Lost in Transition

[6th article in a series of 6: {1} {2} {3} {4} {5} {6}. A version of this post first appeared on The Atlantic online, April 2, 2011.]

“Do you worry about whether you’ve buried the entrails deep enough?” was among the questions I heard at my first Transition meeting, in Albany, California. The meeting featured an informal discussion with Novella Carpenter, author of Farm City, who had converted an empty plot of land in the Oakland inner city into a viable vegetable and animal farm. Carpenter had just mentioned raising rabbits for food, and what she did with the remains. The woman asking the question was concerned that if they weren’t buried far enough below, rabbit entrails would rot and contaminate the rest of the farm. “Two feet is enough,” was the confident response from Carpenter, who then proceeded to talk about how the gall bladder could also be used for green ink.

Gall bladders for green ink? How did I get here?

While I was in India, there was a year when the price of some basic foods rose by as much as 40%, due to international shortages. It hardly affected me, but for the low-income communities I interacted with, it was a life-constricting squeeze. Families skipped meals and everyone had to find more work. Hikes in global oil prices were equally painful. Gasoline is subsidized in India, and because the Indian government had no choice but to raise prices, there were strikes and protests. But, what could the government do? The problem was global.

Every gallon I consume is one less gallon on the market. By some estimates, resource consumption among North Americans is 32 times greater than it is in the developing world. As the global population grows and resources become scarcer, the poorest people in the world are hit first and worst. As a person from a rich country engaging in international development, I’m part of the problem that I’m trying to help solve.

So, when I returned to the United States, I looked for organizations that were addressing the issues here. Transition was one. The movement’s basic premises are that the consequences of peak oil and climate change are imminent; that governments and entrenched powers are not yet taking necessary action; and that the most practical response is for local communities to transition to resilient, localized communities that wean themselves off of fossil fuels and long-distance trade. Though every community is encouraged to find its own solutions, the dominant activities are to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, to start gardens and otherwise grow food locally, to experiment with local currencies, and so on.

The movement was begun by Rob Hopkins, a British teacher of permaculture and natural building. Permaculture is itself a methodology for sustainable living, where food is grown not by fertilizer- and pesticide-intensive agricultural techniques, but through organic means that doesn’t take more from the environment than it puts back.

Hopkins’s genius with Transition was to start a movement that is incremental, grassroots, and optimistic without being moralizing. The allure of Transition is that it seeks to find a more meaningful, connected way of life that is ultimately happier than the lives that many of us lead on our achievement-oriented hedonic treadmills. Joining the movement isn’t as much about doing the right thing as it is to aspire to a more satisfying life.

Transition Towns might be considered the latest in a history of intentional communities that have experimented to find more enlightened alternatives to modern economically driven urban life. They have something in common with some religious monasteries, hippie communes, Israeli kibbutzes, artist colonies, meditative ashrams, Gandhian villages, and other communities that have deliberately sought alternatives to mainstream society. But, unlike communities that isolate themselves, Transition Towns seek to evolve existing cities, towns, and villages, transitioning them gently from oil-addicted materialism to sustainable community.

Transition Towns and philosophically affiliated groups now exist all over the world, in various stages of resilience. There’s a good chance there’s one near you.

A common Transition goal is to reduce energy consumption, and below is a graph of my carbon footprint showing only that part due to transportation. It’s based on estimates of my travel from last year. (I used a tool from the Cool Climate Network at UC Berkeley. You can calculate your own carbon footprint here.)

Because I fly so much, air travel is responsible for almost all of my total ecological footprint, and it’s the footprint of a giant. Everything else I do is negligible in comparison. For maximum impact, I should stop flying, but at least in the medium term, I won’t because of work and family. But if everything else is negligible, should I even bother with driving less?

One thing I like about groups like Transition is that they are consistently upbeat about changes in personal attitudes and behavior. One principle is to encourage small steps, especially at the beginning. People talk about starting with one basil plant, or one day a week of biking to work, or changing to energy-efficient light bulbs.

In the long term, it’s definitely not enough just to change our lightbulbs, but we have to start somewhere, and that somewhere has to be with us. This argument was eloquently made in an article by Michael Pollan published in The New York Times in 2008, which I highly recommend. It was titled, “Why Bother?”

