The Tension Between Business & Humanity in the Digital Age

Image by 👀 Mabel Amber, who will one day from Pixabay

To say that the tension between the business world and society as a whole is at a high water mark might be an understatement. Growing income inequality, the constant downward pressure on wages. Tech CEOs already declaring they’re going to be cutting thousands of knowledge worker jobs thanks to Artificial Intelligence. Union busting by corporations. Trade wars heating up. And rampant inflation tossing gasoline onto the fire. And so on.

The upshot is that we are in the opening phase of global sociocultural change. Much of this facilitated by digital technologies that are causing us to question our values, capitalism and the very core of the financial industry.

Cryptocurrency, for example, is not about the technology. It is an argument against the current financial system that has moved away from creating broader social economic equality. The technology behind crypto is what enables the argument to be expressed.

While this may seem like a tirade against capitalism, it is not. Done right, capitalism, aligned with democracy, is good. But capitalism has gone off course a wee bit, edging towards authoritarianism. For many industries today, the customer is not the people of the world, it is the shareholder and the reward to them is the dividend.

Further down, I take a look at some of the more interesting ways that capitalism and business is changing, fostered by the technologies of the digital age.

Because of digital communication technologies, society at a much more massive scale than ever before, is able to express itself. Human societies and cultures evolve through communication. Throughout human history, revolutionary communications technologies have lead to global scale sociocultural changes.

For decades now, business schools have shunned the humanities in their thinking. Sociology, music, art, anthropology, the “soft sciences” often relegated to the older, decrepit parts of a campus. It’s ironic that over a century ago, music was deeply intertwined with mathematics. Over time, music was lumped in with literature, a subject it has far less in common with.

The business world has come to a point where anything that is not an exchange of money or economic power is non-essential and suspect. That we are all, at the end of the day, just homo economicus. Business considers culture to only be the aesthetic part of humanity; art, literature, music. This is narrow and completely wrong.

Humans are far more homo culturalis than economicus. Culture is the code by which humans have survived for hundreds of thousands, perhaps well over a million, years. The aesthetics are part of culture, but it also includes social structure, military, governance and politics. Homo economicus is a very small slice of the human condition and does not reflect humanity in any way.

As we go deeper into the digital age, this tension is starting to bubble. If you’re thinking “ah yes, that’s Artificial Intelligence”, it is not. Todays technology revolution and massive societal shifts are a result of a technology invented about 50 years ago; the microchip. Without which, A.I. and all other digital technologies would not be possible.

Business is increasingly turning to technology not just to replace human workers, who need food, housing and expect to have rights and agency, but also to distance themselves from the cost of the customer/consumer.

Just as human workers are annoying for industry, so are consumers. They want to return things, fix things and get refunds. Humans get angry when business puts bad chemicals in our food and products, or today, steals our personal data. Humans talking to humans is expensive. Customer service is seen as an expense rather than an investment.

Amazon is a prime example. They say they’re relentlessly focused on the customer. Initially, this meant people buying products. This is no longer the case. For Amazon, the customer now is the companies paying to be ranked higher in search results and ad buyers. People are just the means by which this new customer dynamic can be justified.

Social media companies have failed as well. While they’ve done some work to try and fix the toxicity of their platforms, their approach has been solutionist only and not applying critical thinking or understanding the sociocultural environment in which they’re operating. It is part of the reason we are seeing the splintering of social media platforms. Facebook may never go dark, but it will be used differently by people. we are already beginning to see the fragmentation of social media apps.

Some businesses are realising what is happening. Such as those shifting to the B Corp model and similar systems. Cooperative business models are becoming increasingly popular. Especially in larger cities. The EU government is evolving more human centric laws on data usage, A.I. and privacy. Societies around the world are re-thinking capitalism and pushing back, developing new models.

Culture ultimately decides not just how and where technologies will be adopted, but how societies are structured, including ideas like capitalism and business as a whole. As I’ve said before, it’s going to be messy for a while, but then we’ll make some steps forward. These are indeed, interesting times.

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital Anthropologist | Chief Innovation Officer | I'm in WIRED, Forbes & National Geographic etc.