Harvesting Care

Here’s a conversation I had with my 10 year-old daughter, a couple of weeks back:
Bella: this is why I need a FitBit.
Me: Why?
Bella: Because we are walking.
Me: We can walk anyway
Bella: Yeah, but we could set GOALS!
I was describing this conversation to a colleague and they agreed that on days where they forgot to bring their FitBit, they felt like exercising was ‘pointless’.

It reminded me of an article I saw recently about London’s top 10 most ‘Instagrammable’ restaurants. These are restaurants where people go not for the food, but because of the pictures they can post and likes they will get, on Instagram. Imagine being a chef in such a restaurant, and realising that people are no longer coming for the food.

This phenomenon is pervasive. It’s the birth of a new kind of economy – a virtual one – which monetises everything. Every little thing you do can be converted into a form of digital currency – such as views or likes.
But something more sinister is going on, I suspect:

In 1973 psychologists Lepper & Greene observed two groups of children playing with crayons. One group they rewarded, the other they didn’t. When they later removed the rewards, the group who had previously been rewarded no longer wanted to play with the crayons. Just like not wanting to go for a jog when you don’t get the ‘steps’. Somehow, external incentives strip away intrinsic motivation.

So there’s a practical concern and a philosophical one:
  • Practically – we are plunging headlong into a world of badges and points as we begin to ‘gamify’ the workplace. But do you want employees who do things because they care – or just to get the badge to put on LinkedIN? Are drops in engagement and rises in depression a direct consequence of harvesting intrinsic motivation?
  • Philosophically – there is a bigger picture that, as far as I know, no-one has spotted: we are harvesting care. In much the same way that we over-fished the oceans, we are creating vast, industrial engines – Facebook, Instagram etc. – that harvest care for commercial gain; or to put it another way, that take the things we cared about and convert them into virtual currency, in the process reducing or eliminating that care. This is a more specific concern than just people ‘living in the moment’.

Obviously there is a commercial imperative here: if I can take your party pics and use them to drive likes for you in exchange for advertising revenue for me, that’s a sound business model. But I suspect the commercial mechanism is a means rather than an end: it feels to me like a way of capturing humans at the micro-level – so that it is not just our dreams, but our every fleeting care that is captured.

Who or what is doing the capturing?
How does a nest capture ants? How does Capital capture labour? It is remarkable the extent to which emergent properties of systems are not merely epiphenomenological but exert an influence on the systems on which they are instantiated - for example in the way that your consciousness plays a part in the direction of an organic collective. You are mostly bacteria; do you think they 'want' to be hurtling down a ski slope on a snowboard?

Such organising principles do not spring from nowhere - they exert a historical influence. They bring about the conditions for their own existence. And so my intuition is that it is technology - technology that has worked across the ages, beginning with the introduction of writing, to bring about the conditions for its own ascent, through the progressive capture of human sentiment.


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