Monday, 4 July 2011

Because We're Worth It (Mostly)

I'm sorry, but I make no apologies for returning to 'the Guide', for another insightful observation by Douglas Adams. In his second book, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, we learn of a race called the Golgafrinchans.  Their planet was (supposedly) doomed to be destroyed by a great catastrophe, and so they built three ships.  In the first ship, the 'A' ark, would go all the high-achievers: the great leaders, scientists, thinkers and the like.  In the 'C' ark would go all the people who did actual work, who made things and did stuff.  And in the 'B' ark would go everyone else, the middlemen ostensibly.  Duly, the 'B' ark was sent off into the darkness of space, and ... and everyone else just stayed where they were and congratulated themselves on such a clever ruse.

This is of course just fiction, and indeed fiction pertaining to an entirely other race.  In no way is it meant to endorse a view (of myself or Adams, I'm sure) that one third of society here on Earth are so worthless that they can be blasted into space without being missed.

But ... it makes you wonder, doesn't it?

Who does deserve a one-way trip on the B ark?  Anyone?

Okay, before we get into that, let's step back.  All the way back to where we started in fact.  What's our ultimate goal here?  Something like: 'to maximise sustainable equitable happiness'?  Hmm, maybe.  Bit fluffy though isn't it?  Let's leave that for the longer term and get more (but not totally) concrete for today.  Basically, I would argue, our aim is to gain the most utility for the least effort.  More precisely, we want to maximise the 'true net worth' of our output (globally) and minimise the hours we have to work to achieve it.  The 'net' in 'true net worth' means we've counted for all the negative impacts of our activities, such as to the environment, our health, community and family values.  And the 'true' means we're not talking about monetary value, but contribution to the greater good.  So, for example, a landmine might cost the same to produce as a laptop, but (arguably) the latter has more worth to society.

None of this is easy to measure, but the concepts are easy to understand, and that's all that's required to have the discussion.  So, the infinite extreme of the worth:work ratio is the utopian ideal.  Everyone has everything they could ever desire, but nobody has to work to achieve it.  Near the other end of the extreme consider the industrial revolution where many people (including children) worked 10-12hrs a day, six or seven days a week, and yet experience what most would consider less than a decent standard of living.  Today we are somewhere between the two, which means we have moved in the right direction, but we are a long way from the ideal.

This brings us back to the arks.  To shift further along the worth:work scale we need to eradicate waste.  Waste of all kinds, sure, but I'm not focusing on plastic here, rather the waste of work with no worth.  Hours invested with no return.  We need to identify the roles that should go into the B ark.  Just for fun you realise.

In this quest, we must remember that there is no accounting for taste.  We have to strive to be objective when judging the worth of something to society.  For example, you may consider that we'd be better off without McDonalds.  But we must accept that people like McDonalds.  And you can't use the argument that McDonalds has a negative impact on the nation's health, because so does chocolate and ice cream and chips and beer - and many other lovely-tasting things consumed in excess.  We have to consider anything that can be consumed in moderation without long-term ill effects to be of worth to society for the pleasure they bring.  And so all those working hard to coat things in grease in fast-food outlets the world over, congratulations, you get your ticket to the stay-at-home C ark.

We have to be subjective in many other fields too.  Few will argue that the Foo Fighters are worthy, for all the pleasure they bring to millions of music lovers.  But Jedward?  Well, unfortunately, we can't be in the business of making individual judgement calls on the merits and talents of limitless 'artists'.  If they make a living by entertaining - or by creating art - they get to avoid the B ark.  For what it's worth in appeasing the masses, the Foos get an upgrade from C ark to A, because they are creators as well as doers.  (Although, that supposedly means Beyonce gets her over-sized song-writing butt on there too).

Whilst we're on the subject of entertaining, we have to consider sports stars.  Are they worthy, even though they don't bake cakes or invent vacuum cleaners?  Well, as it stands today, people love watching sport - it even brings meaning to people's lives.  Some people could not imagine life without, say, football.  As such, as much as it sickens me to say so, we must allow the disgustingly overpaid stars of football and other sports to stay behind too - despite the fact, when you break it down, their skills are based around an entirely arbitrary framework of conditions.

In our search for B ark passengers, maybe starting with the middlemen, as they were referred to originally, will reap some candidates.  Who are middlemen?  Middlemen are people who connect a consumer to a producer and take a cut.  The likes of: travel agents, estate agents, recruitment agents.  Aha - now we are talking!  I guess I have to admit that some middlemen do add value, but an awful lot seem only to exist because they always have done, because nobody (or not everybody) has realised they aren't needed any more.  Increasingly, with the availability of information offered by the internet, the need for 'agents' is diminishing, and the layers of indirection between producer and consumer are disappearing.  There used to be an insurance broker on every high-street.  Now how many are there?  Ineffectual middle men and women beware.  Your number is up.  And it's a B.