For us to wait for legislation or technology to solve the problem of how we’re living our lives suggests we’re not really serious about changing — something our politicians cannot fail to notice. They will not move until we do.

In making our move, it can be daunting and discouraging if we keep reminding ourselves of the magnitude of the challenge. It’s again a problem of the difference between reality and what motivates us. An emphasis on virtue encourages us to make progress, because it presents us with a climbable gradient, not a steep wall we have to clear all at once.

So, I do try to drive less, and even though it has minimal impact on the environment, I think of it as building my self-control muscle. Othrerwise, I’ve been slow to do more than lurk at Transition activities, and I have since moved far from Albany. But my interest in Transition has been piqued, and I hope to get more involved. Maybe I’ll see you at a meeting!

Fostering Virtue

[6th article in a series of 6: {1} {2} {3} {4} {5} {6}. A version of this post first appeared in The Atlantic online, April 1, 2015.]

As much as I liked Narasimha, my favorite mode of travel within India was the auto-rickshaw. The word “rickshaw” comes from “jin riki sha” (人力車), which means “human-powered vehicle” in Japanese. The word probably went to China and got picked up by the British, who then applied it to Indian rickshaws. Auto-rickshaws are thus the etymological equivalent of automobiles.

Physically, though, they’re a different beast. Auto-rickshaws are three-wheeled, covered, scooter-taxis that zip around in cities throughout India.  Elsewhere, they’re called “tuk-tuks,” “trishaws,” or “mototaxis.” They’re small, light, nimble, and convenient, but it wouldn’t be inaccurate to call them mini-deathtraps.

Every so often, I got an outgoing driver who’d engage me in conversation, one who spoke a little English, and who’d also talk about this and that. I remember one particular conversation because of how it ended. The driver told me that he had a family living outside of town that he saw once a week. He had two daughters, aged three and six, and the older one was just starting school. He was proud that he could send her to a private school, where school fees were a couple of dollars per month. Based on what I had heard from other drivers, he probably earned around $2 per day. He said he would sleep in his rickshaw after my fare (it was past midnight) and then get up at 5 a.m. to catch the early commuters.  Right before arriving at my destination — which at the time happened to be a high-end hotel — he asked me, “What is the secret of your success?  Please tell me, sir, I want to know.”

Of course, what he was really asking was, “What can I do, that presumably you are doing, that would allow me to live the better life you appear to have?” The honest reply would have been, “Have been born in a wealthy country to good parents who will see that you get a good education,” but of course, that would have been of little help. A more practical answer is something that I continue to struggle with.

The answer was certainly not more virtue, at least for him. It wouldn’t have changed his life much, and definitely not without other kinds of support. But for his children or those of us who might support them, more virtue still has value. So, for what it’s worth, here are a few speculative ideas for how to foster virtue.


Everyone believes in education, but we could pay it still more attention and think beyond academic K-12 programs. Though the obvious value of an effective education is in the skills and knowledge gained, there are subtler, but possibly more meaningful, impacts on individual and societal virtues.

I’ll highlight just one area that is often overlooked: early childhood development. Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman has taken up an ambitious program to model how age-dependent investments in parenting and education relate to adult economic productivity. He and his colleagues incorporate recent findings in psychology and neuroscience, in addition to economics. Heckman notes the importance of both cognitive traits, such as intelligence, and non-cognitive traits, which read like a list of virtues: “perseverance, motivation, self-esteem, self-control, conscientiousness, and forward-looking behavior.” Both sets of traits are malleable and generally easier to influence when a person is younger. In addition, the value of the traits snowball over time; a little extra self-control in first grade can mean greater vocabulary in the second grade, which might mean a lot more books read in the third grade, and so on. Thus, earlier interventions have greater benefits than later ones.

Heckman concludes that interventions in early childhood, such as enriched preschool centers and home visitation programs, are the most cost-effective way to address societal inequalities while increasing overall economic output.

There are non-economic outcomes that matter, too, of course, and I speculate that Heckman’s interventions help with those, as well.


