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Musing, marketing, and meaning in the connected world.

Hope for the Quantified Self

The fate of the ‘moral economy’ lies squarely in the hand of software engineers – all the more reason to appreciate intangible value.

This month, the emerging Pirates party in Germany was able to garner 8.2% share of the votes in elections in the rural German state of Schleswig-Holstein. It was the latest manifestation of the broader civic protest sentiment sweeping through the West. Like Spain’s Los Indignados and Occupy Wall Street, the Pirates are a largely leaderless movement that has a shared purpose but no clearly articulated agenda. It is absorbing general dissatisfaction amongst citizens, but also, for the first time, asserting ‘transparency’ as a democratically legitimatized political platform. Four years after the Obama election, Hope has become a bottom-up vector. The Generation Meaning is assuming places of power but still has to figure out what exactly it is looking for.

At any rate, the moral economy is in popular demand: With debt and inequality undermining social contracts and eroding social capital worldwide, citizens and consumers alike expect more inclusive models of decision-making, higher standards of integrity, and fairer mechanisms of creation and redistribution of wealth. The various protest movements are self-organizing themselves and seeking to demonstrate the very values-based behaviors and organizational principles they find lacking in their institutional counterparts. At the corporate level, alternative forms of ‘doing business’ are burgeoning – from the social entrepreneur to the social intrapreneur, the hybrid for/non-profit to the B Corp, from Gary Hamel’s Management Innovation XChange (MIX), Ashoka’s Corporate Change-Makers, to frog’s Reinvent Business hackathon – in a quest to rethink business from within, ‘socialize’ corporate gain, and yield ‘shared value’ (Michael Porter), or ‘thick value’ (Umair Haque), instead of maximizing shareholder value as the ultimate moral obligation of business.

Value

All of these alternatives, at their core, aim to renegotiate the definition of value. Technology publisher and social web godfather Tim O’ Reilly suggests that the quintessential moral challenge for the 21st century enterprise might be to ensure that those who capture value are the ones who create it. It may never be the perfect congruence, he cautions, but the closer the proximity of these two positions on the ‘values continuum,’ the more beneficial the outcome. Ideally, companies (and economies) “create more value than they capture” so that they can nurture the communal ecosystem that is their lifeblood. “If you have too small of a group capturing value, then the whole ecosystem breaks down,” he contends.

Of course the prerequisite for this is that really all value is externalized, captured, and properly recognized – in particular the value that may not be readily qualified within the canon of current business accounting and not yet exploited through the capture of Big Personal Data on the web and on Facebook, the network that shapes the digital uber-narrative of the stories of our lives. Think of the vast amounts of social capital created by other, perhaps smaller, online networks that may be harder to monetize and yet strengthen the fabric of civic society. Think of the social value YouTube generates by virtue of offering a free platform for the dissemination of educational content. Think of investigative journalists, the hard work of parents, teachers, and others whose contributions to society are generally undervalued. Think of books, movies, dance, plays, or other pieces of art and cultural artifacts that make people happy and thereby contribute to the well-being of societies, but typically represent an asymmetrical economic relationship between value-creator and benefactor.

And even within companies, why is it that numbers always favor the ones with the numbers while there are no numbers to measure the social value created by those whose contributions are outside of the common ROI vocabulary? The sales person who has missed his targets but is popular amongst his colleagues, and widely seen as integral to team morale in the workplace. The CEO who inspires and instills hope for thousands of employees but has failed to meet the board’s growth expectations. The manager who shares the credit for a completed project with her team but has gone over budget in delivering it. Why is being a good person, why is character, not considered an economic asset in a time when trust and reputation are widely heralded as crucial assets, as competitive advantages for companies?

Integrity

It is striking that the apparent growing desire for purpose and meaning does not yet correspond with companies’ mental models of their customers and employees. Companies turn people (data) into products, segment individuals into uniform clusters, create services for the ‘Quantified Self,’ and conduct elaborate ‘employee engagement’ studies on why their employees (don’t) like them. On the employee side, in particular, this myopic belief in data may distract businesses from what really matters. Instead of winning the ill-named ‘war for talent,’ Dov Seidman, the author of the book How, suggests companies should focus on trust and integrity, on employing the full and true selves of the people who make up their organizations. If they succeed, they will be rewarded with employees who don’t withhold anything; who put their full selves at work, with all their passions, beliefs, and vulnerabilities. Matching internal and external character, purpose and action, words and deeds, these whole selves will no longer tolerate a chasm between idealism and pragmatism, between principles and practical reasons. As hyper-connectivity and social networks tear down the boundaries between professional and private lives, only those who are complete are able to compete.

Integrity is the only sustainable position in the modern business world, and trust is both its enabler and result. Trust is an act of believing, which means not (really) knowing. Paradoxically, the entire enterprise seems to be convinced that more effective knowledge sharing might unleash a more social, a more human enterprise, when it is in fact the sharing of intimate beliefs – an exchange of trust – that facilitates human interaction and enables the concept of the company as an intricately woven, sympathetic community of purpose-driven individuals and their ideas and passions. We like to be in good company when we pursue our ambitions. What we need then are not knowledge workers but trust workers, and instead of knowledge management, trust management. An organization with high trust levels is made up of people who not only believe in the organization’s values but, more importantly, believe in each other; and only then it is believable – credible – to the outside world.

