Testing An Idealistic-Tech Hypothesis

Katja:

Relatively minor technological change can move the balance of power between values that already fight within each human. [For example,] Beeminder empowers a person’s explicit, considered values over their visceral urges. … In the spontaneous urges vs. explicit values conflict …, I think technology should generally tend to push in one direction. … I’d weakly guess that explicit values will win the war. (more)

The goals we humans tend to explicitly and consciously endorse tend to be more idealistic than the goals that our unconscious actions try to achieve. So one might expect or hope that tech that empowers conscious mind parts, relative to other parts, would result in more idealistic behavior.

A relevant test of this idea may be found in the behavior of human orgs, such as firms or nations. Like humans, orgs emphasize more idealistic goals in their more explicit communications. So if we can identify the parts of orgs that are most like the conscious parts of human minds, and if we can imagine ways to increase the resources or capacities of those org parts, then we can ask if increasing such capacities would move orgs to more idealistic behavior.

A standard story is that human consciousness functions primarily to manage the image we present to the world. Conscious minds are aware of the actions we may need to explain to others, and are good at spinning good-looking explanations for our own behavior, and bad-looking explanations for the behavior of rivals.

Marketing, public relation, legal, and diplomatic departments seem to be analogous parts of orgs. They attend more to how the org is seen by others, and to managing org actions that are especially influential to such appearances. If so, our test question becomes: if the relative resources and capacities of these org parts were increased, would such orgs act more idealistically? For example, would a nation live up to its self-proclaimed ideals more if the budget of its diplomatic corps were doubled?

I’d guess that such changes would tend to make org actions more consistent, but not more idealistic. That is, the mean level of idealism would stay about the same, but inconsistencies would be reduced and deviations of unusually idealistic or non-idealistic actions would move toward the mean. Similarly, I suspect humans with more empowered conscious minds do not on average act more idealistically.

But that is just my guess. Does anyone know better how the behavior of real orgs would change under this hypothetical?

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  • arch1

    One way that tech can empower conscious mind parts is to incent behaviors which require greater empowerment of these parts.

    In the corporate world, analogues to this might include sustained increases in regulation, transparency, or public scrutiny. My guess is that such things tend to improve orgs’ apparent behavior a lot, and their actual behavior less (how much less depends on lots of factors).

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    No idea about orgs, but I’d go to a simpler rather than more complex model. A common conflict between urge and ideal is whether to get out of bed in the morning or sleep a while longer. The relevant technology is the alarm clock. Did people value punctuality more before or after its advent?

    My guess, more. The alarm-clock technology takes the issue off one’s mind, but having the issue on your mind is what strengthens (practices) the value.

    • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

      The alarm clock also makes punctuality possible, so any correlations could be related to either changes in motivation/values like ‘valuing punctuality more’ or due to punctuality being more doable. An example: after the introduction of airplanes, there was a lot more high-speed travel – but did people suddenly start valuing high-speed travel a great deal after the invention of airplanes, or did they always want to travel fast and simply couldn’t do it before?

      • IMASBA

        “An example: after the introduction of airplanes, there was a lot more high-speed travel – but did people suddenly start valuing high-speed travel a great deal after the invention of airplanes, or did they always want to travel fast and simply couldn’t do it before?”

        With technology it’s often a third option: people don’t really miss is when it hasn’t been invented yet, or they dream about using it in some way that’s not the way it mainly ends up being used. People thought a cellphone would save working time and thus give them more leisure time but it ended up being used to just make people more productive in the same amount of working time. These are group dynamics that people tend to forget about. People don’t value punctuality more than they used to, people are punctual because they have to be since one business once upon a time discovered he could make a bigger profit by using alarm clocks for punctuality and so forced all the other businesses to do the same or go out of bankrupt.

  • Ely Spears

    One relevant source to consider is Robert Jackall’s Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers (link at bottom), which has a chapter devoted to marketing and another chapter on “dexterity with symbols” which is like the individual analog of marketing.

    My conjecture is that marketing-type org components function as rationalization engines. Outward facing, this means resources are devoted to looking good on idealistic values. To the extent that society can shame or force orgs to actually make good on that, such resources are spent in socially constructive ways (when the idealistic norm in question is itself socially constructive). In ward facing, it’s the same homo hypocritus story. Marketing exists to make the firm look smart on Topic A without having to actually know anything about Topic A; marketing exists to make the firm look responsible about Environmental Concern B without actually doing any substantive work to solve Environmental Concern B. So in some ways, these parts of orgs try to efficiently stack the deck to make it easy to have one’s cake and eat it too.

    I conjecture the same is true about the far-mode parts of human minds too.

  • michael vassar

    My impression is that idealistic and selfish ideas, done consistently, would work out to roughly the same thing. It’s only the internal incoherence that creates the disaster that is normal behavior.

  • e

    I think increasing the PR department’s size and clout and increasing the legal department’s size and clout are different, but that might just be personal perception. It seems like an organization with a larger legal department is more likely to behave more conservatively where the law is involved- but that’s probably a bad thing.

  • Itai Bar-Natan

    Remember, not everyone agrees with the comparison between conscious thought and public relations in an organization. In particular, to me the most apt analogy seems to be with upper management. Moreover, this comparison is typically associated with cynical points of view, so using it to resolve a cynicism/idealism dispute is a bad idea.

    Pursing my own choice of analogy, note that there is a general consensus that governments act less idealistically the more power their leaders have.

  • S. McCandlish

    A point I made elsewhere is that the “more idealistic goals” of one person, organization or society are not necessarily going to be seen as such by anyone else. I would offer the hypothesis that this is precisely why history is so bloody. Even the Nazis thought they were doing something good, necessary and above all idealistic.

  • IMASBA

    “Marketing, public relation, legal, and diplomatic departments seem to be analogous parts of orgs. They attend more to how the org is seen by others, and to managing org actions that are especially influential to such appearances. If so, our test question becomes: if the relative resources and capacities of these org parts were increased, would such orgs act more idealistically? For example, would a nation live up to its self-proclaimed ideals more if the budget of its diplomatic corps were doubled?”

    Marketing and diplomacy are about cloaking/sweeping-under-the-carpet your true intentions and spinning inconvenient truths. Giving them more resources would give their parent orgs more leeway to divert from purported noble ideals.

    “The goals we humans tend to explicitly and consciously endorse tend to be more idealistic than the goals that our unconscious actions try to achieve.”

    Orgs aren’t people, they are collections of people and therefore work very differently and again, marketing and diplomacy don’t set goals, they spin the actual goals (which are determined somewhere else) around for public consumption.