It’s often said that you can’t manage what you can’t measure, and virtues are difficult to measure. Luckily, psychology researchers see it as an essential part of their job to devise metrics for the hard-to-measure. And they are creative.

For example, psychologist Roy Baumeister, who has linked self-control to a range of positive outcomes, wrote me that self-control can be measured by self-report questionnaires, response-time tasks, neurological measures, blood glucose levels, and… observation of how long a subject can keep a hand under ice water. He cautioned, “No method is perfect, so we need all the measures we can get. Convergence across multiple methods is the best.”

The ice water test might be inconvenient for measuring virtue at a national scale, but we could be more creative with economic measures. For example, could some function of personal savings be used as a measure of self-control? Does it mean anything that while Americans were saving less than 0% of their income just before the recession, Chinese people were saving around 50%? Or, what about charitable giving as a measure of compassion? What does it mean that conservatives want to slash the U.S. foreign aid budget, but are more generous than liberals with individual donations? Of course, saving and giving are complex behaviors, but these correlations seem promising. (If you think this is an idea worth following up, please get in touch!)

Coaching and Mentoring

Fostering virtues is tricky. They take time to grow. They depend on context and history. They require internal motivation as well as external encouragement. And there’s the perennial problem of who determines what virtues are important.

Because of the complexity, I think the optimal models for encouraging them in others are through peer-coaching (between peers) or mentoring (where there is a status differential).

Mentorship in its ideal form has a number of properties that distinguish it from other models of support such as provision, incentivization, manipulation, or coercion:

  • Mentorship’s goal is the eventual independence of the mentee.
  • Mentorship is primarily about personal growth, and not about exchange or direct benefit to either party.
  • Mentorship is guided by the aspirations of the mentee, not the desires of the mentor.
  • Mentorship as a relationship requires voluntary consent of both parties.
  • Mentorship increases knowledge, skills, social networks, and virtues, as opposed to stuff, e.g., money, food, equipment, infrastructure, technology.

In America, an organization called Year Up, as described by Daniel Bornstein, seems to epitomize good mentoring. In India, I’m familiar with a non-profit called Pradan that uses mentorship as a model both for the rural communities it works with, as well as for the development of its own staff.

Mentorship is a little paternalistic, but done well, it’s minimally so. It’s paternalism to make paternalism unnecessary.


It’s easy enough to think about increasing virtue for others, but how about for oneself? I often think, if only I had more virtue, I’d have more virtue.

Baumeister posits that self-control is like a muscle. In the short term, if you use it, you deplete it. In the longer term, exercising it is what causes it to grow.

His analogy also suggests that, as with exercise, growing virtues is easier when other people are there to do it with you. Peer pressure, friendly rivalry, and mutual encouragement all motivate us to stretch beyond what we might do on our own.

So, as clichéd as it is, forming or joining a community of people who share the same aspirations is probably a good idea. As for my own experience with one community, stay tuned.

Benjamin Franklin Was a Nerd

[4th article in a series of 6: {1} {2} {3} {4} {5} {6}. A version of this post was first published as “Why Can’t We Talk About Virtue? Entrenched Cynicism,” on The Atlantic online, March 31, 2011.]

I go back and forth on whether the topic of virtue is worth a public airing. After all, much of it is obvious, it’s not new in and of itself, and it’s too easy to slip into glib, preachy generalizations. Like everything else, there are cultural differences in what is considered worthwhile in the public sphere. Japan, for example, has a high tolerance for pushing virtue. You can see it in the small details. For example, it’s common to see traffic signs with sincere admonitions to show courtesy to other drivers or to keep the roads clean. The equivalent signage in the United States has to appeal instead to humor or threats: “Litter and it will hurt: $316 fine.” In a style of karate I used to practice, every class would end with a recitation of dojo principles. The first one was “Seek perfection of character.” That wouldn’t happen in a boxing studio.


In India, virtues come up in discussions of spirituality. Newspapers with broad readership have daily columns dedicated to it [for example, see right], and the writers, regardless of their faith, draw from a variety of traditions to make their point: Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Sikh, or secular humanist. People also readily engage in the topic. Here, for example, is the opening line of a real email that I once received from a man with a degree in electrical engineering from one of the world-renowned Indian Institutes of Technology. It was sent out to a mailing list of people interested in environmental issues:

Buddha, one day, was in deep thought about worldly activities and the ways of instilling goodness in human beings.