This is not to be underestimated. Credibility, the scarcest resource in the information age, is the only real differentiator in a marketplace saturated with efficiency and excellence. With credibility you can sell anything, except that you no longer have to. When your credibility is strong, when people believe (in) you, in spite of their (lack of) knowledge, then your character, your ethos becomes your most powerful – your only – product.

Medicine

The importance of ethos is also the main theme of Jonathan Harris’ wonderful essay Modern Medicine, in which he draws an analogy between software and medicine based on their dual capacities to heal and to hurt. Given the power that software designers are presently wielding over the masses, he argues that “software engineers” should be considered “social engineers“:

“Through the software they design and introduce to the world, these engineers transform the daily routines of hundreds of millions of people. Previously, this kind of mass transformation of human behavior was the sole domain of war, famine, disease, and religion, but now it happens more quietly, through the software we use every day, which affects how we spend our time, and what we do, think, and feel.”

Their technology is addictive:

“In its capacity to transform the behavior of people, software is a kind of drug — a new kind of drug. As there are many kinds of drugs (caffeine, echinacea, Tylenol, Viagra, heroin, crack), so are there many kinds of software, feeding different urges and creating different outcomes.”

When Harris proposes engineers be trained to grasp the full social implications of their work, inferring “the ethics of code,” he directs attention to the externalities of our online behaviors. What we consider to be “of value” is a question of social engineering, a question of software design. Our moral compass is (in) the code. The actions of future generations are determined by today’s networked interactions. The moral economy lies squarely in the hands of software engineers. As companies are transforming into software companies, Harris, imagines a new role for them – to serve as “medicine men for the species”:

“A medicine man company would observe a given community, society, or even a whole civilization, and try to sense what's ailing it. Then, it would create technological interventions to counteract those ailments. It would use software as a kind of medicine, traveling into the world and subtly altering the behavior of people. A medicine man company would become a new kind of healthcare provider, helping people heal.”

The medicine man’s biggest value is the ability to offer empathy, intimacy, and compassion, and to inspire behavior change for the better. And this indeed is the very challenge for software engineers, or social engineers, amidst a sea of data and outcome-oriented, financial metrics.

Anticipation

To capture and reward the value of ‘the modern medicine men,’ we need to identify metrics for those intangible assets that have the capacity to ‘heal’ us; metrics that measure the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual benefits of our products and services. In light of research showing that activities rather than possessions enrich our memories and give our lives significance, we need to appreciate experiences over material goods, access over ownership, essence over form, and the journey over the destination.

The travel industry is uniquely positioned to do so. A pioneering effort is American Express’ Nextpedition service, launched earlier this year, which relies on serendipity to create meaningful experiences for consumers. Instead of a fixed itinerary usually provided by conventional travel sites, Nextpedition offers a succession of surprises that highlight the open-ended nature of the trip. The service does not tell the user where he is going until the last minute, and information is given just in time. The set up reminds of the film The Game – nothing is what you think it is. An envelope appears, pushed under the door of the hotel room, or a message alerts the user from his smartphone. The experience is full of deviances from the norm – and hence meaningful.

In his analysis of Nextpediton in a recent Harvard Business Review blog post, Grant McCracken, the author of the book Culturematic, explains why the value proposition of serendipity is so strong:

“Standardizing production was the great objective of the second industrial revolution. It almost always made the product or experience better because in those days, randomness was enemy of consumer satisfaction. But as consumers, it turns out, we are totally ungrateful. No sooner do we get perfection, sometime in the mid-20th century, than we tire of it. Enter Joe Pine's mass customization and eventually Etsy. Now it feels like we are on the verge of another revolution. Call it the Culturematic revolution. Now we want not just customization, but noise in the system, things that emerge (apparently) in real time, and the world to resist expectation.”

He concludes that “This may require a new kind of manager. Managerial capitalism asks everyone to leave randomness at home and come to work as a hard-headed pragmatist, a heat-seeking problem solver. But managing, creating, and delivering randomness means living with variation. It means asking people to get in touch with their differences instead of asking them, as we usually do, to converge on a shared facsimile of selfhood.”

From serendipity it is only a small step to anticipation. When violations are constantly broken, anticipation grows stronger. In other words: The level of anticipation is inversely proportional to the predictability of outcomes.

This is a powerful design principle, and the travel industry is not the only one taking advantage of it. Other consumer-facing sectors, such as online retail, are beginning to design products around anticipation. The UK-based start-up Fantasy Shopper, for example, has introduced the idea of a virtual social wardrobe: Consumes who sift through online stores can select clothing items and other goods they find attractive, and add them to a virtual wardrobe they can share with their Facebook friends. In effect, users indicate what they intend to buy, start a conversation on the virtual purchases with their friends, and then decide whether they want to buy the items at all. The Fantasy Shopper service effectively moves the purchase decision to the stage of anticipation, and it allows consumers to socially validate their purchase decision before they actually make the purchase (in fact, even if they never will).

Hope

The social status derived from the virtual acquisition of a product turns into a powerful intangible asset. The Self becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Buying without buying is the epitome of the ‘anticipation economy’ where the mere declaration of intent replaces action, and what could happen becomes infinitely more important than whatever eventually happens.

There is a name for it: Hope.

[image credit: Judith Horstman]

Tim Leberecht is the CMO of frog and the publisher of design mind.