Shape of Society = Shape of Technology

This post is a series of reflections on recent readings and discussions about leadership, culture, and change. Steve Jobs’ untimely passing has created an opportunity for a lot of reflection, and his words and words about him make up a significant portion of this post.

What I’m working toward here is a clearer understanding of society, culture, and “change.”

Why do people behave the way they do? Why is society structured the way it is? What is a “leader?” Is it possible to “change” things? And if so, how?

In a recent blog post – a tribute to Steve Jobs – John Carlton makes the claim that we as a species haven’t really needed to create much of the technology we’ve used in the past fifty years or so.

Anyone with a smidgeon of knowledge about the history of civilization can refute that idea. The Web could have easily remained a pet project of the military-industrial-academic world. The sky could easily today be full of zeppelins instead of jets, with no satellites orbiting above, no footprints on the moon, and no mp3′s murmuring in your earbuds.

Perhaps, John!

This comment struck a chord with me, and resonated with a few other things I’ve been discussing and reading recently.

The first was this article, sent to me by a good friend of mine: Nice Guys and Gals Still Finish Last at the Office.

The article cites some recent research from various people at some of the top business/management schools in the country.

To quote:

“Being selfish makes you seem more dominant and being dominant makes you seem more attractive as a leader, especially when there’s competition,” said Robert Livingston, a co-author of the study and assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School.

The study concluded that “altruism does increase prestige,” but people who are generous or altruistic can appear weak or gullible, Livingston added. “It basically makes you look less dominant and less power seeking. That’s the paradox,” he said.

But why is that a “paradox?”

Altruism increases prestige, but not power or dominance. No paradox there.

Unless we get into a conflict based on language, and poorly-defined terms. “Altruism,” “prestige,” “power,” and “dominance.” Defined clearly, lead to no paradox at all.

Altruism is the doing of something selflessly.

By definition, that is “unselfish” action.

The researchers are measuring “selfishness” as relates with “dominance” and “power.” Selfishness being the desire to choose situations that favor oneself over others, giving one more power (more choices).

When you are altruistic, and you give someone something, they may be grateful. It could appear as a sign of over-abundance in you. But if you always act unselfishly, that means that you never hold or gain power. By definition.

More to quote:

“As humans we are wired to respond to dominance” in terms of who we perceive as leadership worthy, he said.

The research did not look at whether being nice or being selfish made you a better leader. It was about “leader emergence,” not whom we perceive would make a better leader, he said.

“On a subconscious level this is the conclusion people are coming to,” he said. “Kindness equals weakness.”

Is that actually the conclusion? Kindness = weakness?

Or is it more subtle? Could it be – Kindness does not equal dominance/power?

Before we go too far, we should admit the important difference between those two statements.

Kindness being equal to weakness means that anyone who is ever kind is perceived as weak. But that’s not the case. Even the powerful and dominant exhibit kindness.

So it’s kindness mediated by some other quality (or a lack of some other quality) that is perceived as weakness.

The last bit is important as well…that they did not study whether being “selfish” (self-serving?) makes you a “better” leader.

I would guess that it doesn’t matter. Once you’re a leader, you lead. “Better” or “worse” depends on whether or not you win.

Why any of this is a surprise is beyond me completely. Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt wrote his awesome compendium “Human Ethology” back in 1989. It details the field he created, which compares non-human primate physiology, sociology, and behavior, to human behavior in those areas. (By the way you can buy a hardcover copy of this book used on Amazon for $18!!!…well worth it in my opinion).

We know (and have known for some time) that human beings act out of the same base-level (and unconscious) patterns as chimps.

Chimps utilize these behaviors:
in group/out group distinction/prejudice
ritualized behavior (which is what I think most of our daily lives consists of…”habit”), including:
mating – marriage/partnership
reassurance – grooming/reconciliation

In humans, most of the “differences” between what those categories look like stem from culture. They show up differently based on how that social group developed within the land/territory it grew in, it’s traditions and customs (which are shaped by habitat).

And all of those are a result and reflection of the basic physiological drives to:
sex – reproduction
status – affiliation and leadership (relative within you’re niche/social class)
safety – physical, emotional

Which are often (usually?) based on to/from attraction/avoidance pleasure/pain distinctions (which are individually-defined and perceived, and are also often based on cultural learning).