If you’re anything like me, you suppressed a chuckle when you read this, or maybe you didn’t even bother to suppress. I certainly chortled. Goodness in human beings?! Was he for real?

It’s not clear, though, why this elicits a laugh. Don’t we want goodness in human beings? Yet, something about the sheer earnestness collides with what must be an entrenched cynicism.

I can think of at least three kinds of cynicism that apply. First, there’s what might be called biological cynicism — a belief that human nature is fixed or sufficiently difficult to change that the effort isn’t worthwhile. We can manipulate people’s behaviors, but we can’t expect people to change intrinsically.

Biological cynicism is built into influential models of policy. For example, classical economics models people as selfish, rational agents and stresses the importance of incentives like money. Behavioral economics has cast doubt on the rational-agent model, and economists readily concede that money isn’t the only incentive — people are said to have different preferences — yet when policy-makers get down to business, money is the ultimate metric and often the favored instrument.

For most people, though, money is neither the only concern nor the primary concern. The best evidence for this is economists themselves: Here are a set of smart people who are the world’s experts on money. If economists were exemplars of their own models, there shouldn’t be economists off of Wall Street.

What’s more, preferences evolve, often accompanied by new virtues. Among economists I know who’ve held jobs in banking and finance, several have quit to pursue less lucrative careers, citing desires for more autonomy, intellectual reward, family time, or social impact, all of which reveal additional virtues beyond industriousness.

Of course, it’s not just economists. People can and do change.

Second, there’s a secular cynicism, the repulsion that some people have for anything that smells of religion. Virtue reeks of it. If you have a disinclination for organized religion, it doesn’t help that churchgoers embrace a rhetoric of virtues or that lists of virtues often include traits like chastity.

Still, virtues can have value independent of a religious framework. A consequentialist definition specifically avoids any: virtues can be defined as character traits that lead to good consequences. God need not be involved, and virtues can be updated for the times. Instead of temperance, charity, and prudence, there’s self-control, compassion, and wisdom. Real virtues have a place regardless of faith.

Third, there’s intellectual cynicism. Intellectual cynicism is hard to pinpoint, but I think it’s related to the high-school desire to be cool rather than good. The essence of cool is rebellion and subversion, and it’s difficult to be either through goodness. No one wants to be a Goody Two-Shoes.

Intellectual cynicism might be the most destructive of the three forms of cynicism, because it doesn’t so much deny virtue or its possibility as much as to mock it. And mockery is a powerful social force. It’s probably why in spite of myself, I laughed at the email about instilling goodness, and why writing this post involved a cycle of cringing and revising.

Franklin formofthepages.JPGCynicism feeds itself. If we don’t think greater virtue can be fostered, then we won’t try, and if we don’t try, the cynical side of us will be proven right. Is it worth trying to pick ourselves up out of the cynicism?

America’s founding fathers were brilliant realists by all accounts, but they weren’t cynical, and they didn’t mock virtue. For example, in arguing for the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, James Madison said, “Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks–no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.” (Recall Confucius?) Benjamin Franklin lists thirteen virtues in his autobiography and goes on to describe a weekly report card of virtues he made to keep tabs on his progress [at left]. Nothing could be nerdier!

Of course, we live in a different world with a different style. When I talk about the importance of human intent and capacity to people interested in technology and development, I’m often asked, “I believe your thesis, but what can we do about it, if technology isn’t the solution?” In the next post, I’ll suggest a few possibilities.

The White Lie of the Self-Made Person

[3rd article in a series of 6: {1} {2} {3} {4} {5} {6}. A version of this post first appeared in The Atlantic online, March 30, 2011]

When you rent a car in India, the car comes with a driver, partly because their wages — as low as $2-3 a day — are negligible compared to the cost of the rental. I traveled a lot within India, so I met a lot of drivers. We rarely had a fluent language in common, but through a patchwork of different languages, we’d manage. Some trips were 10-hour journeys over bumpy rural roads, and I learned a lot about their lives.

