Wednesday, February 9, 2011

From Limping to Leaping; Teaching the system to dance

Below are some of the topics I've considered writing about.  What are your thoughts?

Benefits to Reduced Rewards:  Helping systems self-sustain
From Limping to Leaping:  Teaching the system to dance
Designing for Personality:  People scaled progress
The Profit Primacy Pitfall
Building New Banks:  Keeping it local, keeping it human, keeping it good.
Profits to the People:  Doing good with local loans
Ending the national ponzi scheme of interest:  Fixing the missing interest loophole
Ending Interest:  Closing the loop with community cash
Stocking Up on Wealth:  Barter Banks Make Wealth Without Interest
Avoiding Fixations:  Examining the roots as well as the trees
Making Real Money:  Assets as Deposits and Time for Cash
Burgeoning Bottom Lines Building Community Health
Creating Virtuous Circles:  Rewarding real wealth creation
Rewarding Rational, Realistic, Robust and Human Scaled Progress
Bonuses, Benefits and Dividends, rewarding ALL the stakeholders
Rationally Reducing Expectations:  Rewarding mindful, progressive and conservative action

The case for working within existing systems

Everywhere people are, problems are too. 
This is not pessimistic, it is realistic in the truest sense of the word.  It's an essence of being human.  As long as we continue to grow and change, we will invent systems for our support – in fact, we can’t live without them.  Instead of vilifying our early attempts at systems (which actually embody a number of robust, even ingenious solutions), we must instead honor the intent of the systems, appreciate the entire reality of why some seemingly imperfect solutions may be appropriate in an imperfect world (Don’t try to eat a year’s worth of food in one meal), and accept and work within the natural forms that are most suited to exceptional outcomes.
It's a little bit about humility, a little bit about the turtle's race, and a lot about our children.
That's why I support the food movements - the sustainable foods movement, the local foods movement, the organic movement - each one of these embodies a greater understanding of how we are connected to the world arround us.  Each one offers a piece of a larger solution, which is best learned by living within that solution.
Small steps, big goals.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Eye Contact

Here is an interesting question.  When two people converse, they often make eye contact.  In fact, if you watch their eyes closely, you will find that they roam and glance across all parts of the face, and occasionally to the hands or parts of the surroundings as well.  Ignoring, for a moment, the rich trove of information contained in the multiple glances at the mouth, the hands, the room, etc. I wonder what might be learned from simply examining the contact between the eyes…
For example- when two people come to an emotionally important moment in the conversation, their eyes will often lock, and they will glance first at one eye, then another, then back and forth several times.  The question is: what is going on in this second of silent dialog?
Often, this interaction can be observed when one person is attempting to asses another person’s sincerity.  Other reasons apply as well.  It would be interesting to notice the different patterns of eye contact between individuals who are telling the truth versus lying – between individuals who know each other versus those who don’t, and between those who are in different emotional states.
My own hypothesis is interesting, but I won’t go into it now - I've noticed my posts are often too long.

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Wisdom System

The following is a post that I submitted to a mailing list I participate in.  I hoped it might fit well here:

Higher Education is currently highly interconnected with capitalist values, methods and systems.  Some of these include: The recognition of the importance for preparing students for jobs markets if universities are to continue to function; Partnerships with for-profit corporations which provide research funding; The very basic principle that those individuals who comprise Universities have been reared and exist in an environment influenced and structured by capitalism.

It seems improbable that humanity will create a new system to totally replace capitalism within the next hundred years.  Perhaps not impossible, just improbable, given the number of stakeholders dependant on capitalism for their daily survival.  A replacement system would be so complex and so all-encompassing that its evolution, even in the age of technology, would require substantial lengths of time.  Additionally, it would need to not only offer new benefits, but also replace the substantial benefits that capitalism provides to society today - free exchange, choice, leisure, convenience, etc.  It would also require many new values and beliefs be adopted by individuals – a process that would probably only be accomplished on generational time-scales.  All of this is simply to say that if universities hope to substantially increase wisdom in the world within current lifetimes, they will have to do so within the context of capitalism.  This presents unique considerations, some of which I will attempt to address below.