Further still, most humans behave out of:
Fear/Anxiety, and/or

In the hopes that they’ll get one of the following:
Taste (especially fatty, sweet, and/or salty)

And that they’ll be able to do so:
With no attachments.

What’s “motivating” is usually hitting your evolutionary-behavioral necessities (to have sex/reproduce, to be safe, and to have and understand some sort of status in your group); AND your dopamine receptors – fast, easy, cheap, fun, tasty, comfortable, risky/exciting, orgasmic, etc.

I.e., your motivation is primarily “emotional,” and your rational mind makes up excuses for why your emotional decisions are “right.”

Dominance displays (for social standing or as defensive measures) are standard operating procedure for primates (and many/most other animals).

Another article makes this even more-clear – Cooperation is Child’s Play.

Again, the article mingles poorly-defined terms like “fairness,” “cooperation,” and “altruism.” Nevertheless, the article cites research showing that infants at 15 months of age have some developed sense of “fairness.”

But there seems to be no clear-cut way to determine when how or why a child will decide to share a favorite toy or not. That is, “fairness” is personally-mediated based on factors yet-to-be-identified.

Is that news? I’m not sure. But I mention it here as another trait we share with primates. Primates display “fairness” and “altruism” as much as we do. Usually in response to social structure or social evaluations, but probably just as often based on personal/individual feeling (or emotion) at any given instant.

Okay, Josh, but what does this have to do with the “shape of society = shape of technology?”

In one of my more recent blog posts on the “Paleo” diet/exercise fad, I mention that many (most?) of the technological advances that have occurred in human history occurred after advent of agriculture…after the domestication of animals and grains…after the “division of labor”…after specialization, etc.

My response to “paleo” was basically this -
knowing that our huge brains are (supposedly) largely responsible for our “ecosystem-dominance,”
and knowing that those huge brains are the largest consumers of blood-glycogen in the body,
and that the most readily-accessible source of high amounts of carbohydrate is in the form of fruits and grains (things eschewed by paleo advocates),
could it make sense that a large contributor to our “success” in dominating our ecosystems would be easy (and relatively constant) access to high-availability carbohydrates?
(having a lot of free time to sit around and play with stuff probably didn’t hurt)…

Thinking more about paleo, and the evolution of our nature as “tool-makers,” and reflecting on Carlton’s post, I wondered -

What drove us to develop the technologies we did? What drives us to grasp onto something like the internet, iPods and earbuds? Or maybe even earlier – animal husbandry and agriculture?

Elias Interlude
After receiving a rejection for a paper I submitted to the Sociology of Sport Journal (but receiving some wonderful feedback in the process) I spent a little time reviewing Norbert Elias’ classic work “The Civilizing Process.”

Searching for the relevance of that framework to my own research (if any), I began to wonder about the relevance of Elias’ work generally. Suddenly, I was struck by what seems to me to be an unnecessary level of complexity in his hypothesis.

Elias hypothesized that “centralization of governmental/control processes” and an increasing “division of labor” along with a self-replicating tendency within any society’s manners-systems were what have led to the current state of Western society.

Elias focused on his analysis of etiquette manuals, or works describing etiquette behaviors, from the Middle Ages to the present day. What he found was that certain manners (especially those that de-animalize human beings, or restrict base behaviors – like farting, spitting, burping, etc.) are absorbed into culture, and then assimilated. The next generation doesn’t need to enforce those manners, because they’ve been learned and accepted at face value – as if that is the only way to behave. That generation, in turn, refines those anti-animalistic manners systems.

I think Elias went a couple of steps too far in the level of complexity needed to create such an effect. The process still occurs if we stop at the point where children are taught certain manners.

If a “manner” is picked up and/or accepted by a group, and then is taught to the children or enforced on/in the children, it becomes more-deeply entrenched, and becomes more “concrete” – more reified. Children accept and believe and follow without thinking. Then, as adults, they behave in that manner without thinking. In this model, there is no need for “division of labor” or “centralization of government/control” to create acquiescence.

