Jul 4, 2010

Maintaining Independence from Commercial Systems

This is a very condensed version of what was going to be a long essay. I decided that many of the points I was making were too obvious and repetitive to warrant a complete posting here.

On a typical day a person participates in a large number of systems created and/or managed by other people. While such systems are only able to exist because they address some human need, their interests never completely coincide with those of the people who rely on them. There is always tension between between the appetites of these systems and the needs of the individuals using them.

This tension is particularly apparent when examining commercial systems, where the system's interest is transparently financial. However, in noncommercial social organizations one can also identify tension between the system's needs and those of participants or "users."

The basic point of this post is to help readers identify their optimal level of involvement in the systems they participate in -- particularly commercial systems.

Examples of such systems are: websites such as Facebook, Google, or even Wikipedia, your job, your gym, your church, the healthcare industry, the automobile industry, the real estate industry, the food industry, the Internet in general, and the institution of higher education.

Each of these systems provides valuable opportunities and services to those you use them. Some are commercial, some are not. All such systems can only exist because they address some need, whether personal or organizational. However, from an early stage in the life of any system the primary purpose changes from serving users' needs to serving the system's own needs. Successful systems must undergo this change in order to survive, but they also must continue to effectively satisfy their users' needs as well.

Essentially, it is in the interests of such systems to stimulate a higher level of involvement than what is actually optimal for individual users. Here is a chart that illustrates this difference:

The green line shows diminishing returns for a person who is taking part in the system, and the red line shows increasing negative side-effects as one becomes overinvolved. The optimal level of involvement for the individual is where they are receiving most of the benefits from the system (the things the system does best) but are experiencing few if any negative side-effects.

The goal of systems (commercial systems in particular) is generally to stimulate as much involvement (energy investment) as possible without causing the user's complete destruction. This strategy is essentially parasitic. A parasite strives to divert as many of the host's resources for its own purposes without killing the host.

The ways in which systems stimulate over-involvement for their own benefit are most transparent (and probably most sinister) in large-scale commercial systems such as the healthcare industry or the real-estate industry, which end up controlling our entire lifestyle.

It is natural for many people to assume that the mechanisms used to induce overinvolvement were developed by some brilliant (perhaps sinister) mastermind who definitely knew exactly what he was doing, but really they arise gradually over time as a natural result of wise financial decision-making on the part of the system's managers and investors.

In the longer version of this essay I demonstrated points such as the following:

- Your gym is interested in getting as many people as possible to buy memberships and as few of them as possible to actually use them.

- Facebook has been taking steps to increase the levels of addiction among Facebook users. None of these steps help people become more socially connected.

- The healthcare industry has a number of players (providers, insurers, pharmaceuticals, employers, and consumers) with conflicting interests; the competition between the big organizational players' interests and the sidelining of consumers' interests produce the unfriendly, overpriced, and often maddening healthcare system we have in the U.S.

- The automobile and transportation industry is interested in keeping people from walking and having easy foot access to important locations, even though this comes at great cost in health and quality of life for residents.

- The real estate industry is interested in getting people to buy homes that are as large and costly as possible and consume as large a percentage of consumers' income as possible -- as much as 40 times more income than is necessary to provide the basic comforts that housing is meant to provide.

And so forth.

An important thing to understand is that each system does a good job at providing at least one relatively vital service (or a vital service for some subset of the population). However, as the system grows in influence, it tries to get people hooked not only on the vital service, but on as many nonessential auxiliary services as possible.

For instance, Facebook is unparalleled at helping people reconnect with old friends and acquaintances whom it is very hard to keep track of any other way. The healthcare industry is unparalleled at performing complex medical procedures. Churches are unparalleled at providing people with an aggression-free environment where they can experience a sense of unity with other people. Higher education is unparalleled at creating a research environment for the furtherment of knowledge.

A shrewd individualist, it would seem, should be able to recognize the essential services a system can provide and make use of them without being lured in by the nonessential, often costly additional services that the system offers, but actually doesn't provide very well.

The conclusion? No system can be fully trusted to take care of your needs for you. It is probably not in their interests.

1 comment:

JD said...

I like those last two paragraphs.

Systems rule with imperious self-importance - it's repulsive. From the family to the state, systems are overrated. We can't say we'll live without them however for that would be illogical and untrue no matter how one looks at it.

The level of dependence is depressing.I like those last two paragraphs.

Systems rule with imperious self-importance - it's repulsive. From the family to the state, systems are overrated. We can't say we'll live without them however for that would be illogical and untrue no matter how one looks at it.

The level of dependence is depressing.