One consequence of the interconnections between capitalism and universities, is the adoption of certain practices and values from the capitalist culture into the Education system.  Currently, we find conditions in our universities that may be largely explained by pressures of society.  One such condition is the narrow focus of degree programs in universities.  (universities have partially resisted this pressure at the bachelor’s level of education, but this is not the case in Masters levels and above.  I speak here of the US education system with which I am familiar)  Such specialization may be one of the prime hindrances to acquiring general wisdom.

During the early 1900’s, influential figures, including John D. Rockefeller and future president Woodrow Wilson, expressed the view that the United States needed a two-track education system.  One, for future leaders, that focused on a traditional liberal arts education in the ancient Greek tradition, the other educating workers to perform tasks.  This may have happened, not necessarily from any conspiracy, or pressure from elites, but rather from pressures contained within the system of capitalist society itself.  For the sake of simplicity, however, let us first consider what the results of that policy might have been, had it been enacted, and then consider how these conditions may have occurred even in the absence of such a policy:

If society had followed a specialized, two track, path, instruction, in all but a very few institutions (for how many leaders does one nation need) would have minimized focus on interconnections between disciplines and would be more inclined to focus on specific proficiencies.  Subject specialization would be seen as a good thing, with the highest paying positions being awarded to the students at universities that regularly produced the highest mastery in specific fields.

Had this been the case, it is important to realize, there may have been other repercussions as well:  Those who were reared under expectations of leadership would find themselves released into a vacuum of competition for these prime leadership positions.  This might have introduced some of the structural weaknesses that we find in ecosystems that are artificially held stable, such as the proliferation of species that might otherwise be unfit for an ecological niche.  Additionally, these individuals might find that their education had itself transformed into its own sort of specialization.  Since their only concern would be managing and leading individuals, those who were most successful at this task (those who had achieved high political office or were otherwise granted acclaim), would gain fame for their alma mater. 

As for the second question, how would this situation have come about absent a top-down policy, the answer may already be clear.  This outcome might quite believably be expected to occur as naturally occurring, emergent property of the system as a whole.  The systems of prestige, enrollment counts, job offers, etc. would create feedback mechanisms - the main ingredient in emergence within complex systems.  Since a society affects the Universities within it, and since some of the characteristics of our societies include seeking prestige, “success to the successful” and vast amounts of resources controlled by powerful entities within a society, it is almost a foregone conclusion that these systems might interact to influence the policies of admissions and instruction within Universities.  I included the opinions of J. D. Rockefeller and W. Wilson to add credence to the idea that the University system may already have been moving in that direction by the time these statements were voiced (politicians and businessmen are not known to support fringe positions).  As to whether this is a characteristic of the current educational system I leave for the reader to consider.

The feedback loops that drive the adaptation of “leadership” schools may be slightly different, but recognizable.  The feedback provided by markets and prestige would smooth the way for a multitude of small decisions that, collectively, would result in institutions known for their production of leaders, as well as Universities famed for the quality of their engineers, schools renowned in computer science, schools designed to produce lawyers, or schools dedicated to athletes.

More to the point however, is this:  Some groups may not be incentivized to grow.  One of these seems, perhaps, to be the all-around wise.  For the benefits of wisdom, in our era of specialization, and endless machines of production may not be immediately apparent.  Indeed, wisdom may be all but indistinguishable for the thirty or forty years that individuals require to reach some level of maturity in that quality.  In fact, it may be that wisdom is, by definition, unable to be produced by systems, if wisdom is not able to be formalized or systematized.  Universities may attempt to formalize narrow degrees of wisdom, however, these narrow specialties may lack the broad interconnections that are the hallmark of deep wisdom. 