One thing that took a while for me to get used to was having to make the drivers wait at a destination while I worked. If I had a long day of meetings, they would wait the 12 hours in the parking lot. If I had a late-evening event, they would wait into the wee hours. Some drivers wouldn’t go eat meals while waiting unless I explicitly mentioned they could. Most were faithful servants to the point of embarrassment.

But as I got used to it, I started wondering what they did while waiting. Some chatted with other drivers. Some listened to the radio. A few read the newspaper. Most drivers, though, would tilt back the driver’s seat and sleep. A lot.

I found myself thinking, there must be a way to spend that time more productively. I imagined I would study English if I were them. Good English can double a driver’s income and open doors to other jobs.

Then, as I thought about productive use of time, I found myself thinking maybe they were lazy.

Talk of virtue makes different people uncomfortable for different reasons. Liberals worry about blame poured on victims. Libertarians sense paternalistic assaults on personal freedoms. Hard-nosed policy-makers recoil from mushy intangibles that defy human nature. Even social conservatives, who often hail virtue, dislike preachyness and moral self-righteousness.

These concerns are valid. Polite people avoid virtue in conversation even more than religion and politics. But if virtue is the ultimate controllable cause of our own and others’ well-being as I believe it is, avoiding the subject dooms us to superficial or incomplete solutions to problems.

The discomfort has to be addressed head on, and I’ll start with the hazards of “blaming the victim.”

The issue comes up in the United States: High unemployment incites accusations of insufficient diligence and counteraccusations of blaming the victim. Deep in the American psyche lies the belief that if virtues lead to good consequences, then anyone who isn’t successful must not be virtuous.

Success, though, is obviously a function of both virtue and luck. Virtue alone isn’t sufficient for material success (e.g., hard-working people laid off in the recession), and people with little virtue can succeed wildly (Charlie Sheen, anyone?). Luck matters — luck of the parents you were born to, luck of talent you inherited, luck of the people you happen to know, and often, just plain vanilla luck. Virtue’s link to success is partial and probabilistic, never an absolute guarantee.

Still, even if life outcomes were only 1% up to you and as much as 99% up to luck, it helps to believe that it’s all you for three reasons: First, you’re the part of the world that you have the most control over. Second, it’s discouraging to think that it’s mostly luck. And third, even 1% every day accumulates like compound interest. That’s why Benjamin Franklin propagated the idea that “God helps those that help themselves.” That’s why we love rags-to-respectability Horatio Alger stories. That’s why we blithely tell our children, “You can achieve anything, if you just work hard enough!”

But though the white lie of the self-made person is great motivation, accepting it as fact leads to both blaming the victims in the unemployment line and encouraging oversized self-esteem on Wall Street. This gap between what motivates us and what explains us is the crux. Hobgoblins lurk in the attempt to reconcile.

Conservatives lionize the self-made person and assume that others aren’t applying their talent. This view is consistent. It’s also oversimplified, but conservatives have committed to it and gone far.

Liberals deny the self-made person (at least in public) and invoke social context. This view is also consistent and oversimplified, but liberals waver on it because it violates their own intuitions. Liberals, for instance, are no different from conservatives in wanting to instill individual virtues in their children.

The snag is in unquestioning assignment of moral value to individual virtues. We praise people for their virtues and condemn them for their lack of virtues, as if they deserved all of the credit or all of the blame. But research shows that virtues like self-control and compassion depend not just on individual choices, but also on genes, childhood nutrition, and upbringing, all variables over which individuals have little control. Virtues themselves are part luck and social context.

For liberals, this doesn’t solve the rhetorical challenge, but it allows them to accept the importance of virtues without blaming any victims. It also permits a shift in dialogue, from debating whether individuals or society matter more, to debating which virtues (both individual and societal) are important and how they can best be nurtured.


Getting back to Indian drivers, a non-judgmental account of their virtues might go like this: Most are diligent workers on the one hand, but many lack other virtues such as self-confidence and initiative that could help them in their own dreams for middle-class life. Their weaknesses could be traced to upbringing and education.

