Don’t “Get” People to Do Anything
Social change is not about changing people, but changing the register
Nearly every time I’m on a panel or in a conversation about civic harmony, social change or economic equality, someone eventually asks, “I agree, but how are we going to get people to….?” And that’s when the conversation turns to education, publicity campaigns, memes, or some other well-intentioned form of social engineering. If only we could get people to…
We all hope to steer our society away from the inequality, extraction, externalities, and power imbalances of the industrial economy, but — not surprisingly — our first impulse is to impose the same sorts of top-down, command-and-control solutions typical of the industrial age.
Tech developers and entrepreneurs, in particular, have become aware of the various harms and externalities of the technologies they have built, and want to reverse some of these media effects. As if seeing the light, they now want to create apps and platforms that undo the problems that their original apps and platforms caused. So they create meditation apps to calm minds that have been intentionally made anxious by social media, or wellness platforms to “nudge” people toward healthier uses of their time than doom-scrolling on a new app. There are even whole organizations and institutes dedicated to developing “humane technologies” that treat people more benevolently than their predecessors.
But the orientation of these efforts is all wrong. They’re all about using technology on people, rather than people using technology. “Humane” is the way companies claim to treat cage-free chickens: a commitment by an industry to raise and slaughter its living commodities as painlessly as possible. That’s not good enough. The question should not be about how humanely our technologies program human beings, but about how well human beings can program technology.
Are we trying to program people to behave better, or are we creating better conditions for such positive change to take place?
This same premise applies to any effort at social change: Are we trying to program people to behave better, or are we creating better conditions…