True wisdom is often the result of very broad knowledge or experience, along with deep specialization, brought to bear on a specific problem, in a unique time and place.  A decision that is wise today in Topeka, Kansas, may not be a wise decision tomorrow in Missoula, Montana.  In fact, wisdom may be very difficult to recognize.  As an analogy, consider the following:  I can watch Kasparov play chess but, being an average player, the depths of his reasoning would certainly escape me.  The decisions made by someone who is informed from insights in Psychology, System Dynamics, History, Ecology and Political Science, will probably be very different from someone whose decisions are informed by Education, Engineering, Literature and Law.  And both of these individuals’ decisions, when considered by others, may be judged foolish, wise, or shortsighted, depending on the person reviewing the decision.  In our society, we have many individuals trained narrowly in one field.  We have Doctors, Lawyers, and Engineers; Teachers, Firemen and Politicians; many of whom have not made the effort to educate themselves outside of their chosen field.

Our system has lots of educational feedback loops as well.  People like to have their existing points of view validated and today they have many avenues through which they can accomplish this.  Scientists can subscribe solely to scientific publications.  Conservatives can watch Fox News and read the Wall Street Journal.  Liberals can listen to NPR and read the New York Times.  Economists can read The Economist.  The list goes on.  One feedback loop that may seems to be missing is that for wise individuals.

Perhaps we find feedback loops for wisdom so rare because wisdom, by definition, draws from all disciplines.  Perhaps it is too broad, perhaps it is too rare, or perhaps it is too unique and various in all of its many guises.  Or, perhaps wise individuals are able to drive their own wisdom through experiencing many sources of information.  It has been interesting to me to realize that those who exhibit wisdom come from all walks of life.  From the scientific tradition of Richard Feynman, to the Spirituality of Gandhi, to the Politics of Abraham Lincoln, to the philosophy and psychology of Victor Frankel, to the Literature of Twain, to the historical and ecological wisdom of Jared Diamond, to the Systems perspectives of Donella Meadows, to the uniqueness of Buckminster Fuller, to the Business partnership of Buffett and Munger.  Not to mention, of course, the wisdom displayed by those who read this blog.  Wisdom is everywhere, but still rare, and it is not easily reproducible.  We have writings, and good advice, but we seem to lack a dependable system of supporting children and young adults in gaining their own wisdom.

The difficulty, it would seem, lies in constructing that feedback system which would:

First, recognize true wisdom.  Nicholas Maxwell's work may be of interest here.

Second, value the individuals, as well as the systems that produced that wisdom.

These two ideas taken together create a reinforcing system.

In doing these first two things, I think it is important also that care is taken to not allow the rewarding of wisdom to distort the individuals or the systems which produced that wisdom in the first place.  This is easily stated, perhaps not so easily accomplished.  Two different factors must be considered in the attempt to create a resilient wisdom system:

In order for the feedback mechanisms to support and reinforce the wisdom system itself, that system must be valued in terms that society values (to allow resources to accrue-to and reinforce the wisdom system)

Additionally, since the “purpose” of this system is to create true wisdom, and this wisdom is a quality of individuals, the feedback mechanism must also reinforce and reward wise individuals in terms that these individuals value,

Finally, potentially wise individuals - those youth who would enter a system of wisdom education - must be incentivized to join the system as well.  This may be difficult since, in the process of gaining wisdom, one's perception of what one values may often change as well.  This may mean that there is a disconnection with the example set by, and rewards that accrue to, the wise, and the motivating desires of the young.  (Perhaps this is a wise argument in favor of rewarding wise individuals both in ways that they value, as well as publicly rewarding them in ways that these individuals would have valued as younger versions of themselves?)

Considering the experiences of other successfully adapted organizations in capitalist society, it is foreseeable that, once established, the temptation may occur to adapt this system to the pressures of society, thereby gaining more influence and resources, but in the process, compromising the wisdom system’s ability to continue producing the highest quality wisdom.  What a conundrum...