It’s a simple feedback mechanism based on – what children are taught (or, how they are taught to behave) – that snowballs…

Elias gets off track as well, in his hypothesis about the anti-animal (rationalization) nature of this process. It’s culture-creation, not anti-animalizing. People are still highly animal. The most-obvious or outward signs of being “animal” might be hidden under manners, but are they really? Ever go to a bar in Philadelphia during an Eagles football game wearing another team’s jersey?

Elias also points out that higher classes adopted sophisticated manners-systems first, and lower classes imitated these behaviors. Simple class-behavior, also evident in primate groups. It’s important to keep in mind that all of the things Elias noticed are the result of the basic drives/impulses that I listed at the beginning of this post.

That said, I also suddenly wondered whether, and began searching for evidence that, Elias had considered that all of the peoples (and their manners) that he studied had one thing in common – the printing press.

All of his analysis is based on the “invisible” technology of the printed word.

That is, the technology itself must have been partly responsible for the spread of this type of behavior – especially the widespread adoption of manners.

To the Point
What drives the formation of culture? On some level, it is the movement of culture itself. That kinetic energy, spinning down the road of time, keeping things moving. (Bekhterev’s explanation is my favorite. I’ll be posting a review of his work soon.)

As Carlton remarks, it seems rarely to have been “necessity” that has driven technological advances. Especially in recent history.

More clearly, it hasn’t been any “necessity” related to survival. Especially after the advent of agriculture. At that point, it’s usually a perceived-necessity in the mind of the creator (or adopters) of the technology, and their ability to convince others to adopt.

But why did we specialize? What created a need for specialization – for the “division of labor?”

My hypothesis after all of this is that we are “inherently” and maybe “primarily” “tool-makers” – Homo Habilis.

That’s a trait we’ve never lost – the ability to make tools.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts about the advent of civilization, there are some important things that happen before, during, and after you make a tool.

First, you have to perceive “things.” Then perceive them as being separate from yourself. You have to understand that you can “operate” on one “thing” with another. You have to realize that you can achieve consistent/repeatable results.

In doing this, you’ve created a “you” and an “it.” The other is “it.” All others become “its.” And they are “things” capable of being manipulated to achieve the outcome you desire.

It’s a big leap, but not huge. Many animals have this type of knowledge. Otters use stones to crack the shells of mollusks. Apes use blades of grass to capture termites.

What comes next though is the idea that you can use other animals in this way. Other animals become “its.”

And, finally, the tool disappears.

That is, the tool itself – having to know how to construct the tool, and having to go through that process each time you need to use it – becomes taken for granted.

Creating things that are more efficient that “just work,” that disappear into the background, where you don’t notice the thing itself, only what it allows you to do. That’s what Steve Jobs is referring to when he says “design is a loaded word.” And it’s part of the genius of Apple products. They disappear well.

The Shape of Society
As we gathered in larger groups and discovered ways to grow grains and manage herds of animals, it became apparent that we could live more “leisurely” than we had.

Population increased and demanded the creation of some rules to help to regulate human relationships with one another and with nature.

Crossing another size-threshold we become forced to manage basic drives (like those listed above) in ways that allow them to continue in the light of large population numbers.

Many civilizations have existed that had elaborate rules and technologies – Egyptian, Aztec, etc. – that maintained primate behavioral dynamics within larger spheres.

Combine the tool-maker’s mind, the one that creates the “self” and “other, with a large population and the demands for regulating behavior that come with that, and you have specialization of labor.

The Next Order
What’s the next order of thinking?

Combining tools into “larger” tools, or making existing tools “more efficient” is one approach. But there’s something behind that. It’s related to the drive for dominance.

I think it’s this:

Passion, and learning how to gather a team through split-second judgments, and to hone your ability to judge people quickly over time.

Those are world-changing qualities…when attached to a dominant individual like a Steve Jobs.

Perhaps these are things to practice in our lives?

The Now Order
But what is the technology of Now? Of our present day?

I think a clue lies in the structure of our society.

Compared to hunter-gatherer societies, which practiced shamanism and remained deeply connected to their environment, agriculturally-based cultures were more distant from nature, tools, and one-another.

