Saturday, February 4, 2012

It's Not About Money (Part III)

And now for the exciting conclusion! If you are curious, here are parts I and II. The question is simply this: where do we see large movements for something other than profit today, and should we be seeing more?

Now, just reading that question posed in that form, you probably thought of the most prominent example today: non-profit organizations. Their very categorization qualifies them. We all know of a few around the country and around the community. Usually, non-profit organizations focus on helping the poor, the sick, the disadvantaged, the underrepresented, and so forth. The altruistic nature of these groups implies that just being involved in one satisfies one of the three elements of successful non-monetary incentive discussed in part I: purpose. The satisfaction that people gain from helping others is often a potent incentive. Paradoxically, however, it almost seems that some people are motivated to volunteer with an NPO specifically because it is not for money; in this case, the incentive other than money is self-referential. The incentive is simply the fact that there is no money to be had. That is a surprising thought, and I'm not certain it can be heavily substantiated, but you can be sure that the Red Cross would have fewer volunteers if they made money off of the blood you donate.

Admittedly I hadn't even thought about the wide world of NPOs when I began on this topic. The reason is that I was looking more for groups or individuals doing science, producing art, and so forth not for profit. Perhaps the proliferation of charity groups, scholarship funds, and so forth is a new manifestation of the non-monetary incentive that we didn't see so largely in the past because people nowadays care more genuinely about the well-being of fellow humans. This is another claim that would be hard to substantiate, but maybe.

Concerning art, people on a very small scale do plenty of non-profit art. I mentioned already that I'm in a band, and there are hosts of other amateur musicians around who aren't making any more money than I am ($0.00) from their music either. Plenty of people do visual art, poetry, and so forth similarly. We actually do see some not-for-profit forums online for the dissemination of such works as well, though the usual venue is the company offering free hosting for the amateurs and premium benefits for those willing to pay (see Deviant Art). There isn't really a need, as far as I can tell, for a great organized not-for-profit group of artists, however, so you probably won't see any.

So what about science? Where is today's gentleman's society of amateur scientists? Well, that is another story. The barriers placed by institutionalized science (more on this topic in my next blog post) coupled with the extremely high specialization of innovation in today's scientific fields make it very difficult for someone to do science on his own time. An experimental physicist today can do very little without a large grant, which would not be awarded to someone without access to the large facilities afforded by a national laboratory or a university. The point is that the only physics that you'll be doing on your own time is theoretical (maybe computational) and it takes more than time and enthusiasm to make an advance in theoretical physics. Some areas of science provide limited venues for private DIY research: Marissa Pielstick, a member of my class, shared an example on her blog here. However, the difficulty of anything worth doing in science today all but invalidates it as an amateur pastime. In other words, the gentlemen of science in the past had it easy, so to speak.

Now, in general, we all have far more free time than people used to have. Wage workers a hundred years ago didn't get Saturday off and weekly hour expectations were pretty stiff. Our entrance into the digital age has giving us so many time-saving devices that we scarcely know what to do with the time we have left to us. Naturally, one might expect to see a lot of people getting involved in the non-profit ventures I've discussed here. And, of course, we do see quite a few. However, one might have expected more.

The problem is this: the non-profit motivation has been subverted. The drive to consume is replacing the drive to create. Have you ever thought about something good to do with your time, almost started into it, and found yourself losing all of that time to Youtube? Indeed, our "time-saving devices" are more like "time-reallocating devices"; they take the time we might have spent on chores and redirect it to the computer screen or television. In particular, one form of entertainment actually mimics the satisfaction described in the film I shared in part I so well as to not only subvert the non-profit motivation but to replace it. I am talking about video games.

In this last bit I speak mostly from up close and personal experience, being a recovering video game addict. Video games provide the user with autonomy: the better ones offer you multiple ways to play, paths to take, people to be, et cetera. They allow mastery: look at how people spend hours practicing Call of Duty, Super Smash Brothers, or Guitar Hero (one of my old poisons). Furthermore, the most addictive games of all (the MMORPGs like WoW, another old poison of mine; look up the acronyms if you care) even replace the real-life mastery element with an internal "leveling" system that mimics mastery, but does not really represent improvements in the player. Last of all, cooperative gameplay gives a sense of community accomplishment that stands in for a worthwhile purpose, even if just beating the game isn't enough.

It's simple then: video games disguise consumption as creation. Obviously, your rational mind is aware, but then your rational mind isn't making the decision.

In conclusion, today we see plenty of people doing good things with their time for motives other than money. Perhaps in some respect the focus of attention has shifted, but it is happening. However, we might see very much more of this good stuff, this creation happening, but for the time sinks that draw us away.

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