I am interested to hear your thoughts on these ideas.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Traditions, Systems and Scientific Faith

We people are privileged to know the distant past, and capable of considering the future.  If other creatures have this capacity, they appear unwilling or unable to step outside their niche of sustainability, living within the limits of unyielding nature.  For our part, however, we have become more able than any other creature to flex the walls of our natural boundaries.  We have harnessed grasses to our appetites, coal to our comfort, and earth to our designs.
All of these relationships have become sanctioned by time – not completely, and not without occasional catastrophe – but enough so that our society has come to depend upon these symbioses.  Over thousands of years we have learned lessons of immense value.  Our forefathers existed only because they narrowly survived to learn lessons taught by harsh consequences of mistakes to neighbors, brothers and parents.  As we change, each new layer of complexity creates the necessity to relearn some lessons, as well as to learn others for the first time.  As the first kings arose, and their desires became law we saw catastrophes catalyzed from the demands of arrogance.  (Thanks to Jared Diamond we have strong evidence of the effects of these disastrous policies:  the statues on Easter Island that decimated the productivity and eventually, probably the soil of the island in a catastrophic collapse; the mirrored fate of the southwest tribes as they cut down their sustaining forests so that future generations, as they followed the advice of their fathers, became impoverished by degrees and eventually disappeared.)  It is interesting to think that perhaps the ancient Egyptians also squandered their productivity and ingenuity on the millstones of the pyramids and mismanaged the vast arable landscape while it slowly withered into the desert.  These examples, along with countless others (the potato famine, the black plague, the Roman Empire) give us instruction into the exponential consequences of change by small degree – the simple lack of understanding, the seemingly insignificant changes, until tipping points are reached...  The structure of nature in which we live requires that we adjust our course to subtle currents.  Ignorance or disregard of the canaries in our mineshafts is unwise.
Unfortunately, some of our traits may work against us in this, as some of them no doubt work for us as well.  Our habit is to sanction the actions of our fathers.  This strategy has made sense for thousands of years – because for most of our history we had little else to guide us.  Even today the written word is less valuable than hard won experience.  Mistakes are a part of growth. 

And yet, today, the lessons of our fathers may be disconnected from the lives of their fathers.  And the lives of those grandfathers may have been disconnected from the lives of their fathers before them.  In this country, the lives of those who created our nation were disconnected from much of the wisdom of those who came before – they were unable to profit from our ancestors’ experience of what grew best in the areas they newly colonized.  With the exception of the very few settlers who learned from the native people on the eastern shores, our knowledge was disconnected from what Alexander Pope called the genius of place.  Instead of following traditions and potentially valuable superstitions handed down from posterity, the settlers instead had to make a clean break with the past, planting the species they imported from their homelands, necessarily ignoring the logic of this new place for the experiences of their pasts.  This was to a large part at least understandable if not unavoidable, given the speed of the colonization of America and the demand to support a much larger population than the land had supported before.  And fortunately for the settlers, many of their imported grains, grasses and animals found the country well suited to their needs – deep topsoil, undisturbed for millennia, and a rich variety of experiences drawn from the diverse backgrounds of the colonists did enable the colonists to cobble together a workable solution.  Consequently, the new American land provided for the settlers remarkably well – and allowed for increase upon increase.
The agricultural revolutions powered by synthetic fertilizers and industrial farming practices also had a remarkable impact on the new landscape.  And since the new traditions of American life had not yet had time to become immortalized in ritual and legend, the old hands of the land may have been more willing to let go of their heritage than has been the case in Europe or Asia.  Now we find vast tracts of land devoted to single species of corn, potatoes, and soy.  Massive single strains – genetic clones of each other, planted within touching distance of each other for miles upon miles upon miles create deserts of genetic diversity.  This is contrary to the path that nature follows in every natural ecosystem everywhere.  To ignore the wisdom of nature in this way may place us in a precarious position, as Michael Pollan and many others have pointed out.  The corn blight of the 1970’s may remind us of our precarious position, to say nothing of the potato blight.
And so we find that our traditions, once from our fathers, are now born out of laboratories 20, 30, or 50 years old.  The traditions we cling to are constructs, often devoid of the logic of place which people have learned to consider in determining crop rotation in France, or planting schedules in Italy.  And yet, since we have let down our guard far enough to allow these massive and unprecedented changes to enter into our lives so quickly, we now find ourselves partially dislocated from our past.  Today, we cling to “traditions” just a few years old.  Farmers have become reluctant to abandon the use of pesticides because they are “tradition.”  In the absence of our grandfathers’ traditions, which hailed from his grandfather, and his before that, we find ourselves marooned on an island outside of time.  The realities of capitalism, another tradition in our lives, eventually removed from business all of the farmers who were too “stubborn” to abandon the ways of their fathers.  When they became unable to compete with the large gains in productivity, or unwilling to accept the dubious trade-offs of conformity over quality, they were handed their hats.  “The American consumer demands…”  the farmer was came to understand.  And armed with the metaphors of “survival of the fittest” and an overwhelming awe and unprecedented, unquestioning acceptance of the new marvels of science, the American culture was changed.
Some say that human beings are hard-wired to live in structured hierarchies.  They point to the fact that clans, tribes and chiefdoms gave way to kingdoms and baronies, which eventually gave way to unions, organizations, lodges, churches, governments and sports teams.  No doubt there is some truth to these ideas, but there are also many examples of human cooperation without resort to dominance or hierarchy.  Cooperatives are one example, the unfettered free-trade of one capitalist producer with another is an often forgotten, but important second example.