Here's a good industry to consider: marketing.  Fair enough, some marketing brings a new product or service to the attention of consumers who would otherwise not have known about it.  This obviously has value.  But the vast majority of marketing mullah is spent on brand awareness, on differentiating strikingly similar products in the eyes of the public.  As an example, almost every major supermarket sells Red Bull and an own brand equivalent.  They are virtually identical in make-up, yet the former normally sells at five-times the price of the latter.  So for every £1 spent on Red Bull, 80p is over the odds (due largely to the vast sums spent on marketing), and it's hard to see where the consumer has gained.  It would therefore appear that there is much we can call wasteful in the world of marketing.  And when it comes to traditional marketing in the form of media advertising, I stand by this.  But there's a problem here.  Most of Red Bull's marketing is not in this form.  Instead, they aggressively sponsor sports tournaments, they own sports teams, they have even created their own new sporting events from scratch.  And beyond sport they have founded the Taurus World Stunts Award for film stunts.  It's actually staggeringly impressive what they've brought to the world from a single can of drink.  So although the consumer of the drink may not be benefitting from the marketing effort, other consumers (sports fans, etc.) are.  Oddly, s/he is paying for someone else's enjoyment.  Either way, there is net worth.  Conclusion, marketers, they stay with us.  Most of them.

Who else is worthy?  Let's do some easy ones.  Doctors, no question.  Farmers, of course.  Tradesmen and women, ditto.  Scientists, yes indeedy.  All useful folk.  Engineers.  Manufacturers.  Yes, yes, yes.

Hold on.  Rewind.  Manufacturing?  Hmm.  Engineers?  Even Scientists?  Doesn't it rather depend on what they are working on?  What if they are manufacturing cigarettes?  What if they are engineering bombs?  What if they are synthesizing the next cocaine?  It's not that clear cut (the issue not the cocaine).  Let's consider that middle one.  Bombs.  People will argue (as they will about the entire defence industry) that bombs have immense value in providing national security and acting as a deterrent to war.  But this misses the point.  It's looking at a big picture, for sure, but it's not looking at the big picture.  We're trying to ascertain what adds intrinsic worth to the global society.  Things like food and films, ipods and igloos, cars and chairs, haircuts and holidays, all have intrinsic value.  We like them.  Even the things we don't like to spend money on, like MOT tests, have the obvious value to society of ensuring that cars on the road are safe (to a degree).  Same goes for servicing the boiler or buying a mop.  But what benefit do I get from the missile factory up the road?  If there were no threat we would not still make missiles.  In utopia there are no tanks!  (That sounds like a Banksy graffito - I'm proud).  And don't forget, in our little thought experiment we are eradicating worthless activities (and those of negative worth).  So that includes crime and, you know, international terrorism.  All the criminals, terrorists, war mongers and evil dictators unquestionably get a ride on the B ark.  Actually, that's a bit unfair on the recruitment agents.  Maybe we should have a new ark for the criminals.  Call it something grand like, I dunno, Antipodea.  Just kidding!  (Have a feeling that will get lost in the edit).

This line of thought has quite fundamental consequences.  If we were to get rid of all the bad people in the world, then there would be no true net worth generated be the entire defence industry.  Or police, or secret service, or private security firms, or most of the justice system.  Or anyone involved in the manufacture of anti bad-people devices, like surveillance systems, car alarms, locks!  Am I going too far?

Let me clarify here that I'm not really advocating the blasting into space of locksmiths (or, ahem, people that work in the defence industry), merely trying to tot up what proportion of the work we do that actually has no net positive output.  Douglas Adams' fictional account implied a figure of one third, which seemed a bit high to begin with.  But once we include all activity involved in countering or preventing bad behaviour (from dropping litter to blowing up planes) then it's probably not that far off.  It may be bugging to realise just how much effort is going to waste (on the grand scale of this discussion) ... but on the bright side it means, we have a lot of slack in the system.  We have a lot of room for improvement.  It's just gonna take some figuring it out, and then some.

I guess it should come as no surprise that the greatest barrier to a perfect world is the bad people that are in it.  Not travel agents after all.  What did come as a surprise to me is that although in my career I may have helped protect our nation and uphold peace, I've not added any net worth to the world.  Bummer.

Well, not at work I haven't.  But it's not all about work.  I write books.  And blogs.  And phone apps.  And I grow veg.  Counts for something I guess.

To be continued...


PS:  As a side-note, I have on a number of occasions referenced the above as short-hand in casual conversation - along the lines of "he can be first in line for the B ark".  Bizarrely, I'm always greeted with blank stares.  Seriously, what's going on!?  Please help me out by facilitating the use of this analogy in everyday language.  Ta.