This wasn’t any “intentional” move, but a natural outgrowth of large numbers of people trying to (unconsciously) act out primal (primate) behavior norms.

As that model progresses, we become better and better at using the tool of separation, and less and less adept at seeing it, or knowing how to construct it.

We get to the “Industrial Revolution,” where we create a new world based on tools. Nature becomes a relatively meaningless term. We know this because of the debates in literature from the mid-1800′s that sprung up about what “nature” actually means.

We’ve had a “technological revolution” in the internet, in which yet another world has been created – the “virtual” world. But we should call it a “virtual” world within another virtual world.

More distance from self, other, and nature. More separation. More specialization.

In many places in our current culture, children don’t know where the foods they eat come from. They don’t know where meat comes from, or what vegetables look like, or that they grow in the earth.

(This show – Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution – was dropped, by the way, for low ratings, and replaced by repeats of Dancing with the Stars.)

When those children grow up, what is their “manner” toward nature, food, others, or themselves?

Again – this is not a critique of “Dancing with the Stars.” I’m not saying that the powers that be should have left Jamie Oliver’s show on, or that it’s a travesty that they did not.

It is not a travesty. It is the reality of our current culture. It is the value system (which is the same as the shape or the structure) of the culture that we are co-creating.

A recent Scientific American piece on Steve Jobs highlights some of the points in this post well.

The author points out that:

…you could listen to Daft Punk​ or Nickelback or John Denver​ or Run DMC, and your tastes wouldn’t define you. Those remained yours. Instead, what others would see in your purchase of an iPod was the indication that you were a savvy digital music owner. And this was the message inherent in other Apple devices as well. There is a certain status that MacBooks and iPhones and iPads convey. Yes, it’s partly monetary, but it’s also suggestive of a comfort with technology—a willingness to adapt to and to adopt the trappings of digital life and make them your own. And yet, the standard was still a standard. What Jobs did with Apple was package consumerism under the banner of “personal.”

Anthropologists might call this commodity fetishism—when our relationships come to be defined (expressed, mediated, and transformed) in terms of the objectified relationships between things (i.e., commodities and money). In many ways, the world has come to be run by these sorts of objects. Even as we express ourselves with these devices, we are increasingly bound to them. They take on the properties of ourselves and we in turn are governed by them. Have you ever left your phone at home? How did it make you feel? Alone? Adrift? Disconnected? And yet, there was a time when those feelings never would have occurred to us. These feelings aren’t conscious. They’re not a attitude. They just are. They’re intimately tied to our relationship with our devices, which we hold in great regard.

But has the world “come to be defined” this way, or is it constantly-being-defined this way?

I think it’s the latter, and that it’s the result of the shape of our society as it attempts to manage primal drives within huge populations of people.

We love to think in terms of “things.” In fact, we are so far-removed from this type of tool-making – the type where we name things – that we’ve forgotten that it is a tool at all.

A value system is not something that “exists.” It is an action that a person or group of people do.

We place meaning retroactively on the term, and forget that we were always talking about an action.

In the same sense, the “standardized personalization” that the author of the Scientific American piece above mentions, is an inseparable part of how we do society.

Standardized personalization – the ubiquity of “things” that are “ours” but that are invisible and are (just) used as tools to express our “uniqueness” – is a result of how we have done society so far.

Shaping “Popular”
What is “popular” now resembles the structure of our society.

Do “leaders” change that structure, or do they stand at the front of that structure?

Are they “game-changers” or are they actually “most representative” of the “zeitgeist” or “spirit-of-the-times?” (- as Hegel defined a “genius”).

Are those the same thing?

I’m not encouraged by “revolutionists.” What you resist, persists. As soon as you resist it, you put energy into it. Whatever it is, you give it energy (I mean energy in a literal sense – the power to do work – energy of position or motion, not some vague “thing” that’s “out there”).

Being outside of the norm means that you are in the “out-group.” Unless you are a dominant-enough leader to draw people to your group (versus their own current group), you will be rejected and pushed away…even threatened, if you are perceived as offering too much of a disruption to what is “normal” for the “other” group.

Where does all of this lead? You tell me. What are your thoughts on leadership, change, and human behavior, in light of the above? Leave a comment and let me know.

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