In the late 19th century, science began to produce wondrous and miraculous examples of marvels undreamt by the human mind.  The age of wonder, possibility and credulity was created as everywhere people looked, a new modern marvel was being touted.  And these were not the “take it on faith” miracles of the old church – no.  These were honest to goodness, in the flesh, flip a switch and the light comes on, living breathing miracles that could be repeated over and over again, and better yet, ones that for around $400 you could drive home.  No more feeding the horse every day, wasting precious grain on an animal that was only needed 6 months out of the year – just gas it up when you need it and forget about it the rest of the time.  These new technologies were, for many at that time, indistinguishable from miracles.
Could we reasonably expect that when, over and over, the public was treated to examples of these "miraculous" powers, they might begin to transfer their unquestioning belief – once reserved for religion alone, to this new field of science and progress?  When they were confronted by the unbounded optimism from the proponents of these new ways of understanding the world – when men of great learning and social standing pronounced the end of ignorance, the ascendancy of knowledge and the know-ability of all things – can't we forgive the credulous farmer and accepting laborer for their faith and belief in “Science?”  Possibly they felt uneasy with the replacement of so many time-tested beliefs – and certainly not everyone converted – but many swallowed the new orthodoxy without a second thought.  And so, perhaps, a faith in science was accepted – and some men may have begun to count on the leaders of science to deliver them from evil.  And perhaps some put their faith and their hope in a new and a better tomorrow in the hands of this new field of science.
Some scientists might be uncomfortable to hear tell of it this way.  Science, in its practitioners’ minds, is often nothing more than a search for truth.  The vast majority of her proponents, workers and theorists acknowledge freely, and for all to hear, that science is not infallible, not perfect, not a panacea.  But a few of them, perhaps driven by their own desire for certainty, or their own hope for answers, may hold on to the idea that science may be able to tell us all we need to know of the world or that science might be able to solve all problems of humanity.  And it is these few proselytizers who do the damage which is so difficult to undo – And what is the damage?  Simply this:  When an individual is given an answer to all his or her problems, there can be a strong diminishment of personal responsibility for solutions.  When a mind raised with belief encounters such certainty in a respected form, with what tools do we expect it to resist?  And once converted to a faith in science, what do we to expect will come of it?  For science has no spokesperson.  She has no tradition of reverence for guiding principles for human values.  She has no golden rule, forged in the furnaces of interpersonal and civilizational conflicts.  She has no codes of conduct that recognize the impact of a few poorly chosen words, amplified by a media desperate to sell ad copy nationwide.  She has the ethic of practicality, repeatability and a faith that all things can be described rationally.  And while this may be true, it falls far short of providing the congregations of science with a meaningful guide to their daily decisions.
“Should I spray NPK fertilizers on my crops?  I have no tradition to tell me if this is good or bad.  My religion says nothing on the subject, and most of these darned impressive scientists are all telling me to go ahead – plus old John Brown next door bumped his yield 30% last year.  Guess I’d better go ahead and do it.”
Scientists are as influenced by themselves as everyone else is.  Not only do they read their own press clippings, they are mandated to write them, and gain tenure based on how many are published.  The field of science is partially based on reputation, gained by peer-reviewed publication, and which is often controlled by a select group of individuals who largely know each other, see each other at conferences, read the same formative opinions, and attend the same lectures by leading lights in the field.  Any scientist worthy of the name should recognize the potentials for harm in these vast systems that promote conformity in thought.  Those who have become successful should consider the parallel of their situation with that of the succesfully adapted in nature:  The adaptations that worked so well in the past carry no guarantee of success in the future.  Scientists like to tout the ascendency of debate, of the idea that “truth will out.”  And yet, to the very great disappointment of some, this is not always what happens…  In science, as in so many other fields of human endeavor, fed by our innate tendencies, and the systems that nature and nurture create, we sometimes turn the field into a rivalry for reputation, significance and influence.  We may account our successes by our acclaim – and may hold on by fingernails to it.  We acknowledge this fact in the oft repeated maxim that the old-guard must die before the new ideas are accepted.  And yet, when scientists are supposed to understand the human frailties – when they are supposed to appreciate the damage that hubris and ego can cause – they may instead allow the fruits of their labor to be publicized too soon, or manipulated by a system that rewards publication or sometimes profit, above human happiness, or the alleviation of human misery.  Self-concern can sometimes inflate honest self-esteem to ridiculous proportions so that a majority of activity may become self-protection at all costs – this occasionally leads to ridiculous stances on meaningless issues.
