overtreat to avoid lawsuits
they have to use expensive medical equipment more often to cover those costs (more overtreatment)
they have to see more patients to cover their costs
they need to maintain good reputations (which means catering to reward systems that raise the cost of medicine yet don’t do the patient good; one example is not admitting mistakes; another is prescribing more drugs or procedures instead of suggesting lifestyle changes)
Insurance Companies – want to offer the best coverage and minimize their costs
they must avoid risky high-cost clients and maintain many low-cost clients, or business will be infeasible
they need to cover what their clients want to maintain their clientele
they need to deal with the high prices set my the medical industry in order to stay in business
Drug Companies and Medical Equipment Makers – want to offer the best medical advancements and minimize their costs
they must compete in a very aggressive industries
they have very high research costs
they must continually create new products
they must advertise heavily to remain in business
they lobby to create favorable government policy
by nature, they encourage overtreatment
Hospitals – want to offer the best care and cover their costs
they lose a lot of money when providing care in emergency departments (especially with patients without insurance)
they must cover this discrepancy by building and advertising high-yielding departments (such as cancer treatment and heart treatment)
they must heavily use expensive medical equipment to cover those costs
they must maintain good reputation
Government / Politicians / Policy Makers – want to create policies that better the health of people and they want to maintain their political power
they must please the patients and cater to what patients think is best for health (even if it isn’t)
they must deal with lobbying and funding from other players in the health care industry (critical to getting elected)
As you can see, every player involved in our healthcare system has well intentioned and even commendable goals (as indicated in italic). But at the same time, they’re working in a system that requires them to fulfill the second goal (survival) at the expense of the first goal (genuine health care). If we are to improve our healthcare system, and our lives, we must address the conflicting interests between these parties. We must align their interests and incentives with the greater unified goal of providing the good medical care. And this includes [potential] patients acting in kind.
We are in the midst of two energy crises. The strange part is that in one crisis, we are running out of energy, while in the other, we have too much energy. The former, obviously, is the global crisis involving oil and renewable energy and yada yada yada. We’ve heard it a million times. We’ve also heard of the other energy crisis as frequently, though not worded as such. It’s the country’s (and beyond’s) ever-growing weight problem! Our fat deposits are really just [very large] pockets of stored energy. There’s constant talk on burning more calories as if it’s an incessant problem that never ends (in a way, it is).
Isn’t it completely outrageous that we face one problem regarding a very limited supply of energy alongside another problem with a seemingly endless supply of energy? Perhaps a good solution would be to wire stationary bikes to the electrical grid and have overweight people pedal all day. I’d advise against that, not because it’s silly (I personally enjoy such silly things) but because that would be approaching the problem backwards.
Rather, there is a way to partially alleviate both problems since a lot of energy usage goes into our food system. Without a doubt, we need to reduce the amount of food produced as the country creates about twice the calories needed by people (some of this is wasted or thrown out but quite a lot ends up in people’s stomach). We ended up with this predicament because players in the food industry have an interest in getting us to buy more and more of their products. And this isn’t an easy problem to tackle as there’s no way to swim up the raging river of interest. Still, it’s something that can go a long way in bettering our health and reducing our demand on energy.
The 2008 financial crisis was especially rough because it was so unexpected. This fact raises a couple of interesting points. One is that those within the industry that understood what was really going on were keeping mum as it was in their interest to do so. The other is that so many of our economics experts and whatnot didn’t see this coming. This latter point tells us a lot about how we understand how stuff works.
There are two approaches to understand how any part of the world works. The initial and more accessible manner is to discern patterns from observations without necessarily having an understanding of the underlying mechanisms. This was pretty much the only way humans made sense of the world for most of history. This top-down approach is quick and dirty – immediately useful – and a required process to eventually, if ever, build another method of understanding how something works.
The bottom-up approach is to understand basic mechanisms and build more complex mechanisms from more simpler ones. This approach is very powerful because it works on a system of rules which allows us to make testable predictions. Empirical data, instead of coloring the model, determines whether or not the rules (and their predictions) are valid. This is actually another way of expressing the scientific process.
So a top-down understanding of the workings of a car could mean that you understand that the pedals and steering control the motion of the vehicle and that it requires gasoline to run. This is sufficient knowledge to operate the vehicle. But this doesn’t help you if you’re car begins to malfunction. A bottom-up understanding of machinery inside a car would aid greatly in this case. However, for the sake of efficiency, most of us put trust in specialists that understand cars (auto mechanics) so that we don’t need this knowledge ourselves. Which is fine for this circumstance.
How does this work for understanding something complicated than a car, like the economic system? Surely we have specialists (the “experts” I mentioned in the first paragraph) but what is their approach? For most economists (if not all) it is top-down. They build models from empirical data (and they really do an incredible job of gathering this data). Their models are probably generally accurate but not all the time. The financial meltdown is a very clear, and costly, example of when it is not. So what happened? Well, because top-down understanding is built from empirical data, it possesses the danger of being colored by the data. Over time, the model is tweaked to fit new information, which can bring about even greater surprise if it’s wrong.
So what would be a bottom-up understanding of economics? It’s most certainly difficult to approach it this way; it’s doable though. Since economics is really just social exchange between humans, we can determine a good theory of it if we understand human social behavior. I’ll be sure to discuss this in a future post.
As for our approaches in understanding how things work: each method has its strengths and weaknesses. We should use the top-down approach whenever it is sufficient, as it is very sleek. But we should be mindful of when its disadvantages may spell trouble. Otherwise, a bottom-up approach, if available, proves to be essential.
Many of my posts (present and future) discuss the “insidious” things that those in the industry do. This gives the impression that everyone in the industry will only act in their own interests and there seems to be little hope out there for humaneness. From an economic perspective, each company should do whatever is in its better interest. This is especially important for them becuause it is a matter of survival. If they don’t behave selfishly, and potentially insidious to others, they’ll be put out of business by another competitor. This is what happens within industries and the consequence is that industries are full of companies that keep pushing their own interests even if it harms others.
Here is a simple example that drives home this point. Suppose there are two companies manufacturing a certain good. Suppose Company A is can make their product with lesser cost to themselves, but it pollutes a river (or exploits foreign land, or uses child labor); Company B refuses to be so heinous, and thus has a higher price to its product. Company A will likely be more successful than Company B, and in the high stakes of business, all companies like Company B will be put out of business while only Company A types will remain.
It is futile to try to convince companies to act outside of their interests. However, there is still a way to persuade companies to act differently. The key is to shift their cost-benefit ratio so that acting in the interests of others is also acting their own interests. One way is through enforceable laws. A strict punishment, like for polluting the river or exploiting others, imposes a cost on the company and thus the company’s best self-interested strategy is to not break these rules. Another is by social economic enforcement. A company can punished by its consumers if they do not agree with the manner by which it operates. This works well when reputations are very important (they usually are) and it’s especially crucial that there is transparency to the company’s actions. It’s difficult to punish a company when we’re unaware of its awful tactics.
I believe most companies out there really want to do the morally conscious thing. Unfortunately, this often does not bode well for survival in the economic world and companies are left with the choice to either stand by its principles (and suffer great economic consequences) or to play along with the immoral game. Do you see other ways we can persuade companies to act in the interests of our global world?