Once in a while, though, a driver is diligent, self-confident, and focused, and does remarkably well. One of them was Narasimha, a taxi driver I met through a dial-up cab service, and whom I came to rely on for trips to the Bangalore airport [photo at left]. Unlike other drivers, Narasimha showed up 10 minutes ahead of time, and he drove safely and steadily. Through bits of English, Hindi, and Kannada, I learned that he came from a village a couple of hours outside of the city. His family farmed, but he had bigger dreams. At the time, he paid a flat fee per day to rent a car from a man who owned a fleet of cabs, but Narasimha wanted to own his own car, and he told me that he was close to saving enough money. As we approached the airport terminal, he handed me a business card and asked me to call him whenever I needed a ride. By calling him directly, I’d dispense with the middleman.

And so I did. I sometimes had flights leaving at 2 a.m. in the morning, but he never once turned me down. If he couldn’t come himself, he’d set me up with one of his driver friends. None of them though, were as prompt, safe, or reliable as Narasimha.

One day, Narasimha arrived in a shiny white Ford Icon. I happened to be the first passenger in his new car, and he beamed when I congratulated him. He had purchased the car on a loan, and it meant that he was finally his own master.

I asked him how he managed it all, and here’s what I could gather: Narasimha had an uncle who invited him to Bangalore, got him into the taxi business, coached him as a driver, and helped him procure the loan. I couldn’t understand everything he said, but by his tone, it was clear he was deeply grateful to his mentor. As hard and as smart as he worked, Narasimha had yet another virtue that helps counter “blaming the victim”: humility.

The Enduring Power of Virtue

[2nd article in a series of 6: {1} {2} {3} {4} {5} {6}. A version of this post first appeared on The Atlantic online, March 30, 2015.]

Virtue, not technocratic solutions, is what I claimed our world needs more of, but I’m not saying anything new. Virtue goes back at least two-and-a-half millennia.

Western accounts of virtue start with Aristotle, but to honor Jim’s relationship with China, let’s go back instead to Confucius. Depending on what you paid attention to in school, you might remember Confucius by the Silver Rule (“Do not do to others…”), his exotic concepts (e.g., filial piety), or a series of grammar-challenged jokes (“Confucius say…”).

Confucius did have a lot to say, but if there is one principle that runs through his philosophy, it’s that personal virtue is the way to the good life and the good society. He posed the cultivation of virtue as a superior alternative to the manipulation or coercion of behavior through policy.

Three virtues from Confucius’s thought are the basic building blocks for all other virtues: One is rén (仁), benevolence or good intention. Another is self-control, which Confucius believed was enforced and nurtured by adhering to proper forms of behavior, or (礼). And, the third is discernment about how to turn benevolent intention into action of a kind that avoids the proverbial road to hell. (In Geek Heresy, I call these traits “heart, mind, and will.”)

Concern for virtue simmers within the public sphere, and it bubbles over on occasion. In fact, bloggers associated with the original versions of these posts alluded to virtue several times, though rarely by name: John Tierney asked how college students can be stressed more while studying less, and he was deluged by students lamenting their own and their faculty’s lack of self-control. Chuck Spinney, on a post about the Pentagon’s failure to keep transparent accounts, cites a lack of benevolent intent: “it [the Pentagon leadership] does not want to fix it.”

I sympathized especially with technologist Shelley Hayduk. Despite her advocacy of software to manage information overload, her passionate exhortations were decidedly non-technological: “it might mean downgrading and shutting off noisy alerts, even losing a gadget or two”; “achieving serenity is about taking control […] rather than [information] controlling you”. She closes with a quote from Aldous Huxley which could have been from The Analects of Confucius: “There is only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that’s your own self.”

Despite these occasional mentions, public discourse about virtue is muted. To abuse a recent parlour game, below is a graph of the rate of occurrence of the words “virtue” and “technology” in Google’s Ngram Viewer, which plots frequency of words occurring in books over time. We see a rapid rise of technology in the last forty years against a two-century slide in virtue. (Is it a coincidence that the crossover happens around 1970, the same year I called out in a previous post? Somewhat similar results are had with “virtue” against “institutions,” “policies,” and “systems.”)

