Anti-human business practices deteriorate their charges, and there’s perhaps no greater warning of this end result than the life of Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel.
Nobel invented dynamite in 1867 with the mission of expediting construction projects. Thanks to his invention, roads, canals, and tunnels could be built faster and raw materials extracted more safely than with black powder. While explosives always carry an inherent risk, Nobel dedicated his career to making them safer, and without his innovations, the great construction projects of that era would likely have been impossible.
However, Nobel lost sight of his original intent and eventually developed ballistite, a smokeless powder that revolutionized munitions. The technological leap ballistite offered to military weapons made World War I the bloodiest war in modern history—until being supplanted by the conflicts of World War II. Nobel hoped his inventions’ destructive power would deter further wars, but that proved a false hope.
Nobel’s story is an extreme case study, but it reminds us that anti-human business practices fundamentally change how our services or products interact within the world. That’s true whether we are making a healthy snack dedicated to locally sourced ingredients, a video game app built on a predatory monetization scheme, or a revolutionary explosive device.
In this video lesson, we join Douglass Rushkoff, author of Team Human, to discuss how we can maintain control of our businesses’ missions and maintain a pro-human mindset.
Know what your product is for
- Google and Facebook intended their platforms to serve a higher goal and be ad-free. Both platforms yielded their original purpose to ad-supported revenue. Today, their business models are leveraged in a way that subverts their original mission.
- As your business grows, keep asking: What is our product for? Are we confusing our product’s purpose with our shareholders’ demands?
Google and Facebook have both become anti-human in their design thinking, Rushkoff argues. Initially, they provided things every person needs to live a thoughtful and fulfilling life—that is, information and social connection—and they did so with an ease of access that was unprecedented.
Today, both platforms have switched to ad-based revenue, and that switch alters the intention of their design. Google no longer provides an unbiased assortment of relevant information. It alters the results to promote its interests or the interests of its partners first. Facebook generates content to exploit our brain chemistry in order to maximize time spent on the platform and therefore eyes on ads.
The platforms are no longer designed with people in mind; users are now the product sold to advertisers. And when people become products, that’s a sure sign you’ve made a pivot toward the anti-human. This shows that even the most pro-human products can turn anti-human if their guardians (read: company leaders) lose sight of that initial mission.
Don’t take too much money
- Be realistic about your company’s ability to deliver returns to your shareholders. Ask: Are we raising more money just to get the highest valuation we can? Could our obligation to investors force us to pivot away from our original human goal?
Obviously, it can be difficult to turn away money, but it can also be necessary. Rushkoff provides a great example in Twitter. How could any app realistically produce $4.3 billion worth of returns? Even if it could, simply the drive to meet that outrageous expectation can incentivize shortcuts or subversions to the mission. The resulting changes can pivot a company’s focus from people to profit.
Once that anti-human path is chosen pivoting back becomes more difficult—especially when a leader feels they are turning away from lucrative opportunities. As such, it’s best to institute habits that reinforce the mission alongside safeguards that prevent anti-human pivots in the first place.
We see this in a great historical example who is, again, Alfred Nobel. A pacifist at heart, Nobel was distraught that violence would be his legacy. So, he endowed his estate to be the basis for awards to be given to scientists, writers, and peacemakers who improved the world and our knowledge of it.
Today, the Nobel estate is a great humanist force in the world and one that reminds us what can be accomplished when pro-human missions stay our guides.
Maintain your pro-human mission with lessons ‘For Business‘ from Big Think+. At Big Think+, Douglass Rushkoff joins more than 350 experts to teach critical career and business skills. Augment your team’s development and design-thinking strategies today with lessons such as:
- Understand Your Company’s #1 Existential Challenge, with Jordan Peterson, Clinical Psychologist and Professor of Psychology, University of Toronto
- Starting with Why: Build a Culture by Design, with Simon Sinek, Ethnographer and Author, Start with Why
- The Power of Changing the Way You Think, with Roger Martin, Institute Director, Dean, Rotman School of Management
- Dealing with the Cards You’re Dealt: Optimal Group Decision-Making in Theory (Establishing a Group Charter), with Annie Duke, Retired Professional Poker Player and Author, Thinking in Bets
- Make Your Case to Stakeholders: Approach Innovation as a Scale-Up Sequence, with Luis Perez-Breva, Director, MIT Innovation Teams Program, and Author, Innovating: A Doer’s Manifesto
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