I’ve been wondering about the relationships between materialism, personal security and self identity, and the cultural attitudes in society. How firmly do people believe that material possessions are an important source of identity? Where do we get the sense of attachment from? And how does that relate to how we interact with other people? Do we believe more in closed zero-sum interactions (as being Kiasu could imply), or in more open, non-zero sum interactions?
Singaporeans are surrounded by material abundance, but to as phrased by Laurence Lien, we could be in a “social recession”. How is this possible? I don’t know. How is that the material abundance we have is not clearly evidenced in the abundance of compassion and spirit?
How can we then, take all that’s been written in previous posts, and begin to imagine a different world? What are the assumptions that we need to change, what are the indicators that would help us keep track of change, and what kinds of decisions will sustain the changed world?
There has been some thought about why all is not well in the world. In other places, I have thought about the role that indicators play in helping organisations make decisions, and the incentives structure that form the basis of the decisions. Indicators help us decide, but incentives motivates the decisions. The current model in societies assumes the insecure human being that needs material goods to attain temporary self-satisfaction. That self-satisfaction is threatened by the constant stream of new products, and the need to be compared with others. Advertising creates the insecurity and the demand, and the rest of the world’s manufacturing and services economy proceed to meet that demand.
The biggest leverage in this system can be said to be the change in the internal expectations of oneself. Changing the assumption of what a person does and how he/she thinks is fundamental to the relationships he/she brings to other people in a community and to the everyday things around them. Changing that self-image changes also the relationship to activities, and to the institutions encountered. Changing the self-image changes everything.
What should that self-image be? First off, thinking about the self-image is only possible when the vital needs have been met. Physical security, food, water, air and shelter are necessities that cannot be taken for granted.
The self-image does not stand alone either. A self-image would consider the emotional, social and psychological context that the person is brought up with. A nurturing family and a wider community are important in developing the child’s values and bring the child in relation to the history, values and institutions of the community.
The self-image undergoes education and socialisation processes – the practices and relationships that will allow the individual to contribute meaningfully to the community. The individual thinks of developing him/herself to the extent that they can give off the best of themselves to the community.
Different societies negotiate the tensions of the individual, family and wider community with different tradeoffs. Some societies celebrate individual difference, whereas others hold on strongly to communal ties or national ties. The point is that different societies will provide different templates of self-images to individuals.
In the modern societies that many of us are part of, the self-image also includes the individual as a perpetually insecure person that requires material goods to be complete. The self-image is tied to strongly with new and sophisticated material goods and how others view those possessions. This self-image is self-regarding and leaves room only for other-regarding insofar as much as they contribute to self-regarding.
I believe that a different set of self-images would lead to a different kind of world. A self-image that is other-regarding for its own sake relies less on material goods and more on the self-ability to contribute to others. This “others” need not refer to persons only, but can also refer to abstract goods – causes, research, aesthetic attainments, sporting achievement, amongst others. This other-regarding can lead to a “striving self”. This striving-self is compatible with ideas that autonomy, mastery and purpose are important motivators in endeavours.
In the current self-regarding paradigm, the indicators are the amount of material that the self has acquired, and continues to attain. The measure of that is with the amount of capital that one owns. Since capital is nearly the universal measure of material, capital also becomes the target of acquisition. Since material is one major component of the current self-image, so capital becomes the same. There is no limit to the amount of capital that can truly fulfil the self-image securely; the nature of the game is that the self becomes always insecure from the constant stream of new possible images of the self. The self can always be better looking or better fulfilled from the acquisition of new material and capital.
The other-regarding paradigm would view the acquisition of capital and material as only one avenue among limitless avenues to pursue. For the other-regarding self, activities and attainments are the sources of self-images. Whereas the self-regarding asks, “what do I have?”, the other-regarding self asks, “what have I done for others?”
The current set of incentives skews towards the self-regarding, and not enough of the other-regarding. There are no clear indicators that can move clearly in the direction of the other-regarding as is at present with the self-regarding. Far from there being a universal indicator at present (material and capital), the other-regarding has only individual indicators (what do I want to do for others?). While these are set by cultural norms in society, the individual expressions of it can be unique and should be so, given the idiosyncratic range of talents distributed in society (do what you can for others, with what you have).
In a transitionary view, the self-regarding and other-regarding selves are not in contradiction. The self-regarding learns about self-abilities that contribute to the other-regarding. Framed in this sense, the indicators would be not, “how much capital and material do you have?” but, “what have you done with the capital and material that you have?” If the latter was used, then some quantitative measures could be devised to track the capital utilisation of individuals and organisations. Whether or not we want to pursue fully is another question.
In a completely transitioned view, indicators would be personalised and idiosyncratic. The meta-rules for such a culture would be, “do what you can, with what you have”. The meta-rules would go about dictating how a person attains the self-vision of what they have, and what they can do. The most important rule remains, “how can I contribute to others?”
What will drive other-regarding? The issue here is that the values of other-regarding are very different from the current paradigm of self-regarding. Even though there are indicators that would make sense of this other-regarding, there’s still some way to go in thinking about the nature of these indicators and how they will be evaluated or measured. The current set of indicators I’m thinking about are direct and superficial – they track the outwardly-seen outcomes.
1. How many lives have I touched?
2. How many meaningful conversations have I had?
3. How many communities have I meaningfully participated in?
I find that these questions are only useful starting points, and cannot yet get at the heart of things. The word “meaningful” is especially important in trying to get at the intentions of the actions. In principle, the depth of conversations could be measured by measuring emotional responses or capturing the semantic depth of the concepts explored, but those things cannot be conveniently explored as with current systems, their paradigms, and their indicators. The definitions of “meaningful participation” suffer from the same problem of inexactitude.
Limits of imagination prevent me from thinking about possible indicators that would drive the system and incentivise participants towards maintaining such a system. Comments are more than welcomed!