But is virtue still relevant today? For many people, talk of virtue brings to mind chastity belts and shining armor. I prefer definitions, however, that distance themselves from the moralizing (a point I’ll return to in the next post). One such definition is provided by Julia Driver, a philosophy professor at Washington University in St. Louis. While many virtue theorists insist that virtues are intrinsically and morally good, Driver defines virtue strictly in terms of outcomes. To her, a virtue is a “character trait that systematically produces good consequences.” A trait is a virtue only if it tends to cause good consequences.

I’d go even further. Virtues are paramount because they’re the ultimate cause of good consequences, at least among those causes within human control.

For example, following the 9.0 earthquake in Japan, Nicholas Kristof blogged about the Japanese virtue of gaman, a kind of self-control. He predicted stoicism, self-discipline, and minimal looting behavior on the streets. Japanese culture, after all, was influenced by Confucius.

Sure enough, Japanese people have weathered the continuing crisis with a unique brand of collective self-control. (Positive stereotypes might be as dubious as negative stereotypes, but I invoke the clause where gross generalizations about your own heritage are permitted!)
I happened to be in Tokyo during the quake, and my father told me that at his hospital in the coastal city of Kamogawa where he works, they had evacuated people to the upper floors, even going so far as to sew up some patients mid-surgery. (Luckily, the tsunami there was minor — hospital and patients were untouched.) The evening of the quake, commuter trains were shut down, and the sidewalks of Tokyo were crowded with people calmly walking home from work. The radio featured one man who had walked three hours already and needed to walk another three more to get home. The New York Times reported that people are voluntarily conserving enough electricity that some planned power outages have become unnecessary.

Of course, Japanese people have their flaws, too. What the earthquake aftermath shows, however, is the remarkable power of virtue, even in the absence of any explicit legislation or enforcement. Virtue works without TIPS (technologies, institutions, policies, and systems), even though the converse isn’t true.

Modern psychology research is confirming the power of virtue, as well, and the work on self-control is representative. Walter Mischel’s famous “marshmallow experiment” shows that the ability of 4-year-olds to delay gratification is a good predictor of better adjustment and SAT scores in adolescence. A study by Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman suggests that self-discipline is more important than IQ in academic performance for middle-school girls. Roy Baumeister and his colleagues find that self-control correlates with greater academic achievement, less addictive behavior, higher self-esteem, and better interpersonal relationships among college students. These studies don’t establish the causal link definitively, but the evidence is accumulating.

Baumeister wrote in an e-mail that self-control allows human beings to alter their own behavior according to rules and standards. He summarized http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/morality10/morality.baumeister.html elsewhere, “Self-control, then, is one of the crucial mechanisms that had to improve in humans, to enable culture to succeed.”

And that takes us back to Confucius, who in referring to ancient role models wrote: “Because their persons were cultivated, their families were in order. Because their families were in order, their states were well-governed. Because their states were well-governed, the whole kingdom prospered. From the sovereign down to the people, all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything besides.”*

The root of everything besides! Yet for such a grand idea, virtue is often met with mockery, indifference, or hostility, and in the next post, I’ll speculate as to why.

(*) Adapted from this translation: Legge, James. Confucian Analects, The Great Learning, and The Doctrine of the Mean (New York: Dover Books, 1971; o.p. 1893)

Technology Is Not the Answer

[1st article in a series of 6: {1} {2} {3} {4} {5} {6}. A version of this post first appeared in The Atlantic online, March 28, 2011.]

Technology is not the answer.

That’s the conclusion I came to after five years in India trying to find ways to apply electronic technologies to international development. I was the co-founder and assistant director of Microsoft Research India, a Bangalore computer-science lab, where one of our objectives was to research ways in which information and communication technologies could support the socio-economic development of poor communities, both rural and urban.

In one of our early projects, we worked with a rural sugarcane cooperative a few hours outside of Mumbai. They had a network of village personal computers that allowed the cooperative to report sales results to farmers. To reduce costs, we experimented with a mobile-phone-based system that replaced some of the PCs. Our system was faster, cheaper and better liked by farmers, but when it came time to expand the pilot, we were stymied by internal political dysfunction at the cooperative.

In several projects to design educational technology for schools, we found that teacher and administrator attitudes were the real keys to success. Then, when we connected low-income slum residents with potential employers, limited education and training posed critical barriers. And again, when we used gadgets for microfinance operations, a capable institutional ally was indispensable.