All of us may sometimes forget that our task is to improve the human condition – and if that includes that we must deal with indefinable and difficult issues such as "human happiness” and “suffering” then so be it.  What legacy would we expect to be accorded by history if we shirk our duty, stick to the safety of easily defined fields, or avoid the most important questions of our day?  What legacy would we make ourselves worthy of by denying the critical problems created by our new human systems – disconnected from our traditions and our heritage.  How can we live with ourselves, and how will our children live a better life than ours, if we see these new behemoths, these gigantic amalgamations of human ingenuity and accumulated efforts, these eternal institutional and corporate interests, systems driven by disembodied, dismembered fragments of human desires, as too vast, to complex, to be understood and appropriately altered for the good of all?  And who will lead us to this task if not our leading men and women of science?
More than at any time in our history we live in a world we have created.  We may be insufficient to the task of understanding our world, we may be ill equipped to study what we are creating.  We may have difficulty gaining perspective on our systems and our lives.  We may be soothed into complacency by the lack of traditions and heritage to tell us otherwise.  And yet – in spite of all that – mustn’t we try?  For as far as I can tell, we have no one else to tell us the answers that will ensure our survival, and allow our well being to thrive.  We have no oracle to plot our course out of here.  As Daniel Johnston says:  Do yourself a favor, become your own savior.  Divorced of our heritage we may need to become our parents.  Lacking in certainty, we must become our own leaders.  And scientists, in these confusing times, may come to understand that they do have a constituency depending on the answers that science provides.  The fact that they may not approve of people who put their “faith” in science and the fact that many scientists would see it as “wrong” to have faith in a system that one does not understand, in no way alleviates the obligation to see the world clearly as it is, to recognize the current state of affairs, and to objectively respond to reality.
Is there a sense of concern that these ideas are somehow too big, too much, too… what?  Does any of that matter?  Or is it, perhaps, better to look at the seeds of hope contained here and around you, and focus on the big picture, throwing out a line for a better future – for your children, your species, your world?
Perhaps, as we have thrown our systems up around us, we have failed to understand their remaking of our landscape.  Perhaps, as they undertook an existence of their own, beyond the conception of a single individual, we have become overwhelmed by their emergence as a dominant characteristic of our lives.  Perhaps we have been numbed by the intricate complexity of our businesses, our companies, our government, by their seemingly bottomless expression of form, function and efficiency in their intricate existence.  Perhaps we are stunned by the speed with which they are capable of operating – perhaps we are awed by their expression of the goals of growth, or profits, or survival.  Or perhaps we are simply amazed by their ability to self-organize, replicate themselves and survive?  Perhaps we see in them some echo of nature, some reflection of our environment, or perhaps something wholly new?  Perhaps we see it as a new force of nature itself or as a new form of nature, both a part of, and apart from, the world we live on – with emergent characteristics wholly its own?  Perhaps we see the corporate or institutional character as its own thing – divorced from its history, from nature, from man, a sort of Frankenstein?  But in so seeing, we should be very careful not to over endow these creations.  For the legacy of Frankenstein may instruct us in many ways.  Frankenstein was not the name of the monster – but of its creator.  And we should be careful to instill in our creation the qualities and character we want to be remembered for.  I can think of no worse fate than being vilified by history for a legacy visited upon my progeny.
Anyone who would say that this world is perfect is probably exempted from these concerns.  The rest of us may choose to begin the monumental task of studying, cataloguing and understanding these things we, and our ancestors have wrought.  This moment of timely flexibility is fleeting – I hope we grasp its importance, and are informed by its urgency.  For those interested, the fields of System Dynamics and General Semantics may point in a productive direction, or the work of Donella Meadows.  The good work of Nicholas Maxwell likewise may be encouraging, as may the examples set by change artists all around us.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Charitable Contribution

