Institutions vs. Individuals

Who’s responsible for making better choices?

Institutions — companies, governments, organizations, even the culture — have enormous power to shape the context in which everyone else operates. That’s why it’s important that founders, managers, and doers at that scale have their ethics as squared away as possible before they take on their big role.

And, since we can’t always trust that that’s going to be true (you never know when a social network for spotting hot girls on campus will suddenly scale to a few billion members), it’s also worth creating a sensible, pro-social regulatory regime to ensure that creative genius (which is necessarily unpredictable) is channeled in directions that don’t harm society.

But none of this is to let any of us completely off the hook, either. We might wish there were better social networks on offer, but we have quite a bit of choice about how and how much we choose to engage with those we’ve got.

Of course some will object that companies ought to be better, or that consumer education is an oxymoron. Maybe so. But we have the corporations our culture has incentivized, permitted, or at least tolerated. And they’re undeniably powerful: economically, politically, socially, and psychologically.

But there’s always a choice. The networks’ power is largely dependent on the permission we give them by opting into the deal they’re offering: membership only costs privacy, attention, and trust.

You might “have” to sign up, for whatever reason. But you never have to spend hours a day on there.

As long as we keep paying attention, why should we expect them to change?


Time capsule: This is the 100th post I’ve made on Noticings. Except for several days’ break around Thanksgiving, I’ve kept my promise to myself that I’d publish every day.

A few things I think I’ve learned:

  • Three months can make a pretty strong habit.
  • If you want to start a new habit, it’s worth thinking through what it’s for and how best to design for that. For example, I called this site Noticings since I wanted to start paying closer attention to my daily life, and I thought that looking for the spark of a blog post in each day might help with that. It has.
  • It’s changed how I think about “good enough.” My first several blogs were very occasional and invariably waaaay too long. That’s what happens when you try to do three months’ worth of noticing in one giant post. In 100 daily posts, I’ve found the discipline of everyday practice, the subtler satisfaction of covering all I want to cover by treating just one item each day, and the freedom to accept when enough is enough for one day.
  • This habit has helped create other good habits, such as much more consistent (and also much shorter) daily journaling and a (deeply imperfect) mindfulness practice.
  • Even though I’m admittedly still mostly in the cat blog stage (i.e. blog-as-diary), clicking the “publish” button every day is really different from journaling for myself. And I’m OK with investing several months in playing with the form, topics, and voice before trying to reach more people.