Separating out the Why

A riff on James Burke’s “The Day the Universe Changed”, part 6, “Credit Where it is Due”

The other evening, I watched James Burke discuss how the industrial revolution came about. He makes the very good point that the most innovative folks who figured out the technical issues that gave us our mechanized age were outsiders. These folks brought two attributes to the table. First, they were not invited into the parlors of pleasure that the insiders enjoyed. In other words, they were not distracted. Second, their religious beliefs extolled the virtue of making profit. So they studied the practical sciences and made lots of profit. They knew why they were doing what they did.

But Burke ends his pastiche with a cautionary note. Finding ways to produce more of everything does not necessarily translate into more of the good life. At some point, more is not better. I am reminded of a comment by Churchill on the “out of control” nature of the nuclear arms race during the cold war. “Why make the rubble bounce?” he wondered. So if there are times when more is not better, what is better?

This question troubles many. They are not sure of the answer or even how to generate the answer. Is the answer, for example, more sincere relationships in community? If so, then perhaps we crave a people oriented future where the excesses of the capitalist era are tamed.  We search for evidence that there is life after capitalism. Or perhaps “better” means more freedom. More liberty, including the liberty to not be bound by such relationships. Or perhaps “better” is more creativity. Faster knowledge acquisition. Let’s not feel compelled here to choose. The point is just that there are choices and we make them as we go, for better or for worse. BTW, Sir Kenneth Clark, at the end of his series, “Civilisation” pondered what “better” might be and bemoaned that :

“One may be optimistic, but one cannot be exactly joyful at the prospects before us”.

Dear me! That was a view from 1969. Are we more joyful now? Perhaps marginally so, but I would argue that we are not in the midst of a full throated joyfulness revolution.

So why is this so complicated? Why can’t we say more easily what “better” is, if it is not just more stuff? It boils down to a rather simple cultural bias. That bias is to gamify what we do. We call that game having a career. Thus, at a New York cocktail party, the hostess might raise her eyebrow and ask you “So, what do you do?” The question is meant to uncover your identity. What game you are committed to play? Not having a game or not playing it well are … well … shall we say, sub-par.

We have benefited enormously from gamifying what we do. Why? Gamifying career activities gets us excited about them. Notice, for example, how we are exhorted to be “engaged” in what we do? Translation: “Play the game!” So we get up from bed and exclaim “I can’t wait to get to the bank, or law office, or factory …” or wherever else your game plays out. BTW, as a proponent of gamification, I am all for this.

But there is a problem. And it is a problem of focus. While we gamify “what” we do, we do not gamify “why” we do it. In other words, we do not gamify the process of better understanding the value added that our activities produce. That “value added” is the economist phrase for saying it is “better”. So we don’t “win” by being great at asking “why”? Indeed, in our post ideological setting and after the horrors that ideologies have inflicted, one wonders if anyone even listens to this type of discourse.

So, can we gamify the “why” question? I think we can and I think that we will have to. It’s not that we have never done it before. After all, that is what many great cultures have done. It is, for example, what made Christianity so powerful in Europe – “win” a great and eternal afterlife by following a few rules. But … we need a more current formulation. One that moves us forward, beyond asking “May I have a bit more, sir?” In other words, the thinking that having more on its own justifies the effort of acquisition. Wealth as capacity rather than ownership? This is what Amartya Sen would like us to covet.

As you ponder this, keep in mind that asking and answering “why” we do things is probably the only thing that computers will not do better than we do.

Need a starting point? Well, you might start by fostering a belief that there are indeed answers to the “why” question. We are not just robots or poulets sans têtes. We do give meaning to life and we can get better at it. But we tend to grab onto answers so quickly in order to get to “what” we might do, that we fail to see the  unique nature of the “why” questions that are at hand. Aha! I see a game emerging! Go for it!


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