I had an idea the other day – I hoped it might be useful to a charity. 
Most people agree that there are many charities that do wonderful work for the world.  We may also believe that the good of a charity is not only in the acts that it performs for the world, but in the beneficial effects it has on the giver itself.
This idea is designed to increase the number of people who give to charity, to increase the amount that each person gives, and to increase the total amount given to charity.  The benefits of this idea are threefold:
First, it benefits the donors, who have a more positive view of themselves, their community, and the world.
Second, it benefits the charities, which have more resources to do good with.
Third, it benefits the recipients of the increased charity.
The idea is simple.  Based on the foot-in-the-door technique Dr. Cialdini studied, representatives walk to each house in their local area.  They begin the conversation by asking if the residents have given to any charity within the last 5 years.  Whatever the answer, they then continue with the response that they are working to increase the number of people who donate to charity in this specific neighborhood.  They next ask if the resident would be willing to walk around to all of the homes within a five block radius, asking them to give to charity.  A few will say yes.  The majority will say no. 
Those who say no will then be asked:  “Okay, well then is it okay with you if we leave this jar with you and come back in 6 months to pick it up?  We’ll donate the money to any charity that you choose.”  The jar is labeled “Charity Change” and there is a slot in the top.  Many will agree to this request.  The representative will then ask for their phone number and email address to schedule the pickup.  Before leaving, the representative says, “I recommend that you put the jar wherever you normally put your spare change.  By the way, do you have any children who you would like to have a jar to so that you can teach them the value of donating to charity?”  Whatever the answer, the representative ends with:  “Most people fill their jar within a few months – if you want another jar, please call me and I’ll drop one off.”
Each month the resident is sent an email with details of the local campaign, contrasted with neighborhood, city, state and nationwide results.  Three months later, a follow up call is placed asking about their progress so that they can tally the local results (“How full is you r jar – half, 1/3, Full?  Do you need another jar?”)  One week before six months, the representative calls to schedule a pick-up (“Don’t give you jar to anyone else!”)  They ask about the fullness of the jar as well – and also ask if there are mainly pennies and dimes, or if it’s quarters and paper money.  “Don’t bother counting it, we will send you a total of what you donated once we count it.  You’ll get a receipt for your taxes.”
Thank you!
This program benefits from a number of human characteristics.  The large request at the beginning (to canvas the neighborhood) sets up a strong desire to comply with a smaller request, and increases the chance that the resident will agree to keep the jar.  The fact that they can choose the charity to receive their donation also increases agreement.  Accepting the jar will create a desire to reciprocate the gift of the jar – especially if the jar looks like a gift (a ribbon with a bow, bright colors, etc.)  Keeping the jar in their own home increases their sense of ownership over the decision to give to charity which increases their positive emotional response to giving.  The follow up calls will increase the amount that they deposit in the jar, and in some cases, will cause them to donate an increased amount or write a check at the end.  Some people may have to be cautioned not to give more than they can afford.
Finally, when the jar is picked up, the homeowner is first asked how it went, then asked if they would be willing to canvas the neighborhood, and finally asked if they would be willing to keep another jar.  The key to encouraging continued participation is keeping just the right amount of follow up with the resident.  Not too much to be pushy, and not so little that the resident thinks they’ve been forgotten.  Also critical is a constant emphasis on the positive benefits that the resident is now a part of.  Total money raised – pictures of people helped by local donations, etc.  Sharing participation percentages in a way that highlights the high numbers of participants (67% of our neighborhood participated in giving to charity through this effort this year!  312 people in your neighborhood gave to charity through this program) is another way to increase participation.
Some of these ideas may seem a little unorthodox, but I feel the worthiness of the goal sanctifies the means.  What do you think?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Meditations on Collective Unconcsious

