Don’t “Get” People to Do Anything
Social change is not about changing people, but changing the register

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Medium on 23 March 2023

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Nearly every time I’m on a panel or in a conversation about civic harmony, social change or economic equality, someone eventually asks, “I agree, but how are we going to get people to….?” And that’s when the conversation turns to education, publicity campaigns, memes, or some other well-intentioned form of social engineering. If only we could get people to…

We all hope to steer our society away from the inequality, extraction, externalities, and power imbalances of the industrial economy, but — not surprisingly — our first impulse is to impose the same sorts of top-down, command-and-control solutions typical of the industrial age.

Tech developers and entrepreneurs, in particular, have become aware of the various harms and externalities of the technologies they have built, and want to reverse some of these media effects. As if seeing the light, they now want to create apps and platforms that undo the problems that their original apps and platforms caused. So they create meditation apps to calm minds that have been intentionally made anxious by social media, or wellness platforms to “nudge” people toward healthier uses of their time than doom-scrolling on a new app. There are even whole organizations and institutes dedicated to developing “humane technologies” that treat people more benevolently than their predecessors.

But the orientation of these efforts is all wrong. They’re all about using technology on people, rather than people using technology. “Humane” is the way companies claim to treat cage-free chickens: a commitment by an industry to raise and slaughter its living commodities as painlessly as possible. That’s not good enough. The question should not be about how humanely our technologies program human beings, but about how well human beings can program technology.

This same premise applies to any effort at social change: Are we trying to program people to behave better, or are we creating better conditions for such positive change to take place? If we want to change the cultural and economic climate from extractive digital industrialism to something more human centered, we don’t do this by manipulating or reprogramming people. That only exacerbates the problem. It’s an artifact of the dominating, colonialist mindset of the social programmer.

Whenever we hear people talk of “getting people” to be more generous, more concerned about the climate, more committed to social justice, or even more compliant with health mandates, we must pause and reconsider. Improving our social capacities, encouraging our civic duty, and retrieving our human sensibilities are terrific goals, but we don’t achieve them by attempting to engineer human behavior. Even the crafting and deployment of “memes”, while fun, amounts to operating people rather than providing people with the tools they need to navigate and influence the world.

Using tech or techniques on people is a form of Industrial Age thinking, reducing people and human culture to operating systems. It’s the soulless landscape of auto-tuning and the manufacturing of consent. True cultural change requires transcending this mindset. Instead of “getting people” to do one thing or another, we engender a culture or landscape where new possibilities and alternative approaches are likely to spawn and spread.

I’ve been working for the past year with The Institute for the Future’s Equitable Enterprise Initiative, seeking solutions for some of the inequalities inherent to corporate capitalism. We have, likewise, concluded that we need to change what we’ve started to call the “register” or attitudinal environment, or underlying assumptions steering our business and economic choices. The current register of competition and accumulation encourages businesses to grow at any cost, investors to seek “exits,” and individuals to orient their careers toward self-sufficiency and personal retirement. With a register like that, how do we “get” people to engage in alternative behaviors, like sharing, mutual aid, or cooperative enterprises? We don’t.

Rather than changing the people, we change the register.

Fortuitously, over the course of my career I’ve identified four “interventions” on which I have relied on (or even based whole books) to open people to new possibilities. I’ll list them here, and follow up with a piece on how each one works over the coming weeks.

Denaturalize Power. Help people recognize the underlying assumptions embedded in our world are inventions and social constructions that we mistake for the conditions of nature.

Trigger Agency. By denaturalizing power, we reveal that the codes we live by were written by people at particular moments in history, with particular agendas in mind. This then triggers our sense of agency about rewriting such codes ourselves, in ways that benefit more people and reflect our own values.

ReSocialize People. In order to do any of this, we must learn to work together and recognize that — contrary to our current social maps — being human is a team sport.

Cultivate Awe. Awe means experiencing oneself as part of something greater. In the current register, this is associated with a diminishment of personal freedom, when it is actually the fuller realization of individual and collective identities as mutually reinforcing.

I’ll be sharing more about Denaturalizing Power next week. I’ll also be inviting some of the folks working on Equitable Enterprise Initiative to come on my Team Human podcast to talk about changing the register.