Our successes were due more to effective partners, and less to our technology.

In project after project, the lesson was the same: information technology amplified the intent and capacity of human and institutional stakeholders, but it didn’t substitute for their deficiencies. If we collaborated with a self-confident community or a competent non-profit, things went well. But, if we worked with a corrupt organization or an indifferent group, no amount of well-designed technology was helpful. Ironically, although we looked to technology to attain large-scale impact into places where circumstances were most dire, technology by itself was unable to improve situations where well-intentioned competence was absent. What mattered most was individual and institutional intent and capacity.

As I wrote and spoke about this lesson publicly, I received two kinds of feedback. Some people didn’t agree that technology only amplified. They would say, “The Internet makes new things possible — without it, how else could $10 million have been raised for Haiti just through text messages?” I still feel this can be explained as amplification, but even if not, I’d propose that between technology and human intent, intent matters more. The purposes to which the technology is put depend first on the right intent and capacity.

The second class of feedback went in the other direction: It nudged me to generalize beyond the developing world and beyond electronic technology. Let’s consider, for example, poverty and technology in the United States. The rate of poverty in America decreased until about 1970, but it has since held steady at an embarrassingly high 13-14% only to rise in the recent recession. Since 1970, we’ve also had a boom in digital technologies from the PC to the iPhone, from Google to Facebook. If these technologies are solving social ills as social-media cheerleaders would have us believe, then we’d hope at the very least that in the golden age of innovation in the world’s most technically advanced country, all this technology would have put some dent in poverty.

It hasn’t. And, the theory of technology-as-amplifier explains why: As a society, we haven’t been so intent on eradicating poverty, as much as perhaps, on ever cleverer ways to guide us to the nearest cup of coffee. The technology is incredible, but our intent is not there.

It’s not just electronic technologies that we place undue faith in. We also expect too much from other technologies, institutions, policies and systems, or “TIPS” to coin an acronym. Like the tips of icebergs, TIPS are the most visible part of cultural change and public policy, but they are dependent on the much more significant, if invisible, bulk of individual and societal intent and capacity. Current events are constant reminders of this.

For instance, Japan’s nuclear reactor challenges brought global energy concerns to the fore. The proximal cause of Fukushima’s troubles was a natural disaster beyond human control, but a deeper issue is that with ongoing growth in population and consumption, the world is nearing the ceiling on established sources of energy. Technology promises to raise the ceiling, but in doing so, it only increases our intent and capacity to consume more. On a finite planet, the very desire to consume still more is itself the problem. Until we tame that intent within ourselves, technology at best postpones crises. It doesn’t banish them.

The uprisings in the Middle East call attention to the institution of democracy. Analysts have noted that with the Egyptian revolution over, the country now begins the more challenging task of establishing a working democracy. Meanwhile, American hesitation to support rebellions in Tunisia through Libya underscores our own doubts about democracy. The lessons of Zimbabwe, Bosnia, and even Iraq weigh on us. The institution of democracy, per se, is far from a guarantee of national stability or of anyone’s well-being. Institutions, too, must be undergirded by the right intent and capacity among stakeholders.

Finally, there are the waves of news about increasing inequality in America. Capitalist policy and the free-market system excel at feeding consumer wants, investor wealth and entrepreneurial ambition. But, they do more for the well-connected and the well-educated, thus amplifying underlying social differences. As Robert Reich articulates in his book Supercapitalism, a laser focus on economic efficiency leads to a system that neglects other values we care about as citizens and communities, be it equal opportunity to a good upbringing, a thriving local economy of mom-and-pop shops, or separation of wealth and state. Adjustments to policy and system are needed, but the will to implement the right ones depends on our own balance of desires as consumer-citizens.

I’m not saying that TIPS aren’t important. Technologies can enrich lives; democracy can be preferable to dictatorship; and market capitalism can be an equitable economic engine, no doubt. But, we fetishize technocratic devices and forget that it’s our finger on the “on” switch and our hands at the controls. Something other than TIPS still demands attention — something I’ve so far called good “intent and capacity,” and what in future posts I’ll call virtue.