In the end what you don’t surrender, the world just strips away.  – B. Springsteen
We’re flickering flames – here now, gone tomorrow.  What of that?  What to do with this idea of impermanence.  Put it out of our heads?  Is it immaterial on a daily basis?  And what of purpose?
If the final outcome of living is death, how should we consider our accomplishments?  What of our hopes and dreams?  What of our legacy?  What of our visions?  What of our sown seed?  What of our worth?  If eighty years we have, what moves us, when we know that at eighty years end, we exist no more?  With death on the horizon, with our destination known, what focal point do we choose in the middle distance?  What difference does it make?
We, who are uncertain as to what, if anything, may lie after death – may not be able to say anything about the point of life.  Can we say the point of life is living?  To live?  To be?  To experience… what?  To be what?  And without a single signpost except our desires, our urges, our feelings, our fellow traveler.  And how do we see the human panoply, spread about us in its splendor?
I can empathize with some who come to see this as a cosmic experiment, a universal joke, a giant simulation.  What purpose in creating something completely without purpose, except to see what it does on its own?  Of course, that last sentence speaks of a creator.  What if these woods sprang from nothing, creating themselves, existing without any purpose but existence?  In that case whatever perseveres would be the purpose.
And so, thinking of existence, experience, and ephemera, I come to consider eternal existence.  If I were that existence, what would I do with myself?  If the ephemeral creatures of the earth were my body, my eyes, my hands, my heart and my head, how would I consider them?  Would I take part in their experiences individually, or collectively?  Would I have fragmentary awareness, a gigantic consciousness, a combination of both, or nothing similar at all?  Would the idea of interfering in the lives of men have any meaning if those men are me?
How would I endure?  Would my consciousness divide itself, and move from one mind to the next, weaving exotic new networks of understanding and comprehension?  Would I weave narratives from the fabric of lives within which I were ever entrenched?  Would the pathways of my learning be the lives of children?  Would I want to see my existence in another’s eyes?  Or would I leave it largely to be?
For what of suffering?  A tool to design?  Vision manifest?  An agony to remind us of what we are not?  A creation to encourage forgiveness, divine intervention, relinquishment, atonement?  Or self-created, self-fulfilling, self-correcting self-improvement?  Chance?
For that’s the crux – in conceiving something greater than we, we conceive of it letting us be.