08 September 2015

From Marriage to Currency to Countries and Ownership - It's All Made Up (and that's why it's so important to get it right)

Marriage is made up. Some religions practice polygamy and some practice monogamy. King Louis XIV had a wife through whom he had children who were heirs to the throne. This was business. He also had a mistress who he turned to for love. At one point in history, Inuit men considered it good manners to offer a wife to a overnight guest traveling through. A people in southern China are curiously matrilineal. Once a young woman reaches a particular age, she is given a room that opens directly to the outside world. She is free to never take a lover, pair with one lover for the rest of her life, or take two different lovers every night. These lovers are not really a part of her family, though. She raises the children with her mother and siblings and her lover(s) is presumably back home helping his sister(s) to raise their children.

Money is completely made up. Money has been clam shells, tobacco leaves, cigarettes, bank notes, gold coins, a magnetic strip on a piece of plastic and blips stored on a server. Central banks like the Fed can create or destroy a trillion dollars with a change in policy. One day a certain pile of currency is worth enough to buy a house and the next it is not enough to buy coffee.

Government is made up. In some governments, only spokesmen for God decide what is legal. In other governments people profess to trust God but follow the advice of pollsters. In some countries, a dictator makes every decision. In other countries, the fate of a person or piece of property is subject to review by a myriad of councils, committees, and government branches so convoluted that even experts can't be sure what is legal.

Even nation-states are made up. Civil wars are reminders that the decision about where to place a border is the product of (sometimes violent) agreement. In an alternate reality, the Kurds have a country that spills across the northern part of Iraq and southern part of Turkey and the United States includes parts of Canada but not the former confederacy.

So much of what we experience of life falls into the category of social construct or social invention. Work, school, religion, business, markets, marriage, family, and government are all made up. It is not that companionship or learning or transactions don't occur spontaneously and "in nature." They do. But agreement between two people who can shake hands is not the same as having laws, markets, and jobs that let even total strangers cooperate. One of the reasons that the modern world is so much better than the ancient world is because of this ability of strangers to collaborate to create products and services, and that rests on layers of social invention.

To say that all of this is made up is not the same as saying that it doesn't matter. A 747 is made up. It is the product of imagination, engineering, art, design, and manufacturing. And if you are sitting in a 747 about to fly, you are not casual about whether this "just made up" jet can actually fly. The 747 is just made up but how it is made up matters enormously. It determines whether it is safe, whether it is affordable, whether it can fly across only a lake or an entire ocean .... Your experience as pilot or passenger is defined by how well it is made up. And as we get better at making up things like cars and jets and air conditioning, our experiences get better. It is the same with governments; the government that casually allows slavery creates worse experiences than one that insists that even children have legal rights.

If you just watch someone from 100 yards away work, you might not be able to tell if they are working as a slave, a contractor, an employee, or a part-owner. Slave, employee, and part-owner are just social inventions but the reality experienced by people in those roles, the consequences in terms of quality, creativity, and engagement are very different. These roles are just made up. The consequences of one or the other are not.

If you re-make something like government, you can unleash unprecedented levels of creativity, wealth, and autonomy. Government in the West was most notably re-invented by Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th and 19th century. Today, we in the West see government as a tool that is to be used by the common person. It is no longer the case that we have kings and subjects, people who are tools for the king's will. Instead, we have public servants who are tools for the commoner. The result of re-making government is that we live in a world that people of 1775 could not imagine, much less experience.

Which brings me to the corporation. It is time to re-make it. The fact of default ownership being a product of the financial capital of outside investors instead of the intellectual capital of employees is just made up. The fact of CEOs having the power to create and change the business while knowledge workers within it are given specific roles is just made up. The fact that the corporation spends so much effort trying to enhance the customer's, the user's experience of a product but so little effort to enhance the employee's, the producer's experience of making or designing the product is just made up. The fact that we think of employment as "doing time," paying someone a monthly wage instead of thinking of employment as creating wealth is just made up. The fact that the Fortune 500 will send back a trillion dollars to investors instead of investing it into intrapreneurial ventures from within the firm is just made up. The fact that we expect employees to do a job rather than create a business is just made up. The fact that we make employees accountable for areas of fairly narrow responsibility instead of diversifying investments of time and money into multiple, parallel ventures to capitalize on what we've learned about portfolios to maximize returns not by minimizing risk but by diversification is just made up. We want employees to feel a sense of ownership. The easiest way to do that might be to give them ownership. Once upon a time, employees mostly did manual work. Today many do knowledge work. Next in the evolution? More employees will become more entrepreneurial.

Everything is made up but the consequences are very real. Having trouble creating enough jobs? Popularize entrepreneurship, making more employees more entrepreneurial (in addition to simply creating more traditional entrepreneurs who are employee to no one). Having trouble creating more wealth than debt? Task employees with creating businesses rather than just creating products. Suffer from income inequality? Stop giving only CEOs the authority to orchestrate businesses in ways that are lucrative.  "We are all priests," Martin Luther said when he decided to re-make the church. It's time to make everyone an entrepreneur or CEO. Does all of this sound foreign, like the talk of democracy probably did to people in the 17th century? Re-make education to teach entrepreneurship and social invention, changing the expectation of children before they even come to the stage of questioning how to fill these new roles. Through education and the media, make these expectations part of the new norm.

So why stress the fact that civilization and its institutions is just made up? Because if we believe that this is just the way that things are, we're simply prisoners of these social inventions. They are, for us, not social inventions but instead social reality. One consequence of the realization that these are inventions just like our cars and can openers is a sense of possibility. And while the beliefs that these are social realities or that these are social inventions is just made up, there are very real differences in the consequences of such beliefs. If we think that all of this is just social reality to which we must conform, we feel helpless. If we think that all of this is social invention that we can participate in defining, we feel responsibility and engagement. Because while this view about things just being made is itself just made up, the consequences of holding such a view is not.

No comments: